In troubled Colombia, villagers point way to peace

Paul Jeffrey

Lucía Giraldo was born in a village named Hope, but for the last decade she has lived a five-hour hike through the jungle from the farm where she grew up, prevented by Colombia’s intractable armed conflict from returning to her childhood home.

Ms. Giraldo and her family were displaced from the mountain hamlet of La Esperanza–“hope,” in Spanish–in 1997 when fighting between government soldiers, leftist guerrillas and rightwing paramilitaries made life untenable. She dreams often of going back to Hope, but says it won’t happen soon.

“It’s a place where people are poor but the land is lush and we can grow plenty of food. But neither the government nor the guerrillas respect civilians, so it’s still too dangerous for us,” said Ms. Giraldo, one of more than three million Colombians displaced by the war–the third highest number of displaced people in the world today.

Yet unlike most of the internally displaced in Colombia, who flee to overcrowded slums in the cities, Ms. Giraldo is nonviolently resisting the terror that drove her from her home. She’s a founding member of the “peace community” of San José de Apartadó–a group of more than 1,400 peasants who banded together in 1997 to declare neutrality in Colombia’s conflict. Encouraged by a Catholic bishop who was assassinated five years later, they promised not to carry weapons, not to cooperate or provide information to either side in the war, and to work together cooperatively to survive. Their powerful rejection of the logic of war has been a powerful example for others; at least ten peace communities now exist in Colombia.

Yet the community’s witness for life in the middle of the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict has been costly. Of the original 1,400 members, 179 have been murdered in the last decade. Twenty were killed by guerrillas; the rest by government soldiers or government-backed paramilitaries. The most recent victim was killed in July when he was pulled off a bus outside the nearby city of Apartadó and murdered by paramilitaries.

The death toll would be higher were it not for the presence of foreign volunteers who come to live in the peace community for months at a time, maintaining an international witness that discourages attacks. Ms. Giraldo lives in La Union–one of several villages within the peace community–a cluster of some 30 simple houses that clings precariously to a hillside amidst cedar and cacao trees. From the nearest road, it’s a three-hour uphill hike through the jungle to reach La Union, and since 2002 the U.S.-based Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) has maintained several “accompaniers” there.

“Their accompaniment has been critical for us. The paramilitaries have only dared to enter the community when the FOR accompaniers were away for meetings in Medellin or Bogota,” said Ms. Giraldo.

“When army patrols pass by too close, one of the FOR people will go out there with their peacemaker hats and their assertive way of speaking, and when the army sees them coming they say, ‘Here come those gringo bastards. We’re screwed. Let’s get out of here.’ And they leave and don’t bother us,” she said.

Among the accompaniers in La Union is Amanda Jack, a United Methodist from Somerset, Pennsylvania.

“It’s definitely scarey at times,” said Ms. Jack. “Though the calm moments are even scarier than the crisis times. When there’s combat nearby, we go into crisis mode. We know how to respond to that. But when it’s calm, you have more time to worry. For a long time when I would hear animals in the jungle at night I was certain they were soldiers and we were about to be attacked.”

Ms. Jack says that despite the terrible violence around her, she finds hope in everyday events.

“Women keep having babies here. These are innocent children who still haven’t been terrorized by the war. They still have a childlike view of the world, and when I look in their eyes I feel hope. But then I look up and I feel discouraged,” she said.

Mireille Evans, an accompanier from Castlegar, British Columbia, says she’s been amazed at the community’s hospitality.

“They’ve been so welcoming, accepting us with completely open arms despite all they’ve been through,” she said. “Every day they get up and go out and love their kids and their crops. Their hope has never faltered, even though they’ve had so many loved ones murdered. They keep loving life. Their faith and hope is a model for the whole world.”

The conflict in Colombia goes back decades, and long ago adopted its own inexorable logic. One side of the conflict is financed by massive U.S. government aid to the Colombian military (Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the hemisphere), much of it in the name of combating cocaine production. Yet aerial spraying of coca plantations–a key element of the aid–has failed to stop the flow of drugs toward the north. The U.S. government has given Colombia more than $5 billion since 2000 for its anti-narcotics and counterinsurgency programs, but coca production has grown for the last three years; 27 percent more coca is being produced in Colombia than in 1999, the year before the effort–known as “Plan Colombia”–began.

The other side of the conflict–the guerrillas–have used drug profits and protection money from traffickers, along with the proceeds from kidnapings, to finance their operations.

The third–and most brutal–force in Colombia are the paramilitary squads, which are also funded by drug money. For years the paramilitaries tried to maintain the fiction that they were independent of the government, a sort of private initiative of landowners to take back the countryside, yet the victims of their attacks often described how military personnel and aircraft actively supported the paramilitary violence. And early this year a former commander of Colombia’s paramilitaries rocked the country with testimony about how the cream of Colombian society–politicians, business leaders, army generals–had sponsored and supported the paramilitary squads that carried out hundreds of massacres in the last two decades. Thirteen members of the Congress were jailed, and dozens of government officials are under investigation.

Repression of the peace community in San José de Apartadó has been seen as an indicator of whether Colombian authorities are paying attention to U.S. Congressional discussions about the continuance of military aid to the Andean nation, says Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin American Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of churches and agencies–including the Women’s Division–that encourages U.S. policies towards Colombia and the rest of Latin America that promote human rights, justice, peace and sustainable development.

“The communities which have consciously chosen peace in Colombia have provided an inspiration to the religious and solidarity groups that have accompanied them and learned of their hopes and travails. The attacks they have suffered from all armed actors seem all the more terrible in the face of this conscious choice. The case of San José de Apartadó, along with several indigenous and Afro Colombian communities, have received considerable attention from members of the U.S. Congress. San José de Apartadó was one of the cases most discussed in the context of the human rights conditions in U.S. law, which require that abuses allegedly committed by the army be vigorously investigated and prosecuted. In the past two years, failure to achieve progress in this case has contributed to delays in granting part of U.S. military aid,” Ms. Haugaard said.

U.S. corporations have also fueled the violence. In March, Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to paying $1.7 million to the paramilitaries; the court fined Chiquita $25 million. In June, a former paramilitary leader told a U.S. Congress committee that the Alabama-based Drummond coal company, which has extensive operations in Colombia, also provided support to the rightwing militias–which since 2001 have been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. More than 800 union organizers have been murdered in Colombia since 2001, including several activists at Drummond’s Colombia operations.

In this violence-wracked land, forced displacement is at times a byproduct of guerrilla activity, particularly the recruitment of young men by guerrilla armies. Yet a majority of the displaced have fled from paramilitary violence, and producing that displacement seems to be an essential part of the paramilitary strategy. Several economically strategic areas have been turned into their killing fields, provoking a massive exodus of peasants out of the zone and toward burgeoning urban centers. This leaves the affected areas free for investors to do what they want without interference from local residents.

“The displaced are not a product of war. The war exists to create the displaced,” said Jorge Rojas, the director of the Consulting Group on Human Rights and Displacement, a Bogotá-based research center.

The Colombian government negotiated the demobilization of some 32,000 paramilitaries between 2003 and 2006, an important step toward lessening the violence throughout Colombia. Yet new armed groups, such as the “Black Eagles,” have sprung up in their place, reportedly stirring together former paramilitaries with drug traffickers and other criminal groups. A May report from the International Crisis Group warned that these groups constituted “the next generation of paramilitaries,” and members of the peace community at San José de Apartadó warn there’s no difference.

“They’re the same killers, the same paramilitaries, just with new names,” said Ms. Giraldo.

According to María Brígida Gonzalez, another peace community member, the rich land around them is both a blessing and a curse. “The objective of the paramilitaries has always been to kick us off the land. They’ve got their plans for it, and we’re in the way,” she said.

Ms. Gonzalez had a brother who was killed by the guerrillas, and another brother who was killed by the paramilitaries. Her 15-year old daughter was killed by government soldiers in 2005.

Ms. Gonzalez was one of hundreds of peace community members who were displaced in 2005 when President Alvaro Uribe ordered the police to set up a base in the middle of San José–the center of the community they had declared to be a neutral zone. The peace community members moved farther into the mountains, setting up a new village they dubbed San Josecito de la Vida–“Little San José of Life.”

“This community is the beginning of life. And it’s a dignified place, because to be displaced in order not to live alongside people with weapons is a dignified act. Although we suffer and go hungry and work hard and get sick, we live with dignity,” said Ms. Gonzalez.

Ms. Giraldo says community members are committed to paying whatever personal price is necessary to live in peace.

“As a civilian population, we don’t confide in anyone who wears a uniform or carries a gun. We don’t trust them. Those with arms are not defending the workers or peasants; they’re carrying guns to be at war. Although we live between two armed bands, we’re firm in our commitment to stay here on our land,” she said. “Although the army and the paramilitaries accuse us of being guerrillas, and the guerrillas accuse us of being paramilitaries or collaborating with the army, we aren’t afraid. We don’t care what they say. We are in a struggle to live with dignity, to raise our children to live in peace. And although our comrades may be murdered, the community won’t fail. We’ll continue until they kill the last one of us.”