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Economics fuels return of La Violencia

NCR Staff
Villavicencio, Columbia

William Rozo spoke in a hushed staccato from his desk at the office of the Catholic church’s local Committee for Justice, Life and Peace. Flanked by posters -- one heralding the rights of civilians to remain neutral during armed conflicts, another from the United Nations urging Colombians to “join the force for peace” -- Rozo gave a preliminary accounting of the massacre committed by a paramilitary squad in the town of Mapiripán.

“The diocese has a record of 26 people killed. Most were mutilated with machetes, their heads were chopped off, their chests sliced open in the sign of a cross so the bodies wouldn’t float when thrown into the river. All were men. The killings began July 16 and ended July 20,” Rozo, 24, said.

“It seems they used heads for soccer balls. There were heads 50 yards from bodies, next to stones that looked like goal markers,” he said.

While President Clinton, during a recent visit to South America, expressed hope at the march toward democracy in the region, a new surge of violence is plaguing Colombia. Persistent death threats and murders by paramilitary squads forced the shutdown of a regional human rights committee last year. Several committee members were killed, others left this region -- the lush Eastern plains -- in fear.

Rozo and three other church staff continued human rights work and were on hand to receive hundreds of people who fled after the Mapiripán massacre.

On this day, two of the refugees had come to Rozo’s office seeking the church’s assistance for their families. One of them, a Mapiripán community leader, described the attack.

“The horror extended all over,” he said. “They came by airplane. They sought out the community leaders first.”

The town, he said, had seen an occasional murder before. “But this kind of selective killing, chopping off heads and hanging them for all to see? We never experienced anything like this before. ... They pulled out fingernails and chopped out little pieces of flesh. You don’t even do that to kill an animal. You shoot it first and then skin it,” he said.

Testimonies like those from Mapiripán have become routine in many regions of Colombia’s countryside. In recent years, a network of paramilitary squads has spread throughout the country. The death squads, calling themselves “self-defense” groups, wage counterinsurgency campaigns against left-wing guerrillas and civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas.

The violence is being driven by a complex tangle of forces, including industrial development; the ambition for land, some of which holds rich supplies of minerals and oil; the impending development of a “dry canal,” a major highway system for the delivery of goods; the steady march toward a global economy; the lucrative drug trade; and by age-old divisions between rich and poor and the resulting social inequities.

The resurgence of violence is tied by some expert observers in Colombia to continued aid to the military by the United States, aid that some Colombians say is helping to support paramilitary networks.

Amid the violence stands the Catholic church, mediating, providing aid and trying to stem the brutality. Some claim that the church has changed (see accompanying story) and taken on a far greater identity with the struggle of the poor since Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, once the country’s leading churchman, was appointed to a new position in Rome.

Doing the dirty work

The death squads’ method of “cleansing” entire regions rivals the brutality of death squads and armed forces in Central America in the 1980s. Colombian military officials claim that the army does not support the squads. But judicial investigations, classified documents and years of reports from human rights monitors show direct links between the military and these paramilitary proxies.

Fr. Alonzo Ferro, director of the Bogotá-based Jesuit Program for Peace, said, “We all know the military supports the paramilitaries. There are enough testimonies, cases where there is clear support. The paramilitaries do the dirty work.”

As right-wing miniarmies gain control of key areas, left-wing guerrillas have intensified their own violent campaigns to maintain territorial and political dominance. Trapped in the maw of this conflict are hundreds of thousands of civilians, especially campesinos, like the two friends from Mapiripán.

“The only sin we have committed is that of living in that region. You fall in love with the land, it is very beautiful,” the younger man said.

His companion said, “Those who have the power are those who have the guns. We end up like soccer balls ourselves, kicked over here, kicked over there. The army accuses us of doing a favor for the guerrillas, and if you lend the army a pump, the guerrillas accuse you of working for the army.”

The violence has left Colombia with one of the worst human rights records in Latin America. In the last decade more than one million Colombians have been displaced, primarily from rural areas.

Political and sociopolitical violence claims the lives of more than 4,300 Colombians each year, according to the studies of a data bank in Bogotá jointly run by the Jesuit Center for Investigation and Popular Education and the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace. Another 200 people are forcibly disappeared.

Only 30 percent of political killings occur during formal combat between organized armed actors -- the military, paramilitaries and guerrillas. Peasants account for the highest percentage of victims of noncombat political assassinations, according to the data bank.

Paramilitaries are the principal authors of noncombat killings -- 74 percent from October 1996 through March 1997.

Both guerrillas and paramilitaries resort to kidnapping for profit and political publicity. Over 70 percent of the kidnappings in the world occur in Colombia, according to human rights reports. Guerrillas are responsible for the largest number -- 40 percent.

The election war

Overall, there were 24,000 homicides in Colombia in 1996, a number that is expected to climb to more than 30,000 this year. Few parties or political organizations have escaped attack. Both the left wing and right wing have accelerated violence anticipating the Oct. 26 municipal and congressional elections.

“October will be a war of these local powers. The paramilitaries do not want any candidates to triumph who are outside the (Liberal and Conservative) bipartisan elites. And the guerrillas do not want to allow those traditional party politicians to gain ground in their zones,” said sociologist Iván Forero.

While rebel violence is on the rise, human rights monitors concur that since the mid-1980s, when death squads began to flourish, political violence has hit hardest at members of left-wing and progressive movements, critics of the economic and political status quo and peasants living in areas where the army and paramilitaries are active.

“Dirty war” violence from paramilitaries allied with members of the army, drug traffickers and large land owners has in many areas acquired the characteristics of limpieza -- a cleansing -- a term used by death squad chiefs themselves.

“There is a clear and brazen persecution, an extermination campaign, of anyone who thinks differently. In the plains, I grew to understand it,” said Sr. Nohemi Palencia, speaking from exile in Bogotá after a decade working in the Eastern Plains in community health and human rights. “They just killed and killed people from the (leftist) Patriotic Union Party. They didn’t leave anyone behind from any other party than those that have existed forever, anyone different from Liberals or Conservatives.”

Yet, this conflict is not Colombia’s alone. Aid and training from U.S. military institutions and the Central Intelligence Agency have propped up the counterinsurgency violence. The narcotics trade and the war on drugs have intensified the scope of conflict. More recently, the move toward global economics has broadened its complexity.

So dramatic is the situation that 30 high-profile Colombian intellectuals issued a collective plea in August for United Nations mediation before the country becomes “another Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

Roots of violence

Colombia’s violence is rooted, in part, in the country’s tumultuous political history. From 1948 to 1953, Colombia’s Liberal and Conservative parties fought a rural civil war for political control that resembled today’s conflict. During this period, known as “La Violencia,” bands of gunmen hired by political bosses from each side, often with assistance from the police, attacked whole villages, scalping and decapitating victims, the majority of them peasants.

An estimated 2 million rural inhabitants fled their homes. Their landholdings were snatched by regional elites and hired thugs from the Liberal and Conservative parties. “La Violencia,” like today’s paramilitary actions, was a service that was paid for with the land of the victims. There is evidence, as there is today, that this violence was sheltered by the government,” said Alfredo Molano, a Colombian sociologist and prolific author known for his chronicles of rural violence.

To curb the bloodletting, party leaders set up a “National Front” power-sharing pact under which the two principal parties alternated the presidency until 1974. During this time, they split the economic and bureaucratic spoils of government.

This system left no room for partisan or grassroots opposition. Such exclusionary policies spawned Colombia’s principal left-wing guerrilla movements -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC; the National Liberation Army, ELN; the People’s Liberation Army, EPL; and the April 19 Movement, M-19. After years of armed stalemate, the M-19 guerrillas, a section of the FARC, most of the EPL and a small group of the ELN decided throughout the 1980s to abandon arms and give peace processes and electoral politics a try. However, legal movements stemming from such negotiations were soon met with systematic killings.

Violence from death squads and members of the military, for example, wiped out the Patriotic Union, a party formed by demobilized FARC rebels, members of the Communist Party and independents after the 1984 peace accords. Violence also debilitated the M-19; splits in the movement’s leadership ensued. Like the Patriotic Union, the M-19 today occupies a small spot on the political spectrum.

As with the guerrilla movements, Liberal and Conservative party leaders denounce the killings of hundreds of their members. But left-wing and progressive movements have suffered a disproportionate quota of attacks. After a decade of brutal political violence, Liberals and Conservatives still dominate electoral politics. According to local press reports, Liberal party politicians account for 63 percent of the candidates running for 18 governor’s posts in the Oct. 26 elections. Adding Conservative candidates, that total reaches 76 percent.

However, much more than governorships is at stake in the Colombian countryside. Political and economic power go hand in hand. Contemporary free market trends have intensified that historical relationship.

An illustration of this is the recent displacement of thousands of peasants from the western Chocó department to the Urabá region further north. Months of occupation by paramilitary ground patrols by the same network that was responsible for the Mapiripán killings followed by army aerial bombardments forced more than 10,000 people to flee the municipality of Riosucio in February.

Riosucio, which hugs the Panamanian border, is a large, fertile swath in Chocó, the only Colombian department with both Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Because of its location, Riosucio is set to become part of a strategic corridor of international commerce with the construction of a “dry canal” -- a belt of highway for the fast transport of goods between the Caribbean and the Pacific along the Darien jungle foothills that could serve as a complement of sorts to the Panama Canal.

Riosucio and the neighboring banana lands of Urabá, (see map) harbor other riches: minerals, tropical hardwoods, top quality coal, diverse flora and fauna, hydroelectric potential, quality farmland, cattle and, reportedly, oil. The zone is also a crossroads of weapons and narcotics traffic. Whoever controls it reaps profits from that contraband.

Land values in the region are expected to climb with the onslaught of development projects. “Just imagine a million percent increase,” said Marco Aurelio Rentería, the personero, or locally elected human rights ombudsman in Riosucio, exaggerating to make his point clear. “What is worth 200,000 pesos a hectare today will be worth $5 million pesos before long, with the canal.”

The dry canal is scheduled to slice through the area where 10,000 people were forcibly displaced by paramilitary groups and army attacks during operations that started in December and continued through August. The largest group of Riosucio refugees, approximately 4,300 people, half of them children and youth, walked a month through jungle and hilly terrain until the military cut off their exodus in a tiny village called Pavarandó, in the Urabá region. There, the refugees fashioned shacks from saplings, bamboo, plastic and banana thatch and sought humanitarian food aid.

A separate group of 300 of the Riosucio displaced crossed the Panamanian border creating an international diplomatic row that resulted in their repatriation and relocation in another zone.

Another 3,000 Riosucio peasants ended their northbound trek in the Caribbean port of Turbo, the nerve center for banana exports, slated to become one of the key transit points for trade in the future. Hundreds of the refugees crowded into the town coliseum; one group found better living conditions in a shelter built by the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace

At the shelter, Riosucio peasants gave descriptions of paramilitary violence similar to those from distant Mapiripán. One night in August, 14-year-old Fabián Mejía (not his real name) stood and lifted his ebony chin, in response to a request from a Wisconsin-based solidarity group for testimonies from young people.

“Those paramilitaries arrived with big arms, and they wore those things around here,” the boy said, moving his hand across his front to indicate an ammunition belt. “There were about 100 in my hamlet, and one went clack clack with his gun. I got scared. I got a fever and a headache. And they asked me things, if I’d seen the guerrillas. I told them I knew nothing about that.” Mejía exhaled as if exorcising a ghost. “One of them said, ‘Come over here.’ He sized me up and down, with that face. I was scared. I thought death had come upon me.”

Another pause brought tears, then the adolescent continued with a plea. “They gave us three days to leave. We are campesinos. We don’t know everything. Help us have a future. Here, we are living a very bad life.”

Mejía later talked about his dreams: To return to his home on the Atrato River where he could swim with his friends, tend to his ducks and chickens, study, fish and plant and harvest plantains, yucca and corn.

In the shelter, he said, “I get so bored here, I want to die. And the water! They only give us one bucket to use to bathe, and they scolded me for using more.”

It is the water and farmland for which Mejía yearned. It is outsiders’ desire for control of the riches around and beneath that water and farmland that forced the Riosucio exodus, said community leaders back at the Turbo coliseum.

“The rich countries have looked for pretexts to get us out of our lands, which are among the richest in Latin America. Guerrillas are the pretext. We peasants have taken care of that land for 500 years, and it should not end up in the hands of the developed countries,” one man insisted.

Forty-seven-year-old Maria Luz Nely Serna, the mother of 17 children, agreed. “The great countries are the owners of our future. Our country is negotiating with the pharaohs. The great countries want to buy what is not theirs to buy. They know how to exploit our land,” she said. “I want my land back so I can feed my children.”

The rise of guerrilla movements in Colombia was accompanied by a proliferation of Cold War counterinsurgency strategies within the military establishment. The employment of irregular civilian forces -- known as self-defense patrols or paramilitaries -- in anti-guerrilla warfare can be traced directly to the historical relationship between the Colombian armed forces and the United States.

In November 1996, Human Rights Watch/Americas released a report that revealed historical links between U.S. Cold War strategies and political violence in Colombia. It also exposed the nurturing in 1991 of the paramilitary model by the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

According to the report, “Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States,” the designing by U.S. military agents of counterinsurgency strategies in Colombia dates back to the establishment in 1955 of Colombia’s Lancero School, the first counterguerrilla training center in the region.

In the 1960s, as the influence of left-wing guerrillas spread, U.S. advisers perfected Plan Lazo, a counterinsurgency scheme that, according to U.S. Army Special Warfare School documents, set up a civil-military structure 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.”

During the next three decades, the implementation of this paramilitary strategy under the guidance of U.S. strategists continued.

According to Human Rights Watch/Americas, one Colombian army counterguerrilla manual drafted in 1969 and updated several times was based on five U.S. Army Field Manuals and three U.S. Army Special Texts. It recommends the organization of the “civilian population militarily so that they may defend themselves against guerrilla actions and assist combat operations.” The army, the manual instructs, should provide these paramilitary cadres, or “self-defense groups,” with weapons of restricted army issue to perform “search, control and destructive operations” and to implement “the violent rejection of guerrilla actions in their region.”

Persons exhibiting indifference or negative attitudes toward troops, yet another manual states, are to be pegged as “subversives,” placed on “gray” or “black” lists, and sent threats to “frighten them and make them believe that they have been compromised and must abandon the area.” Key, that manual claimed, was the maintenance of a public pose of legality to mask such covert operations.

Narcos, paras and drugs

This strategy was similar to that used in other Latin American countries in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, Colombians, since the early 1980s, have experienced a dirty war that paralleled and today surpasses the horrors committed in Central America. By 1990, Colombia replaced El Salvador as the number one Latin American recipient of U.S. military aid. Colombia also has sent large numbers of students through the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, according to recent human rights reports.

The persistent violence has received only peripheral treatment in the international press, despite frequent stories about the country’s drug cartels and the war on drugs. Drug traffickers, Colombia’s paramilitary dirty war, and the U.S. support of the latter under the guise of the war on drugs, however, are not separate stories.

To understand the relationship among Colombia’s paramilitary networks and their development requires a return to the banana lands of Urabá. One of the first highly publicized death squad massacres in Colombia was the March 1988 slayings of 22 workers from the Honduras and La Negra banana plantations in Urabá. Paramilitaries yanked the men from their beds and shot them. This collective killing was the curtain raiser to a string of horrific massacres that year that claimed more than 600 lives.

So frequent and brutal were the 1988 mass slayings that they prompted unprecedented action from Colombia’s judges. By September 1988, Judge Marta Lucia Gonzalez announced preliminary results of her probe and brought charges against two well-known drug traffickers, three military officials, a police lieutenant, a local mayor and 11 other civilians.

Gonzalez subsequently fled to the United States because of death threats. Seven months later, her father, Alvaro Gonzalez, was slain. In July 1989, the judge who assumed the investigation, Maria Elena Diaz, was assassinated. As a result of her investigation, Gonzalez outlined an alliance between the army, Medellín cartel drug traffickers, cattle ranchers and death squads who trained in Puerto Boyaca.

Gonzalez claimed that Maj. Luis Felipe Becerra Bohórquez, from the intelligence division of the Urabá army battalion, contracted with assassins to massacre the banana workers. A lieutenant and a captain were also linked to the massacre.

Despite the ongoing investigation involving him, Becerra resumed normal military life. He got a job running the army’s press office and continued officer training abroad.

“When a government official tried to notify Becerra of a judicial decision in 1989, he was told that the officer was not available since he was in the United States taking a course necessary for his promotion to lieutenant colonel,” Human Rights Watch/Americas reported.

After making the rank of colonel, Becerra appeared again in the human rights and judicial rosters in 1993 -- he faced a second investigation for links to the massacre of 13 people in October of that year in the southern town of Riofrio. He was subsequently retired from the military through an executive decree. Since the Urabá killings, human rights monitors compiled lists of other Colombian officers with records like Becerra’s.

Military complicity

Organizations such as the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace, supported by a majority of Colombia’s religious communities and led by Jesuit Fr. Javier Giraldo, traced the complicity of military officials in the advance of paramilitary projects.

Despite these reports, in the fall of 1990 a team of CIA and U.S. military strategists gathered to find ways to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of Colombia’s military intelligence. The meeting occurred just a few months after a death squad, led by an army major, killed 107 people in an area called Trujillo, hacking many of them to death with a chain saw -- including a parish priest, Fr. Tiberio de Jesús Fernández.

Asked about this visit by U.S. strategists, a U.S. Department of State official for Inter-American Affairs said in a phone interview with NCR, “We do not discuss intelligence matters.”

According to Human Rights Watch/Americas, members of that team were fully aware of links between the Colombian military and paramilitary killers, yet they bolstered the covert, paramilitary model. At the time, discussions in Washington on U.S. security assistance to Colombia centered on the war on drugs. But, according to Human Rights Watch/Americas, the classified document produced by the Colombian military in May 1991 from recommendations given by the U.S. visitors did not mention antinarcotics strategies. It emphasized instead combating “escalating terrorism by armed subversion.”

The document, Order 200-05/91, “provided a blueprint for ... a secret network that relied on paramilitaries not only for intelligence but to carry out murder,” Human Rights Watch/Americas summarized. Direction of some 30 networks of paramilitaries was to come from the military high command.

Order 200 states, “The study, selection, instruction, training, location and organization of these networks, urban as well as rural, will be covert and under the responsibility of division or brigade commanders, or their equivalents in other forces, and the network commanders.”

The order instructs military commanders to make “no written contacts with informants or civilian members of the network; everything must be agreed to orally.” Moreover, Order 200 requires that networks be “covert and compartmentalized, allowing for the necessary flexibility to cover targets of interest.”

The paramilitary massacres and political killings that have occurred in the wake of this intelligence “reorganization” dwarf the actions committed by the death squads during the 1980s.

Using the euphemism “Self-Defense Groups of Cordoba and Urabá” -- ACCU -- members of the paramilitary networks have held three major national level meetings since Order 200 was issued. They have “cleansed” hundreds of thousands of alleged “subversive” supporters from the Colombian countryside. Few regions remain untouched by their actions. These paramilitary networks have also extended their reach to urban areas, targeting investigators, intellectuals, unionists and especially, more recently, individuals employed by both government and nongovernmental organizations to work with the displaced.

In July, paramilitaries in the Chocó department were suspected of threatening a delegation of United Nations and Colombian judicial officials. “Leave or we’ll blow you up,” read a penciled threat slipped under a motel room door. The delegation was investigating the source of displacement of the 10,000 Riosucio peasants.

Hector Torres, director of the progressive Catholic monthly Utopias said the “paramilitaries are now an army on their own.” He said the army assists them quietly. “They are a para-state force that attacks the civilian population, and in 10 years, they will have the government on its knees,” he said.

Former Col. Carlos Alfonso Velásquez said the paramilitary threat is even more complicated because of ties between Cali drug kingpins and some civilian death squad leaders. Velásquez claims that the paramilitary networks the CIA and U.S. Department of Defense have helped to create have links to the Cali cocaine cartel.

Velásquez formerly headed the army division of the Search Block, a specialized strike force created with U.S. assistance. Under Velásquez’s command, raids by the Search Block in Cali preceded the highly publicized investigation of scores of Colombian politicians including President Ernesto Samper and the imprisonment of some for receiving campaign funding from the Cali drug traffickers.

Following a scandal Velásquez says was a frame by the drug mafia, he was moved to the post of second in command of the army battalion in Urabá. There he reported to military superiors on the battalion’s negligence in curbing paramilitary activity in the region.

Velásquez was subsequently forced to retire from the army. In an interview with NCR, Velásquez said that the CIA and the Department of Defense have information about links between members of the military, paramilitary leaders and Cali drug traffickers.

The State Department official said the United States has been critical of the Colombian government’s record on human rights. He referred NCR to the 1996 State Department report on Human Rights in Colombia that affirms “the armed forces and police continued to be responsible for serious (human rights abuses) including, according to credible reports, instances of death squad activity within the army.”

In 1996, the report continues, “killings by paramilitary groups increased significantly, often with the alleged complicity of individual soldiers or of entire military units and with the knowledge and tacit approval of senior military officials.”

Despite such concerns, U.S. security aid to Colombia is on the rise: The justification of increased assistance -- which will reach an estimated $100 million total to the armed forces and police for 1997 -- is antinarcotics, even though Colombia was “decertified” by Congress in 1996 and 1997 as a partner in the drug war.

President Clinton circumvented a freeze on $30 million in military aid under decertification by signing a waiver in August. The waiver came after U.S. officials pressured the Colombian army to sign an agreement to link assistance to respect for human rights.

The State Department official said that military aid to Colombia will not be given to units engaged in human rights abuses. U.S. Embassy officials, he said, will monitor the aid, and the bulk of the assistance will support the antinarcotics police force, which has a “clean record.”

However, past oversight by U.S. agencies of the use of aid and equipment has not proved effective, according to 1991 and 1997 commentary from the U.S. General Accounting Office, an investigative body that answers to Congress. GAO claims neither the State Department nor the Defense Department has “developed policies or procedures for monitoring” assistance. GAO criticized the State Department this year for “obstructing” its Colombia review of antinarcotics aid by delaying information.

Analysts and inhabitants of rural areas repeatedly confirmed that Cali drug traffickers are among the chief economic beneficiaries of paramilitary activity. In the wake of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of peasants, Cali and other narcotics entrepreneurs, as well as traditional landowners and political bosses, have taken control of millions of acres of Colombia’s richest land.

A report from the U.S. Senate made public in Colombia in August corroborated those claims. “Drug traffickers in Colombia have concentrated land in the hands of a few,” the report said. It added that “drug traffickers own 30 percent of the country’s arable land.” Colombian National University sociologist Alejandro Reyes has described this concentration of landholdings as a “counter-agrarian reform.”

Guerrillas gone wild

Left-wing guerrillas from the FARC and the ELN have responded to the advance of paramilitary squads by escalating their military activities and attacks on the civilian population. For example, a FARC front in the southern Caqueta department attacked a military garrison and kidnapped 70 soldiers in September 1996, holding them hostage till negotiations brokered by a Catholic bishop brought their release in June 1997.

One FARC front also announced in August that its cadres would mimic paramilitary attacks on family members of guerrillas and begin “destroying” the kin of army soldiers.

Rebels have accelerated attacks on traditional party politicians and civilians they claim support the military or paramilitaries; they have stepped up bombing of oil pipelines, halting pumping twice this summer. In response to the oil attacks, the Colombian government declared a hike in gas prices, a move that commonly boosts the cost of basic goods.

“The guerrillas and the army and paramilitaries affect the civilian population. Each of them is fighting by stepping on members of the civil society,” said Fernán González, assistant director of the Center of Investigation and Popular Education. “The logic is perverse, and on both sides it leads to the same thing -- disaster.”

Francisco Leal, a political scientist and dean of social sciences at the private Los Andes University in Bogotá, said violence is turning Colombia into “a country without a spinal column, without national integration. There are a variety of forces all pushing things toward their own corners.”

Leal issued a strong warning for quick resolution. “If this polarizes more, the solution will be gory. It will be even bloodier than now. The decomposition and deterioration will get worse and worse. This is a process in crescendo.”

Jesuit Fr. Ferro of the Program for Peace was more optimistic. “Yes, we are killing each other without mercy. Massacres are our daily bread,” he said. “But in the midst of all this death, people have a powerful will to live, to search for ways out of this situation.”

Proof of Ferro’s assessment thrives in a small town in Urabá called San José de Apartadó. More than 800 peasants were displaced from their rural hamlets earlier this year. Guerrillas and the military waged combat. The army subsequently bombed the hills. Soldiers told the peasants to leave because the mochacabezas -- a local nickname for paramilitaries meaning head-hackers -- were on the way.

Taking refuge in the village, these families refused to be displaced further. Instead, during Holy Week, they established a Community of Peace whose members claim neutrality from involvement with all “armed actors” -- guerrillas, paramilitaries and even government armed forces.

“Our only solution is to align ourselves with no one. If we stand with any of these groups, our lives get tied into knots,” said a member of the San José community council.

In four and a half months, 33 members of the Community of Peace, have been killed, mostly by paramilitary squads. During NCR’s weeklong visit to the region this summer, gunmen shot and killed John Jairo Zapata, an environmentalist who helped the community with reforestation projects. That same week, another unidentified body lay decomposing about 15 minutes outside of San José. Judicial officials and peasants alike were afraid to retrieve it. The council leader said paramilitaries killed Zapata because he was helping the community live and resist.

“Finding nonviolent resistance, well, that doesn’t settle very well with the military and paramilitaries,” he said. “This impedes their project, the fact that we are an organized community. They cannot burst in here and slaughter us all. They cannot accuse us of having arms or attack us claiming we are a nest of guerrillas. We have proved this is not true.”

Paramilitaries have also set up a checkpoint on the road between San José and the city of Apartadó, the closest supply center for the community. At the post, paramilitary gunmen yank San José peasants from public vehicles. Several have disappeared, their bodies later found in the hills. The paramilitaries also restrict the flow of goods to the community. Although this checkpoint is located about 15 minutes from the militarized town of Apartadó, neither army nor police take action against these private gunmen.

In an interview with NCR, battalion commander Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio Rojas insisted that the military “combats both guerrillas and organized common criminals -- poorly named paramilitaries -- with equal force.”

Council members said that many former guerrillas who took advantage of government amnesty programs now work as paramilitaries, manning the checkpoint and receiving monthly salaries of about $300.

“What the government did with the amnesty policy was move these guys from one armed group to another and give them new guns and even more power,” another council member said. “That’s not working for peace.”

Plea for presence

Key to the survival of the San José community is the presence of an international missionary team and visits from Catholic church personnel, say those who live here. “The church accompanies us in everything. We feel much more secure and guided because of their presence here,” a council member said.

Red Cross volunteers also provide protection to peasants venturing to fields to harvest crops. The San José community members said they will continue to resist and will not allow paramilitaries to repopulate the zone, a tactic used elsewhere. Community leaders said, however, that powerful economic interests will complicate their return to their farms.

San José de Apartadó is nestled among hills known as the Serrania del Abibe, which guards reserves of high quality, low sulfur coal. “With that coal in these hills, the government is not going to give in so easily,” a council member said.

“The coal companies want our land. Where there is money to be made, the life of a peasant is worth nothing,” he said. “The peasant is doomed to die or be shoved to one side.”

Church leaders and members of nongovernmental organizations working in zones of conflict say the San José de Apartadó Community of Peace is a model for a solution to the mayhem in the Colombian countryside. Bishop Iván Castaño of Quibdó, the capital of the Chocó department from which 10,000 peasants fled in February, said that neutrality is a prerequisite for peace and for the return of the displaced to their homelands.

“We are interested in creating a bridge between the parts that are in conflict, to get them to reach agreements to stop the killing of civilians. It’s a utopian idea, but only then can the displaced go home and live in a security zone,” he said. “The people have come to beg us for a solution. And the only thing the people believe in anymore is the church. They certainly don’t believe in the paramilitary, who beat on them. They don’t believe in the army, and they don’t believe in the guerrillas.”

The Riosucio displaced, like the San José community, insisted that for them to return, their hamlets must be free of all armed actors -- including the Colombian military. “We want a commitment that we will be respected, that we civilians will not be targeted,” said leaders of the displaced in Pavarando. “We want titles to our land, indemnification for all we’ve lost. And security for our communities must come from the International Red Cross, from international nongovernmental organizations, from the church.”

But academics, intellectuals and church leaders expressed doubt this formula of neutral communities can succeed without simultaneous, national level peace negotiations that require international support.

“Peace is the responsibility of everyone or of no one. Negotiations of this conflict must be carried out by national actors, but we must count on international presence to assure that commitments are fulfilled,” said Bishop Alberto Giraldo, president of Colombia’s episcopal conference.

On the other side of the country, in Villavicencio, in the Eastern Plains, the request was the same. “In the work with the displaced and in human rights, foreigners are important. With them here, we are not eliminated so easily. We can also transmit internationally what these people are living through,” said Italian Comboni Br. Marco Binaghi, part of the church human rights team.

Los Andes’ Leal afforded an even stronger role to international actors. “Given the international conditions of the post-Cold War, of the globalization of the economy, the country cannot get out of this by itself, without international mediation,” he said. “But the wrong kind of intervention could push us toward even greater deterioration, for example, if the gringos decided to intervene militarily. This is not Panama. It is not the Dominican Republic. And we do not need a unilateral disaster dressed up as the United Nations, Haiti style.”

Neoliberal obstacles

Leal and other analysts agreed that the global economic panorama does not favor a solution to Colombia’s conflict. Torres of the monthly Utopias said that paramilitary squads can create a climate that favors neoliberal economic policies and international investment.

“Neoliberalism needs ... a hard hand against social sectors that press for economic and social reforms. Neoliberalism does not want to deliver those reforms. Its rule is let those who can buy, buy. Those who cannot, if they shout, we will repress them.”

Episcopal conference president Giraldo said neoliberal economic models exacerbate the impoverishment and inequity that breed conflict in Colombia and that impede peace negotiations. “These neoliberal policies that permeate our legislation and our customs are wounds to peace. Economic liberalization has meant the death of small enterprise here, even of middle level enterprise. The import of foodstuffs has meant the closing of our mills,” he said.

Leal pointed out that the kinds of economic reforms that left-wing guerrillas espouse as prerequisites for peace run against the neoliberal current. He said in contrast to prior peace negotiations where rebels came out of the political cold to accept low-level jobs, the guerrillas today are holding out for a commitment to much deeper structural changes in “things that haven’t seen solutions for decades” -- agrarian reform, for example, at a time when drug traffickers have become the most powerful landholding class.

Leal said another major obstacle to peace negotiations is the military. They have, he said become a “part of the social organization” of violence. “They are articulated with the paramilitaries, with powerful economic interests, with the forces most resistant to reform -- the landowners. You cannot separate the drug traffickers from the landowners from the military,” he said. “The military are the force of the state and they are under an ideological scheme of privileges which is difficult to change.”

Within Colombian society today, Leal said, there is no civil force, organization or party that can move the military. And, he said, their strength has been bolstered with U.S. assistance in recent years.

“Drug trafficking placed us in the international arena, qualifying us as an enemy to the national security of the United States. So our conflict is now of international character,” Leal said.

Leal said a best case scenario would be United Nations mediation of Colombia’s conflict. “This would be convenient, and the sooner the better.”

In this context, does peace have a chance? According to Leal, yes, but there is no easy formula. “For negotiations to work, we must do away with all of these strongly rooted privileges. And reforms of this style in this country today would be like a revolution.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 1997