Colombia: July 2009 (San Pablo)

CPT Delegation Report

San Pablo, Colombia (July 14-27th, 2009)


Background: Christian Peacemaker delegation members provide encouragement for individuals and communities experiencing violence, challenge violations of human rights and promote active nonviolence as a means of settling disputes. Christian Peacemaker Teams was invited to work in Colombia in 2000 by the Mennonite Church of Colombia; the main reasons for CPT involvement in Colombia being the high levels of human rights abuses perpetrated within the country as well as the nature of US and Canadian military and economic involvement in the country.


Delegation Members: John Volkening (CPT Delegation Leader), Roberta Bender, Gaven Betzelberger, Cornelius Deppe, Catherine Gutjahr, Helen Reed, Nicholas Swenson, James Thomas, Nathan Toews, Marta Santanilla (Interpreter), Laura Ciaghi (CPT Team Member), Chris Knestrick (CPT Team Member)


Bogota: July 14-15th

The team arrived in Bogota on July 14th and settled into a hostel for the night. The following morning the team began to meet with various organizations in Bogota connected with the work of CPT. The first meeting was with Felix Posado of CEPALC (Latin American Center for Popular Communication). Felix gave us a brief but comprehensive view of the population, resources, politics and essentially opened our eyes to the realities of Colombia. Some of the topics covered included militarization, illegal armed groups, presidential politics and elections, trade agreements and multinationals, narcotrafficking and the control and extraction of resources. Felix mentioned the importance of both “globalized solidarity” and “historic patience” with respect to understanding Colombia; Globalized solidarity essentially meaning the importance of international advocacy, and historic patience describing that the movement for peace and development in Colombia will require endurance and time. Felix emphasized three main points for us to take away from the meeting: stop US military aid, pressure Uribe’s removal and trial, and globalize advocacy.

We then met with Justapaz, an organization from within the Mennonite Church which has been focused on peacebuilding, reconciliation, and human rights since 1989. Justapaz works to equip churches to be sanctuaries of peace within their communites, and has also been foundational in the development of a legal right to conscientious objection for Colombian youth, who are obligatorily recruited for military service.

Before leaving Bogota, the delegation spent time dedicated to a discussion on undoing racism. CPT acknowledges that undoing racism and other isms is vital to the success of peacemaking work. CPT strives not simply to meet a quota of diversity, but rather to undo the underlying attitudes of power and privilege and therefore create a safe and open environment for all people.


Barrancabermeja: July 16-18th

The morning after our arrival in Barrancabermeja, the long-term team oriented us to Colombia, particularly the displacements and violence which resulted in CPT locating its base in Barrancabermeja. We discussed the processes of denouncements and “visibilizing” human rights abuses witnessed firsthand. Also we spoke that the economic, political, and military realities are linked intimately with the policies of the global north.

The team spent time meeting with  Francisco Campo, who filled us in on the history of the Magdalena Medio and the 2005 demobilization of the paramilitaries, as well as the recent resurgence of paramilitary activity in the area for primarily economic gain. When asked how he was able to sustain his work in the region, he left us with the following quote: “We don’t think [about the realities of Colombia]; if we did, we would leave.”

We spent the afternoon with the ACVC (Asociacion Campesino del Valle Cimitarra). The ACVC is an organization of campesino leaders which mobilizes campesino communities to demand their rights to peace and stability as small farmers. The ACVC educated us on the history of campesino mobilization in the area, including a pattern of persecution and broken agreements with the government. Small farmers who resist multinational development and displacement are unfairly labeled as guerillas and associated with the FARC or other guerilla groups.


San Pablo: July 18th-19th

An early morning ride on a Chalupa (motorized canoe) via the Magdalena brought us to San Pablo, where we quickly settled into the Programa (Programa de Desarrollo y Paz del Magdalena Medio) office. The Programa motto is “primera la vida” (“first, life”), and the leadership considers development to be the first step towards peace in the region of the Magdalena Medio. As one facet of their program for rural development, Programa works with traditional Coca farmers to encourage and support small farmers who seek to grow alternative and economically viable crops, such as cacao (chocolate).

We hustled off to a meeting with the OFP (Womeńs Popular Organization) on the outskirts of San Pablo, and were introduced to the women of the barrio (most of whom are displaced, and many of whom are heads of households). The OFP is a group of women that rejects violence in their communities and empowers vulnerable women to develop vocational skills and advocate for human rights. Since its foundation in 1972 in Barrancabermeja, the leadership and members of the organization have been heavily persecuted, and many of the leaders have been assassinated or disappeared.

Later we met with several organizations, including Youth Network, Women’s Network, Agrominero Federation of the South of Bolivar, Humanitarian Space of the South of Bolivar, Jesuit Refugee Services, the OFP, Programa, and Neighborhood Links. We gathered together to hear the roles of the various organizations within the community. During the five hour span of the meeting, we brainstormed ideas and heard feedback from the community about what sort of public action that CPT could plan that would be of benefit to their goals. Hearing from the leaders of the community was invaluable to CPT́s continued accompaniment of San Pablo.


El Campo (Cerro Azul, San Juan Medio, San Juan Alto): July 19th-20th

On the back of a crowded truck, the delegation made its way from San Pablo to a small farming community known as San Juan Medio. The community is supported in their cultivation of alternative food crops by Programa. The community leaders opened our eyes to their struggle to break the cycle of coca growing within a coca culture of the region. They were deeply discouraged by the frequent fumigations (three in the past year!) which deprived them of their food crops and their hope for becoming economically sustainable through cacao cultivation. The “venom” sprayed from US-funded airplanes leaves the landscape bare of vegetation and biodiversity, poisons the water supply, and is severely detrimental to human health. The fumigations are largely ineffective against coca production (only 20% of sprayed coca plants are destroyed), while vital food crops are devastated. Farmers who grow alternative crops are also denied reparations for sprayed food crops due to an overly complicated system for reporting inaccurate fumigations. The overwhelming message we received from the campesinos of San Juan Medio was that the fumigations are NOT used as a method for controlling the cultivation of coca, but rather as a tool for the displacement of small farmers.

In the nearby community of San Juan Alto, we met with the local Junta (council). The Junta told of their nine year history of displacements and their ever looming fear of being forced from their village. The small farmers can not gain deeds to the land that they farm, and are neglected by the provincial and national governments.

Arriving in Cerro Azul, many displaced members of the community met with us in the grade school. We heard a similar story from this community of frequent displacements. They also expressed their constant subjection to the injustices of military abuses of civilians (extortion, confiscation of personal property, etc.).

Following the meeting, Padre Rafael led us in a Catholic mass where we were invited to take communion.


San Pablo: July 21st-22nd

Following our processing time, we embarked on a truck ride back to San Pablo. We arrived safely to the OFP community kitchen, where the team split into two parts. The first section of the delegation attended a meeting with the Evangelical Association of the Magdalena Medio. It seemed clear that the focus of the evangelical pastors was on development in the region, and Laura was careful to clarify CPT́s mission of peacemaking in Colombia, not monetary assistance for development programs. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to hear from the evangelical leadership of the region. The other half of the delegation worked to prepare for the action.

The delegation reunited and rehearsed the public action. The focus of the action was sweeping away the violence and corruption of the area, while affirming their hopes for the region and giving thanks for the recent diminishment of violence. The action was attended by many of the community organizations and drew many onlookers as well. Although there was a lack of time for the delegation to discuss and prepare for the action, the response from the community was overwhelmingly positive, and action proved successful in many ways.


Barrancabermeja: July 22nd-23rd

The group took an early Chalupa ride to the Programa offices in Barrancabermeja, where we met with two leaders of a recently displaced community called Las Pavas. The leaders shared with us that their community had been illegally displaced by armed police, and that they were in great need of urgent action and support. They expressed lament for the loss of the land which they had cared for and cultivated for generations, as well as the devastating environmental impact of the large palm farming company which had bulldozed their lands. The delegation struggle to articulate a response, but we offered our support in the form of prayer, apology for our association with the global north, our names and addresses, physical embraces, and our commitment to advocate on their behalf.

The next morning we attended an action put on by the CocaCola employees on the Global Day Against the Politics of Multinational Corporations. The Juanistas (more on them below) and the CPT jointly accompanied the event, which consisted of burning abuses and injustices of CocaCola and asserting their desire for positive changes and their claim to human rights.

The delegation then met with Asodesamuba, which works with and advocates for displaced people. The organization has four main focuses: prevention and protection, humanitarian aid after displacement, health, food, education, and jobs, and the strengthening of the organization.

We then toured Barrancabermeja with anthropologist David Lopez, learning about the history of the Magdalena Medio region, its strategic importance, the Spanish, indigenous and afrocolombian histories, and the history of persecution of organized labor.

In the evening, we met with the Juanistas, a lively catholic order of nuns dedicated to supporting young workers and women. They believe that in order to accompany the poor in their struggle, they also must live in poverty.

The delegation spent the next morning with Sinaltrainal (International Union of Food Industry Workers), the leadership of which is primarily composed of CocaCola employees. This union is seeking to change the anti-worker policies of CocaCola and other multinational food companies. The union seeks to hold these businesses accountable to treating their employees with dignity by boycotting their products, negotiating reparations, and gaining international advocacy. Colombia has the highest percentage of union leader assassinations in the world, and Sinaltrainal has also suffered persecution and the deaths of many union leaders.

A leader of Pan, Paz y Vida (bread, peace, and life) cooked lunch for the delegation at the CPT team house, and shared with us the organizatiońs work of supporting women who are heads of their households, and often displaced. The program includes microloans and vocational training.

Before leaving Barrancabermeja, the delegation also visited the Legion de Afecto (Legion of Affection). The Legion de Afecto provides an environment for youth to express themselves via “alternative languages”. This expression takes the form of art, dance, and music, all of which are alternatives to the violence which grips the region.


Bogota: July 24th – 27th

Back in Bogota, the team met with Jennifer Henderson of the Canadian embassy. She was cordial and interested in our work and concerns. She explained how the Canadian embassy is understaffed and relies on information from NGOs who are active on the ground in Colombia. She also described a disconnect between the “silos” of the political section of the embassy and the “trade section”, and mentioned that as the FTA was being considered, the trade section would have to take greater responsibility for being accountable to human rights.

After entering the U.S. Embassy through several layers of checkpoints and security, we met with Carolyn Cooley. We were told that the embassy is the second largest in the world with 4,000 employees, second only to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. The delegation shared with Carolyn the displacement of the Las Pavas community, our concerns regarding fumigations and “drug war” policy in Colombia, as well as our dismay over the assassinations of union leaders and paramilitary assassinations of community leaders. We also lamented the increase in displaced persons in Colombia and the continued increase in US military presence. Carolyn asserted that the US considers Colombia to be the “best foreign policy success wéve seen in the last ten years”. She further stated that the US did not acknowledge the presence of paramilitaries in Colombia today, but considers the recent violence to be perpetrated by armed criminal groups. We invited her to travel to meet the organizations and community members we had heard from, and she asked us to be proactive in contacting her if we had news of announced displacement s or illegal actions. She did seem willing to make calls on behalf of communities that are accompanied by CPT and at risk of displacement.

The delegation spent the next two days meeting together to both process the experiences that we had throughout the trip, and also to discuss our plans to share our experiences with our communities and elected government officials in the global north and advocate on behalf of the voices we heard in Colombia. During these days, we had the opportunity to share a mass and dinner with the Basilians, a catholic order located near the Candelaria region of Bogota that works throughout Colombia. We also heard from Javier and Johanna (our hosts in Bogota) about the extraction of Colombian resources by multinational corporations in a detailed presentation.

After saying our goodbyes, the delegation parted ways on Monday, July 27th.