Berenice Celeita: Rights Defender of Colombia’s Southwest – Part 1
Behind most of CoDev’s Latin American partners are strong women who dare to challenge inequality, exploitation, corruption and patriarchy in audacious and creative ways.
CoDevelopment Canada launches our new “Women of Action” interview series to provide insight into what led these women to speak truth to power and what inspires them to keep fighting in the face of what sometimes seems like overwhelming odds.
Our first interview in the series is Berenice Celeita, founder of the Association for Research and Social Action (NOMADESC), which accompanies unions and indigenous, Afro-descendent, and campesino communities in training and defense of human rights.
(Part 1 of a three-part interview conducted by CoDev’s Alexandra Henao-Castrillon)
CoDev: What motivated you to work on social justice issues? What was happening in the country while you were growing up that encouraged you to work for social justice?
Berenice: It’s a long story. My grey hair shows it. Let’s say that the strongest motivation was the Palace of Justice siege by the M-19 guerrilla in Bogota in November, 1985. I was a high school student and on that same day at the same time, I was supposed to have an interview with the Dean of the Faculty of Communications of the Externado de Colombia University (ECU) to talk about becoming a Journalism student. On my way there, I heard shootings and grenades and saw members of the National Army running in despair. It was chaotic. The streets were closed and I did not know the area well.
When I got to the University, everyone was in shock because thirteen Judges of the Supreme Court, who were also ECU professors, were in the Palace of Justice (the Palace). It was the most democratic court that the country ever had, with engaged in difficult rulings about peace, political violence and other sensitive themes.
The next year, I started my studies at the ECU and took the course “Political Institutions” with professor Eduardo Umaña Mendoza. He was a prestigious lawyer at the national and international level and had worked with mothers of victims of forced disappearances in Argentina and Chile. He was also the lawyer for the families of those who went missing during the Palace of Justice siege.
Working with him I began to get close to this reality. We learned that everything that happened in the Palace had to do with the ECU, and that’s how we got to learn all about the two sieges I saw that day. The M-19 guerrilla movement was known for its spectacular actions, like taking the Dominican Republic’s Embassy in Bogota, stealing Simon Bolivar’s sword from the Quinta de Bolivar Museum in Cartagena, and they were the ones who seized the Palace.
It was a bold action that had a very sad end. Sad, because all the guerrilla fighters, civilians and all the judges of the Supreme Court were killed by the National Army when they took the palace. The Colombian State’s decision to send the Army to retake control of the Palace had a very high political cost for democracy.
Under Umaña’s supervision our first class assignment was research on social issues linked to the Palace of Justice siege. Understanding forced disappearance was not a simple task for me, coming from a private high school, alienated from the reality of the country, and receiving information only from the news. It was a huge shock being in the morgue, searching for missing persons, taking testimonies from parents of victims of forced disappearance.
My life is affected by that case even 35 years later. From this work, we created a document that allowed us to be in contact with the reality through news articles, reports, but also to be present where violations of human rights took place in the country, taking testimonies, seeing people’s faces, being at the site of a massacre, a murder or forced displacement.
It was crucial for us to commit during the 5-year University program to be on Umaña’s team. We felt very fortunate but it was also painful when he was murdered in April 1998. His death marked our lives too. Umaña was a member of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CAJAR). He was excellent at solving cases and left a team of students who became specialists in human rights. Today, we all are in different parts of Colombia and the world, but we are connected through the defense of peoples’ rights, indigenous communities’ rights, etc.
One of my main premises in life is that knowledge makes you commit. What made me commit was the experience of what is real, and getting to understand that we live in an extremely violent country where the three powers, executive, legislative, and judicial, work as one, rather than functioning independently like in any democracy. That’s why I say that Colombia is not a democracy and is far away from being one because we live in a permanent genocide. Relevant social sectors have been eliminated since the early 20th century, starting with the Banana Massacre [in 1928]. This case is in total impunity, although it was investigated by a prestigious lawyer and a popular political leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitan. He brought evidence to the Congress to prove that the US United Fruit Company ordered the massacre of thousands of workers striking for better working conditions and killed by the Colombian Army. Gaitan payed for his revelations with his own life in 1948. Later, the lawyer of Gaitan’s family was Eduardo Umaña, who was killed too. We can see what a genocide is in this specific timeline. The Banana Massacre was a bloody milestone in the history of violence in Colombia, and those wanting to unmask its masterminds were murdered too
A second important premise for me is that any research on the violence in Colombia must reveal the root causes of the conflict. Colombia is a very rich country with a geostrategic location and so much biodiversity. It has historically been affected by violence in the interest of both foreign and wicked national capitalists Wicked because of the partnerships we have seen executing violent activities for more than 100 years. Even now, in the midst of a cruel pandemic, we still see the same violence that we saw 10 or 20 years ago.
1998-2000 were harsh years. While I faced persecution, many friends and colleagues were illegally deprived of their liberty. When I was living in Bogota and working for the Minga Association, a human rights organization I also founded, I came to the Pacific Coast to offer my advice for a human rights violation case. On my way back home, my family called saying “Don’t come back to Bogota.” They had received a sunflower bouquet with a death threat for me so I was forced to stay in Southwest Colombia. However, as we need to find the positive in a negative situation, that time allowed me to create Nomadesc here and work with amazing people. I believe the threats were because of two investigations I was working on: one against the National Army for the massacres in South Bolivar and the second on the Naya massacre [close to Buenaventura] where members of the National Army, paramilitaries and local authorities were also involved.
Colombia saw numerous paramilitary actions in the late 90s, including most of the massacres and the highest number of victims with absolute impunity; many of these actions led by the state. We are not the only ones who have talked about the state’s role in orchestrating, financing, promoting, and protecting paramilitary groups. Several studies have reported on the state’s links with narcotrafficking and paramilitaries. Some paramilitaries have acknowledged the state’s role in very serious actions as well.
For instance, I participated in several exhumations and provided legal documents for several cases as a recently graduated Forensic Anthropologist in the late 90s. One of them was a bloody massacre in San Pablo, South Bolivar that led several forcedly displaced communities to mobilize in Barrancabermeja in 1998 to demand protection from the government so they could safely return to their territories in the midst of the conflict. I was there supporting and providing legal counselling for the communities during the negotiations with INCORA (Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform) and other government representatives for about three months. When the civilians returned to their territories, several massacres happened. One of them was in San Pablo that I painfully remember because of the paramilitaries’ modus operandi. It was the same that we had seen in Buenaventura. The victims’ bodies were dismembered. We supported those communities with the negotiations and offered scientific debates that were included in the Prosecutor Office’s and the National Army’s investigations later. The communities were living like in a permanent state of siege; everything was militarized. The exhumation of the victims of the San Pablo massacre showed that the victims were forced to dig their own grave. It was terrifying. It is painful to speak about that because it is also to speak about the tragic reality of Colombia that unfortunately we have not overcome yet.