Working for Peace and Development in Colombia

Hope is stronger than violence, and I believe that the mystery of God is present in our efforts to work together for peace and economic development, said Francisco Pacho de Roux in October, on receiving an award from the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights in New York City. His words arose from the lived reality of his day-to-day experience as a Jesuit economist who is the founder and director of the Magdalena Medio Program for Development and Peace in northern Colombia. Ever since the program began in 1995, he and his staff have faced life-threatening situations in one of the country’s poorest and most violent areas. But in the midst of that atmosphere of struggle, they continue working to change the region into one characterized by peace, democratic participation and economic developmentall aimed at reinforcing the dignity of each person.

During interviews before and after the ceremony on Oct. 19, Pacho (the name by which he prefers to be known) explained that by the phrase working together he meant the effort his program has been making for the past six years to bring into a working relationship a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations committed to transforming the Magdalena Medio region of his country. The area is bigger than the whole of El Salvador, and given the political situation, the challenge to transform it is daunting. Small farmers, oil workers, fishermen, trade unions and multinational companies like Westinghouse have begun to take part in creating an interior dynamic aimed at affecting the region’s transformation. As Pacho put it, You have to involve all the actorseven, he added, the guerillas.


The guerillas, he said, are partly responsible for the violence that has racked Colombia and driven many from their homes as internally displaced people. But still more destructive have been the paramilitary groups, which often work in league with elements of the Colombian army. The paramilitariessupported primarily by rich landowners, various political figures and the mafiaare the forces who wield the real power in the region and who control its most important city, Barrancabermeja, where the Magdalena Medio program is based.

In the past three years, Pacho noted, the paramilitaries have killed six members of our group, and just a few months ago they murdered a human rights attorney, Alma Rosa Jaramillo, who had been working with the peasants. They killed her in a particularly brutal way, cutting off her head, her arms and her legs. Her murder and the manner in which it was carried out, he added, were intended to generate terror and to demonstrate that theirs is the primary authority in the area. Despite her murder and that of six of his own staff members, Pacho said that the people who collaborate with us in our efforts, instead of leaving, stayholding on to hope in the face of what otherwise would be despair.

Remarkably, he went on to observe: We don’t consider even the paramilitaries to be our enemies, because they too are invited to take part in the human development projects we are sponsoring. No one is to be excluded. They have a development plan too, but it is in terms of a vertical form of modernization that they wish to keep totally under their control. The paramilitaries see us as a threat. Nevertheless, we try to talk with themeven after the killing of our friends. This is absolutely necessary. And we face up to them when they commit their crimes. After Alma Rosa Jaramillo was killed, we confronted them, and although they tried to rationalize, they accepted the responsibility for what happened. We are trying to touch them through their moral consciousness. We consider this one of the most important aspects of our work.

The guerillas generate their own form of havoc. The projects we initiate create employment, and because more of the peasants consequently find work through our projects, fewer are willing to join the guerillas as a way of surviving. In reprisal, Pacho said, the guerillas engage in kidnaping. They have kidnaped people from our group, including two Jesuits. They expect a ransom to be paid, but we do not pay ransom. So far, everyone has been released. Continuing on the theme of guerilla kidnaping, Pacho explained: We use such occasions to start a conversationagain, as with the paramilitaries, as a way of trying to educate them through their moral consciousness. Marxist guerillas think they can bring about a just society through methods that involve kidnaping and buying the peasants’ coca crops in order to make drugs finance their work. Our basic message to them, however, is that the kind of war they are waging has darkened their conscience.

The small farmers who raise coca find themselves caught between the guerillas and the paramilitaries. The peasants sell it to either the guerillas or the paramilitaries, because they feel they have no alternatives, Pacho said. But they are not happy doing this. Last April, a group of 3,000 peasants near the San Lucas mountains invited us to come for a dialogue about their situation. When we arrived in the small town where the dialogue was to be held, we noticed lots of posters they had put up for us to see, with the words: No a la coca, Sí a la dignidad (No to coca, yes to dignity’). That was their message to us, in terms of where they stood on the issue.

Pacho said that at the meeting itself, the farmers acknowledged that they were making good money growing coca for the drug producers, but they realized that the coca business was destroying their communities and their families. The paramilitaries and the guerillas are fighting each other for control of the production, the farmers said. We feel it is impossible to raise a different product that can bring us an equivalent income. But if you do know of an alternative way of earning a living, one that would help us to recover our communities and our towns and still to live in dignity, then please tell us. This was their message to us, Pacho observed at the meeting’s conclusion.

A number of the program’s 90 initiatives are, in fact, aimed precisely at creating alternative ways of providing an adequate livelihood for poor farmers who resort to coca crops as a source of income. One of the most successful involves use of the Magdalena River, Colombia’s major waterway. As the river runs its 180 mile course from south to north, it empties some of its waters into adjoining lakes through tributaries. Twice a year, fish swim upstream in biannual migrations, and fishermen catch them in their nets. But the very abundance of their catches causes the price of fish to drop in the markets. To counter this dynamic, which reduces their income, the fishermen have been taught how to divert a large supply of the fish into the adjoining lakes. In this way, the fish can be kept alive in what Pacho described as cost-free neveras calientes (warm refrigerators) until the prices again rise. The fish kept in the lakes can then be caught and sold at market for a reasonable profit.

We try to develop integral projects of this and other kinds for all the villages along the river, Pacho said. Another involves raising water buffalo. Unlike ordinary cows, water buffalo can eat anything because they don’t need special pasturage, so it is a very economical way of raising cattle. Still another initiative assists communities in developing small family farms for the production of palm oil and the cocoa used in manufacturing chocolate. Yet another focuses on women: In one of the mountainous areas, we have started a coffee cooperative with women as the directors, he observed. Gourmet coffee beans are grown and sold to the Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers at a price that is fair.

The program’s initial funding came from a $5 million grant from the World Bank. This sum has in turn helped generate additional funding through United Nations agencies, U.S.A.I.D., several foreign governments and the Colombian government itself. We think that Colombia has enough financial resources to solve many of its problems, Pacho noted. Large though the World Bank’s grant might seem, Pacho pointed out that $5 million is less than one-third the cost of one of the 60 Black Hawk helicopters the United States has shipped to Colombia as part of the $1.3 billion antidrug aid package approved by Congressthe so-called Plan Colombia. Because of the corruption and accompanying impunity that exists in Colombia, he views it as very dangerous to support our army with American dollars.

Pacho’s work as director of the program goes hand in hand with his personal lifestyle. He has chosen to live in the kind of neighborhood that is most affected by poverty and violence. Indeed, he insists that his coworkers, too, reside in similar neighborhoods. It is one of the conditions required of anyone working with the program, he said. When you are there all the time, and can’t escape the situation surrounding you, this in itself helps to bring about your own personal transformation. He himself lives with the Jesuit community at Sacred Heart parish, located in a poor section of Barrancabermeja. Just across the street from the church is the local prison, where he celebrates Mass every Sunday. Given the kind of human rights and development work I do, being in contact with the prisoners helps me to understand better not only the problems of poverty and violence, but also the prisoners’ political views and the conflicts that are ongoing between the guerillas and the paramilitaries. His weekly homilies provide an opportunity for speaking of peace and the need to abandon weaponsan opportunity all the more valuable because people in the prison are very receptive to what is said to them during the liturgy.

The prison is divided primarily along political lines into two large sections or patios: one for the guerillas, the other for paramilitaries. Mixed among them are ordinary prisoners, such as those held on robbery or similar charges. In the facility, as in the city of Barrancabermeja itself, the paramilitaries are in controlto such a degree that when ordinary prisoners are asked in which section they wish to be confined, most opt for the paramilitaries, because they see it as the safer of the two patios. Pacho spoke of a recent incident that underscored this: In June, just as I was arriving back in Barrancabermeja after a trip, the radio announced that an attack was going on inside the prison. The paramilitaries had arms and killed two of the guerillas. I immediately went there to help calm things down, and then the following day I assisted with the negotiations between the two groups and the prison officials.

Over the years, in his efforts to confront both groups wherever they are, Pacho has found himself in other situations that have entailed still greater danger. Prior to founding the Magdalena Medio program, he had been director of C.I.N.E.P. (Centro de Investigacion y Educación Popular) in Bogotáan organization that documents human rights abuses in Colombia. At one point he was in such imminent danger of assassination that he was obliged to leave the country. My provincial superior called me into his office and said that he had received information from the army that a contract was out on mean operativoand on Carlos Pizarro, a guerilla leader. I had gone to see Carlos in an effort to persuade him to enter into the peacemaking process, and he had agreed to come to Bogotá. The provincial told me that both of us were to be killed, so he ordered me to go abroad. He was very afraid of what could happen to me. Six days after the meeting with the provincial, Carlos Pizarro was shot down. Pacho attended the funeral and then, following his provincial’s instructions, left for Rome.

In Rome, he continued, I met with Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the superior general of the Society of Jesus. I explained to him the reasons for my being there and that my superior had asked that I stay away at least a year. But I told Father General that I felt it was really my own responsibility to decide when to return. I agree with you,’ Father Kolvenbach replied. You can stay as long as you like, and I will have plenty of work for you to dobut the moment you decide you should return to Colombia, just tell me and you will have my permission to go back.’

The stay in Rome lasted far less than the prescribed yearbarely a month. I had arrived in Rome on July 1, Pacho said, and at the end of that same month, on the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, I sent my provincial a fax with the details of when I would be arriving back in Bogotá. I wrote the fax in Latin, as a kind of code, to make sure that it could not be understood by anyone who was not a Jesuit. On receiving it, the provincial arranged for someone to meet me at the airport.

But in view of the continuing danger to his life in Bogotá, special precautions had to be taken in order for Pacho to continue his work at C.I.N.E.P. The provincial asked me to live at the Jesuit community at San Bartolome, the Jesuit college, because C.I.N.E.P. was next door to it. So a kind of secret door was cut through from the college to the C.I.N.E.P. offices; this made it possible for me to go there every day without leaving the college building where I was living. Very Jesuit! Pacho added with a smile, alluding to the kind of maneuvers resorted to by Jesuits in Elizabethan England during the period of Catholic persecution in the 16th century. After remaining at C.I.N.E.P. for several more years, he moved north to Barrancabermeja to begin his current job, one with a wider scope that includes not only human rights issues, but issues of peace and economic development in the projects spread throughout the Magdalena Medio region.

His present work also provides educational opportunities for students from Colombia’s Jesuit universities, who thus come to know firsthand the sufferings of the people. Over 300 students from the Xaveriana, for instance, have come to work with us for periods of six months to a year, he said. They go to very dangerous municipalities to help the local communities with the various projects that have been started, he said. The rector of the Xaveriana, he added, has been extremely supportive, incorporating into the university’s curriculum this sort of direct action on behalf of the poor that students can take part in.

Support has been forthcoming, not only from fellow Jesuits, but also from the church in general. Pacho made particular mention of the local bishop, Jaime Prieto, who serves as president of the program’s board of directors. As director also of the social-pastoral apostolate for Colombia’s Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Prieto has devoted much of his attention to the peace process, focusing on one of the guerilla groups, the E.L.N. (Ejercicio de Liberación Nacional). But with six members of Pacho’s program already killed, it is clear that church support even at this level of the hierarchy does not protect him and his coworkers from the dangers faced by those who work for peace and economic development in the Magdalena Medio region of Colombia. And yet, as he said on receiving his award from the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, the mystery of God’s presence remains a sustaining source of hope for all committed to achieving the program’s objectives.

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