What must it be like to spend most of your life fighting for justice against all odds, not knowing if or when that struggle will end? What must it be like to give up any idea of a 'normal' life in order to seek the truth about what happened to your own father and other forcibly 'disappeared' persons?
It's a personal sacrifice that most of us can barely imagine, let alone take on board. But this is what happened to Tita Radilla Martinez an 'ordinary' Mexican woman whose life was changed completely when her father was forcibly disappeared at a military checkpoint in August 1974, in Alvarez, Guerrero.
Tita has spent more than 35 years struggling to find out what happened and to have the crime acknowledged. In doing so, she has brought her case and hundreds of others under international scrutiny. In her persistence and refusal to be fobbed off by the authorities, she has shone a great light for all those seeking retribution for their missing relatives, offering hope for justice, perhaps closure.
Winning the attention of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Often at risk to her own safety, Tita has repeatedly asked those awkward questions about who took her father, why and what ultimately happened to him. In raising the case time and time again, she eventually moved the matter from being a 'local' issue to a case considered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). And on 15 December 2009, the Court ruled that her father Rosendo Radilla was deprived of his human rights and his life and that the Mexican state was responsible. This will never bring back her father or any of those who were disappeared, both in Mexico and elsewhere in the world. But it was a huge achievement. Mexico was ordered to make due compensation to her family.
What has kept Tita going? Perhaps some people have such an inbuilt drive for justice that keeps them going against the odds, that maintains their strength even when things look bleak. Or maybe it's a combination of personality and circumstances. Listening to Tita speaking, this rather diminutive woman, whose face bears the signs of the pain she has endured, but who has a spirit of steel, you feel moved to tears. What resonates are deep feelings of love: first of all for her disappeared father and her husband, who was assassinated but also for those like her who have had to suffer for decades, not knowing the truth and being lied to, many times over.
Remembering loved ones who have never returned
When asked about what has impressed her during her own struggle, she speaks of the other families in similar situations, those whose relatives left their homes one day and never came home.
“I think the relatives of the disappeared, who have waited for many years, have a great need to know what happened to their disappeared relatives, and they have hope,” she says.
She speaks of the shared pain, the desire for truth, the disappointments and successes. She also speaks warmly of those who have assisted her, including human rights lawyers, who also risked their safety in assisting her and helping to move her case forward. She praises PBI Mexico, which has accompanied her since 2003 and helped her to press her case forward in the international arena. She speaks of determination, commitment and friendship.
The Mexican authorities come out very badly in all this: she speaks of their evasive actions, offers of compromise and their lack of commitment to uncovering the truth.
Love and justice in Tita's view seem to go together very strongly. There are no words of regret about taking this fight on board and all the things she had to give up gave up in life as a result. Perhaps she didn’t realise how long it would last, this search for the truth and justice, but it's clear that once she had taken the first actions, there was no going back. She speaks of learning a lot in all that has happened.
“I’ve learnt much from my comrades, much from the organisations that have helped us and accompanied us.”
Tita's case illustrates the reasons organisations like PBI exist, what their work is all about and why they should be supported. They helped Tita, who finally heard the 'guilty' verdict at the IACHR. It's a moving lesson in human rights for us all.
Interview by Ruth Cherrington