[Barrancabermeja; Bogotá: Where paramilitaries come from; U.S. investment; and the call from Colombia.] 

We advocate for U.S. policy that champions:

An independent truth commission and strong measures to ensure justice for severe human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict. Colombians deserve to know the full truth about those who implemented, ordered, financed and promoted the violence and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law against the civilian population, whether they be guerrillas, paramilitary forces, or the government’s own security forces.  ”


After departing El Garzal with Pastor Salvador on Sunday, we had stayed overnight in the port city of Barrancabermeja (nickname: Barranca) before returning to Bogotá Monday evening to view Soacha, and attend meetings with U.S. and Colombian officials.  

Monday morning we joined Christian Peacemaker Teams Colombia at their Barranca residence/headquarters for a French toast breakfast prepared by an expat Quebecois—our delegation leader imported in the maple syrup as promised—that included CPT’s own group of visiting delegates from abroad, who had signed up for an accompaniment visit to the community of Las Pavas.

The development of the troubled town of Barrancabermeja has been tightly braided with Colombia’s oil boom, a powerful union movement, and the horrific violence of the modern age. 

A socio-political tour of the town was arranged for the foreign delegates from both parties in the afternoon with a local guide, while the CPT leaders and CEDECOL Peace Commission affiliates stayed back to conference with Pastor Salvador.

Christian Peacemaker Teams is an ecumenical organization, with its origin and theological roots in a challenge thrown down by Ron Sider in his address to the Mennonite World Conference in 1984.  It was a call to arms, of sorts, to the traditional “peace churches” in developed nations:

Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die.

Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions.

Why do we pacifists think that our way — Jesus’ way — to peace will be less costly? Unless we Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we really never meant what we said. We did, of course, in earlier times….But today we have grown soft and comfortable. We cling to our affluence and our respectability.

Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce international conflict, we should confess that we never really meant the cross was an alternative to the sword.”

Since 1986, Christian Peacemaker Teams staff and volunteers have strategically placed themselves in areas where human rights are under threat, as international witnesses and—if required—human shields for at-risk individuals and communities.

CPT has accompanied El Garzal since 2007, as part of a local, national, and international effort that includes the CEDECOL Peace Commission.  After the death threats began in the early 2000’s, Pastor Salvador called a community meeting to discuss how to proceed.  He was advised to flee with his family for safety.  With the support of his wife Nidia, he decided he wanted to stay instead, and began persistently seeking out various accompaniment organizations to create a coalition effort to make this possible. 

Based on their mission philosophy and available resources, Christian Peacemaker Teams limits itself to requests for accompaniment, not requests for help: there must be established leadership and planning already present for CPT to step in.  The Magdalena Medio communities accompanied by CPT Colombia are ones that have strongly committed to defy forced displacement together:

These are communities that have said, ‘If they’re going to kill us, then they’re going to kill us all.’”

Christian Peacemaker Teams has had the Barrancabermeja outpost in Colombia since 2001.  They chose the city because at the time it was vying neck to neck with Medellín (which was once the world capital of murder) as the most violent in Colombia, and was fast becoming the de facto capital of the paramilitary incursion into the Medio Magdalena region, where paras had already moved in to terrorize the surrounding countryside and smaller cities for years before making the final grab for Barrancabermeja. 

A CPT leader matter-of-factly summarized for us the situation on the ground in the year before their Colombian headquarters/residence was opened there:

By December 2000, [the paramilitaries] had full control of the city.  There were two to three new bodies in the street every morning, and thousands were pushed out with door to door threats.” 

Barranca had effectively been transferred from the misery of guerrilla control to paramilitary control.

The mass targeting of civilians for death or displacement in the course of battling a guerrilla insurgency is no aberration, nor peculiarly Colombian.  It is intentional military strategy that has become standard operating procedure in asymmetrical warfare.

Mao Tse-Tung famously wrote that the advantage of the guerrilla against the state is that

the guerrilla can always sink back into the peaceful population which is the sea in which the guerrilla swims like a fish.” 

The conventional military response is to target the fish by “draining away the water” of civilians holding the guerrillas afloat (via aiding and abetting them, or mere pacified surrender), through mass depopulation in one form or another. 




Barrancabermeja was the birthplace, and then the urban stronghold, of the guerrilla group ELN (National Liberation Army).   Except for incursions by rival guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) into a minority of neighborhoods after 1990, ELN controlled most of Barrancabermeja at the neighborhood level from the 1970s on.  A 30% unemployment rate helped fuel recruitment—as it eventually would for successor armed groups. 

In 1998, a powerful paramilitary group (avowed foes of any guerrillas) which had already invaded surrounding rural areas closed in for a full-scale urban assault.  Entire neighborhoods already under the thumb of ELN or FARC—or perceived to be—had their residents framed as guerrilla sympathizers, and came under attack as such. 

Barranca’s murder rate in 2000, as reported by Human Rights Watch, shot up to a total of 567 known homicides—or 227 per 100,000 persons.  (New York City’s homicide rate in 2012 was 5 per 100,000; Flint, Michigan topped the U.S. list that year at 61.98.) 

2000 was the same year that paramilitary general Carlos Castaño was widely rumored to have toured a former ELN neighborhood in Barranca fallen to paramilitary rule, promising he would be enjoying a cup of coffee in the city by New Years Day.  As 2000 drew to a close, his soldiers sent the remaining residents a holiday greeting:

Christmas weekend and the new year will be pain and blood.”


The paras framed themselves as the latest armed messiahs of the oppressed, for a population weary of guerrilla extortion and control.  One teen combatant boasted to a reporter in 2001,

By the end of this year, we will have cleansed Barrancabermeja of all subversives.  They don’t stand a chance.”


The paramilitary army that openly invaded and ran Barrancabermeja with impunity was the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).  Its founder and chief at the time, Carlos Castaño, granted a self-indulgent interview to a British reporter in 2002, who pressed him on the subject of the barbaric mass killings of civilians the AUC was becoming known for.  Castaño’s response captures the Orwellian insanity of the conflict:

Look, I know that war begets war, violence begets violence, but I have only ever acted in self-defense. We do not kill civilians. The guerrillas take off their uniforms when the fight is going against them. They hide among the civil population. A huge percentage of our troops are guerrilla deserters. They tell us who their former comrades were. We know who we are killing.”


2000 was also the year the United States also approved Plan Colombia—a proposed $7.5 billion aid package with 80% going to the Colombian police and military to support the state war against guerrillas and drug cartels.

An AUC commander in the western province of Putumayo—another former FARC stronghold until the AUC began a similar assault also in 1998—informed a Reuters reporter that the AUC strongly supported Plan Colombia. He suggested that his paramilitary troops could spearhead efforts to flush out guerrillas there in advance of the anticipated official military campaign, and then hand over the territory to the Colombian army.

Before he founded the AUC, Carlos Castaño—along with his brothers Fidel and Vincente—ran a paramilitary group named Los Pepes founded to target Pablo Escobar and his associates.  Recently declassified papers document evidence that members of the joint U.S.-Colombia Medellin Task Force also founded to bring down Escobar were working in cooperation with Los Pepes and the Castaño brothers. 

A U.S. intelligence assessment written after Escobar’s assassination in 1994 warned [emphasis mine]:

Fidel Castaño is more ferocious than Escobar, has more military capability, and can count on fellow anti-guerrillas in the Colombian Army and the Colombian National Police.”


After Fidel’s disappearance in 1994, Carlos himself ascended to leadership and eventually founded the AUC. (Vincente is alleged by some to have murdered Carlos in 2004, and remains at large as the suspected chief of a successor “neo-paramilitary” group based in Barrancabermeja called Águilas Negras—the Black Eaglesformed after the AUC was officially demobilized.)


The AUC—which enjoyed extensive ties with politicians and judges during its reign—was given the opportunity by the Colombian government to demobilize itself from 2003 to 2006. 

Successor groups—largely consisting of “demobilized” paramilitaries, and termed neo-paramilitaries or BACRIM (criminal gangs) depending who’s talking—have sprung up to fill the gap. 

As well as the Black Eagles,  former leaders of the AUC also founded Los Urabeños, one of the largest and most notorious neo-paramilitary groups in Colombia today. 

During an armed shut-down of the town of Santa Marta that terrorized residents and business owners in 2012, they passed out leaflets that—of course—declared:

We are an army that fights for social demands and the dignity of our people.”


Manuel Barreto—the wealthy landowner and former Escobar associate threatening to murder Pastor Salvador and violently displace the people of El Garzal—has been alleged to have had close ties to the AUC by Julián Bolívar, a notorious former commander in the region who turned himself in to authorities in exchange for a reduced sentencing deal offered during the demobilization.  (Bolívar has confessed to 45 counts of homicide against civilians.) 

AUC successor Los Urabeños is the neo-paramilitary group now alleged to be working for the Barreto family.   

In 2012, Human Rights Watch reported in their Annual Watch Summary for Colombia that for these successor groups to the original paramilitaries,

Tolerance of the groups by public security force members is a main factor for their continued power.  At least 180 police officers were jailed in 2011 because of alleged ties to successor groups.”

In May 2013, a non-profit in the Middle Magdalena region published a report that concluded that the Urabeños now control 60% of the neighborhoods in Barrancabermeja.   They are alleged to have active and retired members of Colombia’s police and military among their ranks.


Colombia’s paramilitaries came into existence via a perverse, desperate attempt by the state to create peace by opening up the market for war.  In 1960, a government under siege made it legal for private citizens to create “civil defense groups” to protect personal or company property, pacify guerrillas, and provide support to the Colombian military.  (Of course, from the beginning this freed corrupt land and business owners and/or those involved in the drug trade to create such “defense” groups for less civically-minded ventures, and they did so in droves.)

By 1969, the law had expanded to permit the military to themselves to organize and arm civilian “self defense units” with weaponry formerly restricted for use by state armed forces, so that they might “contribute to the reestablishment of normalcy.”  Militarized civilians were used to openly support combat missions—or to carry out separate “unofficial” operations.

By 1989, these paramilitary groups were routinely instrumentalized by “narco-landowners” to target government opponents of the drug trade.  There were a total of 12,859 political killings just in the 1980s—up from 1,053 in the 1970s.  It was only when high-level state officials—rather than civilians—began to be targeted in large numbers that paramilitary units were officially outlawed.

Paramilitary forces were created by law for the support of the Colombian military—which heavily armed and colluded with them in the name of creating peace—and were not formally outlawed by the Colombian government until 1989.

Added to the mind-numbing complexity of Colombia’s conflict history is the inevitable fog of war.  At a stop in a park in the neighborhood of El Campín, our local guide clustered us around a small, shaded monument for the victims of the May 16, 1998 Mothers’ Day Massacre—a watershed event in the invasion of Barrancabermeja.

The assassinations and “disappearances” were executed by paramilitaries, but the accepted theory is that they were there at the behest of the Colombian military (which otherwise inexplicably lifted a roadblock—with perfect timing—to allow a convoy of fifty obvious paras to enter that night, and then drive back out again past a military barracks with a cargo of screaming hostages marked for later death).

Our guide surmised that the paras were supposed to target guerrillas but ultimately balked and instead rounded up unarmed civilians at a fundraising festival, in order to meet their expected body count.*

We gamely sought to grasp the unthinkable, dutifully scratching away at notebooks as we peppered him with questions:

Why did the paras seek out the old man at his home, when everyone else was taken or killed in the park?” “Why did they grab the one woman?” “For what reason did they chose this park, this day?”  “What motive?” 

After many patient replies he finally volleyed this back, a hint of good-natured exasperation outpacing the translation:

How can we know why they do  anything?”

After breakfast and before the tour, a CPT member had read aloud to us from the “Call from the Colombian Churches to the Churches in the North in Response to Bill Clinton’s Visit to Our Country.”  It was sent by the leaders of the Colombian Mennonite Church to their North American counterparts after the passage of the original Plan Colombia in 2000 and a subsequent visit by President Clinton.  Nearly 13 years later, it reads like prophesy.

This letter was no meek call for prayer, but a pointed challenge to action:

In reality, the government of the United States, using the tax-payers money, is supporting the Colombian government in what we consider to be a negative form.  This means that the message arriving from the North to the Colombian people becomes a message of death and destruction. 

For that reason we are calling the churches in the North to redeem their taxes, on one hand by demanding that the U.S. government invests this money in life-producing projects, and on the other hand by redirecting part of their taxes towards a different project in your community or in the world that promotes abundant and dignified life, as our Lord Jesus Christ has commanded us.”

So that when one member suffers, all of the members suffer as well. (1 Corinthians 12:26)”

Blowback from U.S. aid to the Colombian military has historically contributed to the anguish in Colombia, and on a moral level we are called to use our social and political capital as American citizens in response.

The percentage of aid to Colombia earmarked for military and police forces has tilted downwards in recent years.  The Leahy Amendment also makes the yearly renewal of direct aid to Colombian military units conditional on respect for human rights in its operations—but the State Department’s mandatory certification process in Colombia is not without its strong critics.  

At our meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, the Foreign Service officers we spoke with described a U.S. Department of Justice collaboration with the Colombian judiciary designed to increase capacity and accountability in the prosecution of human rights violations, and hopefully decrease the appallingly high impunity rate for these offenses.  USAID has contributed work on a centralized database as well.  Embassy staffers expressed confidence that promotions in the Colombian military now go to “U.S. trained and vetted officers,”** and that human rights offenders are “dead-ending,” especially after recent changes of command. 

Nonetheless, human rights violations have actually been trending upwards.  Through our elected representatives, each year we have the option to accept, reject, or demand additional scrutiny of annual aid renewal requests.  Our Colombian counterparts are asking us, as taxpayers, to strengthen U.S. monitoring of where funding is going. 

They ultimately pay the price of any U.S. intervention gone wrong; we’ve paid the literal price beforehand. 

There is another pressing issue raised by our Colombian partners.  International attention and aid come in their own seasons.  One director explained that, with the commencement of the FARC talks in Havana as well as other signs of progress in the state struggle against guerilla war, international aid and support to Colombian civil society and relief organizations has been dropping.

The perception is that a final resolution towards peace is nearing—but for many Colombians, a new story is just beginning.  For some time now, the majority of human rights violations and displacements have been committed by paramilitary or those classified as neo-paramilitary/criminal gangs (“BACRIM”), not guerrillas—and the situation is not improving:

According to UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] estimates…there were 137 mass displacements in 2012 — twice as many as in 2011 — in which over 9,000 families were forced out of their homes.  Most of the mass displacements were caused by BACRIM groups.”

Removing guerilla armies like FARC and ELN from the equation may also create a vacuum that some say the paramilitaries are poised to fill.

With the Colombian government working in earnest towards land restitution, and land restitution the first item on the table at the Havana negotiations, there is the perception that Colombia’s campesinos are progressing rapidly towards justice, safety, and resolution.  Back in Bogotá, we heard firsthand about the heroic legal work INCODER has recently engaged in on behalf of El Garzal and communities like it. 

Unfortunately, Colombian and international observers report that restitution efforts have actually increased the level of violence and threats from illegal armed actors.  As a senior Colombian military officer was quoted in a May 2012 article entitled, “The Expansion of the Empire of the Urabeños”:

Their finances do not come exclusively from drug trafficking. We know for a fact that the land restitution law generated a lot of noise…at stake are thousands and thousands of hectares.”


We accompanied Pastor Salvador out of El Garzal on the heels of a joyful legal victory: the government’s return of paper land titles to 64 families in April 2013—a humiliating blow to the Barreto family’s fraudulent ownership claims.

When asked about the likelihood of transitioning military aid into peace and development aid if the negotiations in Havana (and any beyond) are successful, embassy staff allowed that

it’s possible that success of the peace process will require a shift to redevelopment and reintegration.” 

We were told that USAID in particular sees a major potential role for accompaniment from the international community around eventual truth commissions, reconciliation programs, and victims services.

For the compassionate, outward-looking church, the pull for global advocacy comes relentlessly and from every direction; unlike in many other zones of suffering, the U.S. government already has a large sphere of influence on the ground in Colombia—both military and civilian.

At the U.S. embassy, the delegation was informed with some pride that the Bogotá facility is one of the largest American embassies in the world:

nearly every single U.S. federal agency is represented here.”

And that is where the advocacy possibilities for the American church are enlivening, and a little frightening; with presence and power comes relevancy, and with relevancy comes responsibility. 


We we fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with many U.S. and Colombian political, government, and NGO representatives back in Bogotá.  I’d long since fallen into petition and letter campaign fatigue, doubting they even make it past the interns—particularly when directed at anyone but one’s own elected officials.  But at one meeting, we were not even settled into our chairs and properly introduced when a top leader sputtered at us with cheerful indignation about “a stack of letters THIS thick” the office had been barraged with from the U.S. 

They weren’t from us.  Our delegation still has no idea which denomination or organization wrote them, but as a body from an American religious organization we were absolutely pegged as the culprits.  The delegation was mock-scolded before and during the meeting:

I got all of your letters—stop sending them to us! We are not the problem on this issue.  You need to sent them to [another destination].” 

This was no joke; we left the meeting with a sober and detailed recommendation to direct a letter-writing campaign up towards the proper pressure point.

Another day, we had the opportunity to meet with someone out of the office, well after hours.  We described an advocacy case in a different region that our Colombian partners had been trying to get an update on.  A cell phone flipped open and a call was made to a counterpart in that area:

I’m here with an American delegation…..”


If the churches of CEDECOL were called to figure out how to organize themselves into a civil society player in the war for peace—a conflict-zone embodiment of the UCC slogan, “God is still speaking”—their American partners might keep an ear out for a similar call to join them in solidarity.  (As always, this will sound from Colombia as a call to coordinated action, not a call to impotent handwringing.) 

Investment means accountability. But it also means opportunity. 


The bad news is that the United States government is entrenched in Colombia; the good news is that the United States government is entrenched in Colombia. 

At the Bogotá embassy meeting, the representative for the office of the military attaché wanted to claim his seat at the table.  He briefed the delegation on how his own department was a full partner in the battle for peace and human rights in Colombia as well.  Through its Global Peace Operations Initiative, the U.S. Department of State is funding an innovative program to, as he put it,

get the military in Colombia in  blue helmets—we recognize that military members may wish to demobilize as well [by transitioning into employment as international peacekeepers].”

Much more attention-grabbing to our delegation was his report of U.S. Embassy ties to a novel new effort by Colombia’s National Protection Unit.  Long faced with criticism that the same protection measures offered to urban-based human rights actors under threat (bodyguards, armored cars, bulletproof vests) are of little utility to targets in remote rural communities (like Pastor Salvador), a pilot program—funded by USAID—has been developed to protect these leaders by making whole communities less isolated, and easier to secure.  Cell phone towers can be built; critical roads can be shored up so that they aren’t routinely rendered impassible by rain. 

We were informed that approval for the program right now “is on a case by case basis.”

We immediately asked what it would take to get a call made to put El Garzal under consideration.  Given their existing level of organization, leadership, and outside support—from both NGOs and state agencies—they would appear to be a model case.  Our Colombian partners have since been trying to get El Garzal evaluated for the pilot program.  In their most recent effort, Pastor Salvador accompanied a Bogotá-based team to the American Embassy. 

Once again, he is actively pursuing what he needs to stand by his congregation and community.*** 

As of November 2013, the U.S. delegation was informed by our Colombian partners that there is no news to report yet of progress towards this goal.

The churches of the North might claim their own seat at the table, if so called. 

It’s the least we can do.

*The “false positives” practice of grabbing civilians—sometimes dressing them in guerrilla group uniforms before or after murdering them—became horrifyingly routine in Colombia from the 1990’s on forward.  “Job performance” evaluations in the Colombian military were based on body counts.  Underproducers—and presumably those afraid of actual combatants—began luring impoverished young men to their deaths with promises of employment and then reporting their bodies as guerrilla kills.  One of the most infamous cases occurred in Soacha in 2008; a total of 22 young men from the community were abducted and murdered.

**It’s important to qualify this with a grim truism: no international partner—no matter how well-intentioned and meticulous—can completely vet individuals abroad, nor always anticipate and control the final destination of large infusions of arms and cash into foreign markets.  School of the Americas-trained generals in the Colombian military have been indicted for illegally arming and colluding with paramilitary groups, and laundering drug money; a list of other “notorious graduates” of the Fort Benning program from Colombia’s officer cadre can be found here.  And in the past, USAID has inadvertently directed millions in grant money to palm oil companies in which paramilitaries—notorious for displacing campesinos in order to expand lucrative palm oil operations—have had controlling interests.

In 2003, when Manuel Barreto tells Pastor Salvador, “I’ve got 500 guns to remove the people of El Garzal from their land,” it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of those guns have American fingerprints on them.

***In September 2013, after much prayer and discernment, Pastor Salvador and his family members made the decision to return to El Garzal.