Obtilia Eugenio Manuel defends the rights of the Tlapanec people in the state of Guerrero and founded the Organisation of the Me'phaa Indigenous People (Organización del Pueblo Indígena Me’phaa, OPIM). In November 2019 she received Mexico’s National Human Rights Prize in recognition of her “significant trajectory in effectively promoting and defending” basic human rights. PBI accompanied Manuel between 2005 and 2011.
How and when did you start defending human rights?
It started when I was almost 12 years old. I saw that justice wasn’t served against those who committed crimes. I could especially see the violence against women. The women were very afraid and kept quiet because they were abused by their husbands. Also, a couple of years before there had been an epidemic; among the 50 people who died were two of my brothers. We hadn’t been vaccinated because the government didn’t care about us.
What pushed you to make a commitment to human rights?
My dad, although he had no money, always wanted me to study and learn Spanish so I could teach it to my community and help defend them. When I was in primary school, he decided to go with me to the seat of the municipal government, Ayutla de los Libres, to find me a house so I could study. I remember that we got up at one o’clock in the morning and walked until 9am, because there was no highway.
My father cared a lot about women’s rights. He said, “Women have the right to speak and participate in the Assembly just like their husbands, not only to have children.” I was 13 years old, and for the first time I attended a workshop on women’s rights in the National Indigenist Institute (Instituto Nacional Indigenista, INI), now the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas, INPI).
How did you show your commitment in your community?
I participated in the Assemblies in my community. At the beginning they didn’t pay attention to me, then I started to bring together the women in my family and later in my community: at 17, they treated me as if I were lawyer. I mediated between men and women. I always through that fighting was a strategy to divide us and I bet on helping, on being united and on working together for ourselves. I always told the men, “You shouldn’t fight with your wives – fight the government! We need medicines, a highway, teachers so our kids can get ahead….”
When did you realise that you were a human rights defender?
It was in 1998, when 16 Me’phaa men from the community of Camalote were forcibly sterilised. I supported them in their claims before the Health Ministry and the government. I had to justify who I was before the authorities and that was how I defined myself, as a human rights defender. In 2000, we saw the need to form an organisation to train the community about its rights. And after that, I became more committed with the case of Valentina Rosendo Cantú, who was raped by soldiers on 22 February 20021. I was the translator [interpreter] because she didn’t speak Spanish. And from that, many threats came against me because I was reporting against soldiers and I was fighting for women’s rights.
What do you think of PBI’s accompaniment?
I am very grateful to PBI because it is very useful. Maybe there are no words to describe it. I like how they work: their weapon was their T-shirts. I think it’s important that PBI acts as an international presence, that they speak with local, state and federal authorities. Very few of us have this awareness [about human rights], so we can change this country and it can function properly.
Obtilia has always worked to demand the right for a dignified life free of violence in the Montaña of Guerrero. She continues to be subjected to threats, surveillance and harassment because of her work in defending indigenous rights. In February 2019, she was the victim of kidnapping and forcible disappearance with her partner Hilario Cornelio Castro.
1 Her claims for justice for Rosendo Cantú were permitted to reach the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), which in 2010 found the Mexican State guilty for its responsibility in these cases of human rights violations.