Nancy Sanchez has been working for human rights in Colombia for two decades. In the days after the official launch of the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in Norway, Sanchez spoke of her experiences and how the peace talks seem to hold little hope for the people she fights to defend.
In conversation at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, Sanchez explained that the peace the government is aiming for won’t reach the poorer citizens of Colombia. “What is going on between the FARC and the government doesn’t matter. I don’t like that kind of peace. Peace is not only about disarming. It is about discrimination, about inequality, about rights.”
Sanchez experienced discrimination and inequality first hand. “I learned about inequality as a child. My father and mother wanted to give me the best education, so they sent me to a good school. The class was divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. Of course I was one of the bad ones, sitting at the back in the corner,” laughed the Colombian.
When she went home the little girl asked her mother, “What does it mean, good and bad?” Her father promptly took her out of the school. “It was then I learned about discrimination,” said Sanchez.
The area she grew up in “was full of cantinas on the street-corners, prostitutes and transvestites.” Early in the morning on the bus to school, Sanchez would chat to these people. One by one she noticed that these night characters were disappearing. “They were being killed through social cleansing. The right-wing groups had a deal with the secret police to kill all the people they thought were ‘rubbish.'”
But it wasn’t only the lower echelons of society who were being wiped out, “in the university the teachers were being killed through political cleansing,” said Sanchez. “Paramilitaries aligned with the police and the government and exterminated 3,000 members of the Union Patriotica (the opposing political left). They killed so many people, I knew I wanted to get into human rights.”
When asked what eventually pushed her to take the step into human rights, “I fell in love,” she replied. “There was a beautiful proposal by the campesinos. They were tired of the violence, they made a proposal to free the territory, to try and bring the government to invest in the land.”
Sanchez was drawn to their bravery and the simplicity of their proposal. “They stood in front of the guerrillas, they stood in front of the military and the paramilitaries. But in the end they were killed.” At that moment she took a decision to do something. “My impotence became anger.” She was 20-years old.
During her internship with the Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, CREDHOS, Sanchez had to document all the human rights violations. “I had to register all the unidentified dead bodies. I had to take photographs of them. I had to get up close to these bodies and take the horrible pictures.” Some of the dead had been tortured.
But the work wasn’t only difficult and emotionally draining, it put Sanchez and her colleagues in danger too. “Three of my seven-person committee were killed. One had to leave, then I had to leave,” said the human rights worker, who went to Bogota. “Bogota was so boring,” she complained.
Sanchez used a a handful of coins to explain Colombia’s long and complicated armed conflict. “This one is the campesino,” she said, laying a coin on the table. “The campesino who needs the land for farming, for growing his food and providing for his family. This one is the FARC,” she said, placing a coin on top of the campesino coin. “The FARC who need the land for narco-trafficking, for growing coca.” Another coin goes on top of the pile. “Then we have the paramilitaries who want the land for growing palm oil, and for narco-trafficking too.” The last coin goes on top. “And this one is the government. They want the land for oil, for mining, for other projects.” Sanchez looks at the pile of coins. “Where is the campesino?” she asks. “Buried.”
Sanchez says that almost five million people in Colombia are displaced, millions of vulnerable campesinos who have been robbed of their land, 30,000 people disappeared. “Colombia holds the record of everything. More displaced people than Iraq, more landmines.”
In 1994 Sanchez was sent to Putumayo which she said was not nearly as boring as Bogota. “Thousands of campesinos were growing coca crops, it was their way of life, they had no opportunities except for the illegal economy.”
It was here that Sanchez “fell in love again.” A human rights defender, a Catholic priest, was the one who inspired her this time. “He had a beautiful proposal, to try and get the campesinos to grow other crops.” But this proposal once again ended up in disaster with the arrival of the paramilitaries in 1998, who came in and started to kill the peasants.
“And of course the guerrillas reacted in a violent way too. And of course the campesinos were caught in the middle,” said Sanchez. “Father Alcides said: You can’t go with the paramilitaries, you can’t go with the guerrillas. You must stay neutral,” remembered Sanchez. “And of course he was killed. And the proposal was over.”
“But worse was yet to come,” said Sanchez. After being caught in the tug of war between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, the campesinos in Putumayo were to face a new threat, this time from the government. Before 1998, the War on Drugs, supported by the U.S. had been focusing mainly on the narco-traffickers. Now Pablo Escobar was dead, and Plan Colombia, the anti-drugs initiative between the Colombian and U.S. governments turned its focus to the producer, “to the little campesino.”
This program brought a backlash from the guerrillas who closed all transport on the roads and sunk the region into a “state of martial law,” said Sanchez. But the campesinos were not only being assaulted on the ground. “And in the air we have fumigation. Fumigation that was not only for the crops, it was for the beautiful Amazon and for the humans too.”
“And then I needed to leave” again, said Sanchez, because of her involvement in human rights and publishing articles in the U.S. telling the reality of what was going on in Colombia. “Sometimes the paramilitaries stood in front of the office, and we would say: There they are, right outside.”
Sanchez returned to Putumayo from France nine years ago, where she has been working tirelessly for the rights of the vulnerable people and women of the region. But the people in the communities where she works haven’t noticed the peace process. “They think peace won’t change anything. Right now there is still martial law in Putumayo. There has been no change on the ground.”
There are so many things that need to be addressed, according to Sanchez. “The disappeared, the fumigation. I have dedicated part of my life to denouncing Plan Colombia.”
“My head wants peace, but I have many questions,” she said. “What kind of peace is it without the participation of civil society, and women?”