[Magdalena Medio; Vijagual (Santander): The delegation travels towards El Garzal and meets Pastor Salvador; past death threats.]

To accompany—and bear witness of—El Garzal, you must descend into the heat of the rural Magdalena Medio region where no U.S. government employee is permitted to go.  From Bogotá we flew into its port anchor, Barrancabermeja, and from the airport we went straight down to the River Magdalena.

El Garzal is in the municipality of Simití in Colombia’s Bolívar Department, in a region where campesinos are under threat by paramilitaries, and large agro-industrial oil palm plantations (a lucrative export business).  According to Pierre Shantz of Christian Peacemaker Teams, Colombia, “Several municipalities have over 75% of the land planted in palm.”

As described by the World Bank,

Magdalena Medio is one of the poorest and most violent areas of Colombia and a microcosm of the actors and issues underlying Colombia’s armed conflict with guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, with the army battling for control while the civilian population struggles to survive. The region contains great natural and productive wealth with unequal access.

Arable land is so valuable in Colombia that even just farming a small family plot can be as hazardous as sitting on a goldmine, if you’ve got the wrong kind of neighbors.  There are a lot of the wrong kind of neighbors in the Magdalena Medio.  Guerrillas, paramilitaries, and corporations have all forcibly displaced entire communities.

The story of El Garzal is at once frustrating, heartbreaking, inspiring.  It is a site where, in the words of a social worker from Justapaz who accompanied us in, “the church has made a real difference,” via the head of its Foursquare Church, Pastor Salvador, in cooperation with other powerful community leaders:

He serves the whole community, not just his church.”

The human rights violations documented against Salvador and his family are a case study in crisis escalation, and a compelling narrative arc of what it means for a community to defy forced displacement by reaching out beyond its borders in a powerful show of strength:

  • Case 76: Death Threat.  April 15, 2000.  Pastor Salvador Alcántara confronted some men who were part of paramilitary groups when he saw them taking a young man down the street.  He asked them why they were taking him, and their response was to verbally abuse and threaten him.  The young man was later executed.  This happened when the paramilitaries were just beginning their activity in Simití, Bolívar.

  • Case 77: Death Threat.  October 27, 2003.  Pastor  Salvador Alcántara sought out Manuel Barreto, a large landowner and leader of paramilitary groups, near the hospital in Simití to talk with him.  Manuel Barreto was in a car with some paramilitaries when the passed by the pastor and his friend at his friend’s house.  The pastor asked him about the commentaries that were circulating that said that “the paramilitaries were present there [in El Garzal] because the people have to be displaced.”  The pastor asked him, “is it true?”  Barreto affirmed the statement, saying, “all this territory is mine.  I have 500 rifles to regain this land.”  He proposed to the pastor that he could give him some land so the pastor could stop being a bother.  The pastor took offense and explained that he was not looking for personal favors, instead he sought to protect the community’s welfare [emphasis mine]. Manuel Barreto asked, “Do you also want to fight?” He said that in January he would visit the community and he didn’t want to see a single person or family in El Garzal.  “The Magdalena River takes everything that is put in it.  All the people in Garzal are guerillas.”*

  • Case 78: Death Threat.  January 15, 2004.  Manuel Barreto, the large landowner in this area, found out that Pastor Salvador Alcántara was working with international accompaniment and organizing the community to demand the residents’ rights to the land in Garzal. Pastor Salvador received a call from a known paramilitary.  He was warned that his situation was critical and that there was an order out to kill him.

  • Case 83: Death Threat.  September 1, 2007.  The Army called Pastor Salvador Alcántara to ask him to identify two paramilitaries that they had captured.  The pastor explained, “I didn’t go.  I understood that it was a set up to get me into trouble with the ‘paras.’ The Army is complicit.” That afternoon the Army freed the two people it had captured.  A few days later, the pastor was at a community meeting in El Garzal and a group of people, some on horse and four on foot, passed by.  Then, the pastor saw that the Army showed up.  He thought that maybe it was to provide accompaniment to the international organizations that were accompanying the meeting, but then the Army proceeded to arrest two of the people walking in the group (who accompanied the men on horseback).  Later they found out that the people were drug traffickers, accompanied by paramilitary guards.  At that time, there were rumors circulating that said the pastor was a “rat” [informant] for the army.  The pastor looked for the person that was spreading the rumor about his links to the army; the man was dressed as a civilian, but he was a known paramilitary.  The paramilitary said that he was spreading the rumor because the pastor wanted to take land away from the person that threatened him, a landowner with large extensions of land with palm oil plantations.

  • Case 59: Death Threat.  June 27, 2009, August 8, 2009.  Pastor Salvador José Alcántara Rivera.  Salvador has received death threats from paramilitaries, and recently a death threat against Salvador was made public in the town of Vijagual, where a hit man had been paid to go and kill him.  On August 8, 2009, a group of men armed with rifles, dressed in black and with long range weapons, stationed themselves across from Salvador’s house all night  A member of the Alcántara family arrived home at 11pm that night, and was searched by the group.  They registered his presence, and asked him where he came from, and where Salvador was located.  The group identified themselves as “guerrilla”, however, their uniforms and their weapons made the family think that they were a paramilitary group. Just that day, Salvador Alcántara happened to not be in Garzal.  He and other community leaders were leading the legal actions and political advocacy work aimed at the custody, protection, and vindication of the right to land and territory and the right to the sustainable use of natural resources of the 300 farming families that live in Garzal.  These rights, however, have been fundamentally violated by a company that grows palm oil, and by different state agencies on the local and regional level.

  • Case 99: Death Threat, Forced Displacement.  December 9, 2011.  Salvador José Alcántara Rivera, 52, is married to Nidia Alian and they have four daughters. Salvador is a pastor in the Foursquare Church in addition to being a leader of a rural community, the president of the Community Council of the community of El Garzal and the vice-president of ASPROAS – the Association of Alternative Farmers of Simití.  Salvador was allegedly threatened by members of the Los Urabeños neo-paramilitary group and forced to leave Simití, Bolívar along with his family on December 9, 2011.  Two days earlier, the pastor received a phone call notifying him that men had been heard discussing plans to kill him. The caller also mentioned that armed men wearing ski masks had been asking for him. As such, he left the Magdalena Medio region in the company of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). The events occurred the day after a national and international verification commission had been held with representatives from churches, civil society, the diplomatic community and the government. During the meeting, testimony was heard on the community’s situation, with a particular focus on land rights. Salvador had previously received threats from neo-paramilitary groups on several occasions.

On June 1, 2013, Pastor Salvador met us at Vijagual, and accompanied our delegation of United Church of Christ representatives and CEDECOL Peace Commission associates across the Rio Magdalena and through the swamplands that lead into El Garzal.

For the previous few evenings, motorcyclists had sped up and down the tiny hamlet’s dirt road late at night, upsetting the dogs and livestock.  The identity of these individuals is not known.

*In modern-day Colombia, to label one’s opponent a “guerrilla” is not merely the equivalent of accusing someone of being a Communist sympathizer in 1950’s America; it is also a slur that can mark someone for (presumed state-sanctioned) assassination.  Human rights leaders, academics, politicians, journalists, union leaders, and entire churches have been labeled guerrilla sympathizers by everyone from paramiltaries to more conservative political foes; Félix Posada at CEPALC referred to this practice as “Satanizing the opposition.”