From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
NCC Group Visits Colombia, Comes to Share its Dream of Peace
PCUSA NEWS <firstname.lastname@example.org>
21 Dec 1999 20:06:12
NCC Group Visits Colombia,
Comes to Share its Dream of Peace
by John Filiatreau
for the National Council of Churches
BOGOTA, Colombia - Five peacemakers from the National Council of Churches
of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC) encountered very few optimists during a
recent "listen-and-learn" visit to war-torn Colombia. Even those who
claimed to see a glimmer of hope for peace in the country said they saw it
only dimly and in the far distance.
What the U.S. visitors did encounter in nearly everyone they met in
Colombia was a near-universal dream of peace, an indistinct but warming
vision of a more rewarding life that might ensue, if someone, someday,
actually managed to stop the killing.
By the end of their four-day excursion, the NCC visitors had come to
feel that Colombia's national dream of peace - and its citizens' weariness
of war - might be common ground enough to bring some of the warring parties
to the table for talks.
The purpose of the tour was to learn whether the NCC can play a
constructive role in facilitating communication among the parties in the
nation's 35-year-long civil war, thereby advancing the cause of peace. The
answer, in general if not in the details, was yes.
An estimated 35,000 people have been killed in the conflict in just the
past 10 years.
In the NCC group's meetings with spokespeople for all sides in
Colombia's long civil war, the principal topic of conversation was the
prospect of peace after two generations of murder and mayhem. The
interviews were uniformly disheartening.
The top U.S. diplomat in Bogota said the making of peace "will be a
long, long, long, long process." A foreign diplomat remarked that the
combatants "are not in a hurry to make peace." A political activist in the
capital commented, "Peace is not just around the corner."
A Swedish diplomat, asked whether he could see any positive aspects of
the situation in Colombia, came up with one: "The incredible resilience of
the Colombian people, who somehow, in the midst of violence and terror,
hang on to the dream of peace. They don't give up."
In October 1997, 10 million Colombians - about a quarter of the
population - went to the polls in a non-binding election to express their
desire for a peaceful end to the civil conflict. In October 1999, 12
million took to the streets to protest the continuing violence and to
demand that the government and the guerrillas agree to a cease-fire.
Colombian President Andres Pastrana is said to have won last year's
election because he managed to identify his candidacy with the people's
dream of peace.
The NCC team, led by the Rev. Oscar McCloud, pastor of Fifth Avenue
Presbyterian Church in New York City and coordinated by the Rev. Oscar
Bolioli, director of the NCC's office for Latin America and the Caribbean,
met with the U.S. ambassador in Bogota, Curtis Kamman; Msgr. Alberto
Giraldo Jaramillo, president of the Roman Catholic Episcopal Conference of
Colombia; Gen. Fernando Tapias, the commander of Colombia's armed forces;
Dr. Jose F. Castro, the country's chief public defender and human-rights
"ombudsman"; Bogota-based diplomats from Spain and Sweden, two countries
with long experience in Colombia; the chiefs of United Nations missions in
Colombia on human rights and on internal refugees; officials of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National
Liberation (ELN), the two largest guerrilla groups opposing the national
government; and a group of more than 20 leaders in Colombia's civil
society, including labor officials, educators and directors of
non-government organizations (NGOs).
Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, the NCC's general director, had been scheduled
to lead the delegation, but became ill and was unable to travel to Bogota
for the Nov. 29-Dec. 2 tour. The participants, in addition to McCloud and
Bolioli, were the Rev. Dr. Rafael Malpica-Padilla, program director for
Latin America and the Caribbean of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America; the Rev. Arturo M. Fernandez, a member of the General Board of
Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church; and Samuel Lobato, a
regional representative for Latin America of the NCC's Church World Service
and Witness program.
Bolioli said the trip was an effort to capitalize on the "credibility"
the NCC has achieved in Latin America without seeming to trump the efforts
of local and regional religious organizations.
"It was not and is not our intention to become directly involved in
Colombian affairs," Bolioli said as the tour drew to a close. "We came here
to try to open new channels of communication, to help Colombians work
together better for peace. And I think we accomplished what we set out to
The first conclusion drawn by the NCC group was that the more one
learns about Colombia, the more confused one is apt to become.
"We knew before we came that the situation here was very complicated,"
McCloud said after the second day of meetings, "and every conversation
we've had so far has only reinforced that impression."
"Sometimes even myself, I don't understand what's going on," Gen.
The government, which says it wants peace and was elected on a peace
platform, is fighting a hard-line Marxist guerrilla army, which says it too
wants peace - but also demands "justice" (meaning, among other things,
political and land-ownership reforms) for Colombia's campisanos, or
The countless private armies known as "paramilitaries" or "self-defense
forces" represent the country's wealthy landowners and blue-bloods, who
profess to want peace, bitterly oppose land-reform and share-the-wealth
proposals, and may or may not be allied with officers of the Colombian
military. The Colombian military and these right-wing allies of theirs are
said to be responsible for about three-quarters of the "human-rights
abuses" reported in Colombia.
All these combatants have one thing in common - a steady and generous
source of cash: The country's drug cartels, which make hundreds of millions
of dollars a year selling cocaine, mostly to consumers in the United
States, and want to continue doing business in relative peace, and
therefore are happy to pay "taxes" and "protection money" to the forces
that control various parts of Colombia through which the traffickers have
to move "product."
Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the head of the White House Office of National
Drug Control Policy, says the "narco-guerrillas" in Colombia - meaning
FARC, ELN and the right-wing paramilitary forces - together collect about
$600 million a year in tribute from the drug trade. (Although you wouldn't
expect McCaffrey to say so, there is every reason to believe that the
Colombian military exacts a similar toll.) McCaffrey has told reporters
that differentiating between U.S. anti-drug and anti-guerrilla efforts in
Colombia is "counterproductive."
According to a study by the U.S. Embassy staff in Bogota, about half
the guerrillas' income is from drug payoffs - but they make almost as much
from kidnappings for ransom. (About 2000 people have been kidnapped in
Colombia this year.)
Tapias, taking his cue from McCaffrey, said last month of FARC: "Not
only do they levy a security tax, they are now selling coca paste to drug
When violence breaks out among the various standing armies in Colombia,
the people most likely to be killed, injured and tortured are unarmed,
peace-deprived peasants who have refused to join one of the armies, been
accused of befriending "the enemy," or gotten caught in cross-fires. Until
they are killed, many make a subsistence living by growing coca for sale to
the drug cartels. They say that's the only way they can feed their families
in the midst of Colombia's deepest recession in 70 years, with unemployment
and inflation both above 20 percent.
Tapias told his NCC visitors that 792 Colombians had been killed by
guerrillas and 605 by paramilitaries in the first nine months of this year.
Spokesmen for the public defender's office blamed "80 percent of the
killings" on the paramilitaries, which they said also are largely
responsible for the two million "displaced" Colombians who are refugees in
their own country. They said government troops were often involved in the
private armies' atrocities in the past, but are implicated less often
today; they credit Tapias for getting rid of officers with close ties to
the paramilitaries, which were outlawed in 1989.
The United States, which says it also wants peace in Colombia, has
spent billions of tax dollars, and proposes to spend billions more, to help
the Colombian government eradicate coca crops with toxic herbicides and
wage high-tech war on the drug barons - and secondarily on the guerrillas,
now the supposed No. 1 Communist threat to the Americas (having supplanted
U.S. and Colombian authorities say the way to make peace is to put the
drug sellers out of business, thereby depriving the guerrillas of essential
financial support. (They claim, citing poll results, that the rebels have
scant popular support.) Tapias says he could put the guerrillas out of
business in three years or less with the right kind of U.S. support against
the drug traffickers.
"If we cannot eradicate the narco-traffickers, no peace process can
succeed," Tapias said. "The amount of money these people (the guerrillas)
receive is beyond imagination, more than the security forces' budget.
Cutting off that source of income is the only way to motivate the
guerrillas to seek peace."
He noted that the drug merchants, "a source of jobs in a country
without enough jobs," don't care about public opinion because they can
survive without public support: "Thanks to the narco-traffickers, they are
totally independent," he said.
The guerrillas say the only way to make peace is to redistribute the
nation's wealth and return much of the land to the peasants.
The one thing that seems clear about the conflict is that neither side
is likely to achieve a military victory anytime soon. Meanwhile, each side
presents itself as the vanguard of peace.
In a meeting in the jungle south of Bogota, a FARC officer told the NCC
group: "FARC has been searching for peace from our birth. But peace is not
possible unless it comes along with social justice. Peace is not possible
until we solve the problems that gave rise to the conflict."
The NCC delegation had talks with Commandante Raul Reyes, one of seven
members of FARC's ruling secretariat; "Inga," a veteran guerrilla officer
who also is the daughter of the guerrillas' military commander, Manuel
Marulanda Velez, also known as "Tirofijo" ("sure shot"); and a rebel
officer named "Fernando."
Reyes, asked about the killings of three U.S. indigenous-rights
activists in northeastern Colombia last March, said FARC takes
responsibility for what he called "a very big mistake, a barbaric act." He
offered a public apology and said an internal investigation of the case is
nearly finished. All that remains, he said, is for FARC to decide how the
three soldiers responsible will be punished.
Asked about the threat of U.S. military intervention in Colombia,
"Fernando" replied: "For more than a century, the United States has already
been intervening in our country. Remember - Panama was part of Colombia."
The rebels said they "are not interested in persecuting any church or
religious group," and contended that they have acted against religious
people "only in cases of collaborators (with the enemy), cases in which our
people have been killed because someone has opposed us under cover of the
church. ... where someone has used (religious) institutions to destroy what
we are building." The rebels said they hoped to create communication
channels with NCC/CWS (Church World Service) to deal with difficult cases
and avoid mistakes.
"Fernando" asked the NCC group to go home and refute "the big
disinformation about the peace process and who we are - tell people in the
States that they are not the enemy."
In June, a Colombian newspaper, citing U.S. State Department sources,
reported on a purported U.S. plan to block the spread of Colombian
guerrilla activity to neighboring countries by (1) supplying aircraft and
intelligence to border forces in Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and
Venezuela, to help them keep the Colombian rebel forces under control; and
(2) pinning a "narco-guerrilla" label on FARC and ELN, implying that they
are involved in narcotics processing and peddling.
The State Department has said consistently that the United States will
not be drawn into Colombia's battle against the guerrillas, but will
continue to be involved in the war on drugs. Many Latin Americans suspect
that U.S. officials are tarring the guerillas with the drug-dealer brush to
justify a deepening of its commitment to counter-insurgency operations.
In August, in testimony before a Congressional committee, Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) Chief Donnie Marshall said his agency
doesn't regard the Colombian guerrillas as drug traffickers. He conceded
that FARC and ELN are "associated with" drug sellers, "providing protection
or extorting money from them;" but said the DEA has never "come close to
the conclusion" that they can reasonably be called "drug-trafficking
Pastrana has called the charge that the guerrillas are drug traffickers
Also in June, during a meeting of the Organization of American States
(OAS), U.S. representatives proposed the creation of a multinational force
- "a group of friendly countries" with political and economic ties - to
safeguard the security of the Western Hemisphere by intervening in internal
conflicts that threaten democracy in Latin America.
Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela all
vehemently rejected the proposal. Later, U.S. representative Victor Marrero
told reporters: "We never hoped that the proposal would be approved at this
session; we just wanted to put the matter on the table for discussion. But
this topic is not dead."
Gen. Tapias and Colombian Minister of Defense Luis Ramirez traveled to
Washington in July and asked for $500 million in counter-narcotics and
counter-insurgency aid. The next day, McCaffrey proposed a $1 billion U.S.
contribution to "emergency drug supplemental assistance" for fighting the
anti-drug war in South America, including $570 million for Colombia.
In September, Pastrana visited New York and Washington to promote "Plan
Colombia," a multi-billion proposal to curb narco-trafficking, end the
civil conflict and revive the economy. The plan includes police and
military aid. Pastrana said he would seek substantial contributions from
"donor countries," principally the United States.
Colombia is now the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid.
Earlier this month, Colombia showed off its new Rapid Deployment Force
(RDF), the first fruit of its plan to upgrade its military. It also has
created a new anti-narcotics battalion and a brigade to patrol the nation's
rivers. The RDF includes troops from three mobile counter-insurgency
brigades, a Special Forces group trained by the United States, and an
artillery unit. It is supported by aircraft, including 15 U.S.-made
The war continues. When someone is reported killed or "disappeared,"
which happens nearly every day, a number of "the usual suspects" are almost
equally plausible: the army, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, the
"narco-traffickers," U.S. agents or advisors, political terrorists, common
bandits - all groups that say they want peace in Colombia.
John Filiatreau, a reporter for the Presbyterian News Service in
Louisville, Ky., accompanied the NCC delegation on assignment by the NCC.
This note sent by Office of News Services,
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
to the World Faith News list <email@example.com>.
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