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The women risking their lives to defend Colombia’s black communities

January 13, 2020
Danelly Estupiñán is is one of Buenaventura’s most prominent activists

Danelly Estupiñán will never forget the first threat she received. The text message arrived at 5:35pm on 30 November 2015, saying: “Danelly, your end has come”. Hours later, during a phone call with a friend, a distorted voice appeared on the line, repeating: “We know where you are”.

Since then, Estupiñán has been constantly followed, photographed and had her home broken into, in apparent retaliation for her human rights work defending black communities in Buenaventura, Colombia’s biggest Pacific port.

“I don’t go out anymore. I just move between the office and the house. I have no social life, I have nothing. I only go out to do specific things because wherever I go, they’re there,” she said in June, shortly before fleeing the country upon learning of a plot to kill her.

Danelly Estupiñán speaks at the funeral of a young girl who was brutally murdered in Buenaventura

Having lost fathers, husbands and sons to years of bloodshed, Afro-descendant women like Estupiñán are bravely assuming more active roles in defending their ancestral communities. However, standing up to corporations and criminal organizations who seek to oversee development projects, mineral extraction and drug-trafficking in their territories has put them in the crosshairs.

Colombia is the world’s deadliest country for human rights defenders, with Frontline Defenders registering at least 126 killings there last year. It is also home to 7.8 million internally displaced people, more than any other country, according to a 2018 UN report. Indigenous and campesino leaders comprise many of the victims, but black women are increasingly at risk in the western provinces where Colombia’s Afro-descendent population is concentrated.

Paramilitaries use femicide and rape as systematic tools to control territory in Buenaventura

Since taking office in August 2018, President Iván Duque has adopted a plan to protect human rights defenders, social leaders and journalists by strengthening specialist police units and improving coordination between state bodies, as well as offering rewards for information on suspects wanted over killings. Duque says killings of social leaders dropped 35 percent during his first year in office, but those at risk say state protection remains insufficient.

Estupiñán, a leader of the Afro-Colombian rights group Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), is one of the most prominent activists in Buenaventura, a gritty, sweltering hub where the jungle collides with the ocean. In the last 20 years, Buenaventura’s Afro population has faced a wave of killings, torture, sexual violence and enforced disappearances at the hands of paramilitaries infamous for dismembering their victims in casas de pique, or “chop houses”.

Many in the black community believe the violence is a manifestation of structural racism and discrimination, aimed at driving them from the waterfront areas where they have lived for generations in wooden houses and stilted huts, so the government and private developers can press ahead with plans to expand the port and build tourist infrastructure there.

“What is it that scares my people and doesn’t scare those who move in?” asks Leyla Arroyo

“The white and mestizo people who [bought properties] in the worst moment of the armed conflict and now have big hotels and tower blocks with supermarkets – why did the bullets never hit them?” asks Leyla Arroyo, another PCN leader. “There are no ‘for sale’ signs in any of those places, but there are in the homes of our people. What is it that scares my people and doesn’t scare those who move in?”

Estupiñán believes “the violence is aimed at destroying the social fabric to create a weak community that can be controlled socially, culturally and politically”. Women are being targeted to prevent them from repairing that social fabric, she says, with paramilitaries using femicide and rape as systematic tools to control their territories and intimidate the population.

The government’s National Protection Unit (UNP) has assigned bodyguards to shadow her and Arroyo due to the threats against them. “I haven’t got used to it. It’s so invasive and at the same time it creates psychological dependencies,” Estupiñán says. “You completely lose the right to intimacy. They know everything, if I go to the supermarket and buy sanitary pads they know my period is coming.”

Many in the black community believe the government and developers want to drive them from the waterfront areas where they have lived for generations

As of November 2018, the UNP was providing protective measures for 3,733 human rights defenders, yet recipients say these measures are flawed. Some cannot afford fuel for the cars they are given, while their bulletproof vests are cumbersome and draw unwelcome attention. Other measures such as mobile phones prove useless in remote rural areas with no signal, while panic buttons do not always draw quick enough responses from the police to deter killers.

Many women displaced from black communities seek refuge in Cali, southwestern Colombia’s biggest city. Erlendy Cuero, a 44-year-old grandmother of four, fled Buenaventura in 2000 when her father was murdered, she was sexually assaulted, and her house was destroyed in a land dispute. She is now vice-president of the National Association of Displaced Afro-descendants (Afrodes).

Members of the National Association of Displaced Afro-descendants (Afrodes) in Cali

Wearing a lime polo and jeans, her afro tied back behind a pink headscarf, Cuero says she and her two children have suffered constant threats, harassment, surveillance and break-ins at their modest red brick home in a public housing development on the outskirts of Cali.

A few years ago, government analysts came to assess the level of risk Cuero faced. She says they interviewed her for an hour or two in their hotel room but never visited her home or consulted anyone else about her situation: “They simply arrived and determined that there was no risk.”

It was only when two men shot dead her brother, Bernardo Cuero, while he was watching soccer at his home in the city of Malambo in June 2017, that authorities finally assigned her bodyguards, a vehicle, bulletproof vests and a phone. The UNP had provided Bernardo – another Afrodes leader and prominent human rights defender – with protective measures but withdrew them months before he was killed and denied his requests to reinstate them, having decided he was no longer at risk. Nine months later, gunmen also killed Bernardo’s son, Javier Cuero.

Erlendy Cuero has suffered constant threats, harassment, surveillance and break-ins at her home in Cali

Erlendy Cuero’s 21-year-old son, Alex, has been targeted too. He survived a shooting in 2016 and narrowly avoided a stabbing two years later when his pet pit-bull fought off the assailant.

Cuero believes the attacks were a message to her to “keep quiet or we’ll hit you where it hurts the most.” The logic is brutal, she explains: “What hurts me the most is for them to kill my son, because I’ve already lived, I’ve done what I had to do and I’m ready. But if they kill my children, well… you have to live with the guilt that a child’s life ended because of what you were doing.”

Francia Márquez, a Goldman prize-winning environmental activist, is also living in Cali after being displaced from her home in La Toma, a rural area two hours south of the city, when gunmen came looking for her in 2014.

A former “chop house” where paramilitaries would torture and dismember their victims

Speaking at a temporary residence, Márquez says she began receiving threatening letters and phone calls in 2010, when she was defending La Toma against the devastating environmental and social impact of illegal mining. That year she won a case in Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which suspended concessions in the area belonging to the multinational AngloGold Ashanti.

“The armed groups said they were declaring us a military objective because we were blocking the entrance of multinationals and obstructing development. What development? Who’s the development for if my community doesn’t have clean water and we’re drinking water poisoned by mercury from the mining?” Márquez asks. “I can live without gold and jewels. I can’t live without water or food.”

AngloGold denied any link to the threats against Márquez in July and denounced a recent attempt on her life. Márquez was in a meeting with other black leaders at a farmhouse on 4 May when armed men opened fire and threw grenades at them. Her state-assigned bodyguards repelled the attack, but it exposed potentially fatal flaws in their security protocol.

Soldiers keep watch in Buenaventura’s demilitarised “humanitarian zone”

“One of my bodyguards went in the bulletproof car to chase the supposed aggressors and left me laying there… instead of staying and putting me aboard the car to get me out of there,” she says solemnly. “If another armed group had arrived they would have killed me.”

Many human rights defenders do not survive such attacks. A month later, assassins on a motorcycle shot dead María Hurtado, another Afro social leader, in front of two of her four children in the town of Tierralta. Images of her body circulated widely on social media, soundtracked by the piercing screams of one of her sons. Local activists said Hurtado had defended the community in a land dispute and had recently denounced threats from paramilitaries.

Although she feels safer in Cali, Márquez has struggled with the city’s elevated costs of living. She sold juice, tamales and ceviche for a while but had to stop when the threats intensified. The city feels like limbo for her family, she says: “My children live in frustration because they’re locked up here and we can’t go home.”

Márquez is also concerned about the impact of human rights defenders leaving their communities, even when it’s for their own safety. This plays into the hands of their aggressors, who seek to drive them from their homes and weaken their communities, she says.

Human rights defenders need solutions that allow them to remain in their territories and are tailored to the specific needs of each community, Márquez adds. She hopes to launch a community radio network to combat the disinformation and stigmatization that encourage violence against social leaders, and advocates bolstering the capacity of community guards who keep watch for intruders and accompany leaders on their travels.

Shipping containers from Colombia’s biggest Pacific coast port tower over homes in Buenaventura

The government must also work to eradicate the corruption that fuels the marginalization and exploitation of Afro communities and the killings of those who defend their rights, Márquez says. The state must not let killings of social leaders go unpunished, she adds, and must stop justifying them by falsely accusing the victims of involvement with drug-traffickers or guerrilla movements.

While she “would rather die of old age than have a violent death”, Márquez insists that Colombia’s Afro women “must keep going”, despite the risks they face. She believes women have a key role to play because their “caring instinct” drives them to protect not only their children, but also their territory, the environment and their communities.

“We need to feminize politics and fill humanity with maternal love,” she says. “War has always been driven by machismo, by the patriarchy and by business between men. I think these men need to stop being so aggressive in life and think about feminizing themselves.”

This article was published in Spanish in Newsweek México

A shorter version was previously published in TIME magazine

This Mexico City café was the favourite haunt of Latin America’s biggest icons

November 16, 2019

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At one table in Café La Habana, Fidel Casto and Ché Guevara would plot revolution. At another, Gabriel García Marquez could be seen scribbling into his notebook. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, used to read quietly in the corner, while punk poet laureate Patti Smith once performed here in homage to the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, another regular who immortalized the café in one of his novels.  

There can’t be many cafés in the world as steeped in history as La Habana.

A quiet establishment founded in Mexico City’s Juárez neighborhood in 1952, it looks pretty unremarkable from the outside. Step inside, however, and it feels like entering a 1950s film set. With wooden furniture and large black-and-white photos of Havana lining the sepia walls, the decor has hardly changed in almost seven decades.2

Few people know La Habana’s history better than 76-year-old Ricardo Mendoza, who first visited in 1970 and has studied its past extensively while working here for the last 17 years. Over a flaky Mexican pastry and a glass of La Habana’s signature drink – two shots of espresso topped with condensed milk – Mendoza tells me it was founded by a diminutive Spaniard known as “El Centavo”, who came here from Cuba and had developed a taste for gambling.

“He liked to play cards and one day he lost heavily and had to sell the café. Since then it’s changed hands several times,” Mendoza says.  

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Located near a Cuban neighbourhood home to several cigar factories, La Habana proved a convenient spot for a young Fidel Castro to hang out without drawing attention to himself. Having led a thwarted uprising in his homeland four years earlier, Castro began to rendezvous with Ché Guevara here in 1956 when they were planning the Cuban Revolution. 

“Fidel was known as cuate, the Spanish term for buddy, because the Cuban secret service were after him, so he couldn’t go by his real name. He rented a number of properties in the area. He was stockpiling firearms and would keep 10 or 20 rifles at each place, so that if one house were raided he wouldn’t lose all of them,” Mendoza tells me. 

“Fidel used to meet people here to make plans but he’d only stay for 10 minutes at a time. He wouldn’t sit here eating or smoking cigars. He’d meet Ché and others for a quick coffee and perhaps not even finish it before leaving because of the danger he was in. He couldn’t stay anywhere for long.”5

 They soon left for Cuba, but as the years went by La Habana’s popularity only grew. 

“A lot of journalists used to come here because all the most important newspaper offices were nearby. Artists started showing up because they knew a lot of entertainment reporters came here. If they hadn’t made the papers for a few months they’re turn up and buy the reporters coffee to make sure they were in the next day’s edition,” Mendoza says.

The café’s proximity to government offices also made it a popular hangout for public officials, he adds: “A lot of politicians would come here to be seen, especially at election time, to make sure they’d appear in the papers.”16

Even Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran leftist and former Mexico City mayor who won a landslide election last year, used to be regular. 

“Other politicians come in with six or seven armed bodyguards and they won’t let anyone come near their tables, but he would come alone and read quietly in the corner, drinking his coffee. He would speak to anyone who approached him or take photos with them,” Mendoza says.

Today, La Habana has a loyal clientele of local teachers, doctors and priests, among others, but draws surprisingly few tourists. Those who do come from abroad tend to be drawn by its mythical status in literary circles. 7

Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, widely considered Latin America’s greatest ever author, used to visit and is rumoured to have drafted part of his magic realism masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, here. He and the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who both won the Nobel Prize for Literature, would come to mingle with other writers, Mendoza says. The conservative Paz would often argue with the more bohemian Roberto Bolaño, who was at the forefront of the city’s infrarealist movement. 

“Roberto Bolaño arrived from Chile without any money. He came to the café and, because it was cheap and they would let him stay for hours at a time, he ended up writing his book here, as well as some of his poems and short stories,” Mendoza tells me.

Bolaño was particularly fond of the chilaquiles at La Habana and was so enamored with the place that he included it in his classic 1998 novel The Savage Detectives, under the name Café Quito. That thinly-veiled reference has made it a Mecca for his fans.

“Students come from countries like Chile, Argentina and Colombia just to see where Roberto Bolaño used to write,” Mendoza says with pride. 13

Legendary singer-songwriter Patti Smith was so inspired by Bolaño’s work that she not only tracked down the café, but in 2017 she performed and exhibited her photography there in the Café La Habana sessions, thus becoming the latest in a long line of iconic visitors. 

With so many storied figures writing chapters in La Habana’s history over the years, I ask Mendoza if he thinks a future icon could be writing their masterpiece here today. He sighs, before lamenting how today’s clients are always glued to their smartphones. 

“It’s difficult to see that happening because of the Internet. People still come here but they’re not going to write anything.”

‘It breaks my heart, but I have to keep going’: The Honduran women forced to leave home

November 13, 2018

Almost 5,000 members of the caravan arrived at Mexico City’s “Palillo” stadium last week

MEXICO CITY – After 23 days of harsh travel through pouring rain and tropical heat Suyapa takes a much-needed break at a sprawling shelter for members of the Central American migrant and refugee caravan in a sports complex in Mexico’s capital.

“It’s been really heavy going, especially for them,” she says, pointing to her two youngest sons, aged 7 and 10. “One of them got sick but thank God he’s better now. We’ve walked a lot. They get exhausted, they’ve lost the skin on their feet and had to walk barefoot at times.”

Like many of the thousands of people traveling in a series of caravans from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, Suyapa left home out of necessity rather than choice.

Suyapa fled Honduras with her two youngest children after gang members threatened her and took her eldest son

While President Trump has called the caravan members “criminals” and deployed over 5,000 soldiers to prevent them from crossing the United States-Mexico border, a great many of them are women and children simply searching for a safe place to rebuild their lives.

According to Mexico City authorities, children accounted for 1,726 of the 4,841 people registered at the shelter as of Nov. 8, including 310 infants under 5 years old. About 30 percent of those registered were women.

1,726 children were registered at the shelter last week, including 310 infants under five years old

Suyapa fled the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula after members of violent criminal networks known as maras extorted her modest food business, demanding all her weekly earnings, and then forced her eldest son to join them.

“These aren’t idle threats, they follow through with them.”

The gang gave her three days to leave and never come back…

Click here to read this feature in full at the Washington Post’s The Lily