COLOMBIA: “I thought you were dead!”

4 February 2009
COLOMBIA: “I thought you were dead!”

by Stewart Vriesinga

Reverend Salvador Alcántara, from Garzal township of Simití municipality in the southern Bolívar province, is a remarkable, exemplary and inspirational man. He is a husband, father, grandfather, pastor of a local church, farmer, president of the Garzal town council, and vice-president of ASPROAS – Association of Alternative Producers of Simití. That he is able to take on all these tasks and do them well has earned him the respect of both the larger community of Simití and his own smaller community of Garzal. His interpretation of his pastoral duties has led him to become involved in his community's struggle to stay on their lands in the face of constant threats of forced mass displacement.

The much-heralded achievements of Colombian President Uribe’s administration – the demobilization of paramilitaries and the recovery of large tracts of land once controlled by guerrilla groups –  have failed to provide residents of Garzal with security. On the contrary, the government has refused to recognize them as the legal owners of the land and instead granted title to a drug trafficker. Most residents of Garzal have lived there since the early 1970's and should have received squatters' rights after only five years. (See photo essay). The title-holder left when his cocaine laboratory was raided in the late 1980s, and he wasn't heard from until 2003, when he returned in the company of paramilitaries. He then presented local residents with an ultimatum: leave or die. Some families fled, and Salvador as the local representative received both bribes and personal death threats.

Years later, when Salvador ran into a now-demobilized paramilitary, the man expressed shock at seeing Salvador alive: "I thought you were dead! I had orders to kill you! I knew you were a good man – a man of integrity – and I couldn't carry out those orders, but I thought another one of my colleagues would!"

It seems that in addition to the respect of his local community and parish, Salvador has also gained the respect of some of his enemies. Salvador attributes his being alive to God's providence.

In December of 2008 Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) received an accompaniment request because of fears that a large group of armed men gathering near the community had been contracted to carry out the original death threats.

Fortunately the much-feared forced displacement never happened. Maybe it was because the river had flooded its banks, and the armed group decided to wait for things to dry up a bit; or because the military had sent planes to fly over the area and the armed groups dispersed; or because the guardian angel God sent to protect Salvador prevented it. Or maybe it was a combination of all of the above.

Salvador, I know, sees God's hand in all these things, and has chosen to look for ways in which he can actively collaborate with his God. He never allows his faith in God to become an excuse for doing nothing. May we all learn from his example!

[CPT’s May 26 - June 8, 2009 International Delegation will visit the community of  Garzal.]