Thursday, April 25, 2013

2 kingdoms, 1 path

 When asked, I self-identify as being Christian.  Usually that confession is followed by “But...”.  I have a need to separate myself from what I perceive as mainstream, conservative Christian doctrine such as: God loves the US more than Islamic countries; “He” wants us to own guns in order to better love our enemies; fetal rights trump all other life rights; the only way to measure salvation is public repentance and baptism, etc.  It’s not the way I understand Jesus.

It was particularly awkward, then, when Julie and I went to Guatemala ten years ago to work with Mennonite Central Committee, and people kept introducing us as Evangelical missionaries.  That was the label I would have used for the US Protestant church planters who had come down to save the souls of Catholics at the behest of radical dictators like Rios Montt, now on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.  He saw the Catholic priests in the rural areas as some of his most dangerous political opponents.  By converting campesinos to Evangelicos, President Montt would come to be seen as the duly appointed civil authority referred to in Romans 13:1-2, and, therefore, above criticism.   It is the two-kingdom excuse for turning heads away from injustice in this, the worldly kingdom.

Pastor Salvador Alcantara is one of my heroes because he was willing to follow the path of Jesus into the everyday lives of the people he serves and name the injustices being committed by civil authorities.   Salvador is pastor the Four Square Evangelical Church of Garzal, Sur de Bolivar, Colombia.   When the families of Garzal received titles to their properties about a decade ago, there was great rejoicing.  Shortly afterwards, a wealthy family with ties to narco trafficking paid off a judge to recall those titles for “corrections”. There was dismay, but the entire community gave up their titles.  Except for Salvador, who refused to cooperate.  The other titles were lost.  His title would end up being a critical part of the legal proof that would lead to the return of all the titles just weeks ago.

In taking his stand and encouraging the community to stand up for their rights, Salvador faced criticism from fellow pastors and church leaders for refusing to focus only on the spiritual kingdom.  He received death threats from paramilitaries hired by the Barreto family.  They offered to let him choose whatever portion of the land he wanted for himself if he would drop his support for the claims of the rest of the community. He stood firm.  Salvador believes, as I do, that the work of the kingdoms needn’t be separated.

I visited him at the end of March.  The delivery of the titles was imminent, and we drank hot chocolate made from his cacao harvest.  We talked about what would come next.  For years, the church has wanted to re-assign him to another church, and he has declined, asking to be allowed to finish this task.  Now the task is finished, and he will move on.  He wasn’t interested in land for himself.  He wanted justice for all.  Amen, Salvador.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The problem with miracles

“You have two choices.  You can sell it to me now, or I can buy it from your widow.”  This is the expression that campesinos use to describe the land acquisition strategy of the drug cartels and their corporate and political overlords that began in the early 1980s.  Over the years there have been bodies found floating down the rivers.  Sometimes the widows sold.   I am amazed that members of the Las Pavas community have remained in the face of this kind of threat.

There are significant changes in the Las Pavas situation since I last visited the community in February 2011.  The community moved back onto the land on April 4, 2011, defying the local court and three previous evictions.  Great. Mid-March 2013, the Colombian government confirmed its decision that the sale of the land to palm oil companies in 2007 was illegal therefore null and void. Fantastic.  But then, of the three leaders of the Las Pavas junta, one has fled and is in hiding with his wife, while the other two are now accompanied by government-paid armed guards and wear bullet proof vests when they travel.  What the heck??

Something we don’t learn in church is that miracles are a lot more complicated than they sound.  And how do you know when your miracle is finished?  Google “the miracle of Las Pavas”, and you’ll see what I mean.  In the spring of 2011, the community returns to the land they have been developing since 1994 and build a little community center with temporary shelters right next to the palm oil company supervisor’s house in the center of the property.  It was a dramatic action that gained international attention and affirmation.  The next year and a half saw a dozen or so small houses built and crops planted around and among the African palms.  Miles of barbed wire fence were put up to pasture community cattle.  

Since then, when armed guards from the palm oil company threatened, pointed firearms at people, and fired at their feet, the police would not come.  When the shelters people built on their individual parcels were all knocked down in September last year, the police would not come.  When fences were destroyed or, in some cases, the wire stolen, the police would not come.  When hundreds of banana, plantain, yucca and sugar cane plants nearing maturity were destroyed in February this year, the police finally agreed to come.

 This is not what I’m used to in the US.  I call the police, and I’d expect them in a few minutes.  A phone call doesn’t work here.  You are supposed to file a written complaint at the police station.  Maybe they’ll come.  Even so, without a helicopter, the closest police to Buenos Aires and Las Pavas are an hour and a half away by truck and from another county.  The county police that showed up for the inspection are a three-hour trip away in their “Johnson”, a big wooden canoe with outboard motor.  No road that direction.

        Two Las Pavas leaders far left, inspector on right

Again, this was the first time the police had come to check out the four official complaints filed in the 2 years since the return to the land.  CPT accompanied the inspection, along with lawyers from both sides and the plantation supervisor, a former paramilitary commander.  It began with a short meeting at the community center where the palm oil company lawyer went into a rant that resulted in him being restrained by a police sergeant.  This is the same guy who struck a CPTer who was filming last fall. Then we walked for two and a half hours recording crop and building destruction after which the inspector wrote out a concise report that was signed by the community lawyer and himself.  The other lawyer refused to sign.

The inspector said that it was clear that there had been acts committed that needed to be addressed and litigated.  Then he said he was really sorry because he didn’t have the power to act on any of those things, and suggested that the community try to get the report to a higher authority.  Someone is in control, but it isn’t this local official.

The Las Pavas community is jaded about the political corruption that denies access to basic police protection.  The same corruption that seems to stymie any attempt to provide basic infrastructure like water, sewers, garbage cleanup, or a road that doesn’t require four wheel drive.  But they carry on with an energy and commitment in the face of the threats. I’m sickened and angered by the corruption and abuse.  And my government’s relationship with Colombia looks and sounds to me like the disastrous relationships we formed in the 1980s in Central America.  Those atrocities were carried out in the name of defending ourselves from the threat of Communism, and now it is in the name of Free Trade.

 I’m frustrated knowing that those problems are not my job to address directly.  My role with CPT is to be present with the campesino so that his widow doesn’t have to sell the farm.  There are other amazing national and international groups working with us to address the larger issues.  To make your voice heard on the US relationship with Colombia, visit the Latin American Working Group, a fantastic advocacy group with offices in Washington, D. C.,  or to learn about human rights issues in Colombia in person, consider joining a 10 day Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Agua Pura

It is breakfast time in the campo.  The electricity is back on again, so we are watching the news out of Bogota on television while we eat.  An ongoing story this week is the big protest in a town of a 150,000 people called Yopal,  Their potable water treatment plant went down a couple years ago, and the city government has received funding, but hasn’t started the repairs yet.  Protesters are railing and burning vehicles in the street.  Commentators are noting the blatant incompetence of officials and the injustice of not having access to clean water.

And I’m wondering how my host family is taking all this in.  I’m back in the village of Buenos Aires next to the Las Pavas plantation that I have visited several times over the last few years in our accompaniment of their land title dispute.  Buenos Aires has never had a potable water system, although they have a big cement water tower that was completed seven years ago.  Three guys showed up recently and started building the concrete tanks that will serve as the filter system.  Until the well and treatment plant are up and running the community will get their water from the Papayal River as they always have.

The river runs directly behind the Payares family home.  Misael, Edith, and their extended family have hosted me several times.  When I arrived the day before, I had gone down to the river to visit with Edith while she washed clothes.  The little neighbor girl was showing off with underwater handstands while giant seed puffs floated down from the White Ceiba tree above us.   This is where I bathe while I’m here, like everybody else.  This is where Misael’s son throws his huge, circular cast net fishing for Boca Chico, Bagre, and Mojarra.  This is the river that is seeing levels of mercury rise from the gold mine tailings upstream, levels of herbicides rising from the mono-cropping of African Palm, and the numbers of fish dropping.

When I ask the family how they feel seeing potable water being talked about on TV as a basic right, they nod, and they continue to eat.  There are plenty of other things to worry about, like how to feed your kids when the palm company workers keep cutting down your crops, knocking down farm homes, and stealing your barbed wire fences.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


This is Lilia's story.  Julie and I have been taking shifts in the 24 hour a day accompaniment of Lilia in her home a few miles from our office in the city.  She is spending most of her time resting in her room after her recent surgery.  Now she's sitting with me in the in main room of her small brick house in a barrio with dirt streets and many poor families side by side.

"In 1998 we were living close to the military base outside of San Pablo when my husband was killed on the road on his way home.  Witnesses told me the killers were dressed in paramilitary uniforms.  Some of them were known to us to be members of the local police.  When I went to report his death at the police station, they told me my husband had been involved with the guerillas, and that I should just be quiet and leave.  When I kept looking for someone to support my case, I received threats against my four children and myself.  The police finally offered to fly me and my children to another city far away for resettlement.  When we arrived at the airport they wanted to put us on two small separate planes, saying it would be too much weight for one.  I was hesitant, and as we were about to board our local priest arrived and persuaded me not to board.  He told me later he was convinced I never would have landed in the plane.  He and others worked to find secure transportation out of the area for us.  That's when I came to Barrancabermeja.  I learned later that the priest and other who had help us escape had also been murdered."

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (, the Colombian government's total of just under 4 million displaced persons since 2000 wouldn't include Lilia and her children.  Still, that total is almost double the next largest group of displaced persons in the world.

Lilia continues, "After we came to this barrio, I found there were many other families who had lost loved ones just as we did, and in 2004 together we founded the Regional Association of Victims.  We have over a thousand members, and now I'm the president."

Lilia has always known she was irritating the political status quo.  She has received threats against her life, but they have appeared randomly, have been vague and were usually many months apart.  Even so, she never travels alone.  Lately the threats have been different.

"In the last couple of years three paramilitary groups have become active in Barranca in narco-trafficing and organizing the motorcycle taxi drivers into private gangs.  Paramiltaries are privatized armies funded under the table by various corporate and political groups.  Those 'Moto taxistas' who refuse to join their groups are sometimes found mutilated in a remote part of town.  Now human rights groups like mine and their leaders are receiving serious threats.  In the last few weeks I have received over a dozen threats against me and my youngest daughter Marta, her husband, and their 5 year-old daughter.  That's why Peace Brigades and CPT are staying with me.  Till things calm down, I'm glad you can help"

Because of the threats, Marta and her husband have decided to sleep on Lilia's living room floor so they too have protection.  There are actually four possible bedrooms in the house, but three of them are being rented out as storage space to another non-profit.  This is the only regular income Lilia has.

"The police come every few days to see that I'm okay, but I don't trust them. Marta and I, and the officer sign a calendar each visit to prove we were all here.  I don't understand why they aren't spending more time investigating the threats.  Seven of the threats came as phone calls from the same cell phone.  We have given the number to the police.  And a few days ago a friend of my son-in-law was killed after leaving our house in the evening.   He was engaged to my son-in-law's sister.  They found him with his hands tied behind his back and shot twice in the back of the head.  They say his arms showed signs of torture.  The newspaper reported the police saying he had been hanging around with men with previous criminal records.  They are lying."

On May 15, 2012 President Obama signed a new US/Colombian Free Trade Agreement, citing Colombia's improved Human Rights record.  The statistics he cited contradicted his own State Department's report, as well as data collected by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch.  I'd like to invite President Obama to explain his reasoning to Lilia.  I'd even be glad to translate.

(The name of Lilia's daughter and grandaughter were changed for this article.  No one was ever brought to trial in the murder of her husband.)
See Internal Displacement Monitoring Center ( for world wide displaced persons numbers
See Human Rights Watch ( for an excellent, succinct analysis of Colombia's human rights record