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Activist discusses human rights violations in Colombia

After her father was killed by Colombian paramilitary forces, activist Bella Henriquez began promoting diplomacy as a means of peace for her country. 

Henriquez led a presentation and discussion with Mills College students when she visited the campus on Oct. 29. She is a member of Son and Daughters in Memory and Against Impurity, a group that hopes to raise awareness of human rights violations occurring in Colombia by holding presentations at college campuses.

“We have a memory that is not being told and is silenced,” said Henriquez. “The Colombian conflict has not ended.”

Henriquez spoke through two translators, students from the UC Berkeley Bolt Law School who are working with her to get Hernan Giraldo, a former member of the Columbian paramilitary who admitted to having knowledge of the disappearance of her father, Julio Henriquez, convicted of human rights violations.

Giraldo, who is now in U.S. custody, was captured by American authorities for drug trafficking.

“Human rights violators that now reside in the U.S. are faced with drug trafficking charges, not for human rights violations,” said Bolt law student Roxana Iran. “Which means they might never go back to Colombia and face human rights violations.”

Julio Henriquez was an environmentalist from Santa Marta, Colombia. Santa Marta is a tropical area where cocaine cultivation was once unusual. Today the story is very different.

“My father cultivated fruit,” said Henriquez. “He understood that the cultivation of cocaine was bad for the environment and generated conflict. When he disappeared his lands were turned into cocaine cultivation.”

Julio Henriquez’s remains were found and returned in 2005. Colombia passed a law in 2007 which stipulated paramilitary personnel must confess to killings and crimes, but didn’t provide assistance to the family members of the victims. From 2001 to 2008 about 1,600 disappearances were reported.

According to Henriquez, private business owners and the wealthy classes of Colombia fund the paramilitary, which often murders people to force them off their lands.

“We are the country with the most labor unionist murders, yet a human rights violator only gets five to eight years in jail,” said Henriquez. “Colombia is the second or third recipient in money for military aid – the first being Israel.”

Mills students asked what could be done on their part. One of Henriquez’s answers was to “stress to your representatives not to support the Colombian government, especially the seven U.S bases in plan.”

“We appreciate the support that the U.S has for Colombia, not the support for war; a different tactic must be taken,” she said.

Other Mills students had remarks for Henriquez.

“I admire your courage for being with us today,” said Isabel Cortes, a sophomore. “I did not know this was going on in Colombia and the way our country in a way plays a big role.”

The presentation was hosted by Ethnic Studies Professor Deborah Berman Santana’s course, “Latin America and the Caribbean ‘Raices’ Roots.” Many of the course objectives were covered in this presentation, such as social change, struggle over land and resources and the relationship between the U.S and Latin America.

“I know there is news that is not shown on T.V and I appreciate having these types of guest speakers that can inform me and (make me) self-conscious of what my government is doing,” said Maria Dominguez, a Mills alumna.