Wednesday, November 29, 2006

South America Log - No. 3

Greetings friends and family,

Recently we went out dancing with our co-worker for his birthday. We were a group of 15 Colombians, Canadians and US citizens dancing, talking and laughing together. I noticed one of the guests kept to himself and never joined in the dancing. He wasn't introduced. Then I learned the small shoulder bag he kept with him contained a gun and he is a government provided bodyguard for one of the guests at the party, the director of an organization for subsistence farmers.

The next week I attended a march for jobs and economic security. As we walked down the streets of Barranca with labor organizers and human rights activists I began to notice the presence of small shoulder bags on several of the men in the crowd. More body guards.

The Colombian government supplies these 24-hour armed guards, under a mandate from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court reviews death threats against community leaders and requires the Colombian government to supply a bodyguard if the threats are determined to be legitimate.

As I continue down the street for the march, I can't take my eyes off the shoulder bag of the man next to me. He is always within a few feet of a very unassuming, middle-aged man who is the leader of a local union. Why is organizing for worker's rights, or women's rights or farmer's rights, an act that requires armed protection in Colombia? And, will the presence of these armed guards actually make anyone safer?

The almost 50 year-old war in Colombia has it's origins in political disagreements. Unfortunately, because of this, organizing for the rights of poor or oppressed people in Colombia continues to be seen by some as taking sides in the conflict, and people involved in these activities continue to receive death threats. For example, since January, 53 union activists have been assassinated in Colombia.

So what is Christian Peacemaker Teams doing to respond to this? While we respect the personal decisions of our Colombian partners to accept armed accompaniment from the government, CPT rejects the use of violence to solve the conflict and we partner with organizations that are using non-violent means to work for change in Colombia. Much of our time here in Colombia is spent providing unarmed accompaniment to communities and to social service, human rights and union organizations. We accompany these communities by offering our physical presence and witness. The eyes from outside that we offer can make the struggles that they are engaged in more visible, and can create a safe space where these groups can continue their work of improving the conditions of their country. We respond to phone calls asking us to spend the day traveling with someone to a meeting outside the city. Or, we might spend a week living in a community that has recently experienced violence. Currently, Nils is part of a team that will spend 8 weeks living with an indigenous community that has experienced massive displacements and a massacre of 5 people in August. Nils will help to publicize to Colombia and to North America the plight of this indigenous group.

Michele recently spent 5 days in a rural gold-mining area after a community leader was murdered by the Colombian military. The military accused the leader of being a left-wing fighter although his community insists he was unarmed and an upstanding father and husband. The community is suspicious of the motives behind his death because large multinational companies are currently planning how to get the rights to the enormous gold reserves that are in the earth under this community. The community believes they are being intimidated to move from their land to make way for multinational gold mining on their soil. After the murder of their community member, other leaders in the mining organization do not feel comfortable to travel alone. When they are alone they feel vulnerable to be kidnapped or murdered. When they have to travel outside of their home communities for meetings they contact CPT to travel with them. This travel is through arduous mountain trails where it can take two days of hiking to get to a meeting. We are currently having conversations with the mining community about living with the community on a regular basis. The president of the mining federation remarked, "Accompaniment gives us confidence."


It's the end of another day and another meeting and the director of a well-respected women's organization offers me a ride home. Among other things the organization provides space and resources for women who want to start businesses or learn job skills. On the ride home I chat with the director about our day. She is a friendly, pleasant, professional woman who has devoted her life to the women of Colombia. We arrive at my door and I say good-bye as I leave the vehicle. As I shut the car door the heft and weight of it requires extra effort and I am reminded that I was driven home in a steel-reinforced bulletproof vehicle provided by the government. Another community leader whose life is at risk because she works for the empowerment of others.

MISSION STATEMENT: Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) Colombia is a community made up of trained volunteers from different cultures that forms part of the international, ecumenical organization, CPT. Our work is based in, though not limited to, the Middle Magdalena region of Colombia. We work together on grassroots initiatives to expose and transform structures of domination and oppression through active nonviolence in order to make possible a world grounded in respect, justice and love, even of enemies. Read more at

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