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Survivors and practitioners
The rest of the world was focused on the armed conflict in the Falkland Islands and the civil war in Lebanon, but Victoria Pariona Rojas, a widow with six children, was trying to survive the armed conflict between the government and the Maoist guerilla group Shining Path in Peru.
One morning, soldiers arrived at her home in Ayacucho — 550 km away from Lima, the capital — and took her to a military barracks. There, they questioned her about the number of policemen she had killed and the weapons she had stolen. Pariona Rojas was guilty of neither. Nor was she associated with the Shining Path. But soldiers kept her and tortured her for two weeks. Finally freed, she fled to Lima with her children, and only after two years, they returned to Ayacucho. In retaliation, a detachment of soldiers and police took her children aged 15 and 14.
In stepped “Mama Angélica” — Angélica Mendoza, a Quechua human rights activist — who found Pariona Rojas and persuaded her to join the National Association of Relatives of Abductees, Detainees and Disappeared , from Peru (ANFASEP). Mendoza, whose own son was abducted in 1983, founded the group of Quechua-speaking women tasked with searching for their missing relatives. “Swallowing their fear,” according to Mendoza, they took up the mantle for the men in the community, who were at greater risk of disappearing if they made enquiries. “Nothing could stop us," Mendoza said before she died in 2017.
ANFASEP started as a grassroots search-and-rescue organization. In addition to helping mothers, it ran a shelter for children who had lost one of their parents during the civil war. Today, ANFASEP is an organization that has not only unearthed the remains of more than 9,000 disappeared people and reunited 20,000 displaced people with their families, but also sought a careful way toward "truth, justice and dignified reparation” for the sufferers of the violence from 1980 to 2000.
ANFASEP has also promoted the implementation of several laws, including the creation of a national genetic data bank and a fund for a national monument to the missing called “La Hoyada.” From 2010 to the present, the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture has supported ANFASEP in their accomplishments, including the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) to investigate acts of political violence in Peru from 1980-2000.
Pariona Rojas eventually found the remains of her children in a modest house in the neighborhood of La Libertad in Ayacucho. The bodies showed traces of torture. “I entered the morgue, my daughter was right at the entrance, her slipper had fallen, I started to cry,” Pariona Rojas said. She is still active in ANFASEP, and at every opportunity participates in the marches and publicly denounces torture.
ANFASEP received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2009.
In April 1948, the assassination of Colombian presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitán in Bogotá triggered a prolonged cycle of violence across the country — La Violencia, as Colombians called it. Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez witnessed the act with his own eyes.
He founded the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) in 1973 with the money he won from the Rómulo Gallegos prize for his book“One Hundred Years of Solitude”. “Latin America neither wants, nor has any reason, to be a pawn without a will of its own; nor is it merely wishful thinking that its quest for independence and originality should become a Western aspiration,” Marquez said before he passed away in 2014.
For nearly 50 years, the CSPP has provided legal defense and humanitarian assistance to thousands of people detained for political offenses, victims of the armed conflict and human rights defenders. Currently, with a grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, the CSPP regularly visits dozens of prisons in the country to ensure the rights of inmates, support victims of torture and seek reparations for the families of people subject to enforced disappearance, displacement and extrajudicial executions.
CSPP is also a founding member of the Coalición Colombiana contra la Tortura (CCCT), a network of organizations that CSPP has promoted and helped to shape, to shape policy and raise awareness, including through the commemoration of the 26th of June, International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture..
“Not naming torture as a systematic and generalized crime carried out by the National Police and other institutions of the Public Force, (allows for) its occurrence… cases are covered up as situations of ‘personal injuries,’” according to Franklin Castaneda, the president of CSPP. In April 2022, the CSPP released a report finding 133 arbitrary deaths resulting from excessive use of force; 80 cases of torture during administrative detention; and 2,607 injuries sustained over 215 days of political protest between November 2019 and August 2021 — 13 victims for each day of protests.
As Castaneda said: “We know that we are not alone in this, but we also know that we are up against the interests of the powerful.”
Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2005.
Security forces in Venezuela have been accused for committing human rights violations to repress political opponents, including extrajudicial killings and torture. NGOs are fighting to bring truth and justice for victims and their families.
In June 2019, members of a Venezuelan intelligence service known as the Military Counter-Intelligence Command, or DGCIM, kidnapped Rafael Acosta Arévalo, a retired navy captain, according to a UN Human Rights report. Arévalo, who was charged with suspicion of conspiring against the government, was blindfolded and tortured to death.
Cases such as Arévalo’s are not isolated in Venezuela, but some NGOs are fighting to end the impunity that surrounds abuses, including torture, perpetrated by state security forces. One leading human rights organization, COFAVIC, has systematically made visible the fight against impunity and the need for comprehensive reparation for victims.“It is not possible to build well-being by ignoring so many wounds opened by the structural violence of the State,” says Yris Del Valle Medina, COFAVIC’s Executive Director.
Created in 1989 by a group of mothers, sisters and wives of dissidents killed, tortured and disappeared following the events known as El Caracazo, COFAVIC has won many cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the Venezuelan state for human rights violations. With financial support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, COFAVIC provides legal and psychological assistance to victims of torture.
"Partial recognition of facts that constitute crimes against humanity is a necessary step”, says Liliana Ortega, a lawyer for COFAVIC. "But it's not enough. It is essential that all perpetrators be judged.”
COFAVIC received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2021.
In Brazil, teenagers held in detention centers are often victims of mistreatment, at times amounting to torture. They also live in overcrowded facilities, with little room for education. The NGO Childrens’ Defence Center of Ceará (CEDECA Ceará) is working to improve the conditions of these youths.
A 17-year-old girl , called Maria*, was picked up by police in Quixeramobim, 114 miles away from Fortaleza in Northern Brazil, and taken to a juvenile detention center, where she was regularly beaten. Maria, who was four months pregnant at the time, begged not to be hit in the stomach. The officers replied that they would only spare her face to avoid leaving bruises.
The abuses at the center continued until a social worker from CEDECA Ceará heard Maria’s story while on a visit to conduct COVID-19 prevention activities among detainees. The organization worked to ensure Maria was never harmed again.
“In Brazil, defending human rights has never been easy,” says Mara Carneiro, general manager of CEDECA.
Brazil has the world’s third largest prison population, and a very high number of incarcerated youths. About 18,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 are housed in juvenile detention centers. In 2015, UN experts said that issues including endemic overcrowding, filthy conditions of detention, pervasive violence and a lack of proper oversight leading to impunity had not been addressed since their previous visit four years prior.
Through its defense center, CEDECA works to guarantee the legal rights of adolescents. CEDECA also pursues accountability for state agents when they commit physical and psychological violence, including torture, against incarcerated youths. The defense center also evaluates and proposes improvements to the socio-educational system to rehabilitate adolescents.
With the support of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, CEDECA partners with other NGOs and has provided food to 2,000 people, including youth detainees’ families, for some months in 2021, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in their lives. Currently, 480 youths submitted to torture or ill-treatment, receive ongoing legal, psychological and social support from CEDECA.
Carneiro says many of these young offenders are victims of structural violence in society. That often includes sexual exploitation.
CEDECA received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2018.
Generally, human rights organizations take their name from a cause, a country, a law or an acronym — very rarely, if ever, a person.
But those on the humanitarian front lines in Central and South America only have to say the name of an 18th-century Dominican Friar and locals immediately know Fray Matías, now synonymous with rescuing thousands of migrants from strife.
Since 1994, the Fray Matías de Córdova AC Human Rights Center has developed practical solutions to uphold basic human rights for vulnerable groups of poor farmers, migrants and their families in or near Tapachula — a city on the Southern border of Mexico, home to the largest detention center for migrants in the country. Through job training, self-care education, and support groups that help newcomers to Mexico form community and networks, the NGO protects migrants fleeing violence, including torture, in El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Cuba, as well as those subjected to torture in Mexico.
“The practice of torture in migration… requires the urgent design and implementation of tailored responses,” says Ana Elena Barrios, a psychologist with Fray Matías who provides psychological assistance to hundreds of migrant women each year. “Rehabilitation is not limited to medical and psychological care. How can one understand the exhaustion being worn down by an infinite wait?”
With help from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, Fray Matías has begun to document abuses, reporting appalling detention conditions, a lack of institutional comprehensive care protocols, and racism and xenophobia against asylum seekers, including many who have survived torture, and to make them public. Fray Matías believes that state agents are likely using these methods to deter migrants from seeking refuge in Mexico and the United States. Echoing concerns voiced by the UN Human Rights Committee, the organization has demanded that the Mexican State eliminate its widespread use of immigration detention, dedicate a portion of the country’s budget toward resources for care and protection of migrants, and offer complete and accessible information on the forms and procedures for accessing international protection or remaining lawfully in the country.
“Each (migrant’s) document is subject to different interpretations that vary according to the authority and when it is viewed,” Barrios says. “Migrants get lost in the meanders of a system where policy changes and administrative errors accumulate — a system intended to wear down the patience of migrants in order to discourage them.”
Fray Matías first received a grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2016.
Claudia Paz y Paz doesn’t look like — or come across as — a typical attorney, let alone a prosecutor. Small in stature with a soft-spoken, unassuming approach, Paz y Paz nonetheless has a fierce legal mind — and is nearly fearless.
In 2013, as Guatemala’s first female attorney general, Paz y Paz took on Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s military dictator from 1982 to 1983, and tried him for crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in the forced disappearance of 200,000 people during the country’s civil war. It marked the first time that a former head of government was prosecuted for such crimes in a national — rather than international — court, and Paz y Paz secured an 80-year sentence for Montt following his conviction. He died in 2018, during an appeal and retrial.
Paz y Paz is now the Director for the Central America and Mexico Program at the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL). The organization uses strategic litigation and other tools to defend the rights of survivors of torture and other types of human rights violations before the Inter-American Human Rights System and international human rights bodies, with financial support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.
In coordination with national partners, CEJIL has filed many of the emblematic cases before the Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRS), leading for instance to a decision by the Court to classify sexual violence committed by state agents as torture. CEJIL has also pushed for legislation to ensure that military personnel who carry out serious human rights violations are prosecuted in ordinary criminal courts. To achieve this aim, the organization recently represented a transgender woman imprisoned and tortured in Nicaragua, filed a complaint against El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion for a lupus-sufferer carrying on a life-threatening pregnancy, and sued the Mexican government for the “Women of Atenco” — 11 women of various ages detained and sexually tortured during economic protests in 2006.
Despite CEJIL’s progress, Latin America still has a long way to go regarding restorative justice. Under its current project to assist victims of torture with support from the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, CEJIL aims to align states from the region with international standards on human rights against torture, as well as introduce a more victim-centred approach to litigation, so they can participate in their own processes without facing retribution or re-traumatization. “We redeem a historical debt in my country by taking these cases to court,” Paz y Paz says. “In the first place to the victims, but also to the international community that never wanted these cases to remain unpunished.”
CEJIL received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture in 2004.
At the end of 1977, Laura Carlotto, a university student and political activist in Argentina, was kidnapped by security officials and taken to a clandestine detention center. The young woman was pregnant. She gave birth six months later, was murdered in detention and her child was taken away and handed over, like so many others, to families, mostly belonging to the military or supporters of the regime.
Laura’s mother, Estela de Carlotto, immediately started searching for her daughter and recovered her body and - when she realized that she had given birth - for her grandchild. Together with other women in the same situation, she founded the organization Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) with the aim of searching for and returning these children to their rightful families.
“When I turned 80, I begged God not to let me die before I found my grandson,” Carlotto says. Thanks to the continued efforts of Estela, other grandmothers, activists and collaborators, Estela was able to meet her grandson in 2014, when she was 81 years old and her grandson was 36.
Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, an organization founded in 1985 to search for and recover children born to mothers who were victims of enforced disappearances, and who had been appropriated by other families. The grandmothers believe that more than 500 children were victims of enforced disappearances.
A pioneering organization in the use of scientific methods to search for and identify missing people, they created the so-called index of “Abuelismo” (Grandparenthood), which allowed them to genetically identify their grandchildren. They also promoted legislation at a national and global level, such as the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which incorporated three articles (7, 8 and 9) on the right to identity, proposed by the Abuelas and known as the Argentinian articles, and promoted the drafting and adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
With support from the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, the Grandmothers continue to fight for redress. In 1997, they initiated a criminal case advocating that the abduction of babies was part of a systematic plan promoted from the highest levels of the State during the dictatorship. As a result, in 2012, several military officers were convicted for their actions. The organization also offers psychotherapeutic assistance to those facing loss and has developed tools to legally differentiate adoption from the appropriation of children. By 2014, Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo had successfully identified and returned their identity to 113 appropriated grandchildren, now adults.
It was first funded by the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 1985.
During the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), Chilean society was victim to constant and flagrant human rights violations, including the institutionalized practice of torture. This led the United Nations General Assembly to establish the UN Trust Fund for Chile in 1978, which would become the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.
The Center for Mental Health and Human Rights (CINTRAS) is a non-governmental, non-profit organization established in 1985 to provide medical and psychological care to survivors of torture. With financial support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, CINTRAS has initiated research on the psychological and psychosocial damage caused by torture, forced disappearance and impunity of officials as part of Chile's democratic process.
Thanks to the efforts of civil society organizations such as CINTRAS, the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture was established to identify people who suffered deprivation of liberty and torture under the Pinochet regime. The Commission published the Valech report, which recognizes more than 40,000 victims of torture, over 3,000 of them dead or missing.
As part of the restitution policy, victims were compensated financially. Additionally, spaces for remembrance have been created, such as the Victor Jara stadium, the Villa Grimaldi, a former detention center, and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, spaces to “celebrate life in the face of death,” as Vilma Abarzúa Cortés, torture survivor and member of CINTRAS, describes them.
Thirty years after the end of Pinochet’s military regime, following the 2019 protests, it became clear that torture was not completely eradicated in Chile. A 2019 report by the UN Human Rights Office on the protests, documented extensive allegations of human rights violations, including acts of torture, committed by police forces against people in detention.
José Miguel Guzmán Rojas, the Executive Director of CINTRAS, said, “In Chile, there is now a naturalization of the repressive actions of the security forces, where mistreatment is assumed as a probable risk… the lack of reporting of any kind of human rights abuse is mistrust in the judicial system.”
Due to the efforts of organizations such as CINTRAS following the protests, the Attorney General’s Office recently launched 8,581 investigations on alleged police abuses committed from October 2019 to March 2020.
"Impunity continues to be the great obstacle to human dignity and effective integral reparation,” said Abarzúa Cortés. “It is in this that we have to continue working with a critical spirit, but also with ethics and hope so that this country can resemble the country we dream of.”
CINTRAS received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 1985.