Colombia: Between the Sword and the Wall

by Robin Buyers

In addition to maintaining a presence with communities along the Opón River in Colombia's Magdalena Medio region, CPTers have traveled to other areas of intense conflict in recent months. This report describes one such trip to a region known as Montes de María in the north of Colombia along the Carribean coast.

The small town of Chinulito once housed 300 families. The houses are still there, but the roofs are gone, and vegetation grows through the floors and walls. Some residents have returned to the area, but the primary inhabitants are a military battalion that people say is there "to protect the road, not the people."

Two farmers have been assassinated since people began returning last year. Many fields are sown with landmines. Some community members have sold their land "at the price of a thin chicken."

Chinulito is only one of fifteen abandoned towns in this region, known as Montes de Maria, where rural populations have been hit hard by Colombia's internal conflict. Acting on the invitation of the Colombian Mennonite Church to investigate a possible project with displaced subsistence farmers (campesinos), CPTers Joel Klassen and Robin Buyers joined a Lutheran sister-church delegation to the region in February.

This area along the Caribbean coast of Colombia has given birth to both leftist insurgents and right-wing paramilitary groups. Both continue to be active, along with drug traffickers, protecting a corridor that channels cocaine to North American markets. Campesinos are caught in the middle, between "the sword and the wall" as Pastor Adelina Zúniga put it. Because up to 42% of the population is living on less than one U.S. dollar a day, families may lose their children to recruitment by armed groups, thereby becoming targets themselves for violence from opposing groups.

Selective assassinations rather than massacres are now the most common form of violent social control. On February 25, 2006, three men shot and killed a storekeeper in the Finca Mula farm community, part of a land parcel redistributed long ago under agrarian reform. Two other men were killed in November of 2005. Now all twenty-six families living on the farm are displaced. Leaders from the ANUC campesino organization say that the presence of paramilitary, insurgent, and criminal groups as well as state forces, all armed, often makes knowing who is responsible for an assassination impossible. One of the leaders noted, however, that even though 400 families have displaced from a community called Los Palmitos, 900 remain. "Refusing to leave their homes," he said, "is resistance."

Others in the region, with the help of Protestant and Catholic churches, are organizing resettlement programs or demanding that the state support displaced families in a planned return to their lands. They argue that a partial return in which only the men are working the fields is no return at all.

In a meeting with the Governor's office, Pastor Adelina asked, "Is a return having my husband go and risk his life while I try to get by in the city selling fruit in the streets? No! We want this return to take place with truth, justice, and reparations."

"Peace," said the Pastor, "is being able to sleep at night without hunger and without fear."