‘A Sea of Tears and Impunity’: Victims Still Searching for Justice 14 Years After Infamous Colombia Military Operation


“Orion never again” reads a mural commemorating 14 years since Operation Orion laid siege to the neighborhood of Comuna 13 in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city. The eyes of human rights activist Luz Elena Galeano Laverde look on as peace grows and origami doves flutter. Photograph by Angelika Albaladejo.

The second time armed men came to her house, Blanca Nidia Perez Botero wasn’t home.

She was at work. But her sons were home caring for her sick father when some men dressed as soldiers showed up at their door and threatened them. They said that they would take the boys away if they found a gun in the house.

There was no gun. The boys were safe. For now.

The first time the armed men had come was the night before. Perez thought she heard someone trying to open the door to their home. Her husband told her it was nothing. But when he heard it too, he told her to step back and peered out the window.

Outside, masked men in military uniforms were climbing out of a truck. The men came to their door and asked to search Perez’s home for leftist guerrillas who controlled her neighborhood.

Perez’s husband said there was nothing to hide and invited the soldiers inside. But even after they finally left, Perez knew it wasn’t over.

The security operation, dubbed “Orion” by the Colombian government, continued for an entire week. Military helicopters hovered overhead, firing into the Medellin community where Perez still lives. Tanks and police vehicles rolled through and security forces busted down doors and detained residents. Hundreds of civilians were injured, killed or disappeared.

Exactly 14 years later, victims are still seeking justice and searching for answers about what happened to loved ones who disappeared that week and in the years following.

Read the rest of this article and see more photographs on The WorldPost.

El Salvador considers partial pivot on world’s worst anti-abortion law

El Salvador’s ruling party is finally challenging the country’s long-standing abortion ban which has imprisoned dozens of women for suffering miscarriages.

Congressional leaders of the leftist Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) introduced a bill on Tuesday that would allow women to access therapeutic abortions in cases where the fetus is not viable, where the mother was a victim of rape or human-trafficking, or where continuing the pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life or health.

For more than 20 years, El Salvador has enforced one of the world’s most severe anti-abortion laws, which have been used to prosecute at least 129 women for abortion-related crimes. At least 25 Salvadoran women are currently behind bars for having a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Read the rest of this article on Fusion.

Thousands of Colombians Protest for Peace After Unexpected Rejection of Historic Accord

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Protestors march for peace on October 7 in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city and a stronghold of the movement against the peace deal between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group.

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Thousands of Colombian citizens took to the streets Friday evening to voice their support for a peace agreement between the government and the country’s largest rebel group, which was narrowly rejected by voters in an October 2 plebiscite.

After 52 years of armed conflict, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a historic peace deal on September 26. The agreement was almost universally expected to gain public approval during the October 2 plebiscite vote, but a fierce campaign against the accord and low voter turnout resulted in a slim rejection of the deal.

The unexpected victory of the “No” campaign has generated a political crisis in Colombia. In recent days, President Juan Manuel Santos has convened talks with leaders of the “No” movement in order to hear their suggestions for how to revise the rejected accord, which they claim was too lenient on the FARC.

The outcome of these talks remains uncertain, but some experts say that a failure to renegotiate the agreement could result in a collapse of the four-year-old peace process and a return of the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.

In the midst of this polarized political atmosphere, students and victims’ organizations across the country have organized massive marches in support of President Santos’ efforts to hammer out a new agreement.

Read the rest of this article and see more photographs on The World Post.

Berta Caceres’ case file was stolen. Is Honduras bungling this murder investigation on purpose?

The case file on the murder of one of Honduras’ most prominent human-rights figures was stolen last week, marking the latest setback in an investigation that has been so constantly bungled that many suspect it’s intentional.

On Sept. 29, two unidentified individuals assaulted Honduran Supreme Court of Justice Magistrate María Luisa Ramos as she was traveling with documents related to the killing of award-winning human rights activist Berta Cáceres. The suspects forced Ramos from her car and made off with the vehicle, with the case file inside.

Read the rest of this article on Fusion.

El Salvador’s Violence: Still No Easy Way Out

by Sarah Kinosian, Angelika Albaladejo and Lisa Haugaard on September 15, 2016

The Center for International Policy (CIP) and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) traveled to El Salvador in late 2015 to report on the state of security and human rights in what has become the most violent country in the world outside of a war zone.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-4-36-11-pmWe documented our findings and published them in a series, El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way Out in February 2016. The aim was to offer a nuanced explanation of the factors driving Salvadorans to flee their country by the thousands, and offer insights into how U.S. policy could help.

What we found was a bleak and very bloody situation. Gangs, government forces, and other actors were locked in a violent conflict. Although the Salvadoran government developed a plan, El Salvador Seguro, to address the violence in a balanced manner, only the hardline “mano dura” measures were rolled out, and some government forces were carrying out extrajudicial executions and abuse with impunity. Politics were extremely polarized.

Seven months later, much of this is still true…

See the rest of this post on the Latin America Working Group‘s Just Americas blog.

Download the full report El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way Out: English | Spanish

Protest outside of Congress for #JusticeForBerta

Photo coverage from a School of the Americas Watch-organized protest outside of the Cannon and Rayburn House office buildings in Washington, D.C. on April 18, 2016. Protestors demanded justice for the murder of Honduran indigenous and environmental rights activist Berta Cáceres shot to death in her home last month. Protestors also called on the U.S. government to cut off security assistance to Honduras and take responsibility for the United States’ role in legitimizing the 2009 coup in Honduras.

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Photographs from the Berta Cáceres Vigil & March in DC

A vigil and march in honor of Berta Cáceres, the beloved and globally recognized Honduran indigenous and environmental rights activist who was murdered last month, was held in Washington DC on April 5, 2016 outside of the buildings of the World Bank and the Organization of American States (OAS).

The roughly 100 or so people gathered for the vigil included members of Berta’s family, colleagues from the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), local activists, human rights defenders from throughout the Americas visiting for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearings, and representatives from a wide range of environmental, indigenous, women’s and human rights organizations.

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The first to gather for the vigil outside of the World Bank building were surprised to find that someone had scrawled “Berta Lives” by the front entrance with a blood red paint marker.

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Moving Mini-Documentaries by Sanders Campaign Spotlight U.S. Activists

The Bernie Sanders endorsement ads that spotlight activists fighting for rights in the United States —from the Black Lives Matter movement to immigrant farmworkers’ protests in Immokalee, Florida— are so powerful and moving.

I love the Sanders campaign’s emphasis on listening to the voices of real communities in America and their very real needs for equality and the protection of their human rights.

Watch Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, display a profound grace and power while finding her place as an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement:

Watch a a bilingual Spanish-English mini-documentary ad featuring Udelia Chautla, a Mexican immigrant farmworker and activist, who talks about her family, the rights movement in Immokalee, and the role that Sanders played in securing better labor conditions:

Honoring Women Who Defend Rights in the Americas: International Women’s Day 2016

These are excerpts from a longer-form blog published on the Latin America Working Group‘s Just Americas blog.

In Honduras, just days before International Women’s Day, we were devastated to learn of the murder of Berta Cáceres, an internationally recognized Honduran environmental and indigenous rights activist. Berta won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership in successfully halting a proposed dam on the Gualcarque River, considered sacred by the local Lenca peoples. Berta showed incredible leadership in the defense of human rights, even in the face of threats against herself and her family. In a 2013 interview, Berta lamented, “I want to live, there are many things I still want to do in this world. I take precautions, but in the end, in [Honduras] where there is total impunity I am vulnerable. When they want to kill me, they will do it.”

Berta Cáceres.gifSadly, Berta’s worst fears came true when she was murdered in her home on March 3, 2016.

In El Salvador, we stand in awe of the women who have taken action to protect women’s rights and fight for a life free from violence against women (VAW). Last year, LAWG had the honor of meeting Jeanette Urquilla and her team at the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) who diligently document every form of VAW from intrafamilial violence to economic exploitation. Alongside other strong feminist organizations, ORMUSA has pushed for legal advances that have moved the country closer to equality and protection from violence. On our trip to San Salvador last year we also met the fierce human rights defender Karla Avelar, a trans woman who has taken up the mantle of advancing protection through the law and defending LGBTI rights as the director of COMCAVIS TRANS.

In Guatemala, after decades of fighting for justice and more than four weeks of intense testimony, the Sepur Zarco sexual slavery case reached an historic verdict last month.


Eleven brave Mayan women detailed the war crimes committed against them during the country’s civil war and two military officers responsible were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison for crimes against humanity, including sexual violence, sexual slavery, domestic slavery, and cruel and degrading treatment. Sepur Zarco is a huge victory for women’s rights and justice and marks the first time in the world that sexual slavery committed during civil conflict was successfully prosecuted in the country where the abuses took place.

Read the rest of this blog here.

El Salvador’s Security Strategy in 2016: Change or More Mano Dura?

by Sarah Kinosian and Angelika Albaladejo on February 29, 2016

As noted in our second post, El Salvador’s mounting security crisis has been met by a heavy-handed government response, which centers on sending the military and police into the streets to outgun the gangs and filling the country’s jails with even the lowest-ranking of alleged gang members. Beyond escalating violence and presenting extremely serious human rights concerns, this plan is simply not working. But, as 2016 unfolds, the government has a chance to set a new course and roll out an existing strategy to curb the violence.

PNC officers meet President Sanchez Ceren at ceremony presenting the police with arms and vehicles

Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén meets with officers during a ceremony turning over weapons and vehicles to the National Civil Police (PNC). Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

Instead of addressing the drivers behind astronomical murder rates, current strategy aims to shoot and arrest the problem away –a well-worn security policy in Latin America known as “mano dura,” or “iron fist.” Throughout Latin America it has been well documented that this hardline approach is not only bad for human rights, but does not work in the long run. In neighboring Honduras, the Latin America Working Group and the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor documented in 2015 that as the list of abuses committed by militarized police forces continues to grow, “the central problem with this tactic becomes clearer: these soldiers are educated for war, not peace, and putting them on the streets turns each citizen into a potential enemy.” Studies in Mexico and Guatemala have also confirmed that relying on soldiers for citizen security for an extended period of time has not sustainably lowered rates of crime and violence. In the case of Guatemala, the United Nations has declared that greater use of the military in public security “has not resulted in visible improvements.”

In El Salvador, previous bouts of mano dura policies, including mass arrests, not only failed to bring down murder rates, but made matters worse. After being incarcerated in the early 2000s, gang members from local criminal groups were able to consolidate due to connections made while imprisoned. They then expanded their operations nationally, giving rise to the country’s current security landscape, in which two main gangs wield exceptional power over territory and murder rates have risen across the country. (See here for more on El Salvador’s gangs.)

Today’s policies might bring about similar adverse effects. As a former colonel in the military warned, “More repression of the gangs by the state only makes them more sophisticated. Applying the most severe penalties only emboldens the gangs because they are the product of social exclusion and inequality.” A commander in the Salvadoran police force warned of several other problems with the current security strategy:

You can’t kill a mosquito with an M-16. The gangs are a moving, growing target. Furthermore, by police being abusive, you’ve handed part of the community to the gang. You need intelligence to build cases, a strong judicial system and a working prison system. You also need to investigate financial crimes, but only the (now-former) Attorney General’s Office can do that, and right now, it won’t.

However, in the early months of 2016, the Salvadoran government appears to be continuing its hardline stance with the claim that the mano dura approach will work if given enough time. Vice President Óscar Ortiz recently said, “We’ve never had this level of prosecution and strategy deployed to strike and dismantle crime, like we do now. But it’s going to take some time.”


An officer of the National Civil Police (PNC) stands in front of a poster depicting actors within El Salvador’s security strategy. Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

In conjunction with continued deployments of police and soldiers, lawmakers are proposing hardline legal means to bring down the gangs. There is currently a gang registry law under debate in Congress, introduced by the right-wing ARENA party, which would create a list of alleged gang members and their collaborators. Lawmakers say this registry would make it easier for judges to apply harsher sentences to gang members under a law that has newly defined gang members as terrorists since August 2015. As noted in an earlier post, aside from the potential to escalate violent gang tactics and perpetuate an overall rhetoric of war, police do not often differentiate between gang members, collaborators and those who simply live in gang-controlled neighborhoods, leaving the door open for wrongful imprisonment and creeping mass incarceration rates.

See the rest of this post on the Latin America Working Group‘s Just Americas blog. This article is the fifth in the Latin America Working Group and Security Assistance Monitor series ” El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way Out.”