I spent the last six months of 2003 in Colombia, living with a community in the foothills of the Andes, in the Urabá region, a region of mountains, jungle, and huge rivers stuck up next to Panama at the gateway to South America. I was a volunteer with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which maintains a team of internationals who live in accompaniment with the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Thirty years ago, this was a region forgotten by Bogotá, a frontier inhabited by settlers, most of whom were driven from another part of Colombia during the endless civil war. Of course, the indigenous live there also, as they have for millennia. Today, its economy is dominated by the banana plantations, which cover the plain around the Gulf of Urabá.
The region has been enveloped by the civil war. Through the latter part of the 1970’s and the 1980’s,the Colombian military fought the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the ELN (Ejercito Liberación Nacional), and the EPL (Ejercito Popular Liberación). The paramilitary AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) was formed, and paramilitaries led by the Castaño brothers under the banner of Autodefensas Colombianas de Cordoba y Urabá (ACCU) fought the dirty war of the military, slaughtering peasants, destroying in vicious fashion any part of the civilian population, which might provide a haven or support for the guerrilla. The military attacked the FARC and the ELN. The government co-opted and eventually subsumed the EPL, who then were attacked by their former comrades. It was a bloodbath in the bananero, as workers who would be organized under any banner were at risk from rival forces of the left and the right. Waves of refugees who had fled the violence of the cities for the countryside were now forced off their land, back to the slums of the cities.
Today, the region has been effectively “paramilitarized”. The paramilitary forces of the AUC control the major cities of Urabá. The military has a major presence, with roadblocks on each little road leading to a village. Every time we would travel from San Jose de Apartadó to the city of Apartadó, we had to present identification, which was often recorded, and submit to a body search, as well as a search of all our belongings. People bringing goods back from town had to account for them. If they had a large quantity, they were accused of being guerrilla, warned not to bring so much with them. Men’s hands were checked if they were not callused, they were guerrilla suspects. During the month of September, Yorbeli Amparo Restrepo Florez, a resident of San José de Apartadó, was accused by the military of transporting too many goods in too short a time. On October 2, she was taken off a public transport jeep (a “chiva”) by four paramilitaries. Her dead body was found in the street in Apartadó at 6 PM that day. While I was accompanying the community with FOR in 2003, the paras stole 23,000,000 pesos (about $8000) at gunpoint from a community leader in a PBI (Peace Brigades International) vehicle. This was money intended to buy cocoa beans from campesino farmers, and was a severe blow to the community. This robbery occurred about 500 yards from a military checkpoint.
This repression has a minimal effect on the FARC, who operate in the densely forested hills, armed and organized, beyond the power of the military or paramilitary to defeat or control. They too lash out occasionally at the civilian population, accusing them of being in support of the paramilitaries or military. For example, on November 17, Amador Delgado, a man who lived between two of the settlements in San José de Apartadó, was taken out of his house and killed by the FARC, for unknown reasons. In November of this year, the FARC assassinated a 70-year-old indigenous leader of the Arhuaco in Sierra of Santa Marta, Mariano Suarez Chaparro. He was the twentieth civilian of his community killed by the various factions since 2000. The community issued a statement: “from down the mountain, the AUC or the military forces accuse us of collaborating with the guerrilla, and when we look up the mountain, the FARC accuse us of collaborating with the military and paramilitaries.”
It is in this context that the peace community movement of Colombia has taken hold. It is composed of campesinos, indigenous people, and refugees who simply try to carve out a space to live their lives in the midst of the conflict. They pledge to remain neutral, to not carry weapons, to not participate in any way, to not aid any armed group.
They ask all armed groups to respect their space to farm, to fish, to live a life with dignity on their land. It is a movement “desde abajo”, from below, fashioned out of the sacrifice of many of the participants.
Since San José de Apartadó declared itself a peace community in 1997, and re-inhabited their land to the east of Apartadó on that basis, over 100 community members have been killed by the armed groups, of the left and right. Today, there are dozens of declared peace communities in Colombia, who are saying “no mas” to the war, trying to create a space to live a life within the madness. Despite the risk, people are willing to take a stand to try to reclaim some part of their lives.
As Colombian writer Alfredo Molano has noted and documented in such books as “Trochas y Fusiles” (Shortcuts and Rifles), the basis of the conflict is social and economic simply, over half the population has been deprived for many generations of the wealth of the country and lives in poverty. As James Petras indicated in his recent CounterPunch letter to the hopelessly opportunistic Saramago, the other options for change have been foreclosed. There is no doubt that the FARC and the ELN grew out of the basic struggles for land, for survival, by peasants and farmers. Yet, it is clear that these groups have become institutions of the war that has lasted these many decades. They have lived and prospered in the conflict. Their recruits come from the 3 million internal refugees of the war; their pride comes from the ongoing fight. The civilian population has become a secondary concern. People turn to the peace community idea out of desperation, as a way to create new institutions to both survive and resolve the conflict.
Colombia is a place of grand denial, profound delusion. One of the leaders of the peace community movement, Javier Giraldo, writes in his book, “War or Democracy”, of the schizophrenia of the Colombia government in this time, in his analysis of the “negotiations” with the paramilitaries. The government has created these paramilitaries that have produced so much death and torment in the countryside. The military has complete control of them. The soldier, who appears as a para one day, may be in his government uniform the next. Yet, there is the delusion of negotiation by the government with the paras, a deep denial of responsibility. How can we negotiate with part of our self? The paras and the military, AND the guerilla armies are institutions of Colombia at this time. To deny that each must have a say in the outcome of the struggle is to deny reality, to be complicit with the madness, to ensure that the madness will go on.
Colombia is the largest recipient of US aid in the Americas. Each year of Plan Colombia has yielded a half billion dollars of military and police aid. The reasons for this are obvious – Colombia provides the US much oil and is a geopolitical keystone in South America. There are 800 US soldiers and 600 civilian contractors in Iraq. Three civilian contractors are being held by the FARC, with hundreds of Colombians held hostage by the war. Yes, the US is at war in Colombia as certainly as in Iraq – it is just another front. In 2005, Plan Colombia will be reconsidered, and refunded or not by the United States.
For those interested in delving deeper into the reality of Colombia, I recommend “More Terrible Than Death” by Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch. This book captures the feel of the riddle that Colombia has become, and the reality of the struggle for human rights in Colombia. Steven Dudley’s “Walking Ghosts” examines the history of the Patriotic Union, which was wiped out in a political genocide by the rightwing of Colombia. Dudley places too much emphasis on the FARC’s responsibility for the destruction done by the right, but it is a useful history nevertheless. Mario Murillo’s “Colombia and the United States, War, Unrest and Destabilization” is a reasoned look at the history of US involvement in Colombia. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International publish periodic reports on the human rights situation. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, Peace Brigades International, Witness for Peace, and Christian Peacemaker Teams all provide various degrees of physical accompaniment and international witness for the civilian population of Colombia. Any can be contacted for information.
JOE DeRAYMOND is a frequent visitor to Colombia and Central America. He can be reached at: email@example.com