Fifteen years have passed since Maria Elena Ruiz last saw her husband. On Sept. 11, 1982, he was taken from his shop by several men claiming to be from Colombia's secret police. They walked him to their car, witnesses said, and drove away. Government officials denied any knowledge of her husband's arrest. He had disappeared.
This story is all too familiar in Latin America. Although countries like Guatemala, Chile, and Argentina have progressed beyond the "dirty war" that raged against communism in the 1970s and early '80s, human rights abuses are still a concern across the region.
The difference is that here in Colombia, entering its fourth decade of civil war, the dirty war is still on.
"I'm fighting for my husband, who is 15 years dead. He was a valiant man," says Mrs. Ruiz, who is a founding member of the Association for Families of the Disappeared (ASFADDES).
There were 120 such disappearances in Colombia last year alone, according to the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International. In the last decade, the figure for political killings and disappearances of civilians topped 20,000 in Colombia. Amnesty attributes the majority of the killings to government security forces and right-wing paramilitaries linked with the military.
The United States may agree. The Clinton administration is attempting to withhold millions of dollars in aid to the Colombian military because the Army has refused to sign an agreement on human rights, saying it will not accept the aid with strings attached.
"While in other places these killings have decreased, in Colombia they continue unabated. It's clear that anyone interested in defending human rights is a target," says Carlos Salinas, advocacy director of Amnesty International for Latin America in Washington. Ruiz, like most of the members of ASFADDES, became an activist after losing a family member.
The founders met one another in the waiting rooms of Colombia's police and Army offices as they tried to discover what had become of their loved ones. They soon found that just asking questions earned them the suspicion of government officials.
"This is a war against anyone who fights for change," Ruiz says. Human rights activists have lately felt under siege. The ASFADDES office in Medellin was dynamited last month, but no one was killed.
Seeking a safe haven
The Bogot office routinely receives phone threats, and sometimes members receive invitations to a funeral service - their own.
Bogot had been considered a safe haven for activists until the murder this May of Mario Calderon and Elsa Alvarado. Armed men burst into their apartment, killing the couple and Ms. Alvarado's father. Their one-year-old son survived, hidden in a linen closet by his mother.
"After this, who is safe? And whose family [is safe]?" asks Eduardo Careo, a human rights lawyer in Bogot. Mr. Careo works for the Lawyers Collective, a group that sometimes assists ASFADDES with legal matters.
In the wake of the murders, many activists have fled Colombia - including some government prosecutors specially assigned to investigate human rights cases. Activists like Careo say there is no protection provided in Colombia.
"We had the government post a policeman in front of the building. It only lasted three months before they said they needed him to protect state employees who were also being threatened," Careo says. He adds that human rights lawyers don't trust government-assigned bodyguards, noting several cases where he says state bodyguards were complicit in assassinations.
Several rights groups recently asked that the Colombian government take steps to protect them, including reining in the rhetoric of the armed forces, who often publicly denounce human rights groups as communist. The government agreed to the groups' demands, but activists remain skeptical.
"The people in government who agree to help aren't the problem. In fact, they sometimes have to flee the country themselves," says one activist, who refused to give his name.
Fight for justice
While many leave, Careo sees his work as an obligation that keeps him in Colombia. "Someone has to confront it," he says. "For justice, for rule of law, this is the only dignified work you can do. If you can't fight with reason, all that's left is barbarity."
"We have to fight to show that people can't be killed for an idea," Ruiz says, sitting before a wall lined with placards bearing photos, names and dates of disappeared Colombians. "Why should I have to run, to hide? In this work you realize the value of life, so you fight harder."