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In our view: What kind of peace for Colombia?

Rebecca Bartel and Bonnie Klassen
August 15, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia’s political climate has dramatically changed over the last months with the deaths of three-high profile members of the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia); the military rescue of 15 political prisoners from FARC custody, including three U.S. contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, ex-presidential candidate; the ongoing paramilitary/politician scandal; and the increasing re-arming of paramilitary groups.

The rescue of Betancourt and the U.S. citizens is an indisputable triumph for the Colombian government and military in their fight against the FARC. The military strategy and show of might have sparked hope in some sectors of the Colombian population and in other countries that a road to peace is being forged.

At this critical juncture, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), its partners in Colombia and Colombian Anabaptist churches are asking, "What kind of peace do we want for Colombia?" These groups have united in a call to peace and reconciliation that is extended to all actors in the armed conflict, illegal and legal groups alike.

According to MCC partners and Anabaptist church leaders, the government and military path to "peace" is moving toward chaos and is contrary to the church's goal of reconciliation.

As Mennonite Brethren leader Diego Martinez stated, "These actions, based in deception and lies, will never lead us to peace.  We are calling on all of the armed groups to build peace through nonviolence and truth."

The dismantling of the central commands of armed groups such as paramilitaries and guerilla groups including Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) without comprehensive processes of truth, justice and reparation will not put an end to the illegal armed groups in Colombia. Instead, it creates a chaotic, dangerous dynamic because many small, independent but well-armed groups begin organizing, creating more insecurity for regular citizens.

As similar experiences in other countries demonstrate, the cessation of hostilities between warring factions in civil conflict without processes of truth, justice and reparation creates an atmosphere of arbitrary violence and heightened insecurity. Societies become fractured.

Prior to the recent action, President Alvaro Uribe's reputation had suffered significant blows due to three factors: currently, over 60 members of Congress are under investigation for connections to paramilitary networks, there have been serious setbacks in the negotiation of a Free Trade Agreement with the United States because of human rights concerns, and the demobilization and disarmament process of the paramilitaries has failed.

Now, President Uribe is using his strengthened popularity to modify the constitution to allow for a third presidential term, making a mockery of the democratic constitutional norms that were written in the last round of peace agreements with insurgent groups in Colombia.

Another term would also guarantee four more years of Uribe's Democratic Security Policy, which has been responsible for increased levels of internal displacement, increased numbers of extrajudicial executions and failure to curb paramilitary activity.

Ricardo Esquivia, director of MCC partner Sembrando Paz, states, "This government is dedicated to war and is overriding democratic process by eliminating spaces for dialogue and discussion. This will only create more fractions within the armed groups causing more violence and terror… there may be more security on the highways, but it has been at the cost of greater insecurity on the streets in the cities on the coast – the massacres, assassinations, poverty and hunger persist."

The Anabaptist churches in Colombia affirm that lasting peace means addressing the root causes that perpetuate violence: deep levels of poverty, unequal land distribution, the large gap between rich and poor and the use of violent repression instead of dialogue to resolve social conflict.

Colombian civil society and particularly the millions of victims of the 50-year armed conflict need the support of the international community to assure they have a voice in a peace that offers truth, justice and reparation. The invitation to peace from the Anabaptist community extends to all factions in the conflict, the guerilla groups as well as the paramilitary and government forces; an incomplete process might increase violence against the civilian population.

In Colombia, MCC is supporting a major project with local partners and churches to enable churches to work with victims to rebuild their lives, to create spaces for dialogue between participants in the conflict and to create paths toward truth, justice and political advocacy for policy change. These paths lead toward reconciliation within society, rather than war.

To learn more visit mcc.org/Colombia.

To hear a Colombian speaker in your area in September, contact Theo Sitther at the MCC Washington Office for dates and venues: 202-544-6564, ext. 118.