“You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.”—Psalm 10:17
Colombia is known for its long history of violence and drug trafficking, and as one of the most turbulent countries in the world. Its recent upheaval and instability started in 1948 when it was shaken by “La Violencia,” a time of country-wide violence between the two opposing political parties—the liberals and the conservatives. This period left deep wounds in society and stimulated the appearance of leftist guerrilla groups. Throughout the succeeding years, other guerrilla groups arose. During the 1980s, extreme right-wing, para-military groups emerged in response to guerrilla actions. They were funded by vast landowners and used terror as their weapon. Also in the 1980s, powerful drug cartels were formed that have financed both sides of the conflict up to this day. To obtain additional funding, guerrillas resorted to kidnapping for ransom; to date over three thousand people have been kidnapped.
The government military is also getting stronger with growing tax budgets and United States funding to fight drug production and traffic. All this has escalated the internal war. As a result, in the past ten years there have been 250,000 fatalities,1 4,309 forced disappearances2 and over three million people internally displaced.3 All this has led the United Nations to classify Colombia as a country in humanitarian crisis.4 The war, coupled with neoliberal policies, has led to deteriorating social conditions, with sixty-two percent of the population living under the poverty line5, and growing unemployment unofficially reaching over twenty percent.
The Church has not been immune to the war. In the past four years, 152 pastors have been killed and four hundred churches have been shut down or displaced by guerrilla, paramilitary or government forces.6 These have occurred mainly in rural areas.
The challenge to lead the Colombian society into peace and reconciliation is huge, especially because the conflict is ongoing, and the government, reinforced by the media, presents its own slanted view, making other views invisible. As an example of this, the government prefers to speak of guerrilla groups as “narco-terrorists.” Victims and victimizers are still evident at all levels of society; corruption and deceit are widespread. There is great polarization of opinion and distrust on all sides. Sadly, the majority of the evangelical churches have embraced the dominating view of society, verbally proclaiming victory and peace, thus quieting their prophetic voice.
Different Responses to the Colombian Social Crisis
The Uribe administration (2002-2010) has signed a peace agreement with the strongest paramilitary factions, leading to the demobilization of thirty-one thousand combatants. Even so, there is growing proof that the paramilitary structures have not been dismantled, and guerrilla activity persists.
Civil society has also responded to this terrible state in several ways:
- Since 1997, ethnic minority and displaced groups, former victims of the conflict, have re-established themselves as “peace communities.” This is the case in San José de Apartadó, where the goal is to survive and live in peace. These communities have made the brave decision to not allow any of the armed groups, including the army, to enter their lands. Despite their determination, these powerful symbols of peace are being inculpated by the government as infiltrated by leftist groups.7
Gustavo Moncayo (holding the photo) recently became
an icon of peace when he walked 620 miles to plead for
humanitarian exchange to bring an end to kidnappings.
Gustavo Moncayo, a high school teacher and father of a kidnapped policeman, recently became an icon of peace when he walked 620 miles to plead for a humanitarian exchange with the FARC8 guerrillas to bring an end to kidnappings, some of which have lasted for as many as ten years. His trek began at his home in the southern part of Colombia and ended at the central Plaza of Bogotá.
- In 2002, Bojayá, a small town in Chocó, was caught in the crossfire between guerrilla and paramilitary forces, killing 119 people, and hurting another one hundred. However, these surviving communities have returned bravely to the lands from which they were displaced. The Life, Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese of Chocó, has accompanied them and is committed to defending life in all of its expressions as a necessary condition for building peace.9
The Cristo El Rey Church seeks to be a peace sanctuary
for people who have been displaced.
In the face of paramilitary threats, an entire evangelical rural community in the upper Sinu River basin decided to leave their lands in an exodus to Tierralta, the nearest town. The Cristo El Rey Church, a member of the “peace sanctuaries” program, housed them initially in the sanctuary and adjunct school building. The church then helped them relocate in a new settlement where they set up a new community, providing work, food, education and health for its members. These peace sanctuary churches are all over Colombia and seek to be Christian alternatives to violence and conflict. The congregations seek peace bravely: they feed the hungry, house the homeless, establish new sources of livelihood and offer a space open to reconciliation and dialogue. The peace sanctuaries program is an initiative of the Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action, Justapaz, a ministry of the Mennonite Church of Colombia. Justapaz promotes structures and lifestyles leading to a just and sustainable peace.10
With actions such as these, the Church and the Body of Christ in Colombia can help restore hope to the death-ridden reality Colombia is facing.
1. Banco de Datos de Derechos Humanos y Violencia Política (5 May 2006), Casos Noche y Niebla No. 32, Bogotá.
3. Hacia una Política Proactiva para la Población Desplazada, Bogotá, Conferencia Episcopal Colombiana.
4. UN News Service.
6. Michael Joseph. Patterns of Violence and Displacement.
8. Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Revolutionary Armed Foces of Colombia, the largest leftist guerrilla group.
10. Serie Experiencias Locales en la Construcción de la Paz, Justapaz, Lutheran World Relief, 2006.