Virginia Shoppee: A dear friend and a fearless fighter for human rights

Without the tireless work of Virginia Shoppee, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet might never have been detained for the crimes against humanity orchestrated during his regime.

The former Amnesty International researcher, who died on Monday, spent many months working what felt like 24-hour days to ensure Pinochet would be put on trial.

The outcome of his historic detention in London in 1998 was not what she had hoped for, as Pinochet avoided extradition to Spain to stand trial on health grounds. But Virginia was proud she had helped to ensure Pinochet did not return to Chile as an innocent man, but rather as a leader guilty of committing human rights violations.

Indeed, Pinochet’s detention remains a watershed moment in the fight against impunity in South America and beyond, and Virginia was at the centre of the group of human rights defenders who made it happen.

Born in Bogota, Virginia moved to Europe in her early 20s seeking adventure. When she learned of a movement campaigning to end human rights violations across the world, her path was chosen. She would work at Amnesty International for the rest of her life.
I first met Virginia when I started working with her in Amnesty’s Americas Programme in the early 1990s, and she would become a dear colleague and friend.

By that time she had already been working at the organization for more than 15 years during the darkest years of the Americas Southern Cone in the 1970s and 80s.

She had worked resolutely on behalf of the tens of thousands who were disappeared, arbitrarily detained, executed or tortured by the security forces under the dreaded Operation Condor, a two-decade long campaign of political repression and state terror involving intelligence operations, assassinations and torture of opponents in countries including Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

She also made it her particular aim to improve the human rights situation in Bolivia, a country she felt the world tended to forget, and to ensure those in power “couldn’t get away with murder”, as she put it.

As a colleague, Virginia was graceful and always kind enough to share her knowledge, while remaining keen to learn from others.

As a colleague, Virginia was graceful and always kind enough to share her knowledge, while remaining keen to learn from others.
Guadalupe Marengo

She and I bonded immediately over our love for all things British coupled with our Latin American upbringing.

Having arrived in the UK with just a smattering of English, Virginia quickly grew to love the country and understand these isles’ idiosyncrasies. She particularly liked showing the natives that she knew more about cricket than they did.

She also never lost her elegant Latin American style and demeanour. She was a Colombian history buff and loved Latin American film, music and culture.

One trait that stood out was Virginia’s meticulousness. She felt strongly that accuracy, impartiality and independence were imperative in upholding the reputation of the organization she loved, and more importantly in protecting the victims of human rights’ abuses and their loved ones.

She kept in touch with many of these relatives, regularly informing and consulting with them about the actions being taken and proposed by Amnesty.

What shone through most was Virginia’s warm, sincere and generous personality, which encouraged victims to place their trust in her as they believed in Amnesty fighting their cases for them.

She was also fearless in challenging the authorities, although this often charmed even them.

As a keen historian with a deep understanding of the importance of archiving, Virginia worked to ensure that a record of everything Amnesty had said or acted upon was kept for posterity.

After she retired she became an Amnesty volunteer, helping the organization archive important material.

Although Virginia always modestly considered herself a “small particle in the bigger scheme of things”, there is no doubt she was a particle that truly made a difference to the world.
Guadalupe Marengo

For years I would gently tease Virginia about her obsessive archiving. She was so meticulous that sometimes she would photocopy a paper twice and take one home in case it got lost in the Amnesty archives.

But her knowledge of the archives was essential when putting evidence before the courts. Most recently, Virginia was an invaluable source when Amnesty had to rush scores of documents to Haiti to obtain the indictment of Jean Claude Duvalier.

Although Virginia always modestly considered herself a “small particle in the bigger scheme of things”, there is no doubt she was a particle that truly made a difference to the world.

Virginia died on 4 April after a battle with cancer. She is survived by her husband Gerry, her sister Paulina in France, and her brother Pepe and sister Clara in Colombia. She leaves many friends and family devastated by her loss.