On June 29 President Obama will meet with Colombia President Álvaro Uribe in Washington, DC for their first private encounter. On June 23, far from Washington, indigenous leader Marino Mestizo was murdered in Colombia. If the two heads of state discuss this one death, we could celebrate an advancement of U.S. policy toward Colombia and a small success in the fight against genocide. If they do not, Obama and Uribe’s commitment to human rights and peace in Colombia can be called into question by Colombian and U.S. citizens alike.
Colombia is home to 84 indigenous communities representing a wealth of cultural traditions, languages, scientific knowledge, and innovative approaches to what many term peace-building and community development. Twelve of these communities are on the brink of total extinction. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, who is the UN's Special Rapporteur on the human rights of indigenous peoples, notes that extinction of indigenous groups in Colombia stems from "the murder of their leaders, massacres, threats and the forced dispersal of their members.” Such killings, displacement and threats are carried out by myriad actors, including the Colombian military, paramilitaries and guerilla groups. It is often leaders such as Mestizo who are targeted; largeley, because of the respect and sway they command at a community level.
The killing of Mestizo is a profound loss for Colombia's indiegnous communities: He was a member of his local community council – a governing body of indigenous "reserves"; he led efforts to push drug-producers and illegal coca cultivators out of his region; he worked tirelessly to keep guerrilla forces out of his community; and he investigated crimes against his fellow citizens, including the kidnapping of seven indigenous leaders who worked for the local mayor.
Mestizo was a true peace-builder and for his commendable efforts he received three shots to the head on June 23. His gunmen wore ski masks and left his body on the side of a road near a small town of southwestern Colombia.
His death came on the heels of repeated death threats. He knew he was in danger. Mestizo once told his friends that if something were to happen to him they “should not despair but be stronger and continue struggling to ensure that their land was not taken over… that if he were to give his life, it would be given because of his commitment to the community.” The loss of Mestizo's exemplary life is a loss to his indigenous reserve and to everyone who stands for peace and human rights across the world.
His murder – and that of hundreds of other indigenous in recent years – is symptomatic of the genocide being carried out against Colombia’s indigenous communities. The government has done little or nothing to stop the continued impunity in crimes against indigenous leaders as well as failed to fully implement the rule of law and defend human rights.
When Obama meets with Uribe on Monday, discussion of Mestizo would help advance U.S. policy goals in Colombia. Marino Mestizo's life encompasses the many ways Washington could move U.S. policy toward Colombia in a more positive direction: Reduce impunity, protect civil society leaders, promote community-led coca eradication, and stop the ongoing genocide against indigenous peoples. And above all, a discussion covering these themes would also rightfully honor Marino Mestizo's memory and his life's work.
See this brief video about Marino Mestizo's murder:
Annalise Romoser is Associate Director for Public Policy and Advocacy at Lutheran World Relief. The views expressed in the article are her own.