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Story Publication logo September 4, 2013

Colombia: Ivan Cepeda's Struggle Against History


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As Colombia struggles to free itself from a vortex of violence, union members, human rights...

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Ivan Cepeda at his desk in his government office. Image by Stephen Franklin. Colombia, 2013.

Blood unjustly spilled is not forgotten in Colombia.

Ivan Cepeda has lived much of his life doing exactly this—speaking out loudly and bravely about killers not held accountable.

As a consequence, he can also testify to the dangers that he and others face for standing up or just being in the way.

"I'm permanently threatened," Cepeda says. "I've been threatened since I can remember."

Sometimes, however, the danger seems more imminent, and that was the case last April when Human Rights Watch and others appealed to Colombia's president to make sure Cepeda doesn't fall victim amid a slew of threats.

A round of threats from a shady criminal group in early August targeted Cepeda, leftist politicians, a number of union leaders, human rights activists and members of a law firm closely linked to union and human rights groups.

Yet despite the threats, he continues, denouncing injustice and raising questions about former President Alvaro Uribe's alleged links with right-wing paramilitary groups.

The situation he finds himself in is not unfamiliar—his father lived under constant threat.

Ivan Cepeda joined the long line of survivors in 1994 with the assassination of his father, Manuel Cepeda, a leading leftist senator in Colombia. His father was a member of the Union Patriotica, a political party that saw over 2,000 of its members assassinated and hundreds more disappear in the 1990s.

His father's death led him on a search to find the killers and to create a foundation to follow through with this task. Eventually he became the head of the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes, an organization that links over 200 Colombian human rights groups.

Like his father, his human rights work has exposed him to threats and some lengthy stretches of forced exile. And like his father, he has become an elected politician. He is a member of Colombia's Congress, one of a small number of leftist politicians.

When he speaks about human rights violations, he goes back to an issue that haunts the history of his father's death.

It's the network that allegedly linked right-wing paramilitaries to the armed forces and, ultimately, to Colombian politicians and elite during the decades of violence. Two army sergeants were convicted in his father's death, and Cepeda has long searched for the masterminds behind the killing.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in May 2010 faulted the Colombian government for failing to protect Manuel Cepeda and strongly criticized it for not carrying out a full investigation of his murder. "It can be established that other members of the Army and members of one or several paramilitary groups took part in the planning and execution of the murder," the court said.

The role of the right-wing militias and the criminal groups that they have reportedly spawned is a major concern for Cepeda.

"There was a very partial demobilization," he says, referring to the government's efforts to break up and pacify the militias nearly a decade ago. "Today they are not armed groups. But they are a political-social effort that has achieved a parallel structure to the state."

He worries too about Colombians' many human rights battles. Women. Indigenous. Afro-Colombians. Workers' struggle for unions and decent work and pay. Health care workers, unpaid and unsupported. He is deeply concerned about the fate of small rural communities, many of them indigenous or Afro-Colombian, that are caught up in the sprawl of mining operations and other businesses run by international and Colombian firms.

In his very small government office, he turns towards his computer and flicks on pictures of mining operations and then talks about how new routes have been created to transport the extracted resources to the coast.

"People have been told to move," he says, his voice rising. "It's a total effect. It's an environmental disaster. It's a total violation of the rights of people."

As for a turnaround in the struggle for human rights, he is cautious. It is a view shared by many who count Colombia's long-lingering scars: nearly five million displaced, over 200,000 killed in five decades of wars, whole swaths of land polluted with land mines, blistering outrage among the poor.

"The problem is that we've had a war for 50 years. Sometimes there are improvements but in a state of war, you can't expect human rights."

Just as Cepeda has suffered for his willingness to speak out about human rights, so have others.

Sixty-nine human rights activists were killed last year, a 40 percent one year increase as attacks overall jumped by nearly 50 percent, according to Somos Defensores, a leading human rights organization. And there were 37 human rights activists killed in the first six months of this year, according to the group.

Among the 11,200 persons who received some form of protection from the Colombian government in 2012, 1,452 were human rights activists, according to the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report on Colombia.

One of those was Ivan Cepeda.

When he travels, he uses an armored car. Protective shields cover his home. And wherever he goes, so does a guard.

Noah Franklin contributed to this report


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