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Berenice Celeyta Alayon
Berenice Celeyta Alayon

Berenice Celeyta Alayon (Colombia)

Educating Colombian Communities For Peace:
Call it a twist of fate.

Berenice Celeyta Alayon's life was changed forever in 1985 when guerillas attacked the Supreme Court of Colombia and took over the Palace of Justice just a few blocks from her university. The event resulted in the deaths of 11 Supreme Court justices and numerous civilians, marking a new escalation in the cycle of violence.
For Ms. Celeyta, a freshman at the time, the Palace of Justice tragedy was the beginning of a journey into the complex world of the conflict between guerillas, paramilitaries, drug lords, and government forces that still continues in Colombia today.

"The event had a really great impact on me.  I realized that many people who had died were professors from my university," she says. "I began different student activities, including studying what happened at the Palace of Justice… and did work for the families of the disappeared."
More than 20 years later, Ms. Celeyta has become a leading human rights activist in the conflict-torn south of the country. Her Asociacion Para la Investigacion y Accion Social (NOMADESC) organization, which is based in the province of Valle del Cauca, plays a key role in investigating rights abuse in the region and has empowered hundreds through a broad rights-based approach to development and advocacy.

"Our work is essentially the training of various qualified persons in human rights – with communities of the indigenous, farmers, workers and students," she says. More than 150 people a year graduate from NOMADESC courses and return to their communities to help improve the lives of others.
NOMADESC operates well beyond the narrow boundaries of what many consider to human rights. "We have worked on several important topics concerning privatization, the presence of international business interests, and have been able to make people aware of various grave human rights violations in these areas with regard to strategic natural resources like gold, petroleum, nickel, and uranium," she says.
She is particularly interested in the impact of large government projects, or multinational companies operating in the area and how they affect the human rights of local indigenous populations. "Colombia is not a poor country, although we live in difficult conditions – there is gold, emeralds, and for a long time a (small group of people) has been able to exploit these natural resources."

The government of Alvaro Uribe, which came to power in 2002, has introduced a swathe of "mega-projects" designed to keep economic growth on track. Many of these projects, sometimes run with multinational enterprises, are in the poorer regions of Colombia.
Ms. Celeyta says that local communities are hurt in a number of ways when outside interests take control of such assets. On top of people losing the economic benefits, the environmental destruction can seriously affect the health of local communities. But the most devastating effect is perhaps when towns and villages are uprooted and forced to move to a new area with no housing or infrastructure to support them. These people are known as the displaced, and they are one of Colombia's most pressing human rights problems.

Many become displaced after getting caught in the conflict between guerillas and government forces, but regardless of the reason this group is marginalized in the extreme. "They are the discards of society.  They don't have hope or opportunity, they are just people to be moved off the land," says Peter Stucky, president of the Mennonite Church of Columbia.
One example of a local community disintegrating due to such projects can be seen in the establishment of bio-fuel industries, such as palm oil plantations in the desperately poor and highly corrupt province of Choco, directly to the north of Valle del Cauca. "Some 93 percent of palm oil plantations in Choco are on what used to be collectively-owned Afro-Colombian land," says James Patton, director of the Colombian American Friends Service Committee. "Local economies are being massively disrupted by these macro-projects, but the Uribe government is presenting them as a very positive development at the international level," he says.

The reality is that when local communities in Choco or Valle del Cauca are displaced by these projects, most flee to nearby cities such as Cali or Buenaventura. The influx of ethic groups with no means of supporting themselves leads to an increase in social tensions and outbursts of brutal violence.
Ms. Celeyta recalls that in 2005, a group of 12 displaced youths who were squatting in a slum area outside Buenaventura were invited to a friendly game of soccer on the promise that the winning team would be paid 200,000 pesos (about US$90). But upon arriving at the grounds, the youths were killed, mutilated, and put on display in front of the community. Ms. Celeyta believes demobilized paramilitaries were responsible for the lynching because a detainee who later confessed to taking part in the crime was linked to these groups.

The slum neighborhood where the boys lived is "so poor that we can say it goes beyond poverty to absolute misery," says Ms. Celeyta. "There is no infrastructure, no public services, no access to health, nor to education… this is just one example of a case in a city of 325,000 where each year between 400 and 500 people die violently."
The fact that the perpetrators of such crimes are almost never brought to justice is another major problem that Ms. Celeyta tries to address in her activities. Countless crimes have been committed by all sides in the Colombian conflict over the decades, and collecting data to try and bring a case to court is a complex and sometimes hopeless task.
To many, the Uribe government appears to have thrown its hands up at the situation and chosen not to pursue investigations with as much vigor as the families of victims might wish. Recent evidence of connections between some lawmakers and paramilitary groups has further hurt the government's credibility. Ms. Celeyta says this is undermining the people's faith in democracy and the rule of law. "We believe it is fundamental in these times to bring to justice those who committed these crimes.  They need to be tried in good faith to set an example so that these crimes are not repeated,." she says.

Taking a firm stance on human rights hasn't won Ms. Celeyta any friends among those who would rather forget about questions of liability. She and her colleagues have received numerous death threats, and a number of organizations such as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and the Center for International Policy alleged that she was targeted for assassination in a government-sponsored plan known as "Operation Dragon" in 2004. The reported plan was to kill 175 labor and social movement leaders in Cali, the state capital of Valle del Cauca, who were opposing the privatization of the city's water, electric, and telecommunications utility company. "We are not talking about cases that are distant from us.  We have been persecuted, threatened, they watch our offices and intercept our telephones.  We are threatened with beatings and many other things to dissuade from being involved in human rights," she says.
While Ms. Celeyta has so far escaped any would be assassins, many working to promote human rights in Colombia have not. One of her mentors, Professor Eduardo Humana Mendoza, was killed in 1998. Entire groups working to expose atrocities by the paramilitaries in the region have been eradicated. "The total disappearance of organizations like the Asociacion de Campesinos de la Valle del Cauca, whose leaders were exterminated one by one… (these people now form) part of our investigation files."

Critics of the Uribe government say that while the overall number of atrocities in Colombia in recent years may have dropped, the nature of the killings has become more political as activists are increasingly targeted. Gustavo Gallon, a civil rights lawyer and director of the Colombia Commission of Jurists, says that his investigations show that while the number of selective killings since 2002 by guerrilla forces remain steady  at around 400 a year, those at the hands of state agents have doubled to close to 900 a year.
"Many human rights defenders, and people close to us have died," says Ms. Celeyta. "There is a Colombian poet who says that there are more friends in the cemeteries and the prisons than in the cafes or on the street talking to us."
The keys to improving the human rights situation are not to forget these tragedies and to build communities through education programs that seek to defend justice and civil liberties. "Justice is the opportunity to demand and exercise our human rights," says Fabio Alonso Meza, coordinator of the Fundacion Servicio Colombiano de Desarrollo Social (SERCOLDES) development group. "In order to be able to demand human rights, you need processes of formation and organization of communities."
This is exactly what NOMADESC seeks to do. "To construct a new society where human rights are respected is not a process of pardoning crimes," says Ms. Celeyta. Her journey began at the Palace of Justice, and she believes that its conclusion also begins there. "Strengthening justice is the most urgent task… (only when that is done) are we going to start a new path toward peace."

Updated August 2007

Watch the Global X interview with Berenice Celeyta, president of La Asociación para la Investigación y Acción Social - NOMADESC (Association for Social Research and Action).

Note: Interview conducted in Spanish.

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