Two compasses, 43 rosaries, 98 toothbrushes, 179 wristwatches, 1,531 pairs of sneakers, and one dead hummingbird: Those are among the thousands of objects that have been found with corpses in the Arizona desert, mostly those of illegal migrants from Mexico who died on the gruelling journey across the border.
The calling card of the Colibri Center for Human Rights in Tucson features tiny drawings of these items. The group’s leaders hope this will help humanize the plight of those who died, often without ever being identified, as they sought to flee poverty and violence. Colibri, in Spanish, means “hummingbird.”
On Tuesday, the center and its director, Robin Reineke, are receiving one of three Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards in the District, along with veteran international human rights lawyer Juan Mendez and an organization that assists women in Mexico and Central America who are involved in defending social and human rights.
The awards, granted each year by the nonprofit Institute for Policy Studies, are named for the two victims of a 1976 car bombing in which former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronni Moffitt were assassinated in Northwest Washington by agents of Chile’s military regime.
Reineke, 32, said there are still more than 900 corpses and skeletons from the Arizona border deserts that have never been identified. She and her associates work with U.S. officials, Mexican authorities and families of missing migrants to find out who they were and, if possible, return the remains.
“We try to collect as much data as we can from both sides, coordinate it and fill in the gaps,” she said Tuesday. “Each one of these people was a human being. We want to find ways to make their struggle seem more human and more real.”
Also honored with the award is the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders, a nonprofit based in Mexico City that has brought together more than 350 groups of women fighting for causes that range from protecting local communities against corporate nickel mining in Guatemala to defending women who are jailed for having abortions in El Salvador.
Marusia Lopez Cruz, 37, an official of the organization who lives in Mexico, said that governments, societies and even families in Latin America don’t recognize such activists as champions of human rights and that they often come under personal and physical attack for their activities.
In Honduras, she said Tuesday, women who organized rallies against the military coup of 2009 received numerous threats. In Mexico, a woman who led highway blockades to protest land takeovers is now on trial on charges of causing public harm. In Guatemala, women helped gather evidence of massacres against a former military regime and are now opposing private nickel mines being dug near villages.
“People don’t realize that women who are rights defenders need protection, too,” said Lopez Cruz. She said the group sponsors shelters for whose who face threats, helps them flee if they are in physical danger, and supports those who have been charged with crimes.
The third winner of this year’s Letelier-Moffitt awards is Juan E. Mendez, 69, a veteran human rights lawyer and U.N. human rights official. Born in Argentina, Mendez was jailed for defending political prisoners and then exiled after an international campaign. He became a longtime senior official of the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch and is now the U.N. special rapporteur on torture.
The awards, announced Tuesday morning, will be presented Tuesday evening at a ceremony at the Carnegie Institution for Science in the District.