Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

Mexican Activist Wins Prestigious RFK Prize

Jim Lobe and Emilio Godoy*

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY, Sep 23 2010 (IPS) - An anthropologist and human rights defender who has worked for years with the indigenous people in one of Mexico’s poorest and most marginalised regions has been awarded one of the world’s most important human rights prizes.

Abel Barrera Hernandez, the founder and director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre of the Montana in the state of Guerrero, will receive this year’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in recognition of his efforts to end abuses committed by the military and police against the local population, the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights announced here Thursday.

“Our friends at the Tlachinollah Centre represent true courage in their struggle to expose and confront ongoing human rights abuses,” said Claudio Grossman, the dean of the Washington College of Law at American University and a member of the five-person jury that decided on this year’s winner.

“By standing with the most vulnerable communities, Abel Barrera Hernandez and his colleagues are at great personal risk, and we are proud to recognise their work with this prestigious award,” added Grossman, who also served as a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) from 1993 to 2001.

The prize, which will be presented here in November, was praised by a number of rights activists who noted that the RFK Center has a well-established reputation for maintaining material and political support for its awardees for many years after the honour is received.

“I think that this prize comes at an especially important moment because of the tremendous increase in human rights violations in the context of the drug war,” said Laura Carlsen, the Mexico-based director of the Americas Programme of the Center for International Policy.

“Last year, human rights groups reported a six-fold rise in complaints against the army, and the indigenous populations are suffering the most. They require the most vigilance from civil society,” she added.

“The centre works in a very difficult and dangerous situation at the heart of one of the most marginalised communities in the country,” said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), which gave the centre its annual human rights award last year.

“Any international recognition they get is certainly important both to highlight the human rights abuses that are taking place in Guerrero and to provide them with more protection,” she said.

Barrera, who originally trained to be a Catholic priest and then studied anthropology at the National Faculty of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, founded the Tlachinollah Center in his hometown, Tlapa Comonfort, in 1994 in order to promote community development and provide human rights education and legal assistance to the Naua, Me’phaa, Mixteco, and Amuzgo indigenous peoples of the region.

The Montana area in Guerrero has long been one of the most marginalised in Mexico, or indeed in all of Latin America. Most of its inhabitants, many of whom do not speak Spanish, live in material conditions similar to those found in Malawi, according to a 2004 U.N. study.

Cuts in farm subsidies over two decades of economic liberalisation have made subsistence even more difficult, forcing many households to emigrate or to cultivate poppy to supplement their income, according to Todd Miller, writing last year in a report for the North American Congress on Latin America.

Indeed, the region has become one of the most important poppy-growing areas in Mexico, a development that, combined with President Felipe Calderon’s tough-fisted war against drug-trafficking, has further militarised an area that has historically endured a heavy military presence – and the abuses that have come with it — due to the frequency and persistence of peasant revolts.

“It is a place where abysmal poverty meets drug trafficking, and where trafficking meets militarisation, resulting in a consistent pattern of violence and abuse,” according to Miller. “When civil groups and communities organize to fight against this poverty and violence, they too become targets.”

Indeed, the Centre’s staff, including Barrera himself, has repeatedly suffered harassment and threats from various sources over the past 16 years for its work in protecting and promoting the rights of the indigenous population.

At various times, it has obtained from the IACHR protective orders which, however, the Mexican government has largely ignored.

Over the years, the centre has developed a number of strategies in carrying out its work. In addition to providing legal representation and psychological treatment support for victims of abuses, it has published annual and thematic reports documenting abuses in Guerrero, created institutional networks between local activists and national and international human rights organisations; developed education programmes for local communities; and worked with media to raise awareness of violations.

In 2002, the centre brought the case of Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo, two indigenous women allegedly raped by soldiers in Guerrero in 2002, to the IACHR, which referred it to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is set to hand down a sentence.

In 2005, it defended the right to education for people of two towns that had been abandoned by their overworked teaching staff for an entire year. After filing complaints with the Department of Education, lobbying state representatives, and gaining the attention of national and international media, the Centre succeeded in obtaining 14 state-appointed teachers and four additional classrooms.

In the same year, it launched a successful campaign to formally criminalise forced disappearances in Guerrero while carrying out numerous investigations that exposed military abuses, including torture, disappearance, rape of indigenous women, arbitrary detentions and interrogations, intimidation, and dispossession of lands.

It has also taken up the cases of two human rights defenders from the Organisation of the Future of the Mixtec People who had been arrested and later found dead with signs of torture in February 2009. Those cases resulted in a new round of threats to centre staff which, in turn, spurred the IACHR to issue new protective orders.

The IACHR has issued more than 100 orders to protect human rights defenders in Guerrero.

The award “represents a shield, from an organisation with great prestige, for a region that is terribly vulnerable and unprotected, and where human rights are a dead letter,” Barrera told IPS. “It brings visibility to what the authorities wish would remain invisible. They don’t want to see the tragedy, the poverty, the hunger.”

“May justice flourish in the mountain, where it has been suffocated by impunity, by corruption, by endemic violence, and by the age-old neglect of the local peoples,” he said.

Barrera has long been critical of the militarisation of the drug war and the U.S. role in supporting it. In accepting the centre’s award from WOLA last year, he charged that the Merida Initiative, the 1.3 billion-dollar U.S. aid programme, “is an instrument that validates human rights violations and signs a blank cheque for the Mexican government to deploy members of the Army to territories where there is acute poverty and where movements of social protest have flourished.

“We see the war on drugs in our state as a war against the poor; there is cruelty against the indigenous peoples that have been driven to plant poppies in ravines as a last measure to ensure their survival,” he said.

*Additional reporting by Emilio Godoy in Mexico City.

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