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Exhibition: Chronicling The Work of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia

By David Schonauer   Monday September 11, 2017


In Colombia, 2016 is known as “the year of peace.”  

It was the year that the government and the FARC guerrillas signed an accord bringing an end to a civil war that had lasted more than half a century. But, notes photographer and filmmaker Tom Laffay, there is “another side to the peace process.” In 2016, he notes, there were also 78 documented murders of human rights defenders — indigenous leaders, environmental activists, LGBTQ leaders and lawyers — in Colombia.

“By mid 2017 the rate continues at one assassination every four days,” notes Laffay, a PPD reader currently based in Colombia.

“It is paradoxical that while Colombia advances in the implementation of the Peace Agreement these aggressions continue, generating a climate of anxiety and mistrust about the possibilities of building a stable peace where conflicts are resolved by democratic means,” he writes. “Threats and murders are committed over territorial control, access to resources like petroleum and gold mining, investigations into war crimes like forced disappearances among others. The violence is attributed to murky neo-paramilitary groups like the so called “Aguilas Negras,” or assassins working with organized crime, but many defenders suspect security agents working for private industries, or the state security forces themselves.”

For the past several month, Laffay has been working on a project he calls “Defender,” which chronicles the work of three Colombian defenders of human rights. One is Héctor Sánchez, a community leader who uses a point-and-shoot camera to document “blatant environmental contamination and affected living conditions due to the oil industry operating in his community.” Another is Miller Dussan, a professor at the University of Neiva who formed the Association of people affected by the hydroelectric project El Quimbo (Asoquimbo). The third is Julia Figueroa, a human-rights lawyer who founded the all-female law collective Cccalp (El Colectivo de Abogados Luis Carlos Pérez) in Bucaramanga.

His project about the trio, done in collaboration with a collective of human-right lawyers called CAJAR, goes on view today and runs through October 6 at the Centro Cultural Casa Bolívar in Bogota.


Héctor Sánchez, community leader

“In the course of his activism, Hector has received constant death threats in the form of pamphlets and whatsapp messages allegedly sent by the paramilitary groups. He was imprisoned for ten weeks on false charges brought against him and survived an assassination attempt while in Bogota,” notes Laffay.


Miller Dussan, professor and community organizer

“As figurehead of the Asoquimbo resistance group, Miller has become a target of multiple legal proceedings brought against him directly by Enel-Emgesa as well a the Colombian military,” Laffay writes. “Charges of “obstructing public roads affecting public order” and “land invasion” carried sentences of up to twelve years in prison.”


Julia Figueroa, human-rights lawyer

“Since forming Cccalp, Julia and her team have faced threats via telephone and letters, bomb threats to the office, accusations of supporting Farc guerrillas, information theft from the office and electrical interference of office systems attributed to the now defunct Colombian State security apparatus, DAS,” Laffay notes. “While she has been assigned state provided security in the form of a bullet proof SUV and vest as well as two full time bodyguards, she fears for her personal safety and of her team of lawyers.”

Laffay has worked on a number of projects focusing on human rights, public health and conflict. Since 2011, he has documented the Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) epidemic affecting agricultural workers in Latin America and South Asia and is an member of La Isla Network, a public health and policy organization dedicated to investigating and mitigating the disease. PPD has previously featured a film he made with photojournalist Ed Kashi about the CKDu issue (below).

The exhibition going on view today coincides with the launch of a report from CAJAR on the issue of assassinations and threats against such human rights defenders in Colombia, notes Laffay. The report, to be issued on Sept 29, is illustrated with photographs from his project. “From here I plan to document five more defenders with support from various human rights groups,” he says.
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At top: Julia Figueroa by Tom Laffay

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