The Defenders

Abel Barrera Hernández

“That’s our dream, that’s our ideal – that the indigenous peoples of this region can live in dignity and in harmony with each other. And that they, above all, are respected and recognized as having equal rights.”

Abel Barrera Hernández was born in Tlapa de Comonfort in the mountain region of the Mexican state of Guerrero. In 1994, after 12 years of studying theology and anthropology with a focus on indigenous peoples’ human rights, Abel returned to his hometown where he established Tlachinollan, Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña (the Center for Human Rights of the Mountain of Tlachinollan), one of Mexico’s most successful human rights organizations. Tlachinollan, as it is also known, worked to improve indigenous peoples’ access to education, health care, and legal representation.

In 2004, at a time of increased militarization due to the country’s war on narco-traffickers, Tlachinollan staff began hearing about and reporting abuses by the Mexican army. The abuses included rapes, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and seizure of lands. As a result of their reporting, Abel and his staff were targeted and threatened. In May 2009, the threats had become so severe that the Inter-American Court (IAC), an autonomous judicial institution based in Costa Rica that helps promote and protect basic rights and freedoms in the Americas, ordered government protection for every member of the organization. Undeterred, that same year Tlachinollan brought a case before the IAC on behalf of two indigenous women who had been tortured and raped by Mexican military personnel. The IAC found the military guilty of the abuses.

By 2010, Tlachinollan had grown to a staff of 20 handling 1,500 human rights complaints a year. Abel had successfully transformed a small, under-funded effort into a successful organization that is trusted by indigenous communities and respected by partner organizations across Mexico, the United States. and the international community. The threats against the organization have continued, but the staff remains committed to defending the rights of indigenous people and testifying about the abuses. In May 2012, Tlachinollan members testified before the United States Congress about military abuses in Guerrero.

Abel and his organization have received significant recognition for their efforts to defend the human rights of some of Mexico’s most marginalized communities. In 2007, Tlachinollan won the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In 2010, Abel was given the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for "his courageous defense of the rights of rural and indigenous peoples living in Guerrero State in southern Mexico." The following year, Amnesty International's German branch recognized Abel with its Sixth Annual Human Rights Award, given for his struggles "at great personal risk for the rights of the indigenous population in the state of Guerrero.”


According to a 2018 report from the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, nearly three-quarters of Mexico’s indigenous population lives in poverty. One in five of the country’s indigenous peoples cannot read or write, and one in six lacks access to health services. These already disadvantaged communities are now being threatened as a result of Mexico’s War on Drugs.

The Mexican government has been at war with powerful drug-trafficking syndicates since 2006. The ongoing conflict has brought violence to many regions of the country and led to forced displacement of many indigenous communities. In extreme situations, entire communities have been forced to flee the lands they have lived and worked on for generations.

Indigenous peoples comprise a small percent of the country’s population. In 2010, less than 6% of Mexico’s residents spoke an indigenous language, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography. Yet, indigenous Mexican communities are more likely to be the victims of forced displacement due to narco-trafficking. According to Mexico’s Commission in Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, indigenous peoples comprised more than 60% of the 20,390 people forcibly expelled in massive displacement events in Mexico in 2017.

The Commission reported 25 episodes of massive internal displacement in Mexico in 2017. Guerrero had the highest displacement rate of any state in Mexico: 168.3 per 100,000 people. 5,948 residents of Guerrero were forced to flee their homes, 61% of whom were indigenous.

Indigenous people face more obstacles during forced displacement than do other groups. Poor road conditions and limited phone service make it hard for people to flee or for aid to arrive. And, due to language barriers, many indigenous peoples cannot ask for assistance once displaced.

Some indigenous Mexicans have had to relocate within Mexico. Others have had to flee the country in search of work. Many displaced residents of Guerrero have entered the United States. as undocumented immigrants and have found work as migrant farmworkers. They live in a precarious situation, both legally and financially.



Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.