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1999 NCC News Archives

NCC Group Visits War-Weary Colombia, Talks About Peace

by John Filiatreau*

BOGOTA, Colombia – Five peacemakers from the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC) encountered very few optimists during a recent "listen-and-learn" visit to war-torn Colombia. Even those who claimed to see a glimmer of hope for peace in the country said they saw it only dimly and in the far distance.

What the U.S. visitors did encounter in nearly everyone they met in Colombia was a near-universal dream of peace, an indistinct but warming vision of a more rewarding life that might ensue, if someone, someday, actually managed to stop the killing.

By the end of their four-day excursion, the NCC visitors had come to feel that Colombia's national dream of peace – and its citizens' weariness of war – might be common ground enough to bring some of the warring parties to the table for talks.

The purpose of the tour was to learn whether the NCC can play a constructive role in facilitating communication among the parties in the nation's 35-year-long civil war, thereby advancing the cause of peace. The answer, in general if not in the details, was yes.

An estimated 35,000 people have been killed in the conflict in just the past 10 years.

In the NCC group's meetings with spokespeople for all sides in Colombia's long civil war, the principal topic of conversation was the prospect of peace after two generations of murder and mayhem. The interviews were uniformly disheartening.

The top U.S. diplomat in Bogota said the making of peace "will be a long, long, long, long process." A foreign diplomat remarked that the combatants "are not in a hurry to make peace." A political activist in the capital commented, "Peace is not just around the corner."

A Swedish diplomat, asked whether he could see any positive aspects of the situation in Colombia, came up with one: "The incredible resilience of the Colombian people, who somehow, in the midst of violence and terror, hang on to the dream of peace. They don't give up."

In October 1997, 10 million Colombians – about a quarter of the population – went to the polls in a non-binding election to express their desire for a peaceful end to the civil conflict. In October 1999, 12 million took to the streets to protest the continuing violence and to demand that the government and the guerrillas agree to a cease-fire. Colombian President Andres Pastrana is said to have won last year's election because he managed to identify his candidacy with the people's dream of peace.

The NCC team, led by Dr. Oscar McCloud, Pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, and coordinated by the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, director of the NCC's office for Latin America and the Caribbean, met with the U.S. ambassador in Bogota, Curtis Kamman; Msgr. Alberto Giraldo Jaramillo, president of the Roman Catholic Episcopal Conference of Colombia; Gen. Fernando Tapias, the commander of Colombia's armed forces; Dr. Jose F. Castro, the country's chief public defender and human-rights "ombudsman"; Bogota-based diplomats from Spain and Sweden, two countries with long experience in Colombia; the chiefs of United Nations missions in Colombia on human rights and on internal refugees; officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN), the two largest guerrilla groups opposing the national government; and a group of more than 20 leaders in Colombia's civil society, including labor officials, educators and directors of non-government organizations (NGOs).

Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, the NCC's general secretary, had been scheduled to lead the delegation, but became ill and was unable to travel to Bogota for the Nov. 29-Dec. 2 tour. The participants, in addition to McCloud and Bolioli, were the Rev. Dr. Rafael Malpica-Padilla, program director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Rev. Arturo M. Fernandez, a member of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church; and Samuel Lobato, a regional representative for Latin America of the NCC's Church World Service and Witness program.

Bolioli said the trip was an effort to capitalize on the "credibility" the NCC has achieved in Latin America without seeming to trump the efforts of local and regional religious organizations.

"It was not and is not our intention to become directly involved in Colombian affairs," Bolioli said as the tour drew to a close. "We came here to try to open new channels of communication, to help Colombians work together better for peace. And I think we accomplished what we set out to do."

The first conclusion drawn by the NCC group was that the more one learns about Colombia, the more confused one is apt to become.

"We knew before we came that the situation here was very complicated," McCloud said after the second day of meetings, "and every conversation we've had so far has only reinforced that impression."

"Sometimes even myself, I don't understand what's going on," Gen. Tapias admitted.

The government, which says it wants peace and was elected on a peace platform, is fighting a hard-line Marxist guerrilla army, which says it too wants peace – but also demands "justice" (meaning, among other things, political and land-ownership reforms) for Colombia's campisanos, or peasants.

The countless private armies known as "paramilitaries" or "self-defense forces" represent the country's wealthy landowners and blue-bloods, who profess to want peace, bitterly oppose land-reform and share-the-wealth proposals, and may or may not be allied with officers of the Colombian military. The Colombian military and these right-wing allies of theirs are said to be responsible for about three-quarters of the "human-rights abuses" reported in Colombia.

All these combatants have one thing in common – a steady and generous source of cash: The country's drug cartels, which make hundreds of millions of dollars a year selling cocaine, mostly to consumers in the United States, and want to continue doing business in relative peace, and therefore are happy to pay "taxes" and "protection money" to the forces that control various parts of Colombia through which the traffickers have to move "product."

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says the "narco-guerrillas" in Colombia – meaning FARC, ELN and the right-wing paramilitary forces – together collect about $600 million a year in tribute from the drug trade. (Although you wouldn't expect McCaffrey to say so, there is every reason to believe that the Colombian military exacts a similar toll.) McCaffrey has told reporters that differentiating between U.S. anti-drug and anti-guerrilla efforts in Colombia is "counterproductive."

According to a study by the U.S. Embassy staff in Bogota, about half the guerrillas' income is from drug payoffs – but they make almost as much from kidnappings for ransom. (About 2,000 people have been kidnapped in Colombia this year.)

Tapias, taking his cue from McCaffrey, said last month of FARC: "Not only do they levy a security tax, they are now selling coca paste to drug traffickers."

When violence breaks out among the various standing armies in Colombia, the people most likely to be killed, injured and tortured are unarmed, peace-deprived peasants who have refused to join one of the armies, been accused of befriending "the enemy," or gotten caught in cross-fires. Until they are killed, many make a subsistence living by growing coca for sale to the drug cartels. They say that's the only way they can feed their families in the midst of Colombia's deepest recession in 70 years, with unemployment and inflation both above 20 percent.

Tapias told his NCC visitors that 792 Colombians had been killed by guerrillas and 605 by paramilitaries in the first nine months of this year. Spokesmen for the public defender's office blamed "80 percent of the killings" on the paramilitaries, which they said also are largely responsible for the one million "displaced" Colombians who are refugees in their own country. They said government troops were often involved in the private armies' atrocities in the past, but are implicated less often today; they credit Tapias for getting rid of officers with close ties to the paramilitaries, which were outlawed in 1989.

The United States, which says it also wants peace in Colombia, has spent billions of tax dollars, and proposes to spend billions more, to help the Colombian government eradicate coca crops with toxic herbicides and wage high-tech war on the drug barons – and secondarily on the guerrillas, now the supposed No. 1 threat to the Americas (having supplanted Cuba).

U.S. and Colombian authorities say the way to make peace is to put the drug sellers out of business, thereby depriving the guerrillas of essential financial support. (They claim, citing poll results, that the rebels have scant popular support.) Tapias says he could put the guerrillas out of business in three years or less with the right kind of U.S. support against the drug traffickers.

"If we cannot eradicate the narco-traffickers, no peace process can succeed," Tapias said. "The amount of money these people (the guerrillas) receive is beyond imagination, more than the security forces' budget. Cutting off that source of income is the only way to motivate the guerrillas to seek peace."

He noted that the drug merchants, "a source of jobs in a country without enough jobs," don't care about public opinion, because they can survive without public support: "Thanks to the narco-traffickers, they are totally independent," he said.

The guerrillas say the only way to make peace is to redistribute the nation's wealth and return much of the land to the peasants.

The one thing that seems clear about the conflict is that neither side is likely to achieve a military victory anytime soon. Meanwhile, each side presents itself as the vanguard of peace.

In a meeting in the jungle south of Bogota, a FARC officer told the NCC group: "FARC has been searching for peace from our birth. But peace is not possible unless it comes along with social justice. Peace is not possible until we solve the problems that gave rise to the conflict."

The NCC delegation had talks with Commandante Raul Reyes, one of seven members of FARC's ruling secretariat; "Olga," a veteran guerrilla officer who also is the daughter of the guerrillas' military commander, Manuel Marulanda Velez, also known as "Tirofijo" ("sure shot"); and a rebel officer named "Fernando."

Reyes, asked about the killings of three U.S. indigenous-rights activists in northeastern Colombia last March, said FARC takes responsibility for what he called "a very big mistake, a barbaric act." He offered a public apology and said an internal investigation of the case is nearly finished. All that remains, he said, is for FARC to decide how the three soldiers responsible will be punished.

Asked about the threat of U.S. military intervention in Colombia, "Fernando" replied: "For more than a century, the United States has already been intervening in our country. Remember – Panama was part of Colombia."

The rebels said they "are not interested in persecuting any church or religious group," and contended that they have acted against religious people "only in cases of collaborators (with the enemy), cases in which our people have been killed because someone has opposed us under cover of the church. ... where someone has used (religious) institutions to destroy what we are building." The rebels said they hoped to create communication channels with NCC/CWS to deal with difficult cases and avoid mistakes.

"Fernando" asked the NCC group to go home and refute "the big disinformation about the peace process and who we are – tell people in the States that they are not the enemy."

In June, a Colombian newspaper, citing U.S. State Department sources, reported on a purported U.S. plan to block the spread of Colombian guerrilla activity to neighboring countries by (1) supplying aircraft and intelligence to border forces in Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela, to help them keep the Colombian rebel forces under control; and (2) pinning a "narco-guerrilla" label on FARC and ELN, implying that they are involved in narcotics processing and peddling.

The State Department has said consistently that the United States will not be drawn into Colombia's battle against the guerrillas, but will continue to be involved in the war on drugs. Many Latin Americans suspect that U.S. officials are tarring the guerillas with the drug-dealer brush to justify a deepening of its commitment to counter-insurgency operations.

In August, in testimony before a Congressional committee, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Chief Donnie Marshall said his agency doesn't regard the Colombian guerrillas as drug traffickers. He conceded that FARC and ELN are "associated with" drug sellers, "providing protection or extorting money from them;" but said the DEA has never "come close to the conclusion" that they can reasonably be called "drug-trafficking organizations."

Pastrana has called the charge that the guerrillas are drug traffickers "ridiculous."

Part of the delegation traveled to see the Commander "Pablo," who is number three in the command of the ELN and responsible for international relations.

By January, 2000, Pastana will give "neutrality" protection to an area under ELN control so the ELN can hold its National Convention for Peace. ELN leaders said they believe in a participatory process involving all sectors to achieve peace.

ELN leaders also expressed interest in continuing conversation and cooperating on the issue of religious freedom in zones under their control. They would like U.S. agencies to support programs to eradicate small farmers planting marijuana and to create alternative crops and markets. They have requested that NCC/CWS act as an "observer" in the area under their control and that NCC/CWS staff be observers in peace talks with the government.

Also in June, during a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), U.S. representatives proposed the creation of a multinational force – "a group of friendly countries" with political and economic ties – to safeguard the security of the Western Hemisphere by intervening in internal conflicts that threaten democracy in Latin America.

Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela all vehemently rejected the proposal. Then U.S. representative Victor Marrero told reporters: "We never hoped that the proposal would be approved at this session; we just wanted to put the matter on the table for discussion. But this topic is not dead."

Gen. Tapias and Colombian Minister of Defense Luis Ramirez traveled to Washington in July and asked for $500 million in counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency aid. The next day, McCaffrey proposed a $1 billion U.S. contribution to "emergency drug supplemental assistance" for fighting the anti-drug war in South America, including $570 million for Colombia.

In September, Pastrana visited New York and Washington to promote "Plan Colombia," a multi-billion proposal to curb narco-trafficking, end the civil conflict and revive the economy. The plan includes police and military aid. Pastrana said he would seek substantial contributions from "donor countries," principally the United States.

Colombia is now the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid.

Earlier this month, Colombia showed off its new Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), the first fruit of its plan to upgrade its military. It also has created a new anti-narcotics battalion and a brigade to patrol the nation's rivers. The RDF includes troops from three mobile counter-insurgency brigades, a Special Forces group trained by the United States, and an artillery unit. It is supported by aircraft, including 15 U.S.-made Blackhawk helicopters.

The war continues. When someone is reported killed or "disappeared," which happens nearly every day, a number of "the usual suspects" are almost equally plausible: the army, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, the "narco-traffickers," U.S. agents or advisors, political terrorists, common bandits – all groups that say they want peace in Colombia.



John Filiatreau, reporter with the Presbyterian News Service in Louisville, Ky., accompanied the NCC delegation on assignment by the NCC.

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