“Maybe you who came from the cities to see us can tell us, where did mass displacement come from? Where did this Clan Úsuga come from? Where did any of these things come from? Can you tell us? We do not know.”
The Protestant pastor held his Bible tightly to his chest as he stood and said these words. He and his wife had been forcibly displaced along with a large group from their church, forced to flee their rural village to the relative safety of an urban centre, after receiving threats from Clan Úsuga, a neo-paramilitary group also known as the Urabeños, one of the largest and most powerful violent criminal groups in Colombia.
We were at a meeting with about 15 church leaders who had travelled from across the region which was infested with left-wing guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Army of the People (FARC-EP) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well the Urabeños and other neo-paramilitary groups. They all had similar stories to share. Most, like the pastor who asked these questions, were humble people from the countryside who had dedicated themselves to subsistence farming and their ministry. They are far, far away from the centres of power in Colombia both in terms of geographic distance and influence. Yet, as he expressed, they and the people in their communities are the ones who live and cope daily with the consequences of the decisions and agreements brokered in those centres.
A long awaited peace agreement
The backdrop to this meeting and others like it during our ten-day stay in Colombia was the ongoing and soon-to-be-concluded peace dialogues between the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP. The peace agreement that will hopefully conclude one of the world’s longest running violent conflicts is due to be signed in Cuba in late March. If all goes as planned, it will represent an incredibly important step forward for the country.
Even as the FARC-EP leadership and the government of Colombia are working out the details of this peace accord, there is an obvious disconnect between the aspirations associated with what is happening in Havana and the reality on the ground in areas where illegal armed groups essentially rule the land. Another indigenous pastor told us, “The guerrillas are making peace but as I see it, the peace they are making is for over there, but it makes it more complicated here.”
Demobilisation or a handover of power?
All of these groups are responsible for serious human rights abuses including crimes against humanity. None of them have much regard for the rights of civilians in the areas they control or wish to control. And they all severely restrict religious freedom and persecute church leaders who refuse to actively collaborate with them or publicly support their policies and activities because of the obvious conflicts with their Christian faith.
While it is hoped that the FARC-EP is winding down its activities and preparing to demobilise, the reality is more complicated. A new report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) highlights ongoing violations of freedom of religion or belief in Colombia, which are expected to continue despite this month’s anticipated peace agreement between the FARC-EP guerrilla group and the Colombian government. CSW saw evidence of ongoing collaboration between the FARC-EP and ELN in some regions, which looked suspiciously like a handover of power. Church leaders told us that rather than demobilising, many rank and file members of the FARC-EP were effectively ‘transferring’ to the ELN. All of the illegal armed groups, including the ELN, the Urabeños and others are already making moves to take over areas vacated by the FARC-EP, creating even more instability and spreading fear.
Few of those who live in these areas expressed optimism that they would see any improvement following a peace agreement; rather most expressed worry that it would get worse, as the other groups engaged in violent battles for control of these areas. Some are already doing so.
Lessons Must Be Learned from the Past
The outlook is not good. Previous attempts in decades past to demobilise illegal armed groups and establish peace have often led to more bloodshed. The Urabeños, in fact, are essentially made up of members of far-right paramilitary groups which were meant to have demobilised between 2003 and 2006.
If the upcoming peace agreement is to make any real difference, the government of Colombia must acknowledge and learn from the mistakes of the past.
If the upcoming peace agreement is to make any real difference, the government of Colombia must acknowledge and learn from the mistakes of the past. It must put in place vigorous and well-monitored reintegration programmes for former guerrillas while simultaneous taking steps to stabilise regions up to now controlled by the FARC-EP. It must also aggressively target government corruption at every level, especially where there is clear evidence of collusion between regional governments or security forces and illegal armed groups.
Most importantly the government must do something it has never been very good at. It must listen to and take seriously the experiences and concerns of the people living in these areas. Only by doing this can it make sure that the peace that is brokered ‘over there’ is for them as well.
By Anna-Lee Stangl, CSW’s Senior Advocate for the Americas
For more information and detailed recommendations, read CSW’s new report.