The word on everybody’s lips right now when speaking of Colombia is “peace.” There are encouraging signs and broad support for a negotiated peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Churches and civil society groups in Colombia and the United States have long worked toward such an outcome.
For many years the only official response to the armed conflict was increased military aid. From 2000 to 2015, a U.S. aid package known as Plan Colombia provided $9.94 billion to the Colombian government, 71 percent of which went to military and police forces. Multiple U.S. presidents and Congresses strongly supported Plan Colombia; implicitly, they supported the Colombian government’s anti-guerrilla offensives. Yet, as Colombian Mennonite leaders predicted in a letter to Mennonite Church USA in 1999, using increasingly violent means to end a violent conflict threw fuel on the fire.
The ensuing military offensives resulted in the extrajudicial executions of more than 4,300 civilians by Colombian security forces. Often referred to as “false positives,” many poor, young men were promised jobs by recruiters and enticed to leave their families. They were killed, dressed in guerrilla fatigues and used to increase the body count, to show that government forces were winning. Their deaths tell a different story about the “success” of Plan Colombia. It was brutal and violent, especially for civilians.
Throughout the years of Plan Colombia, Mennonites have been a voice of peace in the midst of the armed conflict, declaring that violence cannot bring about a reconciling peace. Peace may currently be in vogue, but Anabaptist churches in Colombia were bravely working and praying for holistic peace long before talks began.
Justapaz, an organization of the Colombian Mennonite Church and supported by Mennonite Central Committee, began documenting the toll of the escalating violence during Plan Colombia. Each year, they report on the threats and abuse that church leaders and members suffer at the hands of armed actors.
When this work began, armed men broke into their offices and stole the computers containing the documentation. Phones were tapped, and offices were bugged. Mennonite leader Ricardo Esquivia was accused of being a guerrilla sympathizer. The government issued a warrant for his arrest. Letters from Mennonites in the United States and Canada flooded Colombian offices, calling for Esquivia’s protection and played a part in the Uribe government’s decision not to arrest him.
Now that many people throughout civil society and government are focused on peace, the dialogue centers on how to construct a lasting peace. It hinges on ending conflict with multiple armed groups and dealing with the root causes of inequality. Armed groups have committed atrocities. Many groups profit from drug trafficking, impunity from prosecution and a weak government presence.
The prophetic voices of Colombian Mennonites have suggested a way forward: peace with justice, which provides reparations for victims, addresses the root causes of conflict and allows people to live with dignity, respecting one another and the land they share. The churches will continue what they have been doing for decades: working for a just peace, whether peace is popular or not.
Save the date! Consider participating in Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia 2016 with your church, May 22-23.
Charissa Zehr is legislative associate for international affairs in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office. Story originally published on April 11, 2016. Reprinted with permission from Mennonite World Review.