San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Indigenous Rights Leader Fears For Her Life

Nearly two years ago, Paulina Díaz was clubbed in the face one night with a wooden pole, beat with stones, choked and left laying bloody in the street.

Now, as the indigenous women’s rights activist engages in a legal battle against her alleged assailants, one of whom is her brother, she says threats against her life persist.

It’s nothing new, really. For years, the short, stout, bald-faced Bribrí woman from the tiny indigenous town Bolas near the Panamá border has taken on edgy legal battles to protect indigenous women.

When Díaz, 50, isn’t harvesting corn, beans and rice as a subsistence farmer, she spends her time fighting to protect girls and women in child molestation cases, domestic violence cases, land disputes between indigenous and non-indigenous usurpers, and labor exploitation cases in indigenous communities, she says.

“If they kill me, hundreds of indigenous women will remain silent,” she told The Tico Times recently while in San José to meet with lawyers to prepare her case.

Díaz said she suspects the attacks and continued threats against her life come from Virgilio Zúñiga, a Bolas farmer whom Díaz said tried to usurp her father’s land, and later her land. Díaz voiced vocal opposition to Zúñiga’s alleged attempts to usurp indigenous land, and filed criminal complaints in which she alleges Zúñiga paid assailants – including her brother – to intimidate her.

Zuñiga told The Tico Times the accusations are “all lies.” “All I can say is that she’s a terrible woman,” he said. He declined to elaborate.

Inspired by her father’s civil and legal activism against land usurpers – who now claim the rights to more than a third of land that is promised to indigenous people by law – Díaz has led a life of social activism that has made her many enemies, she said.

Ricardo Quirós, a member of the National Council of Indigenous Costa Rican Women (ACONAMIC), said, “Her story is a story of the defense of indigenous women …her work is to protect indigenous women. They are attacking her work.”

By filing formal complaints left and right, and with decent written and spoken Spanish, she has been able to have some success maneuvering through a legal system foreign to many members of indigenous communities, where illiteracy rates are five times higher than in the rest of Costa Rica (TT, Sept. 16, 2005).

“In this country, there is a process, but there is no justice,” said Díaz, who in 1996 was awarded the Women’s Creativity in Rural Life Award by the Women’s World Summit Foundation, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

She pursued many of the cases through ACONAMIC, an organization she founded in 1997 and which received international funds for indigenous women’s rights projects.

The group had 700 affiliates representing the eight indigenous ethnicities, from some of the country’s most isolated communities. But that was years ago.

For the past four years, she has been keeping a low profile because of threats against her and her husband, Felix Cruz, she said. In February, a request from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in WashingtonD.C. prompted the Public Security Ministry to assign four police from the nearby town of Buenos Aires to provide Díaz with round-the-clock personal protection, according to police documents.

“I can’t leave the house. If I do, I have to arrange it and have someone come pick me up secretly at strange hours and find a safe route,” she told The Tico Times.

However, despite her reports of various death threats against her, her personal protection was downgraded last month from 24-hour protection to a once-a-day check-up.

“Police officials (giving Díaz personal protection) have never seen anything out of the ordinary, nor any type of latent threat against Mrs. Díaz,” Regional Police Director Rodrigo Araya said in a statement reducing her protection.

Despite a restraining order against her brother, Arnoldo Díaz, and alleged assailants Miriam and Antonia Morales, she has continued to receive threats, she alleges.

“I’m scared. I don’t want to fight anymore,” she said, the mascara smudging below her teary eyes.

On Sept. 5, a judge in the Southern Zone Municipality of Peréz Zeledón sentenced Arnoldo Díaz and Antonia Morales to two months in prison for attacking Paulina Díaz with a weapon, according to court documents. Because they met the requirements, their sentences were exchanged for three year’s probation.

Meanwhile, threats against her persist, according to Díaz. She still awaits several trials for incidents in which she alleges she was threatened.

The Tico Times wasn’t able to reach Arnoldo Díaz or Antonio or Miriam Morales, who live in rural Bolas and reportedly don’t have telephones. The Tico Times left messages with the public telephone operator in Bolas, but calls were not returned at press time.


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