Reckoning with Torture
June 27, 2011 By Diane Lefer
Stephen F. Rohde, Chair of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, holds the distinction of having confronted John Yoo twice. As you’ll recall, John Yoo was one of the torture apologists in the Bush administration who came up with tortured legal reasoning to justify the president’s violation of federal and international law. He became notorious for asserting that if the president felt it necessary, he could order a child’s testicles crushed in order to get the father to talk. The first time Rohde confronted him, giving Yoo the opportunity to amend his statement, the former Office of Legal Counsel mouthpiece still insisted torture was OK, as long as “limited to what is necessary.”
I’ll get to the second confrontation in a bit. And will also skip over all the evidence and expert opinion that torture doesn’t work if the goal is actionable intelligence, that it’s counterproductive in both the long and short term. Regimes — including the US — don’t torture in order to get information. Torture serves as an assertion of brute force and
power. But in Los Angeles, on June 26th–UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, at the “Reckoning with Torture” presentation organized by NRCAT (the National Religious Campaign Against Torture),the focus was on torture as evil, something that simply cannot and must not be allowed under any circumstances–even if in some as yet unknown universe it were to demonstrate actual utility.
With Rohde as moderator, almost 100 people met at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church where NRCAT board member Virginia Classick explained that the Senate Intelligence Committee is completing an exhaustive investigation and report on the US role in torture. As a first step to accountability, she said, the findings must be made public, and so Classick gathered signatures to take to the Senator’s office asking that the entire report be released.
NRCAT’s 10-minute video, Repairing the Brokenness: A Faithful Response to US-Sponsored Torture includes interviews with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders who offer the theological basis for demanding accountability when harm to others has been
A volunteer troupe of actors brought the fateful words of the torture enterprise to life as they read testimonies and documents: the outraged words of the JAG prosecutor at
Guantánamo who switched sides and supported the habeas petition of a child who
was mistreated throughout six years in detention though “there is no credible
evidence or legal basis to hold him”; the memo in which Office of Legal Counsel Jay Bybee gives a clinically detailed account of ten “techniques” he’s been asked to pass judgment on and he green lights each one, giving precise justifications for slamming a prisoner against the wall, confining him in a box too small for his body and then adding insects, and waterboarding him as long as it’s a “controlled acute episode”;the statement of Khalid al-Masri who was abducted by mistake, held and tortured in Afghanistan for five months, never received any explanation or apology and wrote “the policy of extraordinary rendition has a human face and it is my face”; excerpts from the autopsy reports of detainees who died in custody, with the same words and phrases repeated over and over, blunt force trauma, asphyxiation due to strangulation, asphyxiation
due to smothering and chest compression, blunt force trauma, blunt force injuries, compromise of respiratory function, fractures, contusions, hemorrhage into intestines, blunt force trauma, multiple blunt force injuries, homicide, homicide, homicide.
“This is not a comfortable Sunday afternoon program,”said Rohde. “This is a call to action. We will be judged for what was done in our name.”
What was done in our name according to speaker Dr. Aryeh Cohen, professor at American Jewish University and on the board of Rabbis for Human Rights, desecrated not only the bodies of the detainees, but desecrated God. “We manifest God’s presence in the world by recognizing that God is the guarantor of every person’s humanity.” For human beings to be created God’s image means “it is forbidden for anyone to demean or
destroy the image. There are longterm consequences for the person, for the person’s humanity, when the divine image is erased.”
Julie Gutman knows about long-term consequences. As executive director of the Program for Torture Victims (PTV), she leads the nonprofit organization that has offered comprehensive services and a “compassionate community” to torture survivors for 30 years. Southern California has the greatest concentration of refugees and survivors in the country. In chronic pain and profound depression they arrive at PTV having lost everything, Gutman said–their country, their language, their family, their
health. They arrive with no English and no money with “nothing but their physical and psychological scars of torture and their will to survive.” Though they come from at least 65 different countries and from many different cultures, “all share the history of unspeakable horror and the unshakeable desire to rebuild their lives.”
PTV provides complete assessment and help: medical attention, years of therapy for psychological wounds, legal assistance with asylum claims, help in reuniting families–whatever it takes “to empower them to reenter society and reclaim their identities.”
As people of conscience, she believes “one of the most profound contributions that we can make is help rebuild the lives of people who’ve sacrificed so much for the ideals we believe in, people at the forefront of the epic battle for human rights” such as the
client from Ivory Coast who was tortured, saw his wife and brother killed before
his eyes, all for the crime of wanting democracy in his country.
What about democracy in this country?
I think of the 200 men who were tortured in a Chicago police station; of Abner
Louima, tortured by police in Brooklyn, NY; of at least 25,000 Americans (including Wikileaks suspect Bradley Manning) held in longterm solitary confinement in our prisons and jails enduring such extreme sensory and social deprivation as to constitute torture.
Among the organizations present to offer information at the NRCAT event was School
of the Americas Watch (SOAW), represented by Sandra and Ulis Williams, there to remind us that torture has a long history in the US thanks to the military training programs of the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation/WHINSEC after Congress was poised to cut off funding). The School has trained Latin American military officers for decades. While our government
disputes whether torture was ever part of the actual curriculum, there’s no dispute that some of Latin America’s most notorious criminals not only graduated from SOAW/WHINSEC but have been invited back as instructors.
Colonel Pablo Belmar of Chile returned to teach about human rights though he had been directly implicated in the torture and murder of a United Nations official. Colombian Juan José Alfonso Vacca Parilia was implicated in massacres and assassinations and then, one year after directing a torture center, was invited to the School as a guest
instructor. After a US court found Gen. Hector Gramajo of Guatemala responsible
for numerous war crimes including the genocide unleashed against the indigenous
Maya population, he spoke at a School graduation ceremony as an “honored guest.”
The take-home message is that the US doesn’t just look the other way or condone
crimes against humanity, we reward the perpetrators. It’s a lot to reckon with.
But when I think about these crimes in Latin America, I think of the people of Argentina and Brazil and Chile who have begun to see the killers and torturers of the military regimes held accountable. I think, too, of the people of Colombia and Mexico who still
suffer, knowing that as long as the government and security forces enjoy impunity, killing and torture continue.
So we have to ask about impunity on the home front. US law makes torture (as well as cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment) illegal. The Geneva Conventions make it a war crime. At the start of this article, I said I’d tell you later about Stephen Rohde’s second confrontation with John Yoo. It happened when they debated at UC-Irvine.
“I reminded him that after the initial Nuremberg trials, Nazi lawyers and judges were charged,” Rohde told us. “I looked John Yoo in the face and said ‘Being a lawyer does not insulate you from being a war criminal.’”
But for now, this is what impunity looks like:
Dick Cheney who bragged about going to the "dark side" trumpets
the false claim (i.e. lie) that Osama bin Laden was tracked down thanks to
John Yoo who perverted the law for political purposes now
teaches on the faculty of Boalt Hall, the law school of UC Berkeley;
Jay Bybee who clinically recounted the details of torture before inventing justifications for these illegal acts now sits on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the same
court to which eminently qualified Goodwin Liu, a jurist of integrity, could not
be appointed because of Republican opposition.
And this is what impunity means: the evil practice may continue. David
Petraeus, newly confirmed to lead the CIA, used euphemisms to affirm that
torture may be useful in emergencies.
President Obama has said he doesn’t want to look back or cast blame. I admire the
position of Obama the human being who lets go of recrimination and seeks
reconciliation. But Obama the chief executive has a duty to enforce the law and
assure the nation that offenders are held accountable.
In the NRCAT video, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Why? Because when we are aware of bad things that happen, we have a role in fixing them.
It’s up to us to insist on justice, repentance, and the firm commitment of “No more.” For that, we are all responsible.
After Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act forty years ago, Dad wrote an article about it--very excited that workers would finally be protected. So it's strange for me to writing about the status of OSHA today:
Should Your Job Kill You?
LA Progressive June 23, 2011 By Diane Lefer
“Regulation kills jobs.” We keep hearing that mantra from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What became clear at the forum called on Tuesday evening by the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health is that we need to say loud and clear that “Lack of regulation kills people.”
According to “ Dying at Work in California,” recently released by SoCalCOSH and Oakland-based Worksafe, 40 years after President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), an estimated 6,500 workers in California die from chronic exposure to chemical, biological, or physical agents each year and in 2009 (the latest year for which data is available) there were over 300 confirmed worker deaths and 491,000 reported work-related injuries.( The report can be downloaded here)
The evening of June 21, SoCalCOSH coordinator Shirley Alvarado-del Aguila briefed workers and activists on the status of Cal/OSHA, the state enforcement agency which as been long plagued by poor training, slow (or nonexistent) responses to complaints of hazards, and understaffing. (According to “Dying at Work,”California has one of the lowest staffing levels per capita in the U.S. There are more Fish and Game Wardens than
there are Cal/OSHA inspectors.) “The system is broken,” said Alvarado, but “there’s new leadership. Ellen Widess won’t attack Cal/OSHA. She’ll hold people accountable.”
Prospects aren’t so rosy on the federal level, said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Agencies including OSHA are indeed under attack. Even after Obama’s election when Democrats controlled both House and Senate and “the time seemed right to strengthen OSHA,” the proposed legislation “couldn’t even get a vote on the Senate floor.” And that was in the immediate aftermath of explosions at the Tesoro refinery in Washington State (which killed five workers and could have been prevented) and the Kleen Energy Systems power plant in Connecticut (where five died); the 30 miners killed in the worst US mine disaster in decades (at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine which had been cited by federal regulators for“substantial violations” of safety protocols no fewer than eight times during the previous 12 months); and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, with the House taken over by Republicans, “there’s no chance for improved legislation.”
Of course Obama’s executive branch could write and implement new regulations. Safeguards now are often weak, enforcement is lax, and penalties for noncompliance are minimal. Many worksites and occupations fall outside the scope of the original law while since 1970, the American workplace has evolved. (In Nixon’s day, who’d ever heard of carpal tunnel or computer vision syndrome? Or solar panel installation? Or balers for
But instead of moving forward, said O’Connor, “We have to fight back against bad
ideas.” Ideas like the REINS Act–the “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act” which was introduced in the House. If passed by House and Senate, it would prevent the implementation of any new“economically significant” regulatory proposal until approved by both House and Senate. The regulations could therefore be stopped by doing nothing, by not bringing them to a vote.
Obama’s OSHA has already backed off and withdrawn two proposals on health and safety standards–one of which merely restored the original standard that Reagan had weakened. In addition, O’Connor said, the OIRA–Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs which was created by Reagan to stop regulation–reviews every proposed new rule and even if it doesn’t stop it, can delay it indefinitely. OIRA delays are already having impact on OSHA.
O’Connor urged more work on the local level, citing a statewide campaign in Massachusetts to protect workers hired through temp agencies and a success in Austin, Texas where–after seven construction workers died of heat-related illness–the City Council mandated 10-minute rest breaks every four hours on construction sites.
Here in California, many people are aware of the danger high temperatures pose to farmworkers. The heat-related death in 2008 of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez after nine hours of work in the blazing sun spurred demands for water, shade, and rest. Chloe Osmer, California Labor Federation campaign coordinator working on behalf of carwash employees know it’s an issue for these workers as well who may work 8-10 hours in the hot sun. (Standing in the sun in-between customers does not constitute rest!) The
CLEAN Carwash Campaign has taken water bottles and information about heat stress
to 100 carwashes around Los Angeles and has helped workers file OSHA complaints
about other problems as well, including the lack of protective gear when they
use sulfuric acid to clean rims.
At first, she said, Cal/OSHA didn’t respond to complaints or return phone calls. With advice and support from SoCalCOSH, she led a group of workers right into the Cal/OSHA district office and finally got some attention.
“OSHA is a tool for workers to make their workplaces better and also use it as an organizing tool,” she said “If one man says ‘my hands are burning and cracking,’ you find how to get him to take action with his coworkers. Health and safety is not a side issue, it’s part of an organizing campaign, getting workers to take collective action, to become experts and do trainings for other workers.”
Attendees shared problems and recommendations. Lisa Fu of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative pointed out that workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals but because they are considered independent contractors, the salons are not inspected. Domestic workers and day laborers aren’t covered either. And day laborers aren’t just
picked up at Home Depot to work for a few hours at a private household. They may
be contracted to a single construction site for weeks or even months. Angela
Alvarez, a lead organizer with the Workers Health Program of IDEPSCA (Instituto
de Educación Popular del Sur de California) and new member of the SoCalCOSH
advisory board, just heard from a worker whose thumb was almost sliced off on
the job. He was immediately let go. After treatment at the emergency room, he
was told he would need surgery to regain use of his hand. He’s left without work
and without money to pay for the surgery. The boss told him if there was an
accident, it was his own fault.
(The blame game gets played a lot. The Injury Illness Protection Program requires safety training for workers in a language they understand. But many employers reportedly just hand out a sign-in sheet and then use the signatures to tell injured workers this means you knew not to act unsafely and are responsible for the accident.)
A day laborer named Fernando said when he worked on a construction project for the US Navy in San Diego, they made sure he wore a safety harness and goggles. Here in LA, he said, no one cares about him. He works on sites where there’s no protective gear.
The difficulty of regulating anything in an environment of multiple contractors, and subcontractors came up again and again on construction sites and elsewhere. In a single warehouse, for example, the logistics workers may come from as many as six different staffing agencies. If there’s an safety violation or an injury, it is often difficult to
unravel who exactly is the employer of record.
Participants came up with recommendations for Alvarado del-Aguila to take to Ellen Widess, most often citing:
Coordinated enforcement with other agencies.
Employers who violate OSHA regulations are often in violation of Wage and Hour
rules and Workmens Comp rules as well. A more comprehensive look should also be
taken at specific industries where abuses are widespread.
Better training for OSHA staff.
Targeted hiring of culturally competent inspectors. The hiring freeze should be lifted so that complaints can be investigated in a timely manner. Cases now take so long,
workers don't see the point in filing. More bilingual inspectors are needed as
immigrants predominate in the most hazardous jobs. Written materials about OSHA
and workers rights as well as safety training must be available in the language
the workers understand. (Participants reported cases in which managers served as
interpreters during safety inspections by OSHA--hardly the best way to get
workers to speak openly about working conditions.) And Mark McGrath from
the Adult Film Industry Subcommittee, UCLA School of Public Health, added that
cultural competency includes respect for all marginalized groups, including
workers in the adult film industry, "a very at-risk and transient population"
who need better health protection, such as mandatory condom use. "If they use
their bodies in labor, Cal/OSHA should protect them without moral judgments."
Workers should have a way of arranging meetings with inspectors away from the
jobsite where they may not feel it's safe to air their complaints.
Protection against retaliation.
Workers who file OSHA complaints now risk being fired, reported to immigration
authorities, or having their hours cut or schedule changed to a less desirable
shift or location. According to "Dying at Work," workers who've file complaints
about retaliation have waited as long as seven years for a decision.
Expanding who is covered.
Stiffer fines and sanctions. When nothing is done to correct problems or punish violators, workers stop reporting. "Fines are ridiculously low," said Jessica Martinez of
the national Council, and so corporations pay them as an ordinary cost of doing
business. Under Cal/OSHA, the minimum fine for violations is $5,000--very little
for a big corporation and certainly inadequate when a known hazard leads to a
fatality. "It's nothing to a corporation." In practice, on appeal, even the $5,000 is often reduced.
Given our economic woes and high unemployment, the importance of advocacy groups and community organizations becomes very clear. Without support and backup, workers are less likely to demand their rights and risk retaliation at the very time when employers are tempted to cut corners.
Sometimes we prevail: Before the meeting ended, Chloe Osmer reported that carwash workers who'd been cheated of money had won an $80,000 wage and hour settlement.
The next morning, at the rail car loading facility at the BP Refinery in Carson, an
employee was fatally injured on the job. His name was not released.
I want to share this excellent article by the always knowledgeable, committed, wonderful Natalia Fajardo.
Water Inspires Strange Bedfellows
How a Colombian city united against gold greed
by Natalia Fajardo
BUCARAMANGA, COLOMBIA—Spirits were high last month among students,
environmentalists, businesspeople, and politicians as the news came in that
Greystar Resources had revoked its application for a large-scale open-pit gold
mine in the mountains of northeastern Colombia.
But just twelve hours later, Greystar’s intentions became clear—it was
withdrawing that application to bring in a new one for a redesigned, underground
The short-lived but significant victory for those against the mine was
possible thanks to the tireless efforts of the broadest, most diverse coalition
in Colombia’s recent history. This coalition brought together an engineer’s
association, committed student activists, the head of the local business
federation, NGOs, teachers, environmentalists, and water utility employees.
Foreign investments in Colombia’s mining sector grew slowly in the 1990s, but
in the eight years of former President Alvaro Uribe’s regime it skyrocketed in
part due to a perception of safer exploration conditions. Even the Canadian
government showed interest in making Colombia prime for investment needs by
having the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) draft Colombia’s mining law of 2001, granting generous privileges to foreign companies. Uribe’s disciple, current President Juan Manuel Santos, has made resource extraction a centerpiece of his economic plan, deeming it the main “motor” of development and plans to follow the lead of Chile and Peru, two truly mining-oriented countries.
Santos’ strategy includes generous tax breaks to mining companies and
modifying laws to be more “investor friendly.” It also involves persecuting
traditional small miners—some who lack a mining title—aligning them with the
neo-paramilitaries and guerrillas who mine illegally to fund their “dirty” work.
Mainstream media plays into this dynamic by focusing on illegal mining
but remaining silent about the large-scale corporate takeover of Colombia’s
resources. Currently, 40 per cent of Colombia´s entire area is under mining
permits, some of it on environmentally protected land or Indigenous and
Afro-Colombian communal territories.
Into this mining binge came Greystar Resources, a Vancouver-based junior
exploration company. (Junior exploration companies typically explore potential
mining sites, deal with permit processes, and then sell their acquisition to an
actual mining company, making financial speculation their real business.) Among
Greystar’s investors are the International Financing Corporation—the World Bank’s
private financing arm, and JP Morgan.
The company has mineral rights over 74,000 acres of land in the mountains of
California and Vetas, two small and remote towns forgotten by the government,
where Greystar has invested in infrastructure and had brought promises of
employment and progress. Many locals in that area badly want the mine.
The project is just 40 kilometers northeast of Bucaramanga, Colombia’s
fifth-largest city. Greystar plans to dig out an estimated nine million ounces
of gold, making its mine one of the largest gold deposits in South America.
But that gold sits under the Santurban paramo, a tropical version of high moorlands. This unique ecosystem supplies water for Bucaramanga and 21 towns. The proposed use of cyanide at the Greystar mine caught the attention of the region’s citizens, who see it as a major threat to their “liquid of life” source: water. In fact, mineral extraction was legally banned in paramos in the amendment to article 34 of the Colombian Mining Law in 2010.
Besides the national effort to render all paramos mine-free zones, various
environmental organizations in the Bucaramanga area worked for years to have
Santurban declared a protected area, which would exclude mining, logging and
cattle grazing from its grounds. More recently, opposition to the mining project
gained ground when university students and other environmentalists joined the
cause, concerned not only about the threat to their local water supply, but also
about the sovereignty and long-term economic implications this mine represented
within the national mining policy. They realized that the need for water was
shared by everyone, regardless of their political views, and they framed their
anti-mining campaign through water’s unifying lens.
The coalition started growing and taking a new shape when the municipal water
utility workers union joined. Then they sought support from the state assembly
leadership, where their calls landed on receptive ears; the assembly’s
president, a member the leftist Democratic Alternative Pole (Polo) party,
publicly denounced the mine.
Following this victory, the economic federations of Bucaramanga, which,
besides understanding the intrinsic environmental value of the Santurban paramo,
came to the conclusion that damaging the city’s water source would have a more
negative financial impact in the long term than the ephemeral gains of mining.
The state engineers association also opposed the project. At this point, it
became clear the general public sentiment in the region was that water was worth
more than gold.
“Take to the streets in support of your treasure, the Santurban paramo,”
called out members of the coalition during a public demonstration on February
24, 2011. Previous protests had seen low turnouts, but the issue became so
well-known and the opposition so diverse, that over 30,000 Bucaramangans marched
in their streets, petitioning the Environment Ministry to deny Greystar’s
license application. Around this time other segments of the government,
including the Attorney General, publicly denounced the mine.
With all eyes on Bucaramanga, the ministry held a public hearing on
Greystar’s case. There was a clear division between the small crowd from
California and Vetas that was bused there by the company to support the project,
and the large, mostly urban majority opposing the mine.
The majority of politicians, most prominently the state’s governor,
explicitly called to shut down the project for its technical flaws and risks it
posed to the community. Tensions ran high as the hearing progressed. Two
attendees started a fight, and the ministry ended the hearing early. Media coverage focused on the fight rather than on
the near unanimous resistance to the gold mine.
The hearing was a public disgrace to the company, whose stock value dropped
30 per cent. To top it all off, Colombia’s energy minister and even Serafino
Locono, a prominent oil-and-mining CEO, highlighted Greystar project’s flaws at a miner’s conference in
Greystar decided to preempt the environment ministry’s decision on the
company’s license application, and withdraw its request for the mining
operation, only to announce later that Greystar was reconfiguring its
project to “address the concerns of the community.”
This company is just one of a group of businesses after Santurban’s gold. Its
counterparts include Galway Resources and Ventana Gold
Corp, recently purchased by energy billionaire Eike Batista. The
success of these companies will likely be impacted by Greystar’s fate.
Laura Galvis, a student member of the anti-mining coalition, says that the
group’s lack of hierarchy, its clarity in its position on the issue, and its
ability to take an angle that resonated with everyone were essential to the
recent success. “It’s not just about the environment, it’s about our very
survival,” she explained.
Coalition founders worked hard to bring everyone to the table, and found a
common point of interest with their traditional political opponents in the
belief that the public’s right to clean water takes precedence over private
interests. Through educational campaigns and public demonstrations, they slowly
This broad alliance against the mining project is not quite a movement, for
it rose to meet a temporary need, and its members have little in common beyond
their rejection of the mining operations. The coalition is a something of an
interim union aided by current elections, with politicians seeking supporters.
Whatever its nature, this grassroots experience opened the door to a multi-party
dialogue rarely seen in Colombia.
The most committed segment of the coalition—the students and
environmentalists who oppose large-scale multinational mining in general—want to
move the argument beyond the threat to Bucaramanga’s water supply. They see a
need to adapt to the reconfiguration proposed by Greystar, and to deepen the
debate to include other harmful effects the mine would bring, such as a
deterioration of the area’s agricultural web and the loss of a local supply of
gold for Bucaramanga’s thriving jewelry industry.
Publicly, the coalition’s success in bringing the Santurban case into the eye
of the media hurricane has forced Greystar to change its strategy. Whether the
coalition is able to stop the mining project compltely and protect its beloved
paramo remains to be seen.
Natalia Fajardo is a mining consultant for Cedetrabajo, a political
analysis institute in Colombia. Cedetrabajo is a member of Reclame, Colombia’s national network of organizations
facing large-scale mining.
This article was originally published by Toward Freedom.
Duc Ta's appeals seem to be exhausted. He is simply waiting for
his next visit to the parole board in 2013, hoping for a better outcome. In the
meantime, he says he's at peace because even if he ends up dying in prison, he
feels his life has not been wasted.
He was especially happy over a letter he recently received.
Years ago, when he first went to prison, a teacher in Denver who saw Juvies
had the class write to him. He began exchanging letters with these teenage
Colorado gangbangers and felt confused and humbled -- how could he give them
advice? There was a girl who was into drugs and her brother was in prison for
murder and her whole family situation was very messed up. They wrote each other
frequently for a while and then he didn't hear from her. So you can imagine how
thrilled he was to get a letter from her recently enclosing wedding photos.
She's now an RN, just married, and wrote to thank him for all the advice and
encouragement he gave her.
He has reached a point of spirituality that amazes me, cleansing himself of all bitterness and anger over what he's endured.
He said Leslie Neale is now making a new documentary about Forgiveness -- victims of violent crime forgiving and forging connection with the perpetrators. What a beautiful project...she is just the best! This resonated so much with conversations in Colombia (see those posts, below). I am impressed and interested in how Duc holds no rancor against the system that has treated him so irrationally and harshly. I've met other guys
who actually did commit violent crimes and get out of prison and they are filled with rage over how they were treated. The brutality of prison life becomes so overwhelming that they don't even think about the acts they committed that put them there to begin with. The system must be held to account, but Duc's way offers a healthier outcome for the individual. He knows that anger will only hurt him.
So here's what pisses me off this particular weekend on his (and others') behalf:
He just met the Buddhist chaplain who has apparently been going to Corcoran for 12 years, during all the time that he was denied Buddhist services and had his prayer beads confiscated and had to go to a board to get them returned. The chaplain was consistently denied access to the Asian Buddhists on C yard. Apparently, she's only talked to a couple of white guys who became interested in Buddhism in prison. Duc will now try to do outreach to other Buddhists in prison and arrange for regular services.
The visiting room was almost empty because all Hispanics have been on lockdown for weeks. There were some violent incidents between Norteños and Sureños and since the corrections officers can't distinguish one Latino from another, all Latinos and Mexican
nationals are on lockdown.
All self-help programs seem to be eliminated --budget cuts?
I guess he was thinking about death because for months he experienced excruciating headaches and his requests to see a doctor were ignored. Finally they sent him for tests. For one thing, he had an infection stemming from a wisdom tooth. When they extracted the tooth and treated the infection, the headaches stopped, but they also found a spot on his brain and in his lungs as well as an enlarged heart. The spot on his lung may still be from that bout with Valley Fever and the surgery he had and the spot on his brain
they want to think was from the infection that's now been treated. They are checking his heart again and he's supposed to have a telemed conference soon. But for now, he's just happy to be free of pain. He usually turns down even aspirin because once you get a reputation for seeking painkillers, the prison authorities always suspect any medical complaint from you is just a dodge to get drugs. His main complaint about being sick was that he didn't have the energy to accomplish anything. If his life is not to be wasted, he feels he has to do something constructive every day, so that his time in prison is meaningful time.
Prison certainly knows how to make people waste time. Corcoran has a new system where you make appointments to visit a prisoner. If you don't get an appointment, you can show up and take your chances that they'll let you in after 11:00 am. I was lucky enough to get a 10:30 appointment so I drove three hours and saw all the cars parked along the road, people who'd waited all night to be first in line hoping to get in without an appointment. I was at the visitors room at 10:15 to find they were only getting around to processing the 9:30 appointments. I did manage to be admitted before noon which meant Duc was brought to visiting before the 12:00 count which would have held us up a long time. The visiting room closed at 2:45 so we didn't have a lot of time to talk and I was left wondering if those people who'd waited all night got to visit their loved ones at all.
as published today by New Clear Vision.
"Theatre Festival!” said the taxi driver. “Spending money on theatre when people
don’t have food to eat! What for?”
That’s what I hoped to find out from May 20-30 in
Barrancabermeja, Colombia where I would offer a series of writing workshops and
seek to answer questions of my own: How could theatre contribute to peace in a
country where the armed conflict has gone on for six decades? How did the
violence come to an end in this particular city — center of the country’s oil
industry, once the site of battles pitting guerrilla forces against the
Colombian army, and paramilitary death squads against civilians?
What did it mean to hold an International Theatre Festival for Peace when
till 2010, during the eight years of the Uribe administration, anyone who talked
about peace or a political solution to the country’s woes risked being called a
terrorist — a label that could target you for assassination?
When I visited Colombia in 2008, the human rights community in Bogotá seemed
demoralized and diminished. The only people I saw protesting openly in the
capital were those whose patriotism could not be questioned: family members of
soldiers and police held captive by the FARC guerrillas. What I did not realize
at the time was that in the most profound sense, peace is more than the
cessation of war. Though dissent was silenced in many ways, people were coming
together in nonviolent social movements to create and sustain a culture of
peace, one that would start at society’s roots, in the community and in the
In Barrancabermeja I would see how theatre and the arts are reweaving the
torn social fabric in communities traumatized by terror, violence, and social
* * *
Barrancabermeja is a city of contradictions, typified perhaps by two
monuments. One, the wire-sculpture of Cristo Petrolero that presides over the
contaminated pool in front of Colombia’s major oil refinery. (Not even Christ
can clean these waters, say the locals.) The other is the monument to Father
Camilo Torres, the guerrilla priest, who fell in battle during his first combat
experience alongside the fighters of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional, the
ELN. Today, while violence rages unabated in the rural districts nearby,
national police and soldiers are everywhere in Barrancabermeja, providing
security rather than peace, but in an unlikely show of coexistence, the monument
stands. Children slide on its sloping metal base, and the priest’s words are
memorialized: “The constant revolutionary struggle of the people will lead to
Another paradox: the Festival — the first major cultural event this city of
more than 200,000 had ever seen — was born in one of its most deprived and
stigmatized neighborhoods, Comuna 7, populated first by squatters, families
fleeing violence in the countryside only to find themselves again under attack.
The most painful and notorious incident took place during a Mother’s Day
celebration in 1998. Rightwing paramilitary death squads swept in killing some
young men on the spot and disappearing others while the Colombian military stood
by and failed to intervene. The community still waits for justice. Twenty
families still wait to recover the bodies of their children. But the community
organized itself to resist violence and oppression. People once perceived as
victims harnessed their own disciplined, principled, creative imagination to
present alternatives to the status quo. They created institutions to strengthen
community and civil society and to educate children for social responsibility by
claiming, using, and expanding cultural space.
In 2007, Yolanda Consejo Vargas, a dancer and theatre artist born in Mexico,
and her husband, Italian-born director Guido Ripamonti, brought their itinerant
theatre company to Colombia. Inspired by what they saw in Comuna 7, they decided
to stay. Yolanda and Guido began offering classes in theatre and literature and
dance as well as training their students to go into primary schools to share
what they’d learned. A year ago, Yolanda had the idea that the Centro Cultural
Horizonte Ciudadela Educativa should organize an international festival with the
entire city invited to attend all events for free. The logistics were daunting,
starting with how to feed and house the 400 participants who agreed to attend —
including, from Los Angeles, me and my Colombian-born collaborator, Hector
Aristizábal, who would perform our play, Viento Nocturno.
Comuna 7, this most marginalized of neighborhoods, reached out and formed
alliances and gained support from every sector: the oil company, the mayor’s
office, the church, the television station, regional peace and development
agencies, hotel owners, schools, and more. Not a single theatre exists in
Barrancabermeja so Yolanda and Guido got a tent large enough to seat 800 people
and up it went on the lawn between the city’s only library and its university.
Most nights, it was standing room only. A women’s committee cooked and delivered
hundreds of freshly prepared meals to the festival site every day. Yolanda’s
students rehearsed for the premiere of “Preludio,” an intensely physical,
imagistic, often abstract representation of what they and their families had
endured and how they had chosen the path to peace and reconciliation. Artists
arrived from 14 countries to present 50 performances and lead 20 different
workshops. Activists and academics offered presentations and discussion groups,
while community groups from all over Colombia presented their own plays and
shared experiences with each other and with the international guests — notably
the Mexican theatre companies coming from the borderlands of narco-wars and mass
graves, where, in the words of director Medardo Treviño, “violence, jaws
dripping blood, ran whipping through the streets of my town.” His troupe members
begged, borrowed, and pawned their possessions to finance the trip to Colombia,
intent on learning how Colombians hold onto a moral center and a vision of
humanity and keep on creating in spite of the conflict raging around them.
* * *
The young people of Teatro Encarte created Voces del Barrio, a play that
powerfully brings to life the world of sicarios, the teenage assassins who made
Medellín so notorious in the 1980s and 1990s. “Yes, there’s still violence in
some parts of town, including where my mother lives,” said Wilfer Giraldo, an
articulate and personable group member. “But Medellín is a beautiful city and
people shouldn’t be afraid to visit. The culture of the city has been
“Your play focuses on the violence,” I said.
“So people won’t forget how bad it used to be. If people remember, they won’t
let it happen again.”
Wilfer also told me that before he joined Teatro Encarte he was resentful and
anti-social. “Onstage, I like playing characters who are bitter and mean. I see
what they’re like, and then I can’t allow myself to be that way.” Like the city
itself, he said, “I’ve changed.”
* * *
“I don’t want to sound too optimistic,” said Carlos Lozano, director of the
leftwing weekly, Voz, as he spoke about the possibility of a political — rather
than military — solution to Colombia’s conflict. “Now we see some positive
spaces opening up, a moment in Colombian life [since the start of the Santos
administration] when grassroots organizations have a different relationship with
As he spoke, it sounded so familiar: a president who says good things while
old policies continue; a corrupt and recalcitrant Congress intent on blocking
real change; a government that spends six times as much on a soldier as on the
education of a child.
“The ruling classes of Colombia — both main parties — have refused to address
agrarian reform, hunger, poverty. For all the military force, and all the money
from the United States” — more than $6 billion, I’ll note — “the guerrilla
movement has not been crushed in 60 years of fighting because the causes still
Lozano sees government policy going off in all directions at once. Five
million Colombians have been violently driven from their land and their homes.
“The plan is to help people return to their property,” he said, “but at the same
time, the national plan for development is all about privatization, the
concentration of land in the hands of agribusiness and foreign transnational
investment. The way the government sees it, small farms don’t hire anyone and
plantations do. Self-sufficiency loses out to employment statistics. And if the
Free Trade Agreement goes through, the situation will get worse.
“What good does it do to reach a peace accord with the guerrilla if at the
same time you’re deepening the wretched poverty of the country?”
He urged people to take advantage of the lessening of repression. “The way to
go is people in the streets. Unity among the popular and social organizations
and the left. We have to get into the street with a platform. Peace won’t come
from the Casa de Nariño,” the presidential palace, he concluded.
* * *
Small farms taken over by African palm plantations for the production of
biofuels. That was the subject community members chose for their experiment with
Forum Theatre, a technique first developed by the late Brazilian theatre artist
and activist Augusto Boal. Hector, along with Till Bauman from Berlin, Germany
and members of Bogotá’s Corporación Otra Escuela, helped participants create a
play. At the end of the week, the group performed in the tent and then invited
the public to intervene in the drama. Spectators in the audience became
“spect-actors,” replacing cast members on the stage, replaying scenes,
rehearsing for real life as they tried out different ways of responding to the
situation: What could they say? What could they do? How could they offer
* * *
African palm is not the only reason Colombians have to leave their homes.
María Fernanda Medina Gutiérrez was three years old when the Colombian Air
Force, acting on behalf of Occidental Petroleum and with inaccurate information
provided by the US, dropped fragmentation bombs on her village. Hermelinda
Tulivila Díaz remembers what happened in 2003 when the army came to her
community on the indigenous Sicuane reservation and gave people 30 minutes to
get out or be killed.
Since then Hermelinda’s father was killed by guerrillas. Three of María
Fernanda’s brothers were killed: two by persons unknown, one — who was not
charged with anything — was taken away barefoot by Colombian soldiers and
executed outside of town without a trial. After eight years of displacement, her
family has returned to their village but they no longer own their land.
Today, both teens participate in a theatre program funded by the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees. According to Paul David Pinzón who leads the group
Routes of Orientation through Theatre (R.O.T.), there is an ongoing humanitarian
crisis in the Arauca region. Tensions reached a boiling point as displaced
communities of small farmers crowded into a zone populated by indigenous
peoples, and where soldiers now outnumber civilians. In 2007 and 2008, the UN
office offered training for community leaders, preparing them to demand their
rights be respected and enforced. The program backfired by making community
leaders easy to identify, marking them for assassination. The UN shifted gears
and began the R.O.T. program for young people to ease racial and cultural
tensions, strengthen the community to help youth resist forced recruitment into
the guerrilla ranks, and create a culture that rejects domestic and gender-based
“Theatre tries to get us to trust each other more,”
said Hermelinda. She speaks quietly, shyly, and I think I can hear Sicuane
sentence structure and accent in her Spanish. When she talks about the theatre
group, her first friendly connections ever with non-indigenous kids, and the
traditional dances she performs for them, her eyes light up and the words pour
out, sentences punctuated with lots of chévere! and bacán! (great, far out,
Hermelinda ran away from home to escape a forced marriage and took refuge
with a staff member at the school where she continues her studies. She gets up
at four to make breakfast and do chores. After class and every Saturday and
Sunday she goes to her job at a local store. When does she find time for the
theatre group? At night, she says. She wouldn’t miss it.
Rehearsing at night is not the problem, María Fernanda said. “The difficult
part is taking the road to get to the theatre. There was a car bomb in Caño
Limón the other day. The next day there was another attack on the army. I was
huddled against a car when the bullets were flying. The car turned out to be
full of explosives, but even so, I had to protect myself from the bullets.”
But “in the theatre, I feel free,” she said. “I express myself. It’s like
finding a sense of nobility after all the years of feeling unsheltered, not
knowing where to go or what to do.”
* * *
While the country waits for peace, Father Leonel Narváez is sowing the seeds.
Sociologist, Catholic priest, and founder of ES.PE.RE, Escuelas de Perdón y
Reconciliación (Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation) his talk was one of
the first events of the festival. “Forgiveness is a phenomenal religious
resource,” he began, “but it must also be a political virtue.” Without it, “the
moment comes when society is no longer viable.”
To people still traumatized, still grieving, he offers a new way of thinking
about forgiveness. “To forgive does not mean to forget. Justice must be done,
and reparations. That’s the duty of the Colombian government.” But too many of
us, he warned, are stuck with a tape repeating in our brains, playing over and
over, bitter hatred engendering rage and then revenge. That must change.
“Forgiveness can exist without reconciliation,” he said “Self-reparation, that’s
for us to do for ourselves. In forgiving, I give myself a wonderful gift. I
reconstitute my inner self.”
A woman named Doña Emilia stood with tears in her eyes. “Forgiveness? I don’t
know it. Tell me what color it is as I don’t see it anywhere.”
“We honor your grief,” he said. He explained that people come to his programs
for many hours as no one can be quickly or easily relieved of so much pain. “In
Colombia, we have suffered. We walk down the street and we see the people who’ve
killed our family members. But we need to do this.
“Think of it as personal aesthetics: People who don’t forgive are ugly and
wrinkled. Their hair falls out,” said the bald priest, aiming for and getting
A man stood, confused. “Father, I always thought forgiveness was me going to
that person and accepting him as my brother in spite of what he did.”
“Forgiveness is not about taking the offender by the hand.”
“So what you’re saying, do I understand this right? It’s a matter of personal
“It’s something we in Colombia have to work at every day,” said Father
Leonel. “If we don’t, the germs that breed violence will erupt again in a
perpetual cycle of bitterness and revenge. Besides the culture of peace, we need
a culture of forgiveness, a gift to pass down in families from parent to
* * *
None of this is easy.
“Forgive?” some people told me. “It’s too hard.”
María Fernanda admitted, “Deep inside, a person holds bitter feelings that
can turn to rage.”
But they came to Barrancabermeja anyway, intent on walking the road to
The First International Theatre Festival for Peace taught many lessons and
not the least was this: When Yolanda’s dream came true, we learned that
sometimes the difficult, the improbable, the quixotic can be realized. Through
ten days of laughter and tears and reflection and art, we were there: we
witnessed a utopian vision come vividly, vibrantly, to life.
Here's the first of several reports from Barrancabermeja. This came out today in LA Progressive.
June 14, 2011 By Diane Lefer
Colombian Conflict: Three Young Women in the Crossfire
“When I was three years old, the
army bombed my village,” the girl told me. She was sixteen, which meant the
bombing happened in 1998.
“You’re from Santo Domingo?” I had
protested that very bombing in demonstrations in front of the Los Angeles
headquarters of Occidental Petroleum. The Colombian Air Force, intent on killing
guerrillas who threatened Oxy’s operations, had relied on inaccurate information
provided by the US. At least 17 civilians were killed and many others injured.
Now I was talking to one of the survivors. “You were so young,” I said. “Do you
“A little,” said María Fernanda. “I
remember my father lifting me onto his back. Like this, I crouched holding his
shoulders. And I remember the sounds, the shells coming through the palm
We met in Barrancabermeja, Colombia
where I was offering writing workshops and she was performing in the First
International Theatre Festival for Peace which from May 20-30 brought us
together with 400 artists and community members from different regions of
Colombia and from 14 countries around the world, everyone committed to social
Actress and activist Silvana Gariboldi from Argentina was impressed to see so many men involved. “In my country, it’s only women in the social movements.” I was impressed by the young man wearing a T-shirt denouncing the physical and mental abuse of women, and by the fact that many of Colombia’s broad-based programs for justice and human rights are focusing efforts today on the status of women.
Red Juvenil (Youth Network) of Medellín, for example, well known for encouraging young people to declare themselves conscientious objectors, has just initiated a three-year campaign linking women’s issues to all other campaigns. With a call to “Disobey and resist all forms of domination!”, the Network is organizing women (and men) to
oppose not just militarism, racism, and economic exploitation but also machismo,
seeing the evils as interconnected.
Women are not the only ones to suffer in six decades of armed conflict in Colombia but they, along with the children, have borne the brunt of displacement as some five million Colombians have been violently driven from their homes. Even where families remain intact, years of terror and trauma and social disorganization contribute to violence in
the home and have limited opportunities for girls.
When I read Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir, Even Silence Has an End, about her years held captive by FARC guerrillas, it was clear she has no sympathy for their movement, but she couldn’t help but note the number of young girls in the guerrilla ranks who
chose the FARC seeing it as better than prostitution, the only other option they
thought open to them.
I thought of that in Barrancabermeja when I met 12-year-old Julieth. According to her teacher, she is the outstanding student in her entire rural school system. She is also outgoing, friendly and popular with everyone in town–including the classmates, some
younger than herself, who one after another have turned to prostitution. Julieth
is determined that will not be her life but I can’t help but worry. In her community, education goes only through middle school. Even if she finds a way to move to a city for high school, how will she support herself? Where will she live? What will she eat?
In my writing workshop Julieth invented a new consumer product: magnificient magical shoes, very pretty and very cheap. Any girl who wears them starts to think of love and not of money. She becomes incapable of selling her body.
Hermelinda ran away rather than accept the future that had been chosen for her. This teenager from the indigenous Sicuane community grew up on the resguardo (reservation). In 2003, he army came looking for guerrillas and gave people 30 minutes to get out or be killed. During the same military action, soldiers raped and killed indigenous people in settlements nearby.
“We lived somewhere for two years, then somewhere else for a year and a half,” Hermelinda said. Her education was interrupted until her people were able to return home. But then her family decided to marry her off.
“Girls get married at eleven or twelve years. At thirteen they have babies,”she told me. “I said no.”
Hermelinda took refuge with a staff member at the school where she wanted to continue her studies.
The festival drew participants from Canada and Chile and Cuba and France and Germany and Israel and Italy and Venezuela. Many came from Mexico, including theatre scholar Rocío Galicia who has been studying the narratives now coming out of the US-Mexico border areas plagued by violence. When asked who she thinks is murdering hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, she offered her opinion: Impunity made the killings multiply. “People saw they can do it and get away with it.” Now there
are many different motives, different killers.“Because of impunity, the femicide has taken on a life of its own.”
Colombians know about impunity.
“We’re still waiting for justice in Arauca,” said María Fernanda as she told me about the little girl who was raped and killed by soldiers who then killed the witnesses, her two little brothers. Only one of the men believed to be involved was ever charged and even he has not been tried because the judge, a woman who was assigned to hear the case, was assassinated. (There are many women judges in Colombia; some say it’s because the job is too dangerous and men don’t want it.) “At the site of the burial, people came
carrying photos of 200 people who were killed by the army and there I saw the photo of my older brother.”
To explain what happened to him she had to go back to the bombing of Santo Domingo. “After that, we spent eight years as displaced people in the town of Filipinas. We got three months of assistance, just basically for food, and we weren’t used to being in a
town instead of the countryside. If we had for rent, we didn’t have for food, if we had for food, we didn’t have for clothing.” Two of her brothers crossed the border into Venezuela looking for work and were killed there by persons unknown. As for her older brother, “He had gone to a farm and asked if there were landmines on the property because he wanted to go down to the river to fish.”
She explained that landmines are planted throughout the area by the FARC “Now and then an army dog will sniff one out but there’s no campaign to get rid of them and we don’t really want that. If the mines are removed, the FARC will plant new ones and we might not know where. Right now, we walk on the highway or you can walk where the cows walk to be safe.”
Or, you do what her brother did, and ask around about the existence of mines because the guerrillas usually warn people. But the fact that FARC guerrillas communicate with local civilians makes noncombatants suspect.
“The Army heard him talking about mines. They came for him and took him and two others away barefoot and killed them.”
For civilians in the conflict zone, it’s equally dangerous to talk to the police or the Colombian army. “Seven girls were killed for talking to soldiers or flirting with them.
For this it was believed they were passing information,”she told me. “When the army is around I don’t leave the house even to go to the store. If there’s no toilet paper in the house, well, I just splash water on myself. You can’t go out.”
But she does go out at night, braving car bombs and dodging bullets in order to participate, as does Hermelinda, in a theatre program for youth sponsored by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Through the program, young people work and play together, dismantling cultural barriers, reinforcing respect for human rights,
specifically training youth to take a stand against gender-based discrimination and violence.
María Fernanda dreams of becoming “a professor or lawyer or someone who can help people but I’d also like to be a singer who sings about peace.” With her surviving family members, she has now returned to Santo Domingo but they no longer own their old farm. “It’s very hard. But I have to be strong. If my mother has to cope with their
having murdered three of her sons, the oldest, the ones that most helped her, we
the others have to be capable.”
I am haunted by these girls and by the role that we in the US have played–and still play–in their lives. The US has poured billions into military support for Colombia, ostensibly
to fight the war on drugs (and now repeats the same misguided policy in Mexico).
Germany has taken a different approach: the German federally owned enterprise
GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) helped support the theatre
festival as part of its ongoing work with Cercapaz, an organization dedicated to
strengthening civil society and developing nonviolent conflict-resolution strategies for government and community in the interest of sustainable development and peace.
“The fundamental problem isn’t the narcotraffic,” insisted speaker Carlos Lozano, director of the leftwing weekly, Voz. “It’s the hunger and misery.”
Not to mention that, as he pointed out, the Colombian government spends six times as much money on a soldier as on the education of a student. Students like María Fernanda, Hermelinda, Julieth.
In the meantime President Obama has abandoned a campaign pledge and thrown his support behind the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia which will only exacerbate conditions of inequality. He relied on agreements with Colombian president Santos that human rights would be respected and community leaders protected but little more than a week after I returned to Los Angeles, I received word that Ana Fabricia Córdoba
was assassinated in Medellín. She had continued, after the murders of both her activist husband and her son, to work on behalf of displaced families who wished to return to their land. Because of repeated death threats, she had requested protection from the government. She got none.
Julieth and Hermelinda and María Fernanda persevere, preparing themselves intellectually, ethically, and psychologically for an uncertain future.
The last day in my workshop, Julieth wrote, “I’m afraid of not knowing how to face situations that shake my sense of self, my emotional security. The worst that could happen would be if bad circumstances knock down my dreams like coconuts from the trees. I couldn’t stand it if all my efforts turned out to be useless.”
Author, Playwright, Troublemaker