Opportunities and Obstacles to Peace in Colombia

Peace signed is not peace realized. That's what our partners in Colombia keep telling us over and over again, and it's what we keep relaying to you over and over again. I heard this message anew when Marta Munoz and Diego Higuita came to visit the U.S. from Colombia in May. Marta and Diego are the Moderator and the General Secretary of the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia. Over the time I spent with them in May I heard several common themes emerging from what they shared that I had not heard before, or at least not heard so clearly--themes that remind those of us in the US that peace signed is not peace realized in Colombia.

During their visit to New York in May I went with Marta and Diego to the United Nations, where they spoke to other religious groups at the UN and with representatives from the commission that oversees the peace process. We also went to Washington D.C. where we met with an assistant of Senator Coons (a Presbyterian senator from Delaware who serves on the subcommittee that provides funding for foreign aid and has been very supportive of the peace process) as well as the Latin America Working Group and a coalition of people from different religious groups that all work on issues related to Colombia that was organized by the PCUSA Office of Public Witness.

With all of these people and groups, Marta and Diego reiterated that there is still much work to be done to ensure true peace in Colombia. One critical place is the normalization zones, where former guerilla go to begin to disarm and reintegrate into society. Some of these areas still need more infrastructure, such as more permanent homes, access to medical care, and other basic necessities. There is a concern that if the Colombian government does not adequately provide these services in the normalization zones that the former guerilla will leave and possibly join the bandas criminales (also known as paramilitary groups) if there is more security to be found among those armed groups.

Just this week, we saw a huge step in the peace process as the approximately 7,000 members of the FARC disarmed. Although there still may be other caches of weapons hidden that the UN Mission must find and remove, this is a significant step toward peace and one that must be followed by a process of true reconciliation. Disarmament alone does not bring peace with justice to a country whose citizens have known war for over half a century. If there are not economic opportunities for former FARC, they will likely turn to paramilitaries for economic security.

The other major issue that is a roadblock to peace is that of legal mining. Multi-national (mostly U.S. and Canadian) mining companies are increasing in Colombia as the war ends and free trade agreements continue doing their work. These foreign mining companies bring contamination and pollution, and many local communities resist them and local residents are never consulted when plans are being made to dig a mine. Moreover, some of these mining companies seem to be employing paramilitaires to do “security” for the mines, who threaten and even kill local residents who organize and speak out against the mines.

On our train ride back to New York City from Washington, D.C. Diego and I reflected on the past and future of the Colombia Accompaniment Program. He reminded me that when they began the program they had no idea if people from the U.S. would come, if accompaniment would provide some form of protection them, if we would stick around. I don’t know that anyone who helped birth this program thirteen years ago imagined it would still be going thirteen years later, but here we are. The program has expanded to send accompaniers now to Uraba in addition to Barranquilla, we’ve trained over 100 people from the U.S. who are committed to acting for peace in Colombia, and countless others have supported this work through their advocacy calls and visits, financial gifts to the program and individual accompaniers, prayers, and ongoing relationships with our Colombian Presbyterian siblings. Throughout the life of the accompaniment program, we have sought to adapt and respond to the needs of our Colombian parnters who are doing the daily work of building peace. 

Peace signed is not peace realized. There are still years of reconciliation to support, there are communities resisting mining that may need accompaniment or other forms of support, and there are the people we have known and been in partnership with for over a decade who continue to request accompaniment, advocacy, solidarity, and relationship. This is why we continue to grow this program of nonviolent accompaniment even as our news tells us that peace has already arrived in Colombia: because our partners--people like Diego and Marta and Jairo and German and Yasmin and so many others--Presbyterians who are committed to working for peace each day tell us the work is only just beginning. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship affirms that we see “nonviolence not merely as having value as an end in itself but also as a strategy of direct action against poverty, racism, degradation of the environment and other forms of ‘structural violence’” (from PPF”s “What We Believe” statement). This work of nonviolence takes time and commitment and community, and it is embodied in the Colombia Accompaniment Program. Seguimos adelante.