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In Andes, bishop pushes peace efforts

Muzo, Colombia

This emerald-rich and peso-poor little village nestled inaccessibly in the Andes Mountains some 150 miles north of Bogotá has peace. In Colombia, a country of 40 million wracked by civil war for some 38 years, peace is a rarity.

Indeed, the entire western region of Boyacá, the state just to the north of Bogotá, is one of the few areas in Colombia not embroiled in what Colombia’s Nobel prize-winning writer Gabriel García Márquez calls “a holocaust of biblical proportions.”

Bishop Héctor Gutiérrez Pabón of Chiquinquirá celebrates Mass here in front of the dilapidated church, which is undergoing a slow renovation as funds trickle in. On a makeshift wooden platform supported by wobbly columns of red bricks, Gutiérrez delivers a stirring homily for the thousand or so gathered in the brightly colored town plaza. He congratulates the people of western Boyacá for living in peace since 1990.

Since his reassignment from cosmopolitan Cali to this frontier outpost in 1998, Gutiérrez has been a leader in western Boyacá’s Peace Commission, known by its Spanish name, Paz Viva. The commission was created 12 years ago to halt the bloody “Green Wars,” a vicious conflict of infighting between the emerald miners and dealers, compounded by the threat of a takeover of the emerald trade by the drug lords of Medellín.

In his homily, Gutiérrez called for more attention from the federal government for the positive example set by the people of Colombia’s “emerald rectangle,” an area 185 miles from east to west and 36 miles from north to south in which the most important mines of Muzo and Chivor are located. Many herald the area as producing the finest emeralds in the world. The Chiquinquirá diocese includes about 380,000 people, most affected one way or another by the emerald business.

After Mass, settling in for a cup of coffee at his rectory back at Chiquiquirá, site of the Co-lombia Cathedral of the Virgin of Chiquiquirá, Gutiérrez said his dream is to build an enduring peace on the twin foundations of spiritual and economic renewal.

“The first need of our people is to be educated. People with guns and without education are dangerous,” the prelate said in English. Gutiérrez received his master of arts degree in journalism from Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles after graduating from Javeriana University, the prestigious Jesuit institution in Bogotá.

“Even before money and jobs, our people need a good education,” he said. “We have organized formal and informal education for the people of all ages. The people are poor. They need not only education, but health care and recreation facilities.

“With all the rich, fertile earth around here, they need to develop sound agricultural practices,” he said. “But I think the most important problem is to help the family unit survive, not only economically, but to cut down on the abuse of alcohol and other social problems.”

Gutiérrez, 65, is energetic and enthusiastic. He has been a priest since 1962. He served as the host chief of press when Pope John Paul II visited Colombia in 1986. From 1987 to 1998, Gutiérrez was assigned as titular bishop of Cali. He has been bishop of Chiquinquirá since 1998.

Children flock around him as he walks from a park near the Sacred Heart Cathedral to his home.

“These are my two wives,” he proudly announced in his garage. “The red one I’ve had since 1975,” he said of the mint-condition Volkswagen Beetle. “The parishioners presented it to me when I completed my studies at Loyola.

“The other one [a white, late-model Daihatsu sports utility vehicle] is more functional,” he said. Gutiérrez’ diocese encompasses the rugged mountain terrain of western Boyacá, one of the many insular frontiers scattered around this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country.

“Our problem, because of the long years of the emerald wars, is poverty. The people spent their money as fast as they made it instead of saving it,” he said.

“We want to see this area develop as a tourist spot and as a source of income for our people and for emerald investors -- national and international,” Gutiérrez said.

“If we can make peace here in western Boyacá, why could not all Colombia learn from this and make peace?” he asked.

Liberation theology does not drive Gutiérrez, his priests or his flock. The incentive is more a pragmatic, basic struggling for social and economic justice with a tad of Catholic fundamentalism thrown in.

“I believe many of our people have the Blessed Virgin Mary of Chiquinquirá in their hearts,” Gutiérrez said. “We can make peace because we are Catholics.”

Peace and prosperity, Gutiérrez said, will only be maintained by money garnered from a successful and fair emerald trade. Money -- investment capital -- he said, is the catalyst necessary to drive the peace that is now planted and being nurtured in the grassroots of western Boyacá. In an attempt to spur economic progress, Gutiérrez has embarked on an ambitious proposal to form a trade and cultural pact with the Alabama Association of Regional Councils, an organization of local government councils in the U.S. state. “We are looking now for the money -- private and public -- so we can set up and execute this proposal, this alianza [alliance], which stands to benefit all the parties in both countries,” Gutiérrez said.

Gutiérrez relishes his assignment here. He travels around the rough mountains to check on his people and the 12 priests in the area, seeing each one every two weeks. “Peace is a reality here. We believe it and we can change for the better, day by day.”

Stephen Flanagan Jackson is associate professor of journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and associate editor of The Latin American Post, the only English-language newspaper in Colombia.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002