A Long Struggle for Peace: Mauricio Garcia on Colombia's violent history

Ongoing violence in Colombia has led to the internal displacement of three million people over the last 25 years. These Colombians—women, men and children—are forced to live as refugees in their own country. “Although the Colombian government claims that there is no armed conflict, only a terrorist threat from rebel groups,” Father García told me, “a war dynamic is very present,” said Mauricio García, S.J., executive director of Cinep, the Jesuit Center for Research and Education in Bogotá, during a recent interview with America.

Some human rights groups focus on abuses by the army, and others direct their attention toward the right-wing paramilitary groups or the main rebel insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (E.L.N.). Segments of the population legitimize one or the other of these arms-bearing organizations as a means of stabilizing a country that has been crippled by unrest for decades. A consensus on the need to work jointly for peace still needs to be developed.


The Intractable Drug Trade

The major obstacle to peace is the drug trade. Money from the drug trade flows to guerrilla groups and to various paramilitary organizations; it also flows to corrupt officials within the army who engage in drug trafficking. “We have witnesses who know of army officials who have been involved in drug dealing,” Father García said.

The current large-scale drug trafficking is of relatively recent origin. Before 1980, most coca crops were grown not in Colombia but in Bolivia and Peru. Colombia served mainly as a transit point for cocaine on its way to the United States. “This situation changed in the 1980s, when the United States began to press Bolivia and Peru to fight more aggressively against the coca production,” said García. “As a result the coca plantations simply moved from there to Colombia. That’s when the violence in my country began on a large s cale.”

By 1990 the violence had turned into a major armed conflict, with 1,000 or more deaths each year. “And all the parties involved,” Father García said, “used the money from drug trafficking to buy their arms.”

Pressure from the United States on Colombia eventually led to efforts to eliminate coca crops there by means of aerial fumigation. As Father García pointed out, however, the spraying kills the food crops, but not the coca: “The leaves of coca plants that have been sprayed can simply be cut off, and the plants will continue to grow.” Also, drug dealers realized that the coca plantations could be moved to other parts of the country as needed. Such mobility is possible in part because the small farmers who raise the coca plants do not carry out the processing beyond mashing the leaves into paste. “They then sell the paste to drug intermediaries who…pass it on to powerful groups that turn it into cocaine, often in laboratories hidden in the jungle,” said Father García.

Although both guerrilla and paramilitary groups are involved in the drug trade, they differ in that the latter derive much of their support from big landowners, a number of whom have political connections with members of Colombia’s congress. FARC, the major insurgency, has consistently refused to negotiate with the government of President álvaro Uribe.

In 2005 Uribe’s administration approved the so-called Justice and Peace Law as a means of negotiating with the paramilitaries and moving forward the process of demobilizing their ranks. “Those who had taken part in war crimes or atrocities were to present themselves before a jury and declare what they had done, in return for receiving a lighter sentence than would otherwise have been the case,” Father García said.

Many, however, think the process falls far short of what justice demands, such as the right of victims to take part in the court proceedings or to receive compensation. The process does not force the paramilitary commanders to reveal their organizations’ mafia-like drug dealings either, a step that allays their fear of being extradited to the United States to face prosecution there.

The Bush administration, which saw Colombia as its closest ally in Latin America, hesitated to press extradition issues with President Uribe. As for demobilizations, the International Crisis Group, a human rights organization, has pointed out that “the Uribe administration prioritizes a quick fix removal of the paramilitaries from the conflict at the cost of justice for victims and the risk of leaving their economic and political power structures largely untouched.”

In the view of Father García and other rights activists, the Justice and Peace Law fails to address the issue of legal impunity in a meaningful way. According to García, some members of Colombia’s congress, like Senator Rafael Pardo, “have criticized the law for its failure to take steps to reveal and dismantle the inner power structures of the paramilitaries.” As matters stand now, “people in regions where they [the paramilitaries] operate feel that the structures are still in place, and that the drug dealing is continuing.” So powerful are the paramilitaries in some parts of Colombia that even lesser paramilitary leaders can dictate the outcome of minor local elections.

Of the people forced from their homes in rural areas, most tend to migrate to the cities. There, many conceal their status as internally displaced persons out of fear “that something might happen to them,” as Father García put it. Some crowd into the homes of relatives in poor neighborhoods.

Local diocesan organizations, along with such international human rights groups as Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development try to alleviate the suffering. Yet the number of displaced persons is so great that many receive little in the way of health care, education for their children or other forms of assistance. Father García mentioned a positive shift in allocating resources by the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia. Until recently, 80 percent of its annual funding went to military uses, leaving only 20 percent for humanitarian assistance. Now, thanks to advocacy by human rights groups in Washington, D.C., the proportion has shifted: 65 percent for military aid and 35 percent for humanitarian purposes, including aid for internally displaced persons. Still, the imbalance in the funding is pronounced.

Grabbing Land and People

Paramilitary groups in Colombia cast other dark shadows. As Father García observed, “For labor organizers, Colombia is by far the most dangerous country in the world.” The major human rights groups would agree with his assessment. Since 1985 more than 2,600 labor organizers have been killed in Colombia. Between January and April 2008, 17 union members were assassinated; some of their bodies have shown signs of torture. In specific cases, businessmen have paid paramilitary groups to kill labor organizers. Although the situation is complex, said Father García, conservative groups generally mistrust labor organizations that try to promote union activities. Some wealthy people, he noted, see union organizers as tainted by Marxist ideology. The situation underscores an aspect of the overall problem, which is that violence continues to be used to resolve conflicts. Said García, “In the countryside people sometimes say, ‘we have a problem, but we also have guns.’” Groups like Cinep seek to redirect their thinking away from arms.

Land theft contributes to the turmoil that grips Colombia. Drug traffickers often use part of their proceeds to acquire fertile land left behind as owners flee the generalized violence. For small farmers land ownership is a relatively recent mark of progress. Between the l960s and the 1980s, Father García said, small farmers received plots of land from the government in an agrarian reform program. “The idea in itself was good and was carried out,” he observed. But as violence increased, drug traffickers appeared on the rural scene. “I witnessed this in several parts of the country,” said García. “A trafficker might say to a farmer, ‘Your land is worth a million pesos—I’ll give you two million, a good price.’ But in other cases, he might say, ‘You must sell me your land at minimum value, or you’ll be killed.’ This kind of forced sale has contributed to the flight of many people to the cities.” Some call such land grabbing a “counter-agrarian reform,” because the land is redistributed in a way that runs counter to the intent of the original reform. “If the drug dealers themselves do not take possession of the land,” said García, “they find someone loyal to them who will manage it for them.” Nothing in the Justice and Peace law makes mention of returning such land that has, in effect, been stolen. Millions of acres are involved.

Kidnappings increase the level of fear throughout the nation. FARC carries out most of them, said Father García, though some ordinary street criminals kidnap too, and then “sell” the captive person to FARC, which sets a ransom price and contacts the kidnapped person’s family.

The high-profile case of Ingrid Betancourt, a one-time Colombian presidential candidate who holds both Colombian and French citizenship ended in early July with a dramatic rescue. The Colombian government peacefully managed to rescue Betancourt and a handful of others. But hundreds still remain captive. The fact that Ms. Betancourt’s state of health was not known during her six years in captivity (some people believed her to be dead) reflects the difficulties in dealing with FARC. This is partly because it remains unclear just who holds the group’s major leadership positions.

Early in 2008 Colombian troops pursued one FARC leader, Raúl Reyes, across the border into Ecuador and killed him. Ironically, since Reyes to some extent served as a spokesperson for FARC with the outside world, his death makes it even more difficult to communicate with the guerrillas in a meaningful way. To maintain their secrecy, Father García said, they carefully restrict their use of satellite or mobile telephones and computers, lest the technology reveal their location.

Peace Work

Father García has a longstanding involvment in peace-related work. “During the 1990s, while I was in my formation program as a Jesuit seminarian, I was investigating human rights violations in Colombia,” he said. “Eventually, though, I wanted to move beyond ‘counting dead people’, so to speak.” His superiors sent him to work at Cinep in Bogota. “I began to focus on wider issues, like peace negotiations…addressing the ongoing violence, and in time I went to England for four years to do a Ph.D. in peace studies at the University of Bradford,” said García. He wrote his dissertation on the peace movement in Colombia. “Over the last decades,” he noted, “it has become one of the largest mobilizations for peace in the world, with millions mobilizing for it.”

During our conversation, Father García mentioned “peace territories,” a relatively recent concept that began as conflicts escalated in the 1990s. Unicef reports that schools, offices, parks and whole villages in some parts of the country have identified themselves as peace communities, declaring that no conflicts there would be resolved through violence. (Similarly, the American Friends Service Committee has said that some indigenous groups and Afro-Colombians practice nonviolence as a way of life, in the midst of struggles to protect their lands from paramilitaries, guerrillas and armed forces.)

Many of the peace groups in Colombia operate at a grassroots level. One, for example, focuses on women victims of armed conflict; it is called Amor (Love). Father García described a woman who had been raped and whose three brothers were killed. Although all but inert from shock and sorrow when she joined Amor, she found healing through an aspect of the program called abrazos (hugs), and “she was even able to say she had found God,” said the priest.

Peace initiatives persist in Colombia. Through the efforts of groups like Cinep, some of them are even growing. Peace groups, law enforcement and the Colombian government, however, can do only so much. The drug trade is an international problem, driven by demand, and any long-term solution will have to reduce demand as well.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Mulcahy
9 years 10 months ago
No mention of the merits of the US-Colombia trade legislation pending in Washington. Is it useful to deny the benefits of trade to "punish" Colombian third parties? Another point might be the morality of drug use/demand in the US--have the American bishops properly defined the use of such drugs a serious sin in the light of the resulting violence in Colombia? in Mexico? Isn't it true, now if not before, that drug use constitutes complicity in murder?


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