Day 2 of the Caravana started with a flight to Cartagena where, after a local lunch, we met local lawyers and heard of their ongoing difficulties. Out of several stories, the most striking was that of Adil Melendez who arrived early in the evening and was initially reluctant to talk about himself.
A 5am start sees a small group of Caravanistas reach Cartagena on the Caribbean north coast of Colombia. Cartagena is recognised as one of Colombia’s oldest and most beautiful cities. But its history is built on its being the primary port importing slaves and exporting gold and silver.
Today too, beneath the baking sun and tourist smiles there is conflict as rich meets poor , often at the point of a gun. Its beautiful coastal location makes land in the area a prize asset and the indigenous population find it no easier to retain than their ancestors.
We heard that local people are commonly forced off their land at gunpoint, legitimately bought land is unilaterally extended by the erection of new boundaries and land registry records fraudulently altered. Legal cases flowing from these are subject to delay and the lawyers bringing them harassed, assaulted or killed.
Late in the day, we were introduced to Adil Melendez. So tall as to put one in mind of Usain Bolt, initially he was reluctant to speak about his own situation as he felt it to be unimportant compared to the other injustices but is eventually persuaded to do so.
Adil has been politically active for many years and was himself kidnapped for ransom at the age of 12. He has been a lawyer for 7 years working of cases involving the restitution of land and seeking reparations for the armed conflict under demobilisation laws.
He has suffered 3 assassination attempts and more than 10 recorded threats. Threats have been in text messages or emails and people have been sent to his house and to his office to find him and kill him. Locals reported masked men brandishing guns trying to enter
He knows there is plan to kill him and the authorities agree. As a result of the acknowledged risks, he is provided with bodyguards and given the use of a bullet proof car. This is not without problems though as the running costs are not fully funded and a recent cut in the allowance means he can no longer afford to run it.
He has been fortunate to have gained a high international profile which he believes has helped protect him as the state would lose face if anything happened to him but the threat is very current. Just the day before the police came to his house and stayed for about 4 hours. They wouldn’t tell him anything specific but he believes they would only come if they had some fresh information making their presence necessary.
He talks about how his life has changed. He has a wife and 2 children who are at risk, he has lost his social life and has to live with the knowledge that at any time he could be killed.
I ask him why, in the face of all this and with his family also at risk, he still does it. Wouldn’t it be easier to give up and do different work. It gives him pause before explaining that he is committed and believes in the justness of the causes he fights. Recognising that to be too simplistic, he adds that he has no choice. To give up would leave himself and those he represents, beaten and humiliated.
In the end, he says, there is nothing else to do and if he wasn’t fighting for justice, he simply doesn’t know what else he could do.