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
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
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
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
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
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.