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Report of Christian Peacemaker Teams' Exploratory Delegation to Colombia, April 7-17, 2000

I. Introduction

CPT sent its first delegation to Colombia April 7-17, 2000 at the invitation of leaders within the Colombian Mennonite Church who had been in conversations with CPT for some time about the possibilities of a presence there. The team's purpose was to explore such possibilities.

Members of the delegation were: Jose Luis Azurdia (Guatemala City, Guatemala), Kryss Chupp (Chicago, IL), Mark Frey (Newton, KS), Kathy Kern (Webster, NY), Val Liveoak (San Antonio, TX), and Paul Neufeld-Weaver (Worthington, MN).

The team arrived the evening of the 7th and spent the next 9 days immersed in meetings and conversations and trips to different regions of the country.

We presented CPT at a meeting of the entire Mennonite Church Board of Directors (40 people); had further meetings with their Executive Committee and some pastors; spoke with several Mennonite church members who have experienced death threats (lawyers, human rights workers, pastors). We also met with workers at Justapaz (Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action) and MENCOLDES (community development agency), two organizations founded by the Colombian Mennonite Church.

Other meetings included: the Peace & Human Rights Commission of CEDECOL—Evangelical (Protestant) Church Council of Colombia; a union activist and leader in the Asamblea Permanente de la Sociedad Civil por la Paz—Permanent Assembly of NGO's for Peace; an analyst from the National University; a representative from the government's High Commission for Peace; CODHES—non-governmental human rights organization; justice and peace project of the Catholic church; and Peace Brigades International.

The six team members divided into three pairs to travel to different areas of the country for two days—Chocó (Afro-Colombian region on the pacific coast; poorest area in the country; Mennonite Brethren churches there); Urabá (region around the gulf of Urabá near the Panama border, primarily in the department/state of Antioquia); and Magangué, Bolívar (south of the Caribbean port city of Cartagena). There delegates met with local pastors from different denominations, displaced people, local government representatives, etc.

Note that partly because of the very full schedule, and partly because of the exploratory nature of the delegation, some team members felt it was inappropriate to plan a public witness during this trip.

II. Background on Colombia

Note: While every attempt has been made to verify the facts mentioned in this report, some of the data we cite as reported to us, and may reflect more what Colombians believe than what has been objectively proven.

  • Population: 40 million (40% larger than Canada)
  • Area: 440 square miles (23% smaller than Alaska)
  • Racial/ethnic breakdown (estimates vary widely): Mestizo-50%, Mulatto-24%, White-18%, Black-6%, Indigenous-2%.
  • Leading exports: Coffee and Petroleum
  • Arable land: 4 % (US-20%) or 5 million hectares
  • Land under coca cultivation (hectares): 50,000(Col. National Police)/200,000(Christian Science Monitor)
  • Urban population: 70%; rural: 30%
  • Unemployment in 1995: 9%; in 1999: 20% (El Espectador, April 11)
  • Poverty rate: 50%
  • Rural poverty rate: 90%
  • Andean region: 26% of area but 73% of population
  • Caribbean region: 12% of area, 20% of population
  • Amazon, Plains and Pacific regions: 42% of territory, 7% of population (all numbers 1985 Dane)
  • Life Expectancy: 70 years
  • Infant Mortality: 24/1000 live births
  • Literacy: 91%
  • Real GDP per capita (purchasing power parity): $6,800
  • Human Development Rank: #57 out of 174 countries on Human Development Index
  • Household income or consumption by percentage share: lowest 10%: 1%; highest 10%: 46.9% (1995)
  • Internally displaced people: 2 million
  • Rural population displaced: 1 out of 5
  • Colombians residing outside of country: 6 million
  • Killed in political violence in 1999: 5,000
  • Killed in violence in 1999: 30,000
  • Killed since 1948 in violence: 750,000

III. Situation of Violence in Colombia

Rather than being an exhaustive discussion of Colombian history, politics, etc. we will try to highlight a few important points to be aware of in looking at possible work in Colombia.

A. The Conflict

There are three groups of armed actors involved in the war in Colombia today: government military forces, guerrillas, and paramilitaries. There are eight distinct guerrilla groups operating in different regions of the country and from different ideological groundings. The three principal groups are FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), ELN (National Liberation Army), and EPL (Popular Liberation Army). The FARC is the largest and strongest with over 100 fronts throughout the country. Through recent negotiations with the government, the government forces have withdrawn from a large, sparsely populated area controlled by FARC in the southern part of the country which is now known as the "Zona de despeje". All of the guerrilla groups obtain funds from kidnapping people for ransom. The pattern of "pesca milagrosa", or stopping cars and busses on rural roads looking for people to kidnap, has made traveling in most rural areas extremely risky. Nearly 3,000 people were kidnapped last year, half of them by armed actors. Most of the groups (with the exception of the ELN) obtain most of their funds by taxing the drug trade. Guerrillas are responsible for about half of all the forced dislocations in the country. The guerrillas are aligned with various socialist tendencies, Maoist, Castroite, etc.

The Colombian army has been fighting armed groups within Colombia for 52 years. 1948 marked the start of what was known as "la violencia", or the violence. This was a 10-year war between the Conservative Party, who controlled the government, and the Liberal Party. In 1958 the parties reached a truce and created the National Front, whereby power would alternate every 4 years between them. However, some who had been fighting the government were not satisfied that the agreement would address their political concerns, such as significant land reform. In the '60s, some of these fighters, such as Manuel Marulanda (also known as Tirofijo), organized the FARC, ELN, and EPL.

In the 80's paramilitary groups were organized, including MAS (Muerte a Secuestradores-Death to Kidnappers) which was organized by the Medellin Drug Cartel to attack leftist guerrilla groups who had begun kidnapping their members and holding them for ransom. Some paramilitary groups were formed by wealthy landowners as private armies, enforcing their power over the small farmers.

While there are a multitude of private armies and paramilitary groups, the most visible group today is the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia-United Self-defense Forces of Colombia), led by Carlos Castaña. The activity of these groups grew as the Colombian Military tried to improve its human rights image. The number of killings, forced displacements and human rights abuses attributed to the military decreased throughout the 90's, as the paramilitaries took on this role, often in close coordination with the military. Two Church workers told us of witnessing military helicopters flying low over an area where a paramilitary operation was occurring.

From our interviews, and from statistics provided by human rights organizations, it seems clear that all three groups share responsibility for extrajudicial executions, massacres, forced displacements, torture, and threats. The paramilitary groups appear to be responsible for the largest number of these abuses. For example, 70% of killings are attributed to the paramilitaries.

In the 80's and 90's there have been periodic negotiations and agreements between the government and various guerrilla groups. For example, the M-19 guerrilla group, which carried out high-profile attacks in Bogotá and other cities, in one case occupying the Supreme Court, signed a peace accord with the government. Many of the M-19 members joined the Patriotic Union (UP), or M-19's own leftist political parties. Thousands of UP members were assassinated in targeted political violence throughout the 90's. The consequence of this is that current guerrilla groups distrust government promises of security and are more reluctant to lay down their arms.

In the last 52 years 750,000 people were killed in Colombia. In the 90's the figure was 20-30 thousand per year. Between 10-15 % of those killed in the last ten years have been as part of political violence and the drug trade. This includes those killed in combat, civilians killed by combatants, individuals targeted for assassination for political reasons, murders directly related to narco-trafficking and people assassinated in so-called "social cleansing", where prostitutes, street children, and suspected criminals or drug addicts are killed. This leaves 20-25,000 people per year killed in "common violence". This violence is also related to the political situation, since there is a general impunity for violent actors in Colombia, and the climate of killing as a first resort, vengeance killings, and the general availability of guns are all factors. Drug production and trade promotes violence as the drug lords form their own private armies to protect their trade.

In Colombia today the homicide rate is 72 per hundred thousand. This compares to 15 in 1937, 55 in the 1950's, and 88 in 1991. The violence is distributed unequally in the country, with the highest rate in the northern city of Apartadó, where the homicide rate is 800 per 100,000. (*Apartadó is a gateway for the drug and arms trade. San José, a town in the municipality of Apartadó, has declared itself a "community of peace," asking all armed actors to stay out of the town. San José was recently invaded by paramilitaries who committed a massacre in spite of the presence of international human rights observers.) In several other cities, such as Manzinales, Cúcuta, and Bucamaranga, the rate is 100 per 100,0000. By comparison, in 1981 at the height of the wars in Central America, the rate in El Salvador was 41/100,000 and in Guatemala was 114/100,000. (These figures are from "Health in the Americas, 1998 Edition, Volume II, p. 185-186" by the Pan American Health Organization.) In the US the rate is 7 per 100,000, rising to 60 in Washington, DC, the US city with the highest rate. Canada has a rate of 2 per 100,000, Japan 1 per 100,000.

Perhaps the biggest problem in Colombia today is the internally displaced people. It is estimated that 2 million people are displaced. Many of these people are unable to get government aid, because they are required to have a letter from their local city hall saying they are from that community and were forcibly displaced. Most displaced cannot return to their communities, since they were threatened with death if they didn't leave, and in many cases their homes and possessions were burned. Half of the displaced are children. In addition to the 2 million internally displaced, an estimated six million Colombians reside outside of the country. An estimated 300,000 left the country in 1999. The process of massive displacement has been called an "Agricultural Counter-Reform"—increasing large landholdings and taking advantage of the small farmers' work in clearing the land and putting more land into production of drugs. Displaced people we visited live in squatter communities around large cities where misery, unemployment and crime abound. Others are being housed in open-air sports facilities. The displaced are often viewed as subversives, and thus helping them can be risky.

We heard repeatedly that the violence has torn the social fabric of Colombia. The constant fear of kidnapping, displacement, killings, massacres, combat, forced recruitment (of children as young as 10 years of age), extortion, destruction of infrastructure, threats, bombings, helicopter overflights, false accusations, torture, barbarisms (such as using a head as a football) and impunity often lead to severe psychological trauma in addition to the obvious disruption of life, school, agriculture, work, family life, etc. Violence is so pervasive and the fear of retaliation so great that victimized families fear denouncing the perpetrators of violence.

In addition, Colombia is currently in the throes of the structural violence of a severe economic recession. Unemployment has more than doubled in the last 5 years, businesses are closing, and the majority of Colombians now live below the poverty line, many in extreme poverty. In Chocó one displaced person shared "Before we were poor, but at least we had land to grow food to eat. We also were able to share with others of the little we had. Now we fear violence, we can't feed our children and we can no longer give, only receive." Neoliberal economic policies and structural adjustment imposed by international lending agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF are blamed for the economic mess. In addition, racism (25% of Colombians have African ancestry and 50% have Indigenous ancestry), corruption and concentration of wealth take a harsh toll. When asked to describe the legal system, we were told "La ley es para los de ruana"(the law is for the ruana-wearers). In other words, the law is only applied to the poor—those who wear ruanas, ponchos made of roughly spun wool.

Some observers feel that the ruling elites learned from the situation in Central America, Argentina, etc., and have more effectively hidden their complicity in the violence. The press does not report the close links and coordinated campaigns between the paramilitaries (who call themselves "self-defense forces") and the military. Journalists who do denounce the paramilitaries, drug lords or guerrillas are frequent victims of retaliation. A clear distinction between the Colombia conflict and the Central American conflicts of the 80's is that the Colombian guerrillas are very well funded, primarily because of their "taxing" of the drug trade. Estimates are that the FARC, for example, has an income of USD$500,000,000 per year. In Colombia, there are government institutions which have been and are working to prosecute members of paramilitary groups which commit massacres and other violations. But impunity is enforced by the murder of judges and lawyers involved in prosecution of crimes.

In the name of anti-drug efforts, the US government has given substantial support to the Colombian military over the last 30 years, including $289 million in 1999. There are currently 250-300 US military personnel in Colombia. With over 10,000* officers having graduated from the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, including a number who have been implicated in massacres and other serious human rights abuses, Colombia is the top recipient of this kind of military aid, as well. (The figure of 10,000 officers is given in the title of a recent report of the Latin America Working Group.)

There have been repeated conflicts in indigenous areas over development projects which have infringed on indigenous lands in various parts of the country. In the Northeast, three U'wa children were killed in February when the Colombian National Police attacked U'wa's protesting the planned drilling for oil by Occidental Petroleum, of which US Vice President Al Gore is a major stockholder.

IV. "Plan Colombia" and U.S. Intervention

Colombians bitterly recall the history of U.S. intervention in their country—a U.S.-fomented rebellion separated Panama, a Colombian state, from the country when the U.S. built the canal there. Current U.S. interest in the rich Urabá region of Colombia (adjacent to Panama) as a possible site for a replacement canal is understandably regarded with suspicion.

Another recent face of U.S. intervention appears in the form of "Plan Colombia," a $7.5 billion program promoted by Colombian President Pastrana in the U.S. and Europe. Many people expressed growing concern about the Plan complaining that it was written in English and sent to the U.S. before Colombian citizens ever heard of it. The Colombian Congress has never debated it, much less passed it. President Pastrana has pledged $4 billion of Colombian resources and has called on the international community to provide the remaining $3.5 billion. "Where is the government going to get that kind of money?" a political science professor asked. "The rich don't pay taxes so the government will have to sell off state-owned enterprises such as public utilities to generate funds."

The U.S. Congress has placed $1.6 billion to support the Plan in the appropriations bill for 2001 and emergency appropriations for 2000, scheduled for debate sometime in late May. The majority of those funds, about $1.3 billion, is destined for Colombia's military and police to "fight the drug war." The arms package includes helicopter gunships, advanced radar equipment and spray aircraft to defoliate coca fields. Colombian church and human rights workers are vehemently opposed to the military assistance portion of the plan saying that introducing more weapons will only fuel the armed conflict.

The Plan contemplates heavy attacks on coca fields in southern Colombia where the FARC guerillas control territory about the size of Pennsylvania and earn $500 million a year by taxing narcotics traffic. However the "Plan" does nothing to address areas where right-wing paramilitary groups (with strong ties to powerful military and government figures) are implicated in the drug trade. Colombians also worry that if the money from drugs is decreased, the FARC will raise money through an increase in kidnapping-and the FARC recently threatened to step-up kidnapping of millionaires.

The U.S. package allocates $15 million to assist an estimated 10,000 small farmers likely to be displaced by these military operations. However the people with whom we spoke say such relief measures will prove to be woefully inadequate since the real number of people who will be uprooted from their homes and fields will reach more than 100,000.

Apart from the human costs of this campaign, the environmental damage will be devastating. "The FARC is adaptable and will simply clear more jungle to move coca production further into the Amazon region," said an expert on displaced people. "The small farmers are the ones who will not be able to adjust well." Most groups we contacted support the idea of crop substitution programs for the coca growing regions. But if defoliants are sprayed over large areas (including possible use of Agent Orange) the land will be infertile for a long time and people exposed to the chemicals will suffer many health problems. Additionally, the helicopters the U.S. plans to send are equipped to utilize depleted uranium casings on artillery that will undoubtedly be used to attack guerrilla outposts, leaving a long term radiation hazard. Finally, the infrastructure—roads and markets—doesn't exist to make substitute crops profitable.

Colombians are perplexed by U.S. pressure regarding the "Drug War"—they don't understand why production of a traditional Andean product—coca leaf—which is highly valued in the U.S., is their problem. Their sentiment is expressed in graffiti on the streets of Bogotá: "Fuera Yanky Junky!" (Yankee Junkie Go Home!). Several critics noted that the U.S. successfully transferred the marijuana growing business to North America—"the best marijuana is now grown in British Colombia"—and may well be trying to gain control of the cocaine business under the guise of the "Drug War."

V. The Role of the Churches

North American Christians coming to Colombia should avoid imposing generalities about North American churches on to the Colombian churches. Particularly with regard to Colombian Mennonite Churches, North American categories do not always apply. Most Colombian Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches conduct their worship services in what we would classify as "evangelical" or "charismatic" styles.

However, unlike many of the Latin American evangelical churches whose primary identity often includes being "not Catholic", the Colombian Mennonites have been able to work cooperatively with Catholic church workers active in peace and justice causes.

Much of this type of work takes place through Justapaz, and MENCOLDES, both founded by the Colombian Mennonites. The work includes helping people displaced from their communities by violence and the development of "Sanctuaries of Peace"—churches committed to nonviolence education in their congregation and communities.

"Sanctuaries of Peace" builds on the efforts of the Anabaptist seminary run by the Mennonite church over the last decade to provide a course of study that enables young men to stay out of the army, until conscientious objection is recognized by the Colombian government. The organizers of "Sanctuaries of Peace" hope to one day provide true "sanctuary" to people wishing to leave armed groups. However, since Mennonite pastors have been threatened because of their peace advocacy work, the churches are approaching the idea cautiously.

Because of their evangelical outlook, the Colombian Mennonite churches also have good relationships with Pentecostal and charismatic churches. When two members of the delegation visited the region of Urabá, a pastor there told them he called himself a "Mennocostal" now, because Justapaz had reached out to support churches there when their pastors were being killed by both guerillas and paramilitaries. The leaders of his own denomination refused to come out and visit at the times the killings were taking place and later, when the pastors began working with displaced people, instructed them to leave the matters in the hands of the Red Cross and the government. The church leaders there are deeply grateful for the spiritual accompaniment and for the help in obtaining material support for their work with the displaced that Justapaz has given them.

If CPT pursues a project in Colombia, future delegations/workers should establish more contacts with the Catholic Church people working for peace and justice—especially those involved with the "Peace Communities" out in the countryside who refuse to allow armed factions into their towns and villages. However, the evangelical/charismatic characteristics of the Colombian Mennonite churches could very well serve as a bridge between evangelical churches in North America and the sorts of peacemaking ministries that both CPT and the Colombian Mennonites support.

Several non-Mennonite church leaders expressed feelings of abandonment by churches outside of Colombia to delegation members. CPT could play an important role merely by keeping the issues that Colombian Christians are facing in front of the North American churches.

VI. The Peace Process

A. Peace Talks, Agreements:

Peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC created a "zona de despeje"—an area about the size of Pennsylvania in the south where government troops have withdrawn and the FARC maintains both military and political control. The FARC has rejected any notion of a cease fire while the talks continue, largely because the government has a notorious history of signing accords with opposition groups then proceeding to kill off their leaders. Discussions between the government and Colombia's second largest guerilla group, the ELN, have resulted in an agreement to create another "zona de despeje" in the northern state of Bolívar. Details of that deal have not yet been disclosed. One University administrator predicted that the "acute phase" of the conflict is yet to come because all sides are still trying to increase the size of their areas of control and that the civilian cost will increase. He also stated that all parties are susceptible to international pressure—the government needs economic aid; the guerilla groups and paramilitaries want to be seen as legitimate actors with valid demands.

B. Efforts within "Civil Society" (general public, non-governmental organizations):

CPT delegates met with an array of people asserting the role of civil society in working for a negotiated peace and an end to the violence. There is a strong sense that people are tired of the war. Coalitions of non-governmental agencies including church, labor, environmental and human rights groups have formed at national, regional and local levels around a peace agenda. Justapaz, primarily through its director Ricardo Esquivia, is very connected to many of these groups including the "Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace," the "National Peace Council" and the "Evangelical Council of Colombia." The "Evangelical Council of Colombia" represents about 70% of the Protestant churches in the country and is working to develop Peace and Human Rights Committees within congregations and among local pastors' associations. The government sponsors work in developing democratic processes, which includes community building and mediation training, and Justapaz is involved in this work in Northern Colombia.

Although the landscape in Colombia seems overwhelmingly violent, there are small efforts of nonviolent resistance visible. During CPT's visit, dozens of indigenous people were camped out in front of the Environmental Ministry protesting corporate exploitation of natural resources and several indigenous Senators launched a one-week hunger strike to support their demands. A few places in Colombia have declared themselves "Peace Communities" publicly refusing to take sides or support any armed group including the Colombian military.

C. International Presence:

Peace Brigades International (PBI) has 35 people providing accompaniment to communities and high-profile individuals in Colombia. Witness for Peace sent their first exploratory delegation shortly after Easter. American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) also has a person working there.

VII. Colombian Mennonite Church Executive Committee, April 14, 2000: Ideas for Possible CPT Work

Guiding Question: "How can a CPT presence strengthen the church's mission to give a clear witness of Christian nonviolence in the process of building peace?"

  1. Accompany the concrete work of the church, including threatened individuals.
  2. Accompany other specific communities as a Christian, Anabaptist presence.
  3. Document and report to the international community, thereby increasing solidarity.
  4. Provide training within the churches in specific areas such as nonviolent direct action.