Sunday, April 22, 2007

South America Log - No. 6

Greetings Friends and Family:

First, the good news: In our last newsletter we spoke about the disappearance of Katherine Gonzalez Torres. We rejoice that Katherine has been returned to her family, physically unhurt.

The other good news is that we leave in a few hours for a two-week vacation in Chile. Our friend and neighbor in Minneapolis, Lisa, has been on a sabbatical this past year with her partner's family in southern Chile. We are looking forward to seeing friends, exploring the ocean and mountains and drinking red wine.

Earlier this month we went together on an 11 day accompaniment to a small town called Mina Caribe in the Sur de Bolivar mining zone. To get to Mina Caribe, we took a bus for three hours, then a taxi, then traveled an hour by boat, then another taxi, then two hours by four-wheel-drive truck, and finally three more hours by mule. We accompanied a five-day leadership training school put on by the Sur de Bolivar Agro-Miners Federation, and then we stayed on in Mina Caribe for the Federation's General Assembly, which was attended by 100 miners and farmers representing 24 local associations. Participants were welcomed to the Assembly by a banner proclaiming, "Welcome Agro-mining Communities in Resistance." Unfortunately, just meeting for this lawful assembly became an act of resistance.

As the first miners began to gather for the assembly, 7 soldiers and their sergeant walked into town. The presence of the Army immediately increased the tension in the community. The Military has had an ongoing presence in the area for only the last year, so they know very little about the communities, and are suspicious of almost everyone. Detentions of community members are common and last September Alejandro Uribe, a mining federation leader, was killed by members of the Nueva Grenada battalion, the same battalion that was now occupying the town square. Community leaders fear that the army's harassment is part of a larger government strategy to remove them from their land so that foreign mining companies can take over the gold mining in the

The Government Human Rights Ombudswoman had already arrived, anticipating interference by the military. The Ombudswoman and Michele and I introduced ourselves to the Sergeant and reminded him that military presence in civilian spaces is in direct violation to the Geneva Convention. The Sergeant defended his role there, saying his troops needed to protect the people. He repeatedly asked for the names of the event leadership. The Ombudswoman left to telephone the battalion's commanding officer to ask for the soldiers to be recalled.

One of the men with the Sergeant was a former resident of the town who was forced to move after being caught stealing. He is a civilian but he was dressed in an army uniform and carried a weapon that appeared to be a grenade launcher. He began to point out various members of the town, possibly to mark them as guerrilla supporters. Townspeople gathered around to denounce the use of the informant, calling him "the robber" and questioning his reliability.

Two hours after the soldiers arrived, several leaders assembled the community and asked us and other organizations accompanying the assembly to meet with the Sergeant and ask him to remove the informant from town. When the sergeant was called into the town square, he reported that in response to our phone calls his superiors had recalled his unit, and he angrily accused the residents of working behind his back. The Ombudswoman said she had requested his removal and that the Federation is a legally recognized organization holding legally sanctioned events. Several community members spoke up in protest of the use of the informant. Before the Sergeant left with his soldiers he took Michele and my names and identification numbers, as well as those of the other national and international accompaniers.

Shortly after the soldiers left, the miners began their Assembly, refusing to be deterred in their mission "For the right to a dignified life and permanence on the land."

Most of our time in Mina Caribe was quiet an uneventful, and I found myself feeling unnecessary. I found myself thinking "I wish I could be doing something more helpful." Then suddenly the military showed up, we were suddenly working at full-speed, and I found myself thinking, "I wish our help wasn't needed."

Given our experiences with human rights abuses by the Colombian military we were dismayed recently when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certified that Colombia had met the Human Rights criteria required for the release of $55 million in U.S. military aid. We were grateful when, a few days later, Senator Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Foreign Operations subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, put a hold on the aid until the Senate could conduct its own Human Rights investigation. As we witness intimidation of community leaders by the military we are aware that as U.S. citizens we bear the responsibility for some of this problem since our government continues to fund the Colombian military at an alarming rate. In total, U.S. aid to Colombia was more than $700 million this year, over 80% of which goes to Colombian security forces. We are hopeful that ongoing pressure by human rights organizations and the organizing being done by CPT and other groups will continue to lead to
positive change in U.S. foreign policy towards Colombia. As we have been told many times by our Colombian partners, "more war will not give us less war."

Our friends often apologize in their e-mails, saying their lives sound boring in comparison to our monthly logs, but when they do write, their messages always fill me with hope: life continues on, people struggle with large and petty things, they play with their kids, they're sad and they're happy, they are OK. If my faith is what helps me do this work, more than anything it's my faith that life continues on like this.

Peace and Be Well,
Nils and Michele

P.S. Most of this log comes from an article we wrote for CPTnet. You can view both articles we wrote about our trip to Mina Caribe on our blog and see photos. If you are interested in receiving short articles from the Colombia team (about 8 per month) you can sign up at or send us an e-mail and we will add you to the Colombia team yahoo group.

CPT 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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