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March 29, 2023

Voices of La Guajira: ABA ROLI Promoting Justice and Human Rights in Rural Communities in Colombia

During the week of February 20th, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative's (ABA ROLI) Vice Board Chair, the Honorable (Hon.) M. Margaret McKeown, Senior Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals of the U.S., traveled to Colombia to meet with various judicial institutions, such as the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz) and the Superior Judicial Council; to moderate a panel on Women in the Judiciary with a focus on US and Colombia perspectives; and attend an event in Riohacha, La Guajira to hear from the local community and provide an overview of ABA ROLI’s various programs and support in the country.

Attended by representatives of public institutions, indigenous authorities, civil society organizations, community leaders, ABA ROLI hosted an event in Riohacha, La Guajira on “Balance and projections of ABA ROLI in Colombia and La Guajira” to better illustrate our initiatives and impact in the country and La Guajira, a region affected by migration and access to justice challenges.

ABA ROLI's Program Director for Colombia and Peru, Stephanie Villaronga opened the event, and the Hon. M. Margaret McKeown followed up with remarks. In a moving speech, Hon. McKeown presented ABA ROLI’s current programs in Colombia, which aim to strengthen legal institutions, foster respect for human rights, and promote public understanding of the law and the rights of citizens. 

For example, she highlighted ABA ROLI’s Women and Girls Empowered program, a global consortium to advance the status of women and girls, led by ABA ROLI in close partnership with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), Grameen Foundation, and Search for Common Ground (Search). Specific to Colombia, Hon. McKeown highlighted ABA ROLI’s Conectando Caminos por los Derechos program, which provides services and opportunities for both Venezuelan migrants and returnees in Colombia, and the country’s anti-human trafficking programs, emphasizing one aimed at combatting trafficking in children and adolescents.

At the local level, four community leaders participated in this event, including Jairo Ibarra, director of the Brisas del Norte Foundation and winner of the first edition of the Walking Towards Justice Awards; Monica Cotes, director of Fundacion Para El Desarrollo Y La Productividad De La Mujer (FUNDEPROM); Heidy Vera, representative of the Association of Women Against Gender-Based Violence; and Laureano Gonzalez, Wayúu indigenous leader. The panelists focused their presentations on several key topics: the current needs and progress of the region related to access to justice; the current challenges affecting the region related to migration flows, such as shortcomings of the public sector and violations of human rights; and proposed recommendations for these matters.

In this context, each panelist was able to offer their own perspective to the panel, in accordance with the work that each one of them is carrying out in the region and the first-hand experiences that they have accumulated over time. As a result, they discussed the need to give greater visibility to the challenges faced by indigenous communities, specifically the Wayúu people, who represent the largest indigenous population in the department, such as public services, health, access to justice, and food assistance, among others. Similarly, the panelists addressed the intersectional challenges faced by women in La Guajira, some due to the department’s proximity to the border with Venezuela, including high unemployment rates, barriers to access professional training, and the general challenges faced by migrant women despite having basic or higher education degrees from their country of origin. 

Other themes discussed during the panel included gender-based violence and the work being done to ensure that women are aware of their rights. The panel also highlighted the obstacles faced by both migrants and returnees, such as access to essential public services including health, justice, and public utilities, obstacles in notary and registry procedures, and the consequent violation of their rights. Lastly, the panel discussed human trafficking, especially in the case of children and adolescents, with a special focus on analyzing situations of vulnerability these individuals face daily which, consequently, make them more likely to fall into the hands of criminal networks, particularly in the areas of sexual and labor exploitation.

The importance of joint and intersectional work to overcome the challenges the department of La Guajira faces was subsequently emphasized, further demonstrating that it is essential to establish and maintain efficient channels of communication between communities, public authorities, and the various organizations involved in this work. Doing this can restore public confidence in institutions, as people are able to trust that a variety of routes exist at their disposal, staffed with competent and suitable officials ready to provide the assistance they require in situations of violence and injustice. The role that technology and social networks have played recently was also explored, as they have become valuable tools for raising awareness of all these challenges, creating support networks, and receiving help through third parties.

A delegation of the ABA ROLI team in Colombia, together with the Hon. M. Margaret McKeown, visited the Brisas del Norte neighborhood in Riohacha, which began as an informal settlement that currently houses more than 300 residents, including migrant families, victims of the armed conflict, returnees, and host population. Notable in this community is the process of community organization, integration, and social cohesion that has been generated thanks to the leadership of the Brisas del Norte Foundation. Through its efforts, the Brisas del Norte Foundation was able to “formalize housing” for the neighborhood—since it began as an informal settlement. Because of the “formalized housing”, community members can now have legal titles of their lands and/or house, and they can access public services, such as water and electricity.

Through Hon. McKeown’s visit to Colombia, ABA ROLI reaffirmed its commitment to the community, and to continuing the development of initiatives to defend the rule of law and human rights in La Guajira. ABA ROLI currently implements five programs in Colombia, namely: (i) Preventing and Responding to Human Rights Abuses of Venezuelan Migrants and Colombian Returnees; (ii) Strengthening the Judicial Sector in the Identification, Investigation, Prosecution, and Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking in Cartagena; (iii) Combating Child Trafficking; (iv) Combating Public Corruption; and (v) Supporting Environmental Defenders in Latin America. In addition, ABA ROLI will soon implement a new program to support Rural Justice in several of Colombia's regions, including the department of La Guajira.

Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across Latin America and the Caribbean.