Of course, everybody has their own personal history. In my life, I grew up in a poor family, in a poor village in Colombia, so I saw all of the injustice related to that from a very early age. At university I was a student leader and I worked with trade unions. When I became a lawyer, I represented social causes. For most of my professional career over the last 22 years, I have worked in a collective of lawyers, an organisation which PBI protects.
Colombia is a large country, very beautiful and very rich in resources. Officially, Colombia is a democratic state, with elected presidents, strong laws and a very good constitution. This contrasts entirely with the reality – the country has endured an armed conflict for nearly fifty years and is notorious for having a humanitarian crisis and grave and widespread violations human rights. It’s a country in which 10% of the population is displaced and where there are attacks against unionists and civilians, massacres of rural populations and sexual attacks against women. The country has two faces.
Before the arrival of PBI, there was always a lot of anxiety about assassinations and attacks on our collective of lawyers. Many of us carried guns to protect and defend ourselves. I think all human rights defenders know of the risks and freely decide to accept them. It might seem a little perverse, but we have worked in these conditions for our whole careers so we have become accustomed to living like this.
Non-violence as a mode of defense
But we started to gain so many powerful enemies in the army and police, and we reasoned that neither guns nor armed guards would be effective at protecting us at a certain level. Since 1991, over 400 lawyers have been murdered in Colombia and no one has been prosecuted for any of those murders. So, we got in touch with PBI. Since they started protecting us, no one in the Collective has been physically attacked or killed and PBI has made our situation and our work much more visible.
In my work, I have a good time. It’s true, I laugh and I make jokes a lot. And when I go to the regions or when I come here and share with you, I do it with pleasure and it's not like a sacrifice. I do it because I want to, because I enjoy it. The confidence victims have in us and the work we do gives us satisfaction. And of course, I like to win cases. That's what lawyers really like to do. Like, when a criminal apparatus is closed down, the intelligence service [DAS] for example, and when the directors are in prison, prosecuted and investigated, that gives you satisfaction. But often the satisfaction is short-lived because there have been cases when a politician has been convicted for colluding with paramilitary groups or for massacres and while he may be removed from congress, by the next election, his family is back in the parliament.
'I don't want to be a martyr'
In 2001, a plan was discovered between the military and the paramilitaries to assassinate me. They had plans of my house and the routes they would use. Without PBI accompaniment, I would have left the country at that time. I have worked to defend life and human rights, not to be a martyr.
Obviously, you lose privacy. It’s a real dilemma, because you don’t want to see them all the time, but you don’t want to cut back because you become accustomed to having this protection.
There was another incident in 2009. The security services rented an apartment opposite our house from which they watched us, they secretly came into our house and they stole our garbage. As a family, it had a really big impact on us but we resolved to stay in Colombia.
Balancing family life with the struggle for justice
I am lucky to have the complete support of my family and social networks – my wife is also a lawyer. But this is not true for all of the defenders in the Collective. Many have been told to leave the Collective or leave home.
My family and I decided that the work we do is legitimate and it seemed important to stay and fight. It was a difficult decision to make. We have suffered violence and we know the solution is not more war or more violence. We have decided to fight for a society where the rule of law guarantees the people’s rights will be respected. And I think this is the correct path, the path we have always resolved to achieve.
You have to make a decision to either get out of the country or take care of yourself. If someone calls me while I am in Barranquilla I will automatically say I am in Cali. One does these things reflexively, in case someone is listening. I don’t just walk down the street, I try not to be in public places where there are lots of people which leaves you exposed. Little by little you make these changes and the space available gets smaller and smaller.
My wellbeing: managing the unmanageable
Personally, sometimes when I come home stressed very late at night I have to cry, because the day was terrible and I have had to listen to horrible stories, and the country has not changed and I feel the work is not having an effect. You have to cry sometimes. I personally don't want to talk to psychologists … I think they are crazy, even more than me.
My technique, when I need to use it, is before I go to bed, I try to program what I will dream about. For instance, I say to myself, tonight – I’d like to fly - so then I dream about flying over the city, over the buildings, over the sea. This relaxes me. It's a good therapy, very private. That’s my psychological protection. I train myself to manage the unmanageable.