BWA makes human rights visit to Colombia

A BWA delegation visited the cities of Bogota, Cali and Buenaventura in Colombia from June 23-30, to observe the peace work of Protestant and evangelical churches in Colombia, and to explore ways to support this work.

The visit was a follow-up to a presentation by Pablo Moreno, Rector of Baptist University Foundation (UNIBAUTISTA) during a session of the BWA Commission on Peace in Santiago, Chile, in July 2012. In that meeting, Moreno described the ongoing violence and human rights abuses in Colombia. He spoke about peace initiatives, particularly through the Peace and Justice Commission of CEDECOL (Council of Evangelical Churches in Colombia), and the programs developed by UNIBAUTISTA to mitigate violence and promote peace. He emphasized that in their efforts to work for peace and justice, Colombian Christians need international support.

 

Raimundo Barreto, BWA Director of Freedom and Justice, left, with a member of a Colombian group

In Colombia, the BWA team had meetings with the Peace and Justice Commission of CEDECOL. The BWA learned of the commission’s role in human rights documentation and advocacy, where it seeks to document the impact of human rights violations on Protestant churches, communities, groups and individuals.  The commission also runs a Peace Sanctuary Churches Program, where local congregations are encouraged to develop peace ministries in their communities.  The Women’s Network helps women to develop networks of peace and related gender issues of conflict. The peace commission also inaugurated a training program, the Biblical Bases for Peace, a certificate program run by UNIBAUTISTA, based in Cali.

Buenaventura
Alan Marr, Chair of the BWA Commission on Peace, said Buenaventura “was like a photo that had been decolorized. The place looked sad and depressed.”

Church pastor Agapito told the BWA delegation that in 2007, two bombs exploded in front of his church, one a few minutes after the first. This is a common strategy used by guerilla groups, he explained, exploding a smaller bomb to attract onlookers before unleashing a second, bigger bomb, killing many. Explosions like these are also timed to coincide with a major movement of drugs in another part of town, distracting police with the mayhem caused by the explosions.

Agapito also said two pastors were murdered within a few weeks of each other. Other pastors received threatening phone calls. Rocks were thrown into churches during the preaching of sermons. Churches are targets for extortion by gangs because it is believed they have money. Many pastors have had to move from place to place for security reasons.

The delegation learned that more than 95 percent of murders In Colombia are left without a person being brought to justice. Gangs who control the city are ruthless in their quest to control their turf and to take over the turf of other gangs. Many people are forced to move from the area.

Agapito said that on one single day 19 bombs exploded in Buenaventura. “Every time I leave my home I would say goodbye to my family.” He showed a DVD of the chaos following a bombing in 2007. Five were killed, including two police officers.

Lorenzo Bonilla, pastor of Community Baptist Church in Buenaventura, with whom the delegation was supposed to meet along with families who suffered from gang violence, informed the BWA team that the gangs told him the team was not welcome in the area. It was explained that permission must be sought from gangs for outsiders to visit their “territory.” After informing them of the BWA visit, Bonilla said he was told a resounding “no”.

Attempts to organize alternatives to the gangs have been greeted with violence. One pastor who worked with the police to get a youth group going was killed. Churches that discourage children and youth from joining an armed group have been “punished” by the gang. Many people have stopped going to church. Gang members are well known as they grew up in the town. “We know their families,” the BWA was told.

Drug gangs and violence
The fight against the drug cartels led to the decentralization of the drug trade. It was like hitting a hornet’s nest with a hammer, the BWA delegation was told. Smaller, more nimble groups took over. These groups are more flexible and mobile and are harder to track down. Buenaventura has become a center of violence because gangs are fighting a constant territorial war over control of the port. Because of this, basic human services such as education and healthcare are at a minimal standard. The gangs do not allow “outsider” teachers and doctors to come into their “territory.”

When asked why he stayed despite opportunities to leave, Bonilla said, “Because the city needs us.”

The future for Buenaventura looks grim. It is the site of a strategic port for drug traffickers and armed groups are vying for control. Unemployment is 75 percent, making poverty more severe. Many city residents see drug trafficking as a means to a living, especially in instances where there are large families, not uncommon in Buenaventura.

The BWA team met with a group of Baptist pastors in Buenaventura. Pastor Benedito said his congregants are suffering. One woman lost six members of her family in one day. Fourteen other members of her extended family have been killed. Benedito had had to flee for his life. At the time of the killing of the two pastors, he was chased by the killers and he had to go into hiding in Cali until it was safe to return.

Another pastor, Ermin, said violence in the town has increased over the past five years and that it was becoming more difficult to challenge gang members. In certain neighborhoods no outsider is allowed in. A third pastor, Alexander, claimed that he knew of three gang members who had become Christians through the ministry of his church.

Among the needs identified by the group of Baptist pastors were hunger and poverty relief, employment, income generation alternatives to the drug trade, places of refuge, education, therapy for trauma and the empowerment of city residents.

Pastor Ermin described a soccer competition in which gang members participated. It was described as a success in reaching out to gang members.

In Cali, the BWA team met with a group of mostly young people. The discussion revolved around the current peace process between the Colombian government and FARC, the main rebel group in Colombia. The group enumerated six areas of concern that the peace process need to address, agrarian and land reform, where some progress has already been made, broad based political participation, disarmament, drugs, victim rights and implementation.

Sessions were also held with leaders of the Colombian Baptist Denomination, who told the BWA team about a planned camp for children of pastors whose parents were killed in La Violencia.

Members of the BWA delegation were Raimundo Barreto, BWA director of Freedom and Justice; Alan Marr, chair of the BWA Commission on Peace;  and William Mathis, a BWA peace commission member.