Colombia’s Search for Peace

After decades of war, lingering conflicts over land plague peace process.

Colombia’s Search for Peace
Doris Maria Trillos dries cacao in a greenhouse on her farm in Garzal, Colombia.

Doris Maria Trilla came to Garzal almost three decades ago, worn down by the poverty that plagues rural Colombia. Tired of working the land of others, she and her family navigated up the Magdalena River until they found land they could farm as their own.

“Here we have struggled, but we have made progress. We grow corn and bananas, as well as cacao, which sells for a good price these days,” she said. “There’s a little store that gives us credit when we need it. We’re poor, but we live well, because God has helped us remain united in our struggle against those who want to steal our land.”

After five decades of war, Colombians agreed in late 2016 to a peace treaty between the government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), whose combatants turned over the last of their weapons to the United Nations at the end of June. While peace talks with a second guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN), produced a temporary cease-fire in September 2017, the landmark agreement lays the foundation for the disarmament and reintegration of FARC combatants. It also sets out complicated steps the country must take to address some of the underlying inequalities that gave birth to the conflict as well as those that emerged during the years of bitter violence. War long ago became a way of life for many in Colombia.

“War is a business, and for many in Colombia it’s inconvenient for the war to end. War generates wealth and power for some people, so while many of us have been working for peace, others seek one way or another for war to continue,” said Gloria Amparo Suarez, head of the Popular Women’s Organization (OFP) in war-torn Barrancabermeja, two hours downstream from Garzal.

As the peace process plods along, the experience of Trilla’s riverside village illustrates some of the challenges Colombia faces. It is one thing to quiet the arms. It’s another to curb the greed of those who cause suffering for others. The recent history of Trilla’s community illustrates the benefit of trusting both God and those strangers who come in God’s name to accompany the poor.

Facade for drug trafficking

Garzal was largely jungle until the 1950s, when several families arrived from other parts of the country, seeking their fortune in a region with seemingly limitless resources. Every year the colonists would tie together logs of mahogany and other precious woods and take advantage of seasonal floods to float them to sawmills down the Magdalena River.

More families drifted in over time, until Manuel Enrique Barreto arrived in 1983. A lieutenant of Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug kingpin, Barreto brought in bulldozers and built a primitive airstrip. “Although he claimed he was building a cattle ranch, that was just a facade for his activity as a drug trafficker,” said the Rev. Salvador Alcántara, a Foursquare Gospel pastor in Garzal.

Seeking to enlarge his estate, Barreto began buying up the land of his neighbors. Some who realized what he was doing quickly sold out. Others resisted. In 1985, Barreto had Pablo Acuña killed. He was a peasant leader who resisted the takeover, and his assassination provoked many local residents to flee, leaving Barreto free to expand his operations, which included a lab for processing cocaine.

Initially, Barreto contracted both the FARC and ELN to provide security for his operation, which received raw coca flown in from Bolivia and Ecuador and processed it into the final product, ready for shipment to the north. Both rebel groups used the proceeds of their work for Barreto to finance their war against the Colombian government. But Barreto’s luck ran out when his operation was raided in 1989; he was tipped off, however, and fled before government agents arrived.

Barreto was eventually captured and briefly imprisoned, but upon his release he forged a new business relationship with right-wing paramilitaries, whose power—and cruelty—were rapidly growing in Colombia. Barreto returned to Garzal in 1998, accompanied by squads of heavily armed paramilitaries.

“Barreto said he had returned to recover the land that he claimed belonged to him, and he wanted to remove all the peasants from Garzal and other villages. At whatever cost,” said Alcantara. “The paramilitaries walked around with their weapons and the authorities didn’t respond. There was, in fact, complete collusion. I witnessed joint operations between the paramilitaries and the army. Barreto would only have to claim that so-and-so was a guerrilla and they would kill them or chase them away.”

Barreto claimed that all the land in Garzal was his, and threatened anyone who didn’t leave. Alcántara and his church members began a prayer vigil in their rustic dirt-floored chapel.

“The people were scared, because Barreto was accusing everyone of being a guerrilla. We started praying constantly, and in the middle of that great fear I told the people that God would not abandon us. But I wasn’t sure what we could do. When you study in the Bible institute they don’t prepare you for this,” the pastor said.

The tension in the community continued, until finally Alcãntara, who had once done some carpentry work for Barreto, sought out a meeting with the man in a nearby city. He pleaded the community’s case, but says Barreto responded with a threat that anyone remaining in the community in January 2004 would be killed and thrown in the river. Barreto rejected Alcãntara’s offer to dialogue with the peasants, instead promising the pastor that he would give him some land if Alcãntara would quit leading the community resistance.

“I told him I wasn’t there because I wanted land but because I represented people who were poor and needed someone to speak for them. He didn’t like that. He wanted to buy me off. And the more I talked with him the angrier he got,” Alcãntara said.

“God will protect us”

When he returned to Garzal, Alcãntara called a community meeting where he passed on Barreto’s threats. “But I also said we shouldn’t be afraid, that God is real and God will protect us if we pray and fast,” he said. The community voted to stay and established a sophisticated system of watching who came through the community, a sort of early alert mechanism designed to spot Barreto’s men, especially those who might come to target Alcãntara, who had learned that Barreto had ordered his disappearance. More than once Alcãntara and his family had to leave the community for their safety, at times for weeks on end.

The residents of Garzal–—by now almost 400 families—had few friends in local or regional governments who would take their grievances seriously, as Barreto had bought the allegiance of everyone, especially the police and army. A few times when they were being harassed by paramilitaries, Alcãntara went to the police, who showed up and detained the armed intruders. As soon as they were taken to regional police headquarters, the paramilitaries were let go, only to show up in Garzal the next day.

With no recourse from officials, the people of Garzal started knocking on the doors of churches and nongovernmental organizations, looking for anyone to stand with them against Barreto and his goons.

Given its decades of conflict, Colombia was then becoming a laboratory for “accompaniment” as a concrete form of solidarity. Outsiders, organized in groups like the Christian Peacemaker Teams, were choosing to risk their lives to stand with individuals and communities under threat. Catholics, Mennonites and others heard the cry for help from Garzal and started traveling up the Magdalena River to visit the community. The threatened peasants were encouraged.

“We were so afraid before, but the people and organizations that respect us have supported us and our pastor, and our fear has disappeared,” said Trilla.

Samuel Crepo has lived in Garzal for 45 years. When he arrived it was still populated by garzas—herons—and thus was called Garzal, the nesting place of the herons. Crepo says the presence of outsiders has made it possible for his family to remain.

“When people see the foreigners here, it makes them think again before causing harm to us,” he said. “We feel more secure when they’re with us. We sleep more soundly at night.”

Breaking the logic of displacement

Colombia’s decades of war have produced more than 7 million internally displaced people, which is more than Syria or any other conflict. They have fled from countless rural communities like Garzal, where the crossfire of leftist rebels, government soldiers, right-wing militias and cocaine warlords has produced an inexorable cauldron of violence leaving the poor no choice but to flee or perish. Alcãntara says the presence of accompaniment groups has allowed Garzal to break that cycle.

“We have to remain on this land, because it’s who we are. If they are going to kill us, then kill us as peasants and we will die with dignity. We don’t want to die under a bridge in the city. If we are going to die then we will die here, defending our land. But God has allowed us to live by sending us all these people who surround us and help us fight for our rights,” he said.

Shortly after the international accompaniment of Garzal began in 2004, the Colombian government began to grant land titles to a handful of families who had lived there for decades. But Barreto had friends in high places, and he stopped the process in 2005. The government even tried to take back some of the titles it had granted. For the next eight years, a legal battle swarmed around Garzal. Alcãntara believes the accompaniment of outsiders shined a light on what is often a process where corruption guarantees that the wealthy will prevail. The community received free legal assistance from several groups, and, as a result, 64 more titles were issued in 2013, with 200+ more still pending.

Trilla has her title, but she says she won’t be happy until all her neighbors hold a similar document. “We haven’t struggled just for ourselves, but for everyone. We have trusted in God and in our organization as a community, and I’m confident our struggle will prevail,” she said.

Barreto still persisted, however. Although it was announced in 2007 that he had died, that news was met with skepticism in Garzal. “It was a lie, a show. I didn’t believe it,” Alcãntara said.

At the beginning of 2017, it was announced that Barreto had really died. Again, people in Garzal were doubtful. “Until I see his body, I won’t believe it,” the pastor said. “I think he had surgery to change his identity. That’s a common practice among drug traffickers.”

In the wake of Barreto’s alleged demise, his children have claimed ownership of 25,000 hectares around Garzal and reportedly want to install palm oil plantations. With help from their friends, the people of Garzal continue to fight. Alcãntara, who continues to get threats and briefly left the community for his own safety in 2016, says the struggle isn’t just against Barreto’s children, but against an economic model that favors giant agrobusiness and petroleum companies over the poor who live on the land. The people of Garzal survive by cultivating cacao, the main ingredient of chocolate, and Alcãntara says they can live quite well from the harvest, if they can keep their land.

“The poor in Colombia are losing their land to the capitalists, the powerful, the politicians. It’s like David and Goliath. Those who wear suits and ties are listened to, but the poor peasants who don’t have the ability to express themselves well are seen as something without value who don’t even deserve a small piece of land,” he said. “But when you remove the peasants from the land, they die like a fish out of water. The wealthy today see land simply as a means to get richer and view peasants as an inconvenience, something in the way that must be removed.”

Unjust patterns of land tenure are both a cause and a product of the armed conflict in Colombia, where, in 2012, 13 percent of landowners controlled 82 percent of farmland, while, at the other end of the scale, 79 percent of farmers owned just 11 percent of the land, according to government statistics.

“If you go to the city, most of the urban poor are rural peasants who were dispossessed of their land. Peasants don’t know how to do anything other than make the land produce. If they go to the city, what are they going to do? They have to rob or do other things to survive. But if they try to remain in the countryside they can be killed by those who seek to steal their land with the complicity of state institutions that legalize the dispossession. We can’t accept this, but on our own our power to resist injustice is limited,” Alcántara said.

“It’s shameful that we have to appeal to those from the outside for help in defending our rights, yet too often the powerful listen more to those who come from outside the country than they do to the poor who live here. When we go by ourselves to protest they don’t pay attention, but if we go with someone from the international community, then they listen to us right now. This is shameful, but fortunately there are people from other countries who come here to put into practice their solidarity.”

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response.


Posted or updated: 2/8/2018 12:00:00 AM
Facebook Tweet It Pin It
Email It Print It