Colombian Church Group Threatened Over Rights Work

BOGOTA – The Intercongregational Justice and Peace Commission in Colombia was recently told "watch what you write," in a message threatening that "something terrible" could happen.

The anonymous message threatened a "major attack" that would destroy the group’s network, which produces news bulletins on human rights abuses. "So many denunciations can be harmful," said the threat received by the organization earlier this month.

Justice and Peace sends out its news bulletins from towns with names like Chucurí, Cacarica, Jiguamiandó, Curbaradó, Ariari or Trujillo, located deep in conflict zones.

The bulletins documenting human rights abuses against civilians committed by all of the warring factions are written up by priests, nuns and lay Catholics, as well as ministers and the faithful from Presbyterian, Lutheran and Baptist churches.

Along with members of Peace Brigades International – young people from Europe and North America who accompany human rights advocates as "human shields" – the church workers assist rural "peace communities" that live under constant threat because they have declared themselves neutral in the four-decade-old armed conflict.

The members of these neutral communities are frequently harassed and threatened by interests that want to gain control of their land or natural resources.

An estimated 3 million people in this country of 43 million have been displaced from rural areas by the violence since 1985, according to the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement.

The "urgent action" bulletins sent out to hundreds of organizations and governments around the world describe each incident in detail.

"Justice and Peace does not let a single case of abuse go by without denouncing it, and without taking legal action in defense of the campesinos [peasant farmers]," one of the organization’s leaders, whose name will not be mentioned for safety reasons, told IPS.

The group also accompanies local residents "in their plan to be neutral peace communities seeking their own model of development, rather than serving as mere laborers for logging, charcoal or palm oil companies," the source, who is a priest, added.

"Nor do they want to be informants or dependent on one of the armed groups that try to dominate them. They want to be autonomous," he explained.

Under the regulations that govern the peace communities, each member promises to refrain from participating, "either directly or indirectly," in the war, while pledging to not carry firearms, he said.

Nor can those who assume the commitment "provide tactical, logistical or strategic assistance" or information "to any of the factions involved in the conflict." They must also be committed to supporting a negotiated solution to the armed conflict.

According to the priest, right-wing President Alvaro Uribe’s "democratic security" policy, which includes setting up a network of as many as 5 million civilian informants to support the armed forces in their war against the insurgents, is characteristic of a country "where no neutrality or autonomy is tolerated, and where all communities, whether urban neighborhoods or rural communities, must be controlled."

The two largest rebel groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – have a combined total of at least 30,000 combatants.

The paramilitary militias, meanwhile, made up of around 13,000 armed fighters, frequently act in support of the army, according to United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS) human rights bodies.

The UN reports that the paramilitaries are responsible for 80 percent of the atrocities committed in Colombia’s armed conflict. And in the past two years, which coincides with the time Uribe has been in office, the number of paramilitaries has grown geometrically, say human rights activists.

"Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, it seems as if their goal were to totally eliminate all social movements that get out of their hands, by attacking them, accusing them of being terrorists, breaking them up by throwing their leaders into jail or killing them, and gaining complete control over all territories," said the priest.

The government is currently holding negotiations with the paramilitaries, which would agree to demobilize in exchange for an amnesty-like agreement under which they would avoid prosecution for their crimes by making reparations to the victims’ families and survivors.

One of Justice and Peace’s latest bulletins commemorated a few of the thousands of violent deaths that occur every year in Colombia.

The 18th edition of the bulletin, Sin Olvido (Never Forget), recalled that on Oct. 13, 1996, activist Josué Giraldo "was shot to death by a member of a paramilitary group in front of his house in the city of Villavicencio [the capital of the department or province of Meta, south of Bogotá], while playing with his daughters, Sara and Natalia."

The gunman fled on his motorcycle "along the road that leads to the town of Acacías, where the seventh army brigade is based. That brigade has been repeatedly denounced for supporting paramilitary groups in the region of Meta," adds the bulletin.

Giraldo worked in Justice and Peace and was president of the Meta Civic Human Rights Committee.

Sin Olvido pointed out that General Rodolfo Herrera, who was then commander of the seventh army brigade, "said in a Sept. 5, 1996 speech in the town of Mesetas [in Meta], that ‘human-rights defenders are like messengers for the guerrillas.’"

In Colombia, such an accusation is tantamount to a death sentence.

The Sin Olvido bulletin quotes speeches and writings by Giraldo in which he said he dedicated himself to defending human rights after hearing "the heartrending cries of children who witness the murders of their parents or attend their funerals; of the mothers in mourning who cry out to God, asking why their children were killed; or of the widows who suddenly find themselves on their own, condemned to ostracism from their land and to loneliness."

From 1992 to April 1995, six members of the Meta Civic Committee were killed, three became the victims of forced disappearance, and two fled into exile.

But for Giraldo, abandoning everything because he had received death threats would be akin to "allowing the criminal to be like a god who can decide on your life and death. I don’t accept that. Giving up seems to me more terrible than death itself."

"Every night Giraldo had to sleep in a different place," the priest told IPS.

Giraldo fled to Bogotá, where "he worked for a month and a half in a small project helping" people who have been displaced by the war.

But one weekend, he traveled to Villavicencio to visit his wife and daughters, where he was killed on a Sunday "in the presence of the two girls," notes Sin Olvido.