A Voice in the Wilderness

On February 17, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador sent a letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the self-dubbed “human rights president,” in which he implored Carter not to support the repressive forces in El Salvador with lethal aid.  Romero — once a conservative but then radicalized by the murder of his friend and fellow priest, Father Rutilio Grande — implored President Carter “to forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadoran government” and “to guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly . . . in determining the destiny of the Salvadoran people.”  (1) Romero explained that

It would be unjust and deplorable for foreign powers to intervene and frustrate the Salvadoran people, to repress them and keep them from deciding autonomously the economic and political course that our nation should follow.   It would be wrong to violate a right that the Latin American bishops, meeting at Puebla, recognized publicly when we spoke of ‘the legitimate self-determination of our peoples, which allows them to organize according to their own spirit and the course of their history and to cooperate in a new international order.”

I hope that your religious sentiments and your feelings for the defense of human rights will move you to accept my petition, thus avoiding greater bloodshed in this suffering country.

Sadly, Carter did not heed the good Archbishop’s pleas, and, on March 20, 1980, U.S.-backed assailants shot and killed Oscar Romero while he was saying mass.

Since that time, scores of priests have been killed throughout Latin America by U.S.-backed forces.   In Colombia alone, 79 Catholic priests have been killed since 1984.  This type of violence and repression has virtually wiped out the liberation Church which Romero described to Carter in his letter.   And indeed, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out time and time again, the U.S. School of the Americas has bragged about how it helped “destroy liberation theology” which emphasizes the “preferential treatment of the poor.”

Nonetheless, a small number of brave priests and religious have continued on with the liberation struggle.   Most notable of these is Father Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest from Colombia.

Father Giraldo was one of the founders of Colombia’s Commission of Justice and Peace which was created back in 1986, when Liberation Theology was still thriving, pursuant to a resolution of the Conference of Religious Superiors of Colombia.   As Father Giraldo explains in his book, The Genocidal Democracy, this resolution set forth the intention “’[t]o promote, support and encourage the Christian prophetic signs which are present in religious communities, through the creation of a Commission of Justice and Peace which will channel and disseminate information and protests throughout the country.’”   As Father Giraldo explains, “The Commission’s first project was to gather and disseminate information about the victims of human rights violations, the right to life, in particular.  To this end, we set up a data bank and began registering such cases.”    Indeed, Father Giraldo has been gathering and disseminating such information since that time – that is, for the past 27 years.

Reminiscent of Romero’s letter to Carter, Father Giraldo sent a letter in September of 2011 to the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, P. Michael McKinley, imploring him to prevail upon President Obama not to go ahead with his decision to release $20 million in military aid to Colombia which had been suspended on human rights grounds.  (2) And, as was the case with Jimmy Carter over 30 years ago, President Obama did not heed Father Giraldo’s pleas.  Thankfully, however, Father Giraldo, despite numerous threats against his life, continues his good work on behalf of human rights and the poor in Colombia.

In his letter, Father Giraldo sets forth profound truths about Colombia which few ever hear outside that country.  Thus, he describes the fact that the very paramilitary (a.k.a., “death squad”) strategy which continues to plague Colombia to this day was formulated pursuant to a recommendation “by the government of the United States in the [General William P.] Yarborough mission in February of 1962.”(3)   Father Giraldo explains that the goal of this U.S. strategy “was to create mixed structures made up of both civilian and soldiers to carry out terrorist attacks that would not hurt the image of the government but which would destroy communist sympathizers.”

Here, Father Giraldo is referring to the secret supplement to General Yarborough’s report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which he advised that “a concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations in case they are needed later.”  (4)  Yarborough’s special warfare team further advised that this civilian/military structure should “be used to perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States.” (id.)

In his letter, Father Giraldo further informs the Ambassador that the Colombian military’s 1969 directive known as EJC 3-10 – a directive based upon General Yarborough’s recommendation and which called upon the armed forces to organize paramilitary groups to carry out military operations against guerilla groups and to inform the military of suspected “guerilla supporters”(5) — is still very much in effect.  He explains that this directive continues today in the form of paramilitary groups which the Colombian government attempts to dismiss as mere criminal bands known as “BACRIM.”

According to Father Giraldo, these neo-paramilitary groups, as before, continue to work “in close harmony with the Army and Police” to carry out crimes against humanity, including forced displacement, extra-judicial killings and disappearances.   And, he places the responsibility for these continued abuses firmly at the feet of the U.S.   Thus, Father Giraldo informs the U.S. Ambassador that “[t]he current commanders take part in the same immunity and impunity and the assistance from your government only reinforces their criminal activity.”   He further states:

I am also deeply worried, your Excellency [Ambassador McKinley], that the military assistance from your government, aid that the Colombian government wants to use in its own way in the so-called ‘Consolidation Areas,’ will fortify those areas where there are thousands of unidentified graves, such as in the municipality of La Macarena in Meta Province.   Up to now they have identified several hundred burial sites marked NN (unidentified) next to a military base.  . . . Do you think, your Excellency, that it is fitting to certify, as a guarantor of human rights compliance, a government that maintains thousands of anonymous graves all over the country?  Those graves reveal the magnitude of the systematic crime of forced disappearance of persons, which according to national and international agencies now affects more than 50,000 families.

Father Giraldo explains that the Obama Administration’s “certification and release of military assistance funds takes place in a moment in which the economic policy of this government is showing alarming signs of failure to recognize the most fundamental collective rights of the most vulnerable populations.”  Of course, the “economic policy” referred to here is a joint U.S./Colombia policy which is spurred on by the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Act (FTA).   Father Giraldo explains that, pursuant to the economic policy:

The permits issued for mining exploitation to numerous transnational businesses have activated paramilitaries and armed conflict tremendously.  They are leaving huge populations of poor people without any land or resources.  The destruction of the environment and the destruction of indigenous, campesino and Afro-Colombian communities by these projects are leading to every kind of resistance.   This means that the security of these companies and of their destructive projects is only effective with the protection of enormous contingents of paramilitaries secretly co-opted by the armed forces and by the government security agencies, which do not hesitate to murder the leaders of the resistance.

Father Giraldo notes that “the  murder of Father Reinel Restrepo, a parish pried in Marmato, in Caldas Province . . . is one pathetic example of this” phenomenon.  Father Restrepo, some may recall, is the priest who was killed in September of 2011 amidst his struggle to fight against the destruction of the town of Marmato by the Canadian mining company, Gran Colombia Gold, which has been attempting to take over the town in order to turn it into a giant gold mine.

The letter of Father Giraldo also decries the violence in Buenaventura which is being spurred on by the struggle for control of the expanding ports there – ports which are critical to the growing trade under the FTA.   Specifically, Father Giraldo refers to

the permanent genocide that is being carried out in Buenaventura, where the neighborhoods and the Community Councils around the port are being invaded by paramilitaries supported or tolerated by the armed forces.   They cut people in pieces with horrifying cruelty throwing the body parts in to the sea, if any of them dare to resist the megaproject for the new port.   This included the expulsion of people living in the poorest areas and it includes the expropriation of the plots of garbage dumps where these people, in the midst of their misery, have over decades tried to survive.

Despite the links which Father Giraldo draws between these horrific human rights abuses and the U.S. funding of the Colombian military, President Obama went ahead with the release of the suspended military aid anyway.  In addition, just one month after this letter was sent, Obama forwarded the Colombia FTA to Congress for passage despite the links drawn in this letter between these abuses and the economic policy advanced by the FTA.

Just as Jimmy Carter turned a deaf ear to Archbishop Romero’s pleas for justice, President Obama has ignored the pleas of Father Javier Giraldo whose voice remains a “voice in the wilderness”—a term Father Giraldo himself uses in his letter to describe the victims of U.S. foreign policy in Colombia.   Still, Father Giraldo remains a prophetic voice in Colombia and in the world, defending the “preferential treatment of the poor” which the U.S. has tried to stamp out in Colombia and in Latin America since the Kennedy Administration.   That Father Giraldo, has survived against all odds to continue this struggle is a testament to his profound faith and strength.   We owe it to him as Americans to support him in his continued struggle against the U.S. policies which are destroying his country.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh and teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.   The opinions set forth in his articles are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which he is associated.


(1)   See Romero’s letter at: http://www1.villanova.edu/content/villanova/mission/campusministry/service/socialjustice/council/meetings/_jcr_content/pagecontent/download_0/file.res/Leadershipactivityandskillset2.10.pdf

(2)    See Father Giraldo’s letter at http://www.javiergiraldo.org/spip.php?article212

(3)   As Chomsky has explained the date of 1962 is important, for it was also the year in which Vatican II, the spirit of which the U.S. sought to crush, was established by the Catholic Church.  As Chomsky explained in a wonderful article in The Boston Review written around the same time as Father Giraldo’s letter:

“To consider just one important aspect, in no small measure they [the U.S. conflicts] were wars against the Church, undertaken to crush a terrible heresy proclaimed at Vatican II in 1962, which, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, ‘ushered in a new era in the history of the Catholic Church,’ in the words of the distinguished theologian Hans Küng, restoring the teachings of the gospels that had been put to rest in the fourth century when the Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, instituting ‘a revolution’ that converted ‘the persecuted church’ to a ‘persecuting church.’ The heresy of Vatican II was taken up by Latin American bishops who adopted the “preferential option for the poor.” Priests, nuns, and laypersons then brought the radical pacifist message of the gospels to the poor, helping them organize to ameliorate their bitter fate in the domains of U.S. power.

That same year, 1962, President Kennedy made several critical decisions. One was to shift the mission of the militaries of Latin America from ‘hemispheric defense’—an anachronism from World War II—to ‘internal security,’ in effect, war against the domestic population, if they raise their heads.”

(4)   Human Rights Watch, “Colombia’s Killer Networks:  The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States,” athttp://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,HRW,,COL,,3ae6a8530,0.html

(5)   Amnesty International, Colombia: The Paramilitaries in Medellin: Demobilization or Legalization?” athttp://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR23/019/2005/en/29a1b917-d4d5-11dd-8a23-d58a49c0d652/amr230192005en.pdf

Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.