May 19, 1998, marked the anniversary of the assassinations of human rights activists Mario Calderón and Elsa Alvarado, who were gunned down in their apartment one year earlier. A memorial service was held at the Church of the Reformation, in Washington DC to remember their lives and those of other human rights defenders who have been killed in Colombia.
Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, María Arango, and Jesús María Valle, all killed since February, were among the 26 human rights activists killed in the last two years in Colombia whose names were read out during the service. Umaña and Valle were both killed in their offices by professional killers. While paramilitary groups were initially suspected, it was later revealed that the Office of the Public Prosecutor (Fiscalía) suspected that these killings may have been carried out by the Army's military intelligence bridge (see attached story). Colombian human rights organizations declared May 19, 1998, a "National Day Against Impunity".
The service held on May 19, 1998, in Washington DC was attended by people representing various different organizations who all had one thing in common: their concern and frustration over the present-day situation in Colombia. Groups in attendance included the Colombia Human Rights Committee, Amnesty International, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group, the Center for International Policy, Human Rights Watch, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Jorge Taiana, Executive Director of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, was among the speakers. The ambassadors of Colombia to the White House and the Organization of American States were also in attendance.
Despite the sad reasons for the service, it was beautiful and touching. It included personal testimonies of friends and colleagues of Mr. Umaña, who shared warm and colorful memories. "Canto General," a poem by Pablo Neruda, was read. "Presente" and "Todavía Cantamos" were sung. At the end of the service, everyone was asked to come forward and take a few grains of corn to represent the continuation of peoples' struggle for peace.