Report From Colombia

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 US. 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 Western Hemisphere.
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 disarmament.”
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 on talking.”
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.