Speech by the 2010 RFK Human Rights Award laureate Abel Barrera Hernández

Abel Berrera, director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre in Guerrero, Mexico, received the RFK Human Rights Award on 19 November 2010. These were his words on accepting the award.

From rfkcenter.org  

In the world of the mountains, from where I come, the wise ones are the men and women with pure and generous hearts, who have fought to defend their land, their language, their identity, and above all, the dignity of their people.  Today, I find these same values in you and in the Robert F. Kennedy Center, shared by means of the universal language of human rights.  You are also wise men and women who speak from the heart and who stand united with those of us so far from the centers of power.

In the region where I was born, the indigenous peoples continue to cry out for justice.  They sacrifice their lives to defend their territory and demand their right to live with dignity.  There we reside, the Na’Savi, the men and women of the rain; the Me’phaa, the sons and daughters of the fire; the Nahuas, of the wise and sweet word; and the Nanncué, the people of the word of the water.

Although the peoples of La Montaña are a part of the Mesoamerican civilization and preserve their identity with pride, the obscurity to which they have been condemned is so strong and hurtful that it results in the deaths of boys and girls from a lack of medical care; the deaths of men and women at the hands of corrupt police; the deaths of youth who lose their lives on the road, migrating to this country in search of better opportunities.  Deaths, in other words, which occur because Mexican authorities are simply not committed to defending the fundamental human rights of the indigenous peoples.

Out of this reality was born our indignation, sadness grew in our hearts, and impotence attempted to immobilize us.  But also our integrity and pride ensured that we could not continue to allow the trampling of these abandoned peoples.  

In 1994, in a small hotel room, where we were virtually imprisoned by our fear and frustrated by so much inequality, Tlachinollan arose, as an instrument at the service of indigenous peoples.    

In the midst of our institutional fragility and with our personal limitations, we began documenting the suffering of the people, listening to the voices of tortured indigenous, victims of arbitrary detention, and family members of those killed.  With much grief we documented massacres, disappearances and extra-judicial executions.  Among the indigenous, the violations of the right to education, health, housing, and food are infinite.

When we began to unite our voices with those of the people suffering, the response came back quickly.  To our ears came threatening voices.  They told us, “We are going to kill you.”  Despite this, we managed to stay loyal to the call of the people and to work alongside them to defend their rights.  

We found strength in the rural men and women: they have been our guides, they had nourished our spirit with caring and a profound sense of brotherhood.  Even so, the threats against our work did not cease.  Today, although we have been granted official protection measures, we still live in fear.  We have had to close one of our organization’s office in the municipality of Ayutla and rights defenders from our partner organizations have had to leave the State to stay alive.  

Presently, the whirlwind of violence in which we live has brought us into a barbaric world.  Today in our country, society finds itself defenseless in the face of violence, violence generated by both organized crime as well as the State.  It is said that actions taken are done so in the name of the law.  But in our region, we know that the authorities are the first to violate the law.  For that reason, we cannot add our voices to those in Mexico and here in the United States who support the combat of organized crime from the perspective of war and militarization of the country, policies that do not attack the roots of the problem and the complicity between political power and the power of the narco-traffickers.
 
In La Montaña of Guerrero, we have seen for years the consequences of the military deployment to indigenous communities.  I am thinking specifically of Inés and Valentina, two indigenous Me’phaa women who, at the ages of 16 and 25, were raped and tortured by members of the Mexican Army in 2002, and who, along with their families, have suffered constant threats and persecutions for raising their voices.  Their desire for justice was served by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights who sentenced the State of Mexico, ordering that civil authorities investigate and punish the military perpetrators of these atrocities.

During this long and arduous journey, more tragedies have come to pass.  They killed Lorenzo Fernandez, they disappeared and executed Raul Lucas and Manuel Ponce and imprisoned Raul Hernández.  All having one thing in common, they defended the rights of indigenous people.

Ladies and gentlemen: the reality of La Montaña of Guerrero is atrocious, truly tragic.  The cases of 107 threatened human rights defenders says it all, and the execution and exile of defenders has resulted from these serious threats.  This is the hidden face that doesn’t appear in the government circles’ looking glass.  The suffering face of the Mexicans is the same one they are perpetually trying to hide, silence and cloak.  Authorities have imposed an economic policy focused on commercial integration and maximum profits, devastating the lives of Mexican workers, a policy that has dismantled the internal market, deepening social inequality and exaggerating the migratory process.  On the other hand, the security policy and the war against drugs, has only resulted in increasing and unstoppable violence.  These actions have merely translated into a full-blown war against the poor.

All of you, in your capacities, you have the ability to influence profound changes that will aid us in redesigning these flawed policies.  At Tlachinollan, our conviction is to work together, in a new joint project, where human rights are supreme, and where we can better honor the memory of Robert Kennedy, whose legacy not only brings us together today and challenges us, but serves as an inexhaustible source of inspiration to continue the long march toward global justice.  

In the same way as the indigenous people of Guerrero, we will raise our voices to stop the war, to stop the criminalization of the human rights defenders’ fight for justice, to prevent any more innocent blood from spilling, and to stop the asylum of impunity.  Your resolute promise and courage can help to save lives, so that hope flourishes in the Montaña. Your silence will only create more darkness and add tragedy to the lives of the indigenous.  We will not allow those in power to administer laws with impunity.  We also demand that the authorities themselves raise their voices for the people and stand up for accountability.    

I am extremely hopeful that, here, we can weave a multicolored loom of solidarity, one that is so badly needed in La Montaña of Guerrero.  The confidence that has been placed in us for the work we carry out is a sacred treasure; I take it in my hands with humility to share it with the community of indigenous and mestizo defenders, who have an arduous path ahead of them in La Montaña, seeking to caress the dawning of justice.

In the name of Tlachinollan and myself, I appreciate your extended hand, your frank smile, your festive embrace, your words of solidarity, and your fervent desire to fight together for justice to flourish in La Montaña.