The Mennonite Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action (Justapaz), a longstanding Partner of Global Ministries, invited me, on last Saturday, to participate in a virtual visit to several communities in the “Bagre” Department in northwestern Colombia. Justapaz accompanies indigenous and Afro-descendant churches and communities in the western part of the country. They seek the fulfillment of the Peace Accords signed in 2016, as compliance has diminished through the years. Also, they document violations of Human and Humanitarian Rights covenants in that place and provide for the basic needs of the people there.
The challenge is vast. Nine indigenous and Afro-descendant pastors from churches in Bagre narrated their ordeal trying to keep their church families and members of their communities safe there. The regrouping of paramilitary organizations into the area, forced recruitment of youth and children, threats, killings, and forced displacement of families affect the well being of the people through that place. It was excruciating to hear stories of how pastors and church leaders have to be extremely careful about their sermons and in their pastoral accompaniment through the community. People from paramilitary groups visit churches, become members of them, and, then, request to check on offerings and internal affairs. Also, they threaten local businesses, charging them with “security and protection” fees to avoid kidnapping or destruction of property. COVID-19 has affected police and patrolling in the sector, even though community leaders also stated that the presence of authorities tends to exacerbate tensions, conflicts, and even violence there.
Each of these episodes and others seems to have a single purpose: to cause fear, anxiety, and forced restriction of mobility in indigenous and Afro-descendant territories. That is undoubtedly affecting their already deficient conditions of life and thereby violating international human rights covenants as well as humanitarian laws according to which the civilian population must be on the margins of any warlike manifestation in the world. In a debriefing after the virtual visit, our Partner shared with me how those recent violent re-groupings are no longer motivated by political stances, but on drug trafficking and illegal appropriation of land for mining and the exploitation of resources in those areas.
As Global Ministries, we will continue in solidarity with our partners, churches, and the people of Colombia. Stay tuned for further news on our virtual pilgrimages and advocacy information regarding peace, justice, and reconciliation there.