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Cover story

Begging for peace amid so much death

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Apartado, Colombia

The fire of a wild white sun has eaten up the distance between hope and despair. --Thomas Merton

Everywhere I go in this place that is called The City of the Sun, I ask a simple question: "Is peace possible soon?" The answers are disturbingly blunt.

"Yes, in 300 years," a teacher responds. "Yes, in 2,000 years," a nun replies. When I pose this question to the young mayor of Apartado, she answers flatly: "No."

Yet it was clear, during a mid-November visit, that people here still hope. It is a city of light and sounds -- it is hard to imagine that death lurks all around.

Children shout and laugh. Music plays long into the warm night. Dogs howl. Vendors hawk their wares from every street corner. There are horses, carts, cars and buses. Motorbikes abound.

And yes, soldiers everywhere, with rifles in their hands or slung casually over their shoulders. It is a city of contradictions in a country full of contradictions.

Colombia is in the clutches of a life-and-death struggle between three principal forces, often indistinguishable in their aims and tactics: a floundering national government with a massive military and police apparatus; the oldest guerrilla insurgency in Latin America; and a vast network of armed civilians that has sprung up since the early 1980s. The clash of these forces has meant mayhem and murder on a scale without precedent in the hemisphere.

The Bogota-based Inter-Congregational Commission of Peace and Justice, sponsored by over 55 Catholic religious orders, points out that 2,700 cases of political murder and disappearance were registered during the brutal 17-year reign of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Yet, horrible as this was, the commission says it is far less than the number of cases it has counted each year since it began documenting deaths in Colombia nearly a decade ago.

10 murders a day

The Andean Commission of Jurists, a prestigious human rights think tank with chapters throughout the Andean region, estimates that four out of 10 victims murdered each day in Colombia in 1995 were targeted for their involvement in political, labor or social causes. Of the perpetrators identified, 45 percent belonged to paramilitary groups, 27 percent were left-wing guerrillas and 24 percent were with the armed forces or state security. The commission claimed that 97 percent of all violent crimes go unpunished and that the impunity rate for politically motivated crimes is even higher.

In its report on human rights in Colombia for 1995, the U.S. State Department said that while extrajudicial killings by police and military had dropped, "killings by paramilitary groups increased significantly, often with the alleged complicity of individual soldiers or of entire military units. These groups targeted teachers, labor leaders, community activists, mayors of towns and villages, and, above all, peasants." Human rights monitors and government attorneys have documented ties between the paramilitary groups and officials in Colombia's army and police forces.

Apartado is located in the region of Uraba, in northwestern Colombia, a strategically located point for Colombia and for the rest of the region because it links Central and South America. Uraba borders the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean, and Panama. Bananas grown here netted $400 million last year. The region also boasts resources of rubber, uranium, cattle and a substantial oil supply.

"Uraba is very rich," said Sr. Carolina Agudelo, who works with the hundreds of widows and orphans who are among the victims of violence in Apartado. "There are a lot of things here that provoke some people to kill."

Hundreds of millions of dollars in contraband leaves Colombia each year through the Gulf of Uraba. "Arms come in and drugs go out," said Apartado Mayor Gloria Cuartas Montaya during a recent interview.

In their fight for control of the land and its resources, the guerrillas have relinquished control of other conflicted regions of Colombia to the paramilitary, but analysts say the rebels will not let go of Uraba as easily. The left-wing guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitary groups are strengthening their positions, Cuartas says. The military, she said, turns a blind eye, pretending that nothing is happening.

"The paramilitary says they've crushed the guerrillas, but it's not true," said Fr. Leonidas Moreno, who coordinates human rights work for the Apartado diocese. "The guerrillas are systematically going to other places, but they don't consider they have lost Uraba."

Preparing for civil war

"The conflict we have now is going to divide the country in two," Moreno warned. The ultra-rightist paramilitary will control the north, and the guerrillas the south. There are more than 170 paramilitary groups in the north, he said, and they are preparing for civil war.

Fidel Castano, a wealthy landowner who roams free despite a 30-year sentence against him for his involvement in the massacre of 53 peasants in the region, is said to be the godfather of the paramilitary movement in Uraba and its neighboring department. He and his brother Carlos are reported to command an army of over 1,000.

The modus operandi of the paramilitary is to enter a town or village in large groups, capture several individuals, and accuse them of being collaborators with the guerrillas. They announce their intention to "clean up" the area and order all businesses to close. Anyone who disagrees with their plans has two options: leave or die. Their captives are then executed -- sometimes by decapitation -- often after being publicly tortured.

In his office in Apartado, a government human rights advocate outlines the route the paramilitary have taken in their quest to conquer Uraba, beginning in the north in February 1995, and moving down to the Apartado area by May of 1996. He confirmed what others told me: "Before, there were massacres, but now they are killing the people one by one."

A colorful poster on his office door stated Sin humanos derechos no hay paz (Without human rights there is no peace). His post is that of "defender of the people," one of many positions in an elaborate government-sponsored human rights bureaucracy. Even he admitted that the most basic human right, the right to life, is only a dream in Colombia.

This official shared 15 pages of statistics with me -- names, dates, numbers, ages of victims and methods of murder -- the odious details of a people under siege. In Apartado, 291 violent deaths occurred in 1995, and 122 more for the first six months of 1996. Throughout Uraba, during the same 18-month stint, violence claimed nearly 2,000 lives. Each massacre is dutifully recorded -- 18 people in one, 24 in another.

Statistics from the Justice and Peace Commission confirm the tragedy in Uraba. Over one-third of all the political murders in Colombia in 1995 happened here, though it represents only seven-tenths of one percent of the country's population.

Talking with 'dead men'

When I met with leaders of the banana workers union on the second floor of an office building, they opened the door slowly and cautiously. Later, someone said I had been talking with "dead men." On paper it is easy for workers to unionize in Colombia. (All that is required for a union to gain legal status is the signatures of 25 prospective members.) In practice though, union activists risk their lives every day.

The union of banana workers has nearly 10,000 members. They work for absentee plantation owners, who, under contract with large national and international corporations, ship the fruit to the United States and Europe. The labor conditions of the banana workers in Uraba include not only hard labor, low wages and risk of exposure to harmful pesticides but also persecution by right-wing assassins, the military and the guerrillas.

Many banana workers in Uraba are politically aligned with the Hope, Peace and Freedom Party, known as the Hopefuls. This party formed after guerrillas from the Popular Liberation Army -- EPL -- entered peace negotiations and demobilized in the early 1990s. Colombia's largest active guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- FARC -- considers the Hopefuls traitors. Several massacres of banana workers in and near Apartado have been attributed to the FARC.

The union workers displayed color snapshots of another office of theirs, three blocks away, in a state of devastation. Just two weeks earlier the guerrillas had attacked it with grenades.

"I think they have lost all their principles," a local resident said when queried about the guerrillas. "They are just robbers and bandits."

A computer teacher who served as my companion and guide was visibly shaken when he met me one day. He said an elderly man who worked as a porter at his school was shot and killed that same morning. Two men shot the porter in front of a group of young students while four more waited on the street. Then the assassins fled on a motorbike.

My guide said the man, known affectionately by teachers and students as el viejo (the old one), was well loved by all. But, with motives for the shooting unknown, the man became another number on the body count of government agencies and nonprofit groups.

Moreno, the priest who coordinates human rights work for the diocese, was also aware that he, too, could someday be a statistic. He said he is not afraid, shrugging. It is the role of the Catholic church, he said, to accompany those who are forced to flee the violence.

This accompaniment is an overwhelming task: The Colombian Conference of Bishops calculates that 600,000 people nationwide, or 1.6 percent of the entire population of approximately 38 million, has been displaced by violence during the past 20 years. In 1995 alone, more than 4,000 families abandoned their homes in Uraba following a paramilitary sweep through the region.

Flight from terror

"Many people have had to flee two or three times," Moreno said. The paramilitary will sometimes allow them to return, but only to territory which the paramilitary, not the guerrillas, control.

Shantytowns have sprung up all around Apartado, doubling the city's population over the past five years. Called "invasions," these suburbs of wood and tin shacks often appear literally overnight. While I was in Apartado, a group of 100 refugees, mainly children, arrived one evening. They had fled to Panama for asylum but were sent back. Colombia's Minister of Interior asked Cuartas to receive them.

In these newly-settled areas, the government buys and distributes the land. The church helps the refugees gain titles, establish cooperatives and set up other economic ventures.

Cooperatives are targets

Moreno said the paramilitary groups consider the cooperatives "subversive" activity. "When violence begins, this is the first thing they destroy," he said.

Driving though a shantytown, several city officials pointed out rows of small shops forced by paramilitary groups to close. In San Jose, a village seven miles east of Apartado, a cooperative cocoa bean factory was raided earlier this year and the four co-op leaders killed. Now this building, once the pride of the community, sits vacant and lifeless. During my week in Apartado, this same village was bombed by the military. Six more people died.

"You say goodbye to your children in the morning, and you don't know if you'll come back home," said a furniture worker from one of the shantytowns.

At the town cemetery, where workers busily prepared new tombs, my guide sadly admitted: "This is the best business to be in right now." He grew more somber and explained that some of his former students are buried in the cemetery. Many of them had joined a political movement called the Patriotic Union, which formed following peace accords with the FARC rebels in 1984 and became a coalition party for the left. Since the Patriotic Union, or UP, began, an estimated 3,000 of its members -- including two of its presidential candidates, a handful of senators and scores of local officials and bright, young activists -- have been assassinated.

The UP once enjoyed broad popular support throughout Uraba, but paramilitary violence has nearly erased its presence in the region. The former mayor of Apartado, a UP member, is imprisoned in Bogota, and four UP city council members have fled to Medellin.

In Bogota, Jahel Quiroga, the UP's director of human rights, ran through the roll of party leaders slain nationwide.

"It's genocide," she says.

The UP presently has a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights involving 1,163 of these murders, Quiroga said.

Quiroga fled Colombia in 1992, after six of her human rights co-workers were assassinated. In 1994, Amnesty International smuggled her out of the country again after she received death threats. "I came back in 1995 and I'm not leaving the country anymore," she said firmly.

Before I left Apartado, I returned to the cemetery. Workmen were still mixing mortar, making little concrete tombs and stacking them, one on top of the other, like a stairway to heaven. Although some are buried underground, most are interred in the tombs and stacked above ground. One worker opened a little cardboard box to show me the top part of an unidentified corpse waiting for interment.

Above me, bright red blossoms drooped from the trees and a hummingbird fluttered in a holding pattern beside the tombs. The rich sunlight of the Caribbean drenched this city of contradictions as schoolchildren left their classes for the beginning of summer.

A few days later, the children participated in a conference commemorating the United Nations day against violence against women. Six women from another region attend, telling of the horrors of war they too have endured. Finally, the children claim the stage, and, lighting candles, they sing, like angels, "I light a candle for peace, and for the children who are to come."

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997