“My freedom is your victory!”

By Kathy Price, Mexico Campaigner with Amnesty International Canada

I’m betting that no one who met Garifuna defender and former prisoner of conscience Angel Amílcar Colón Quevedo during his recent visit to Canada will forget his incredible smile or his inspiring words. I certainly won’t!

At meetings in Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax, Angel couldn’t have been clearer about the impact of advocacy work by Amnesty supporters: “If Amnesty International had not made visible in Canada and around the world the torture and imprisonment I suffered for crimes I did not commit, I would never have escaped from that nightmare. I would have been sentenced to more than 70 years in jail, based solely on a “confession” I signed after being tortured and threatened with more torture. The fact that I am free and here before you today is proof that the efforts of Amnesty supporters produce positive results.”

Angel was accompanied by Luis Tapia Olivares (below right), a lawyer from the Centro Prodh human rights centre in Mexico City, who worked tirelessly amidst a system dominated by corruption and impunity in order to defend Angel against fabricated charges of drug trafficking and organized crime.

“Securing the release of Angel would have been extremely difficult, likely impossible, without the support of Amnesty International,” said Luis. “By declaring Angel a prisoner of conscience and mobilizing activists around the world to call for his release, Amnesty put Angel out in front of the eyes of the world. International pressure is vital, since Mexican authorities care very much about Mexico’s international image.”

Angel and Luis came to Canada to take part in Amnesty’s biannual national gathering, and speak at a human rights conference that attracted a large, attentive audience at the spectacular new Halifax Public Library.

Angel unmasked shocking realities in Mexico by courageously revisiting his traumatic personal experiences; first retelling his feelings when he saw blood-covered floors and heard terrifying screams at the military base to which he was brought. He then recounted how soldiers pinned him down and put a plastic bag over his head, while others jumped on his stomach, making him feel “that my soul was leaving my body”. Amongst other horrors, soldiers poured water over a cloth placed over his mouth so he choked with every breath.

Nobody was left in any doubt that Amnesty’s campaign to Stop Torture in Mexico remains an urgent priority. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Angel. “But there are so many other people suffering torture as security forces seek confessions to show their efforts to rein in drug cartels are being successful. That’s why you must not stop what you are doing because there are so many others in the same situation I was in.”

Angel also appealed for special attention to the plight of Central Americans forced by economic necessity to migrate through Mexico and face deadly persecution at the hands of drug gangs and state security forces alike. A former president of OFRANEH, an organization that defends the rights of Garifuna communities in Honduras, Angel explained the desperation that results from threats, violence and dispossession of Garifuna lands and livelihoods. “My son had cancer. I felt I had no choice but to leave my home in search of work that would enable me to earn enough to pay for treatment to save my boy’s life,” Angel said. “My son died while I was in prison, deprived of my rights. Other families face unbearable situations too. Migrants from Honduras are killed in Mexico. Others are picked up like me, accused of being criminals, tortured and imprisoned. Many, many families I know in Honduras have lost a loved one.”

Angel’s heart rending story got well-deserved coverage by community radio (right) and mainstream media, including the Halifax Chronicle Herald and Radio Canada International.  The public broadcaster also interviewed Luis about escalating human rights violations in Mexico since 2006 when the military were sent out on to Mexican streets with the goal of combatting organized crime.

Angel and Luis took full advantage of an important opportunity to influence decision makers in Ottawa, when they were invited to testify to a hearing of Parliament’s Subcommittee on International Human Rights (left). The response was palpable. “Parliamentarians from all political parties expressed their concern about what we told them,” said Angel. “It was heartening to see their reaction and to feel their support.”

Equally heartening was media coverage in Mexico, with more than 30 articles about the hearing, making visible growing Canadian concerns about a human rights crisis that one MP likened to what took place in Argentina during a military dictatorship.

“What we need is for Canada to speak out forcefully,” concluded Luis. “Canada has a close relationship with Mexico, which gives it weight and influence. We call on Canada to condition its relationship with Mexico on compliance with human rights obligations.”

Angel’s parting message, true to form, was one of hope and inspiration: “We can’t afford to be paralysed by what is happening. Those who are being attacked, unjustly detained and tortured need our help. All of us can support the efforts of the Centro Prodh and Amnesty International. There is no question that we can make a difference.”

Here are important ways you can take action!

For more ideas, visit our Stop Torture webpage