[El Garzal: accompaniment, worship—and an unexpected forced evacuation.]

We advocate for U.S. policy that champions:

Protection for human rights defenders and rural communities now and after peace is negotiated so as to protect the civilian populations still caught in the crossfire, especially the most vulnerable – Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, women and children, and farmers in rural areas;

Refocusing counter drug policy to prioritize alternative and sustainable development policies with input from small farmers.



The waters were still swollen high around the terrain due to heavy rains, so after crossing the river we crept through flooded swamps in our long wooden canoe in order to land as close as possible to the road to El Garzal.  We enjoyed the sensation of a slight breeze in the open boat, scanning the trees and grasses for exotic birds as we gently glided past partially-submerged fence posts. 

El Garzal means, “The Heron,” for the birds that gravitate there as a mating site.   It is seated on what are now federally-protected wetlands—a recent legal distinction we would learn about at a meeting with Colombia’s land title agency later that week.   It is part of an elegant attempt at a government solution to their title battles in civil court with the Barreto family.*

Halfway through the disorienting swampland, the driver sensed some concern about how long we had been threading through the ersatz waterways and how much further we still had to go.  “I’m lost,” he deadpanned through a translator.  We finally pulled up to a lip of solid shoreline, beginning to wilt in the close jungle air and already starting to draw a cloud of the mosquitoes for which the village is infamous.

“Welcome to Cartagena,” he declared.

After the delegation had settled in over coffee and lunch, we got back into the truck and were driven down to a clearing which serves as soccer field, grazing ground, and town green.  A large turnout of men, women and children of all ages was already assembling a circle of chairs.  (With some apology, we were informed attendance would have been even greater if the recent rain had not rendered certain areas impassable.)

Pastor Salvador addressed the crowd on the purpose of the delegation:

They all bring different resources in accompaniment.”

He turned around to address the delegation:

Your presence has allowed us to be here and be alive.”

In the first half of 2013 alone, 37 human rights defenders have been murdered in Colombia, many of whom were advocating on behalf of communities struggling for land rights.  In contested rural areas like El Garzal, clergy are de facto human rights leaders—even if initially reluctant to step down from the pulpit, beyond their training, into that role.

As ones who minister to communities unprotected by the reach of the state, they are forced into the public sphere to address the suffering of their parishioners.

Community organizers in the U.S. speak of recognition; a casual reader of the New Testament will recall that power is measured not by wealth or station or the size of your army, but by how seriously you are taken by your enemies. In Colombia, guerrillas and paramilitaries recognize religious leaders as powerful actors who pose a dangerous threat to their authority and the status quo of the rule of force.

A 2012 report by one religious freedom watch group estimates that 20-30 church leaders are assassinated each year, and 200 churches have been forcibly closed. 

Besides the support of land restitution, the U.S. State Department lists the following sins that have painted targets on the backs of known victimized church leaders:

opposing the forced recruitment of minors, promoting human rights, assisting internally displaced persons, and discouraging coca cultivation.”

This religious persecution is not based on religion.  In the opinion of the U.S. government,

crimes against religious group leaders [in 2012] were motivated not by religious beliefs but by a desire to disrupt human rights work, such as advocacy on behalf of the displaced population or other vulnerable groups,  or helping vulnerable groups with land claims.”

It has a chilling effect on the freedom of worship all the same.

What is it like to be a church under threat by armed actors, beyond the obvious fears for the life of the pastor?   Once again,  documentation tells an unforgettable story.  The Peace Commission’s 2008 report of human rights violations against Protestant churches and leaders aggregated a brief summary of the so-called “collective victim” incidents documented that year, which are typical:

Armed groups interrupted worship to read death threats.  They offered money to rape the girls in the church and threatened to rape them themselves.  Illegal armed groups ordered churches to close, silenced and displaced pastors, and planted landmines around a church.”

In many corners of Colombia, to assemble openly for worship is a public act of courage.  There are El Garzals repeating across the country, rural and urban.

Pastor Salvador sat up with the delegation late into the night before Sunday’s service, describing the history of land dispute and threat in El Garzal.  In his spiritual tradition, the place of the pastor is in the pulpit, not in the local, national, and international advocacy he has been forced to seek out in order to protect the lives and livelihood of his congregation.

Throughout his personal narrative of how he was pushed and pulled into this unlikely service, he repeatedly told us,

I kept saying no to God.” 

But in the end, he kept capitulating.  And he has confessed that even a reluctant servant becomes a lifelong one:

Defending human rights in Colombia is a way of life; it is a collective project that one must take hold of with body and soul in order to bring about change.  Once you start there is no going back because once you take that first step you are no longer responsible just for yourself, but rather for the entire community.”

To witness is to volunteer to be jarred awake, to forfeit the protective skin of harmless generalities and second-hand accounts.

Narrative feels inadequate to describe the unexpected heartbreak of the departure from El Garzal.  Here, an abridged documentation of my own:

On Sunday morning we joined the Foursquare Church in joyful communion and song.  Members of the delegation shared with the congregation on the road to Emmaus.  Pastor Salvador preached on the faithful remnant.  Afterwards, a meeting was called for the community only, while the delegation was sat down to lunch.  We were informed that fortune had changed and credible news of an imminent threat had arrived just before the service.  Members of the Barreto family were witnessed hosting members of the Urabeños on their property thirty minutes away by boat.  This time, CPT was away from their home base in Barrancabermeja and not immediately available to escort Pastor Salvador to safety.  After lunch he packed a bag and we accompanied him out of El Garzal.**  Our hearts burned within us.

We cannot help but speak of what we have seen and heard.

*At our meeting later that week at the Bogotá headquarters of Colombia’s land title agency (INCODER), we learned that the land El Garzal sits on will legitimately be reclassified as federally-protected wetlands, which legally cannot be titled in Colombia. 

INCODER’s authority supersedes that of private individuals and civil court judges.  By making the land a federal property that cannot be privately owned by anyone—neither the farmers of El Garzal, nor the members of the Barreto clan—the dispute will no longer be bogged down in the red tape (and often, corruption) of the local courts. 

The Colombian government reserves the right to grant right of use of federally protected areas; this right of use can be assigned to specific individuals, and even passed down as an inheritance.  (It cannot be sold or borrowed against.)  A committee with representatives from both the community and the state will be created to regulate and govern the responsible use of the land by the campesinos. 

Right of use will not be extended to associates of illegal armed actors, regardless of prior title claims. 

** A decision was made that Salvador’s wife Nidia and other family members would remain in El Garzal until Tuesday, when members of Christian Peacemaker Teams were able to arrive to both accompany the community and evacuate her out along with one daughter and a grandson.  It was the assessment of Pastor Salvador and the Colombian partners that only Salvador himself was in imminent danger, not his family; this is a common dynamic in threats against—and assassinations of—civilian leaders.