COLOMBIA UPDATE: January-February 2009

20 March 2009
COLOMBIA UPDATE: January-February 2009

During the months of January and February, Christian Peacemaker Teams continued to accompany communities in the Middle Magdalena region.  Powerful entities (national and international) with strong interests in the region continued their campaign of threats and violence against the civilian population both in the rural communities and in the city.  The people, through community processes, social movements, and public marches, continue to resist.

5-7 January
Stewart Vriesinga and Phil Hart traveled to the Florida and Ñeques communities on the Opón River, visiting the few families that remain there.  The violence of economic pressure, rather than that of armed actors, and lack of public investment n the rural areas has displaced more than half of the communities’ population.  (See photos at 

13-17 January

Sarah Shirk and Gladys Gomez traveled to the Mina Caribe, Mina Vieja and San Pedro Frio communities as part of the ongoing accompaniment of the mining communities in southern Bolivar.  The mining communities continue to fight for the right to mine the gold on a small scale under pressure and threat from multi-national mining companies who want to mine the gold on a massive scale, forcibly displacing people from the region and destroying their way of life.  (

23 January
Knestrick and Shirk went to Bucaramanga with a commission of the Human Rights Workers Forum, ESPACIO, to accompany the family members of the victims of the16 May 1998 massacre.  Paramilitaries killed seven people on that date and kidnapped (“disappeared”) twenty-five on that date.  The culprits provided statements that helped the authorities find the bodies of five of the missing.  Part of the paramilitary demobilization process is the requirement that they tell the whole truth about their crimes but, to date, the locations of only five of the twenty-five missing have been released, and members of the state armed forces who participated have not been named.  After the families received the remains from the authorities, they participated a program with prayers, speeches, and music.  

The commission then returned to Barrancabermeja.  On the soccer field in the Campin neighborhood, where the massacre happened, they placed coffins surrounded by flower arrangements on a stage.  In front of the stage, they placed twenty coffins with a photo of each of the disappeared persons still missing.  There A group of youth gave a theatre presentation and the audience watched a video called "Neither Returning Nor Leaving," a documentary with testimonies of relatives and people who witnessed the slaughter.  Gomez and Pierre Shantz accompanied about thirty-five people who stayed throughout the night, holding a wake for the dead.  (See ))

24 January
The Bishop Jaime Prieto led a Mass in commemoration of the victims of the massacre of 16 May 1998.  Several other priests were present, including Jesuit Francisco Deroux, former director of the Program for Development and Peace in the Middle Magdalena, who closely followed the 16 May process when he was in Barrancabermeja.  Politicians, UN representatives, the army, and police were present.  Before the mass began, the authorities were invited up to the stage.  As police and military began to go forward, a young man started to shout slogans against the military.  Some other people, including a woman who lost a relative in the massacre gathered, saying,  "Go away.  They were the ones who allowed the massacre to happen.  Why are you here?"  After some tense moments, the armed authorities decided not to take the stage.  The bishop focused his homily on the “bitter rest” experienced by the dead and their families.  Their relatives finally are able to bury them, but they have not found justice. 
  After Mass, the group left in a funeral caravan to the cemetery. There, with the military listening, Father Francisco Deroux spoke out against the involvement of the police force in the massacre and the impunity they enjoy to date. 

27-28 January
Shirk and Shantz accompanied the representatives of the different community processes in Southern Bolívar at meetings in Barrancabermeja where they prepared for two days of dialogue with different levels of government.  Miners and farmers in Southern Bolívar formed the Southern Bolivar Roundtable for Dialogue in order to have more strength in petitioning the government.  Some of the issues that the communities want to discuss with the government are their rights to the land and security guarantees.



Knestrick and Vriesinga accompanied the Southern Bolivar Roundtable for Dialogue in San Pablo.  The police and army swarmed around the entrance to the site, searching everyone who came in.  They also took pictures from the second floor of a building during the meeting.  People were afraid that armed groups could use the photos when they want to kill someone.  One of the communities’ complaints is the mixing of armed forces with paramilitary groups.  After the dialogue, the only agreement reached was to have another meeting in two or three weeks. 

31 January

Shantz and Gómez attended the farewell mass for Bishop Jaime Prieto.  After fifteen years as Bishop in Barrancabermeja, Bishop Prieto was transferred to the diocese in Cúcuta.  During his time as bishop, he was a strong supporter of the human rights organizations and spoke out against social injustices and war.    

Early February

Seventeen members of the Awa community, an indigenous people from southern Colombia, were murdered during the first weeks of February.  Only three of the dead bodies have been recovered.   The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have claimed responsibility for eight of the seventeen deaths.  

1-4 February

Sarah Shirk and Gladys Gomez Nino went to Santandercito, just outside of Bogota, to attend the national gathering of the Women's Social Movement Against War and For Peace.  Seventy-six women gathered from all around the country to discuss their strategy to advance their goals of justice and a life with dignity at the local, national, and international levels.   On Tuesday, 4 February, the group traveled to Bogota for an event to recognize the leadership of Aida Quilcue, a prominent national leader in the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), whose husband was murdered in December by the Colombian army. (See

9-11 February
Gladys Gomez Nino and Chris Knestrick accompanied Teofilo Acuna, president of the Southern Bolivar Agricultural-Mining Federation, to San Pedro Frio.  They participated in a meeting with members of the Federation that dealt with threats community members have received from the paramilitary group Black Eagles, restrictions against the transport of chemicals necessary for the gold refining process, and the re-drawing the boundaries of the Forest Reserve that has been the government's excuse for not giving the community titles to their land.  

12-14 February
Sarah Shirk and Pierre Shantz traveled to Garzal to accompany the communities of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza in meetings with their lawyer where they discussed the issues of land possession.  Approximately 300 families live in the two communities; they have struggled for years to prove that they have possession of the land.  (Colombia law states that you gain possession after living on the land for five years.)  However, members of the Barreto family have used their significant power and wealth to try to take away the land from the communities.  

13 February

Jenny Dillon and Paul Horst went to the Public Prosecutor's office in Barrancabermeja to attend a hearing for David Ravelo, the general secretary for the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS).  Ravelo, like many other social leaders, has had charges brought against him for rebellion.  The Colombian state often uses this tactic in an attempt to silence opposition voices.  

14 February

Paul Horst and Jenny Dillon attended the funeral for an important leader of the fishing community in Barrancabermeja.   Luis "Lucho" Alberto Arango, president of the Llanito Association of Fishermen and Fish Farmers (APALL), was killed on February 5 because of his work with APALL against illegal fishing practices.  He once said, "It is clear to me that we may have different ways of seeing things, but when our goal is the same, we just have to learn to listen to the opinions of those around us and seek the well-being of everyone, without judging anyone.  This is peace.  And it begins by respecting each other."

17 February
The Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) held a press conference in support of two of the organization's leaders whom the Colombian government has imprisoned under charges of rebellion.  Pierre Shantz, Gladys Gomez Nino, Chris Knestrick, and Paul Horst attended the press conference and march that followed.  

18 February

The Colombian courts called Miguel Gonzalez Huepa and Andres Gil, ACVC leaders and political prisoners for more than one year, for hearings in Barrancabermeja’s palace of justice.  The judges heard testimonies from the prosecution against Huepa and Gil as part of the judicial process.  The two men remained under custody throughout the trial.  Sarah Shirk, Chris Knestrick, and Pierre Shantz, along with representatives from many other social organizations, attended the hearings to show support.

20 February
The lawyer for the Garzal and Nueva Esperanza communities' judicial process, Rafael Figueroa, reported that the judge in Simiti has put out arrest warrants for ten members of the communities.  They believe that the Barreto family, through political maneuvering, is responsible for the release of these warrants.   These warrants are only one of the many attempts the Barreto family has made to intimidate the communities and try to remove them from their land.  CPT Colombia committed itself to having a team that could be ready to travel to Garzal at a moment's notice if the authorities act to carry out the warrants.  

25 February
Ash Wednesday

To publicly release the annual human rights report for 2008, the CPT Colombia team planned a public action at the Sacred Heart cathedral, directly in front of the mayor's office.   Using comparisons between the story of Esther and the current context in Colombia, the team discussed the necessity to speak the truth to those in power.  They dressed in sackcloth and ashes as a symbol of their mourning for the deaths, human rights abuses, and threats that continue happening today.  (See

28 February

The Magdalena Medio Victims' Association (ASORVIM) held a memorial service for the tenth anniversary of the 28 February 1999 massacre of eleven men in Barrancabermeja.  Gladys Gomez Nino, Pierre Shantz and Jenny Dillon attended the public program and participated with a litany and some readings.  The group then traveled around the city, stopping at the locations of the murders to commemorate the dead.

The same day, a number of CPT Colombia team members accompanied Yolanda Becerra, one of the leaders of the Women's Popular Organization (OFP) as she made her first visit to Barrancabermeja after leaving in November 2007 because of death threats.  

So far this year

The Holistic Peace Observatory reports sixty murders in the Middle Magdalena region from 1 January to 18 March 2009.  Twenty-four of those took place in the city of Barrancabermeja.