Jhon Jairo Martinez was a church leader in Córdoba, northwest Colombia, a hilly area where most locals scratched out a living as subsistence farmers. In 1996, combat between the paramilitary and left-wing guerrillas first forced him and his 45-family community to flee their farms, joining Colombia’s displaced population of more than 4 million. Two years later the community, unlike so many of the displaced, was relocated in the vicinity by the government’s too-often inactive land reform agency.
As has happened to thousands of other communities across the country, the group soon faced harassment by paramilitaries linked to wealthy landowners determined to expand their holdings. Jhon Jairo earned regional recognition for speaking out to authorities about the community’s plight, garnering empty promises from the state—and persistent threats against his life. On June 28, 2009, four paramilitary members killed the father of three while he was home with his family. Two other family members, also local leaders, have also been killed or “disappeared” in the last two years.
Stories like this are all too common. Last June there was an upsurge of assassinations, death threats, and forced displacement by “new” paramilitary groups in Córdoba—the very place where the Uribe government officially negotiated peace with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitary umbrella organization, in 2003.
Today, the government insists that paramilitarism no longer exists, a claim contradicted by grim testimony of coercion and bloodletting. In reality, the fraudulent disarmament process gave rise to an increasingly complex, multifaceted conflict: Multiple rearmed paramilitary groups dispute territorial control of drug-trafficking routes and vast swaths of land at the behest of powerful landowners and big business interests.
State entities are permissive and corrupt at best; at worst, the army and state agencies explicitly cooperate with paramilitaries. For example, when paramilitary soldiers came for 32-year-old Isaac Vargas Martinez on Aug. 5, 2009, church leaders contacted authorities—but were told that the army, located within walking distance, could not arrive until the following afternoon. Isaac fled to a church building, where dozens of members surrounded the wooden slat structure, kept vigil through the night, and the next day managed to sneak him out of town in disguise.
Over the years, such life-saving practices have become a ministry of the church. As community and spiritual leaders in a social fabric shredded by war, church leaders become military targets—and fearful but determined congregations protect hunted individuals and engage in land rights struggles, which are at the root of the political violence and humanitarian crisis in Córdoba.
Local churches are speaking out, with help from groups such as Justapaz, the Colombian Mennonite peace ministry; the Evangelical Council of Colombia Peace Commission; and Lutheran World Relief. Advocacy audiences include Colombian federal officials, foreign embassies, international agencies, and Colombian nongovernmental organizations.
An important recent victory is the involvement of Colombia´s human rights ombudsman’s office, the highest political moral authority in the country, which recently took a five-day observation mission to southern Córdoba along with United Nations agencies, hosted by local churches and the Colombian Catholic Church’s Social Pastorate in Córdoba. Although it has no legislative or executive powers, the ombudsman’s office is able to give vital official recognition of the violence, threats, and slaying that have too often been denied, or even fostered, by other parts of government.
A schizophrenic Washington is strengthening human rights conditions on foreign aid and cutting aid to Colombia’s problematic military on one hand, yet on the other hand moving forward with a bilateral agreement to use Colombian military bases—and, potentially, with a trade agreement whose terms favor large landowners and big business. Now, more than ever, it is important that North American churches offer solidarity to Colombia’s churches, and pray and act for a bilateral relationship based on biblical peace, justice, and respect for human dignity.
Janna Hunter-Bowman works for Mennonite Central Committee in Bogotá, Colombia, as national coordinator of the Justapaz Documentation and Advocacy Program.