Ten years ago, a Colombian woman showed up at my door asking me to join her on
a trip to her country to learn about the U.S. involvement in Colombia’s
brutal war. Sure, I said, someday I’ll go with you to Colombia. In similar
fashion, she had tracked down Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Father Roy Bourgeois, and
even Noam Chomsky, and brought them all to Colombia as part of her project, the
Colombia Support Network.
Cecilia Zarate Laun and I became friends and we stayed in touch. Finally, last
month, I made that long day’s journey into the dark night of Colombia,
and a long pilgrimage of peace was finally realized.
I’m still trying to absorb what I heard and saw during those intense
days. Rich in natural resources, Colombia has over 45 million people. And yet
three and half million of them are internally displaced, the highest number
in the Western hemisphere. Thirty people are assassinated for political
reasons every single day in Colombia, the highest homicide rate in the world.
Some ten thousand people die each year, nearly two hundred thousand
people killed over the last twenty five years. These massacres come after a
history of death--another two hundred thousand Colombians died between 1948
and the early 1960s.
Colombia is a complicated stew of violence--the repressive Colombian government,
under the democratically elected but dictatorial President Uribe, a drug benefactor
and friend of George W. Bush; the brutal Colombian military; the tens of thousands
of paramilitary troops who roam the country doing the army’s dirty work;
the rebel groups, FARC and ELN; the massive U.S. military aid; the ever-present
U.S. soldiers and U.S. military advisors; and the multinational corporations
stealing the land from the poor. This institutionalized violence gives Colombia
the distinction of having the highest number of human rights violations in the
The United States suggested that the Colombian army set up the paramilitaries
so that the Colombian army would not be criticized for human rights violations
and U.S. military aid would not be cut off. The paramilitaries do most of the
killings and the massacres, while the Colombian army looks the other way and
receives millions from the Pentagon. The army trains the paramilitaries, hides
them, and gives them lists of names of people to be killed. The army meanwhile
protects the oil fields, the mining areas, and the multinational corporations,
while the paramilitaries enforce the overall repression of the poor. They are
funded by rich industrialists, landowners, cattlemen, drug lords, multinationals,
and the president. But now these notorious paramilitaries have become a power
unto themselves, like the death squads of El Salvador.
But you would never know any of this by visiting Bogota, the historic colonial
capital with its seven million residents, most of them living in wretched poverty,
but some of them living like millionaires off the backs of the poor. With the
Andes around it, Old Town Bogota has some of the most beautiful churches I have
ever seen, relics of Spanish colonialism, its rampage for gold and forced conversion
of the native peoples.
After many trips to Central America, I expected to see streets filled with
soldiers and their machine guns. Not Bogota. This is a new kind of war, a hidden
war, based on genocide against the rural indigenous peoples and peasants through
the daily use of assassination and terror, so that multinational corporations
can take the land from the poor, set up shop, and reap a fortune--all in secret,
out of sight from the hustle and bustle of Bogota.
Colombia pretends to be a well run, highly sophisticated democracy and indeed
it looks like one. But the reality is far different, far more sinister. That
is why I went, to see for myself what the U.S. is doing. The U.S. overshadows
every aspect of Colombia’s war. Whether through Plan Colombia, the war
on drugs, or the war on terrorism, whatever they call it, the U.S. funds, organizes
and orchestrates a war against the poor, and actively enforces the massive displacement
of people on behalf of its multinationals, particularly its oil companies, under
the so-called “Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.” As one person
told me, Colombia is ground zero for globalization.
A few months ago, PBS News asked President Bush about the future of
Iraq. “The future of Iraq is Colombia,” he answered with a grin.
Iraq is destroyed, but the world recoils at the horror of U.S. warfare. He would
prefer a war modeled on Colombia, where the U.S. wipes away the indigenous peoples,
steals their land, gives it to its multinational corporations, and maintains
a façade of democracy so that everyone thinks the war is for a noble
cause, that all goes well in the fight for freedom. He wants to control Iraq
like the U.S. controls Colombia--stealing its rich natural resources, without
the rest of the world knowing or caring.
I saw the reality of this war against the poor as I toured through the state
of Cauca, to meet the survivors of Alto Naya, a remote mountain community that
suffered a horrific massacre during Holy Week, April 9-11, 2001. Some 140 people
were killed, and 6,000 displaced. We met with survivors of the mountain community
in nearby mountain villages, and on a community farm set up by some 250 other
survivors near Popayan. We spent one long day traveling on a brightly colored
bus up the mountainside, stopping along the way at the places where the paramilitaries
killed people as they made their way to the top. Instead of using machine guns,
the paramilitaries chopped people up with chain saws. This seems to be the latest
form of U.S.-backed terrorism. Several of the children traveling with us in
the bus witnessed these horrific atrocities.
We stopped by the bridge at the Rio Cauca, where soldiers killed over 600 people
over the years, often in groups of twenty to thirty, by lining them up along
the bridge, cutting off their heads, and throwing their bodies into the river.
Way up in the mountains, looking out at spectacular vistas of green valleys
and the distant Andes, we stopped every fifteen minutes to hear another story--how
the paramilitaries killed two or three people here; how they chopped up five
or six people there; how they threw seventeen bodies into that little river.
It was a new kind of Stations of the Cross--seeing where Christ is killed all
over again by U.S.-backed Colombian death squads.
“Daily life for the struggling people means being harassed, questioned,
displaced, disappeared, perhaps kidnapped or killed by the army, paramilitaries
or the guerillas,” one indigenous leader told us.
At one point, we came around a bend on the cliff and saw an entire mountainside
where the green trees had been chopped down and the remaining stumps burned
black. Along the road we found thousands of pine tree seedling samples in boxes,
ready to be planted. Some North American firm had orchestrated the killing and
removal of the indigenous people, took their land, and destroyed the trees in
a scene out of Tolkein’s "The Lord of the Rings." It was preparing
to plant pine trees for its paper business.
Up ahead, we saw a huge new hydroelectric plant and dam which the U.S. is building
to control the river and the valley. Army barracks on the other mountaintops
keep watch over it. This was globalization in action, the Free Tree Agreement
at work. I soon understood what the people were trying to tell me: this war
is not about drugs, but land.
Later in Cali, we met with the head of the military in that entire region,
a Colonel Bonilla, who told us how committed Colombia is to human rights. He
called in his staff, including U.S. military advisors, Major Dave Mellers and
Colonel Valencia. These U.S. soldiers eagerly told us about their work to “oversee
the war” and “destroy the enemy.”
Though institutional church leaders by and large support the war against the
poor, two Jesuits have become outspoken advocates for human rights, prophets
and heroes of peace. They have endured persecution, harassment, and death threats,
but they carry on.
Jesuit Father Francisco de Roux has been working for years to promote peace
in his region. “The only way we can rebuild our broken country,”
he told me, “is through its people. I am starting in Magdalena Medio,
the region along the river between Bogotá and the Caribbean, with our
program for ‘Development and Peace.’ The European Union has funded
us for eight years. We have started peace conversations, negotiations and agricultural
programs. We speak with the guerillas, the paramilitaries, the soldiers and
the multinationals, anyone and everyone, in the hope for peace.”
“None of us in Colombia, myself included, have the freedom to live independently
from war,” he continued. “We all suffer from it. So we try to help
our people rebuild their region, and we work with everyone--poor people, guerrillas,
soldiers, paramilitaries, government officials. It’s an enormous project
and very complicated. But we have to act and try to stop the violence. We try
to recover our human dignity, reclaim our rights, and create a new world where
everyone is treated like the president and the pope. In the process, we promote
Jesuit Father Javier Giraldo is shy and gentle, and does not look like one
of Latin America’s towering giants of human rights. But according to friends,
he is the single greatest threat to the Colombia military.
For over twenty years, Giraldo and his institute have documented every single
killing in the country. Every four months, he publishes a journal with the details
of the latest assassinations. It looks like the New York City phone book. No
other war in recent history has had such a database. These documents lay out
in minute detail the war crimes committed by the Colombian government, its armed
forces and the Pentagon. No wonder they want to kill this peaceful Jesuit.
“These people identify with the persecuted Jesus,” Giraldo told
me. “They identify with Jesus as a victim of the military and the empire.
They identify with Jesus who was arrested, tortured and killed by soldiers,
just like them. And the people who were killed live on in their memory as martyrs.
They have a sense that as they carry on their community work for peace, the
martyrs come alive among them.”
I cannot imagine spending my life documenting thirty killings a day for two
decades, so I asked him about hope. He said that for hope to be authentic, it
must be the hope of Jesus on the cross, the hope which carries on in the face
of total failure, the hope which refuses to give up the values of justice and
peace, even as everything collapses around us, even as we seemingly fail.
Leaving Colombia, I was haunted by Lisinia, one of the brave widows of the
Alto Naya massacre who told us her story. “Since we were born, we have
been working for peace,” she said. “We did not even know what war
was. But other people do not want peace. They saw us in peace and so they did
what they did. We forgive the people who did this to us, but we want justice,
truth and reparations,” she concluded. “While I live, I will keep
What a courageous woman! She represents the best of Colombia. She models for
me what it means to be human in such an inhuman time, to speak out for the disarmament
of Colombia, the creation of a new land of nonviolence. Like her, I want to
forgive everyone, and seek justice, truth and reparation, and while I live,
I intend to keep on talking. Even about Colombia.
John Dear is a Jesuit priest, peace activist and the author/editor
of 20 books, including most recently “You
Will Be My Witnesses” (Orbis Books) and “The
Questions of Jesus” (Doubleday). For further information, see:
www.johndear.org. To contact the
Colombia Support Network, go to www.colombiasupport.net