Interview with Abel Barrera Hernández, Founder and Director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Montaña
Abel Barrera Hernández, founder and director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Montaña, is the 2010 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate for his work on human rights and justice issues for the indigenous people of his home state of Guerrero, Mexico.
Foreign Policy Digest Americas Regional Editor Sean Bartlett sat down with Mr. Barrera on November 13th to discuss his work, the Center, and the award. Salvador Sarmiento of the RFK Center provided translation assistance.
FPD: Mr. Barrera, thank you for speaking with Foreign Policy Digest this afternoon. Describe your upbringing in Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero, and how some of your experiences shaped you in becoming such a vigorous supporter and defender of human rights?
Growing up in an indigenous region, it was difficult for me to understand this conflict of not understanding one another, why our society made these distinctions between people that did not speak Spanish and those that did. The Spanish speakers felt they were superior to the indigenous population.
This conflict always stayed with me, and caused me great personal strife. I remember beginning to feel this way when I was 11, in primary school.
On one hand, I was part of the group of Spanish speakers, but at the same time I always interacted with those that didn’t speak Spanish. I felt more warmth, respect, and transparent friendships with these people than with the dominant society, who felt we were not supposed to interact with them and not supposed to trust them.
Those of us that were supposedly part of a superior culture, our behavior was actually contradictory. It wasn’t consistent with the things we’d say about ourselves. In addition, because of our religious upbringing, I understood that there were Christian values that really required us to respect people that were different than us.
However, even in the religious practices, I saw that these values were not carried out. In a way, this was a calling me to, to get involved and see how the indigenous people were living and how they were treated. I had feelings of guilt, because of the way they were treated. And because of this mistreatment, the indigenous people created distance from the main society because they didn’t trust us.
FPD: Did you pursue any of this in your formal education?
First I went to the seminary to try and understand these issues. It was there I began to understand how different people have different understandings of the world. Not everyone believes that everyone else is entitled to equal dignity, quality of life, human rights, etc.
I learned that there existed this demonized vision of indigenous people. The stereotype was that it was a negative world, dark and foggy, and unworthy of understanding or respect from mainstream society.
It was all very troubling. In the depths of my mind, my soul, that’s what attracted me to pursuing this work.
I soon learned how these people really lived, and about their values, their customs, their hopes and aspirations. I would see that these communities would go to the caves and the mountains, and they would speak to the clouds. I came to understand that they were not demons, but in fact, quite the opposite: a peaceful and loving people with a sense of community.
So I understood this reality in the world but I didn’t know what it would represent for me in my continuing education or my life, or how I could help change it. With the knowledge I received in theology, liberation theology, for example, the presence of God as I understood it is much greater expressed in serving the forgotten peoples of the world.
Liberation is actually found in the people’s struggles. In that sense, the presence of God can be very revolutionary to transform an unjust reality. And that, for example, the death of Jesus Christ, was a conviction to confront itself to the ultimate consequences. So that’s the previous formation I had when I went to study anthropology.
That’s when I understood the transcendence and the strength of the indigenous people in the construction of an unjust reality or society.
I understand that we’re all called to help build worlds that can be different – with different philosophies. Indigenous philosophy was much more concrete than other philosophies I had been exposed to, much more poetic, and it had roots that were quite deep going back over 2,000 years. And it is constantly being renovated.
So that’s what laid the foundation for my professional career. My education and early exposure to the indigenous community gave substance to my convictions. I really sought to separate myself from the dominate vision, what was thought of as indigenous people and the way they lived, and dedicate my work to countering these previous perceptions and improving the lives of the indigenous people in my home state.
FPD: 1994 was an eventful year in Mexico: the recent enactment of NAFTA; the election of Ernesto Zedillo as president; the uprising of the Zapatistas in Chiapas; and, of course, the founding of your center, the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Montaña. How, if any, did external factors outside of Guerrero play a role in the founding of the center?
I believe it was actually a Latin American movement. Resistance by indigenous people against this supposed meeting of two worlds. There was an understanding or declaration that it wasn’t a meeting of two worlds, more like an extermination of one world.
The framework really was that indigenous people were appearing on the political scene, as actors of a change. They didn’t want any more colonization, extermination, violations of their rights, etc. They were asking for respect, for their dignity, and for their rights as people. It was a continent-wide consciousness of the struggle of indigenous people. In the Mexican context, there was the establishment of the National Council on Indigenous Resistance, and of course, in 1994, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.
And in Tlapa, the Catholic Church founded an indigenous diocese within its local office.
FPD: That seems quite important, what was the significance of this action by the Church?
Really for the first time, there were priests that were vindicating the rights of these people. In this push forward for greater rights, the bishops supported the struggles. I had a strong role in helping facilitate this part, and it permitted the founding of the Tlachinollan center to be part of this collective effort. In fact, the center is a product of these local efforts.
FPD: In discovering and understanding human rights abuses or meeting with victims, their families, witnesses, or even alleged perpetrators of violence, does it always happen out in the field, or do people feel safe or empowered enough to come to the center?
At the beginning, we took a holistic diagnostic of the area and the situation we were up against. We spoke with several local priests as I previously mentioned, and we also sought the advice and expertise of academics from the national university in Mexico City. We focused heavily on cases of indigenous people that were arbitrarily detained.
The many stories of the indigenous people that we heard demonstrated to us, in stark terms, the grave injustices they had experienced. They all perpetuated the discriminatory vision that the government, the military, the majority of society, etc., had of these people.
We started a project to build capacity of volunteers to help us with this undertaking of seeking justice. We held workshops with the local churches to discuss human rights and inform people of what their rights were. It was during these workshops that people began sharing the problems they were experiencing.
Above all, agrarian conflicts were prominent. And, of course, the many arbitrary detentions. Police abuses and extortion also ran high. Really, the inhumane treatment people were receiving generally. And it was in these same workshops that folks would ask, ‘what good is it to learn about human rights if you can’t help us to learn how to resolve them, to fight for them?’
So we were up against a lot.
It was necessary to create a space, with legal support, for the people. It really became a matter of obtaining their rights, not just understanding them. Through legal and political avenues, including talking with local politicians, that’s how we sought to give them what they deserved.
Through agreements with universities and youth that were engaged in volunteering in social services, many young volunteers came to Tlachinollan that listened to the problems of the people, tried to give them help and consultation, and help them navigate the legal and political system.
We were receiving such horrific and numerous cases of torture and detention that we began asking for the voluntary help of attorneys who were already litigating, to help us make the announcements of the abuses and the demands for justice.
We really pushed for reconciliation, the use of mediation, and many problems were solved this way, including agrarian conflicts.
Through this process we discovered that the work on human rights was touching a very sensitive nerve of a very corrupt system. Questioning the behavior of the police wasn’t normally done.
And that’s how the movement formed and the process for Tlachinollan began.
FPD: Talk to me a little bit more about the partnerships you formed and utilized. How useful was the technical expertise of the partnership to do training, assistance, announcements, confrontations, etc.?
This was a long road. I often had direct confrontations with local authorities. Because the legal avenues didn’t exist at first, we had to deal with local politicians. We would confront those who stole money, or detained individuals, and call them out. We didn’t know all that much about writing up documentation, realizing specific rights were being denied, etc.
We were living in the moment, and we didn’t always know what we were looking or asking for, you know, how to make the ‘ask’.
But our actions did force the police to face us, even if it wasn’t in a constructive way. They would show up to the office with a gun, and say ‘what do you want?’ They would say ‘don’t get involved with us, don’t mess with us.’
We thought this was the consequence of accompanying an impoverished person who wanted to defend their rights. We were resolved to deal with it, and pretended that we weren’t afraid.
It was about 4 years after the founding that we were just basically chipping away at the stone, with very few volunteer attorneys familiar or comfortable with human rights. Even I, as a trained anthropologist, was not that familiar with these technical issues.
None of us had formed or knew the inner-workings of an NGO. Tlachinollan was formed in the heat of our convictions and struggles pertaining to human rights.
The National Network of Human Rights for All really helped us. We started to understand guerillas, documentation, international law, the Inter-American system, etc. There were examples of people already in the system, litigating, and this was very encouraging.
Between 1996 and 2000, we were able to document 30 cases of torture that had to do with teachers, farmers, impoverished people, etc., who were accused of being guerrillas. They were very grave cases.
And there was another organization, when they learned of abuses, they asked to take these people and their cases to the Inter-American Commission. But we would say, ‘how can you take them if you don’t know the region, the people, the full context of the story? But you have the knowledge and the capacity to do it, so maybe it would be helpful.’
Two cases were accepted by the Commission, one of a teacher, one of a peasant. This was encouraging, but we thought it was impossible to litigate in the Inter-American system. Some authorities sarcastically referred to it as the ‘Inter-Galactic’ system. This cynicism about the system, its bureaucracy, the possibility that the cases wouldn’t go anywhere and justice would again be denied, etc., was all very upsetting.
The people we would confront would often stand behind the law, and say, ‘we are the law.’
When we would tell them that they were violating the rights of someone who was detained, who was denied the right to eat, drink, or see their families, they would come to us and say ‘he has no right to eat, to drink, and you are defending killers.’
So in this learning process, we initially had no idea to issue habeas corpus ‘asks’.
But through these contacts with the network, and with the additional colleagues that did arrive and that did know these processes, by 2002, we found it easier to practice, to ask for Precautionary or Provisional Measures.
This is where we get the support and accompaniment, with organizations that have a more solid understanding of the processes. Above all, we pursue a discourse of much more elaborate human rights, but also the use of tools to make effective demands for human rights.
This is what pushed us. To be in the regions, accompanying the people, to be able to tell them, ‘you’re not alone’. To share their suffering, their sadness, their frustrations, and to know that before any authority, one has to be able to say ‘I have rights, and you can speak to my attorney,’ and we would say ‘yes, we’re their attorneys’. Even if we didn’t have an idea how we’d defend them, we were determined to really turn this phrase ‘human rights’ into something effective for these communities to stop these aggressions and have justice.
All of this has touched us in a deep way. Amidst all the vast ocean of aggression, there is this light of human rights. When they arrive at the office, it is a challenge we take seriously, because we are the last resort for these folks, to end these aggressions. We are a civil authority, in a sense, that these people have put trust in.
FPD: Would you mind sharing a specific positive or negative case that you worked on at Tlachinollan?
For me, this case was a very sad and frustrating experience. An indigenous woman’s husband was murdered, in their home. The municipal authorities didn’t respond to her in any way. After burying her husband she came to Tlachinollan to share what happened. We issued the denouncement, hoping to be of assistance to her.
Then, without telling us, she left for Sinaloa to be a day worker.
Maybe she didn’t trust Tlachinollan enough to tell us she was leaving or had enough to eat to continue coming to the center. She was gone for 5 months, and during that time we didn’t hear anything from her
When she came back after 5 months, she came back directly to the office, very thin, very sad. She spoke Mixteco, not Spanish, so through an interpreter we asked what happened. She said she had to go find work in order to feed her children. Going to Sinaloa was the only way to earn money. But the saddest thing was that she had no money once she returned, and what was worse, she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She complained that she was feeling very ill, and was very worried about how she would provide for her children.
So we took her to the hospital, and tried to find a way to support the children. They said the cancer was very advanced. I remember her remarking that the fields she worked in were often sprayed with chemicals that would irritate her; she did this for 8 years. With this awful diagnosis, she preferred to be in her home, to be comfortable, where she could die. So we spoke to her family members, the kids stayed with family, and we would support them economically so they could buy corn, for example. The roughest thing was that despite all the medicine we would give her, she was in severe pain. She was in bed for about 15 days, and the only thing she could say aside from telling us to care for her children, was to ensure justice for the death of her husband, basically telling us not to forget. She was 42 when she died.
We couldn’t forget. I felt like we should have done more. Because when she came, she was very impoverished, and it never occurred to us to ask how she and her family got by, you know, if she had financial means to feed and support her children.
It was clear to me that we had fallen into such an overt passion for human rights, that we weren’t seeing her reality; we just saw her need for justice. We should have been concerned and attentive to the entirety of her situation.
The only thing we could say on the justice end of things is that one of her husband’s killers went to jail. But she never saw that happen.
What one finds is that these stories have a lot to do with poverty. We often can’t follow up with people because they are hard to reach: they live in the mountains, it’s difficult for them to come to Tlapa, they are working day and night to earn every cent they can, etc.
As sad as it sounds, justice is something that is very expensive for the most impoverished.
Poverty makes it difficult for us to fight for justice and encourage others to fight for justice because they’re sick, not eating, impoverished, etc.: these are their primary, survival-related concerns. So we have diverted some operational resources to making sure that extreme poverty becomes less and less prevalent in order to carry out our main mission of securing justice and reconciliation for the people of the Montaña.
FPD: It’s now been over 15 years since the Center was established. What do you envision for the next 15 years?
As defenders of others in the midst of fear, injustice, and insecurity, we have had to develop a second skin.
There is so much corruption, inequity, and impunity throughout the system that we have had to find and tap into the strength, the conviction, the heroism, and the eyewitness accounts of the brave men and women in the indigenous communities. And an abundance of these qualities exist, despite the fact that many of these people are impoverished, don’t speak Spanish, and many of them have directly suffered torture, rape and sexual violence, and witnessed executions and disappearances. They have endured more pain and suffering than many people will ever experience.
And our volunteers have been absolutely essential to our work. All of these defenders are our life blood. They are our motor, our driving force.
They are the legacy of Tlachinollan and our work. Their struggles have turned into a historical strength that has made it possible for human rights to actually have a human face.
We have been so fortunate to share these experiences with them, to work with these men and women that guided us and opened the avenues to know how to walk in this rough and dangerous mountain, and really reach the top of these hills with them, both figuratively and literally.
To have real triumphs, you know, instances of justice, demonstrates that their truth is a historical truth. It’s a truth in a way that unmasks the monstrous power and lays it bare for everyone to see.
So, in that sense, these 17 years have been a community harvest for human rights, where we have been able to harvest some good fruit. And what we’ve discovered as we’ve gone along and continued to cultivate, is that the earth is good. In our region, persons that struggle against injustice everyday are very willing to give of themselves. To sacrifice their safety, to be hungry, to suffer being stigmatized, so we can all overcome these obstacles, is truly special.
Our understanding is that, in this struggle for human rights, and the degree to which they assume this struggle for human rights, we have this feeling that there will be a continued movement of hope, continued defenders of these people, and that Tlachinollan will continue to accompany them, be at their side, through their struggles for human rights and justice.
But most importantly, we hope there will be more and more defenders, volunteers, NGOS, etc., that join us in our work.
FPD: Personally, what does being the recipient of the 2010 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award mean for you?
First of all, in terms of the kinds of immediate things that come from receiving the RFK award, at the very least we feel that many more people will now begin to look toward the Montaña. They’ll begin to see what we’ve been seeing over the last 17 years. We want them to see the drama of the most impoverished area in Mexico. That gives me satisfaction, because it’s through the work of many colleagues and volunteers at Tlachinollan, that we’ve been able to create a really strong platform for human rights and define what it means to defend human rights in a very violent region.
It’s good to know that through our voices, of what our eyes have seen, and what our hearts have suffered, that there are now other people who can see it as well. Now there are other people that will become indignant and assume these burdens – and help us fix them. I think this will help create a large community of solidarity around this issue. We will all raise our collective voice, and it will be impossible for the authorities not to hear us.
I would be honored for the name Tlachinollan to be a synonym of the struggle for justice.
And certainly this also creates a feeling of greater responsibility, you know, not wanting to defraud people’s expectations. But it’s also a feeling of a greater conviction, and I know I am up to the challenge for as long as I am able to fight for justice and human rights.
Abel Barrera Hernández – “I don’t know a lot about technical issues, I just know I need to be there, out front, defending the indigenous people of Guerrero. That’s what has always pushed us at Tlachinollan; we know what injustice is. And we know we had to do something about it to make sure it never happens again.”
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