“The worst years for me were from 2001 to 2008. Because the paramilitary groups were in the door of my house, in the door of my children[’s house], in the door of my work to kill me. They wished to kill me [and] only that.”
Héctor Hernan Mondragón Báez joined our community as the 2000 Oak Fellow. Throughout his activist career, he has worked to secure the cultural, economic, and environmental wellbeing of Colombians. His extensive human rights work has involved indigenous peoples, rural peasant communities, and the urban poor.
Born to a pediatrician and a chemistry professor, Mondragón lived a privileged early life. He turned 12 before finally seeing the shantytown neighborhoods in his own hometown of Bogotá. Visiting the “precarious lodgings” with his church group, the young man made a choice: “In these houses, I decided this was my life.” (See Colby Magazine 2000)
Following in his parents footsteps, Mondragón continued his education and eventually became a trained economist. However, Wall Street was never his goal. He had other plans in mind…
In 2000, he described the situation in his homeland: “Colombia is the most dangerous place on earth for the peasants. Last year  there were 420 massacres…Indians, peasants, workers, children. The rural sector is the worst.” Corporate desires for resources drive the violence – the hydroelectric developers, mineral and oil companies, as well as powerful landowners. Just between 1985 and 2000, “and speculators, the political class, party leaders, and corrupt government officials” had dispossessed roughly 1.5 million rural Colombians of their lands. Twelve million acres gone. Mondragón has not been afraid to call the brutality what it is: “I call this bureaucratic capitalism . . . class domination.” (See Colby Magazine 2000)
In the late 1980s, Mondragón worked alongside the Nukak, a newly contacted indigenous group. Together, they established, what was at the time, the largest area of protected reserve lands in Colombia.. Later, Mondragón worked with the Embera Katio Tribe and joined their resistance to a hydroelectric development project threatening ancestral lands. Mondragon has also been a strong advocate for the U’Wa people – whose territories are increasingly encroached upon by multinational oil development. (See Colby Magazine 2000)
Mondragón has served as an advisor to the Indian National Organization of Colombia and the Peasant National Council in Colombia. Both are independent organizations that work at the grassroots, defending the basic rights of poor and marginalized groups in Colombia. He has also infiltrated powerful international institutions, such as the International Labor Organization, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the World Bank. Advising these groups, he has advocated for the land rights of indigenous peoples and peasants. (See Sojourner 2001 & Colby Magazine 2000)
Because of his work, Mondragón is no stranger to danger. In 2000, he explained that the governmental “regime runs an efficient system of elimination.” Political leaders who challenge the government often wind up dead; between 1985 and 2000, five presidential opposition candidates were murdered. (See Colby Magazine 2000)
If these statistics were not frightening enough, Mondragón has experienced direct threats to his and his family’s safety. In 1977, he was held against his will by a general from the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, enduring torture for over a week. The event was unsurprisingly scarring; in 2001, he explained, “If you see me tremble…it’s not because I’m nervous, it’s because I was tortured when I was 23.” (See Sojourner 2001 & Colby Magazine 2000)
By 1998, Mondragón sought temporary refuge in Spain when his own daughter and son were threatened. Upon his return to Colombia, he found his name on hit lists belonging to the “regime” – corrupt government officials and powerful landowning elites. He explained the stress: “I can’t live in one place – change lodgings day to day. I can’t drive myself. If they see me, I’d be murdered.” (See Sojourner 2001 & Colby Magazine 2000)
Nevertheless, his response has always been to “[keep] working” (see Colby Magazine 2000).
After his time at Colby, Mondragon returned to Colombia and continued to live “underground.” In a 2001 interview with the Sojourner, he explained, “My work is not secret, but I always have to speak as I am today, somewhat covertly. To create a routine is to commit suicide. I have to make my appointments on short notice and only with people who are trustworthy. I don’t sleep in the same bed two nights in a row. I used to teach Sunday school, but now I can’t attend church any more. For the past two years, the government and paramilitaries are daily trying to figure out how to kill me…”
Awingly, it has been almost two decades since his time at Colby, and Mondragón continues on. He has published articles and books through the 2000s (see worldcat profile). Like he said he would in 2000, he keeps working.
References & Further Reading