Colombia has been at war for over 50 years. Office bombings, arrests, and torture for protesting, murders for protecting the environment, or reporting the truth have impacted all. There is hardly an
individual or family that hasn’t been touched by violence. Yet, Colombians have proceeded with the hope of electing a new government and for the most part, they retain a sense of pride in their country. I have tried to capture this pain and spirit of endurance through individual interviews and personal
observations. I trust that I have been just and fair with the people whose lives I share in this report.
“In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting to
come out of its cloud and lift its wings. The Kookaburras,
kingfishers, pressed against the edge of their cage, they asked
me to open the door. Years later I wake in the night and remember
how I said to them, no, and walked away.”
Excerpted from Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies,
Colombia has been at war for over fifty years. Even though war is undeclared today, it is nevertheless ongoing. Colombia leads the world in the number of social activists murdered, with 138 recorded in 2021, and is on track to surpass this in 2022. It is difficult to tell who is responsible, the government, paramilitaries, army, corporations, hired killers, or a combination of all. Pundits have even drawn a connection between the church, paramilitaries, and violence in the countryside.
Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s recently elected president, is a former guerrilla fighter. He may be able to significantly improve the situation because he has a first-hand grasp of the conflict. However, the conflict is shifting in Colombia and throughout Latin America from the war on drugs to the war of inequality and social class to the war on natural resources and the environment. The violence caused by all three is overlapping.
In response to social violence, the government set up a special commission in 2016. It is called the Special Jurisdiction for Peace Court. It was established as part of a peace deal between left-wing rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC—and the Colombian government. Part of what has emerged is the truth about the army’s responsibility for killing 6,400 citizens and making it appear as if they were rebels.
As one soldier said, “I lured civilians through lies and deceit to places where I shot them, cruelly killing them and then planted weapons on them to make it look like they belonged to rebel groups.” Santiago Herrera, a retired army colonel, described how he seduced soldiers under his command with a “carrot and stick” approach to causing deaths to produce results.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace Court is designed to try all participants in the conflict, rebels and security forces alike. Those who tell the truth about what they did can participate in pro-social activities, such as removing land mines, building infrastructure, and constructing monuments for example. The court has jurisdiction until 2026.
Almost everyone I have spoken with about their lives in Medellin in the almost three years I have lived here has been touched by violence, during the drug wars under Pablo Escobar from the 1970’s to the early 1990’s or during the ongoing revolt which lasted 53 years, officially ending 3 years ago. The war on the environment and natural resources is increasingly taking its toll, however, it is not being framed as a war, but rather as an arbitrary series of one-off events, which it is clearly not. Individuals are killed for defending indigenous or village lands, trees from being logged, and river ways from illegal fishing or gold mining producing deadly runoff.
Alan is a journalist who worked diligently from his office to report the politics of what was happening in the hinterlands. His office was bombed and his life was threatened. Threats against journalists are not uncommon. Thirteen have been killed in the last year. Few involved in the illegal economy want the plundering to be exposed. The courage to write the truth is life-enhancing for many of us.
About a week ago, my friend Larry, who is a river guide in Medellin and the Russian River, California, sent me the following text, “A close friend of mine, Caliche, from Rio La Miel was murdered this morning. He was a river guide and brother. He was ambushed and assassinated with shotgun blasts. We don’t know who did it, but illegal gold miners from the Rio Cauca have been wanting to set up operations on the Rio La Miel. Caliche was opposed to the mines because they will destroy the river.” He gave his life for the river.
While Caliche’s story is tragic, it is also iconic. According to a UN report in 2020, 69% of Colombia’s gold is mined illegally over 64,000 hectares in 970 locations, up 3% from the prior year. The courage to protect what you love is the most important story emerging from Colombia and the Americas. It is a battle for the Earth’s survival, for what’s sacred and wild, and for so many species of animals and peoples of the land.
Family courage and politics
I frequent cafes in my local community almost daily. Café life is a cornerstone of social life in Colombia, especially in Medellin. My curiosity about individuals I meet often leads me to conversations about their life. What follows are highlights of my conversations over coffee with a 34-year-old architect, the mother of a young boy. I share it in the hopes of communicating the singularity and importance of history, and actions taken to address social injustice. It is a story known personally to almost every Colombian I have met. I have changed or abbreviated names to honor privacy.
“My name is V. I am a female citizen of Colombia. I am the youngest of five, all brothers, that I know of. My father, before I was born, was a political activist in Bogota. The police arrested him for protesting, placed him in prison, and tortured him for many days. When he got out of prison he kept his politics but founded a theater company to express himself. He started it with five actors in Bogota. He married my mother who was a young dancer, much younger than my father. She became an actress and played an active role in the theater company.
I spent much of my childhood traveling with actors in the theater and sleeping at my traveling school. I loved it. Imagine growing up with people who are playing roles and dressing in costumes. It was like a continuous dress-up party. My father wrote the scripts, conducted readings, and trained actors while I played. The theater became part of me.
My mother’s father was in the military. He was trained to rescue others. One day, he was jumping out of a helicopter to rescue a fellow soldier in the jungle when he was shot and killed by a guerrilla fighter. This weighed on my mother.
Martin was a boy who came to live with us when he was a baby. My father had a very close relationship with his mother. Martin’s mother was killed protesting at the palace of justice in Bogota. Actually, she disappeared. My aunt was a judge in the judicial court at the time, and this caused tensions in my family, as you can imagine.
My mother rejected Martin because of the closeness between my father and Martin’s mother. This rejection burdened Martin over the years, and in his suicide letter, he wrote that he felt lonely without his mother and a real family. He died by his own hands.
My mother and father divorced when I was 15 years old. She regrets losing her life and not following her career as a dancer. She remains bitter about it. Although she had her own courage in raising her children, being part of a theater, and juggling politics and money.
At my father’s funeral, a little girl previously unknown to me referred to my father as grandpa. To this day we are friends and I call her lovingly, “my niece.” She is the one in the family who carries on with politics and a sense of justice. I love her so much.
My father was always careful to protect me from politics. There was no transfer of experience, knowledge, or education. I am not a political person because I don’t believe the government’s messages and all the crazy violence. Although my father did instill a hyper sense of independence, I am definitely more on the left than right. My brothers, on the other hand, want nothing to do with politics” They get up in the morning and go to work. So many people in Colombia have these experiences, it is almost a normal way of life.”
What I find most interesting and compelling is the way that many individuals have turned anger and loss into compassion and understanding. At no time did V express any anger or bitterness. It isn’t that the recognition of culpability, conflict, or expression of guilt solves problems—it doesn’t—–but what it does do is open opportunities for dialog to address continuing sources of violence, perhaps applied to the emerging war on the environment.
It is critical that the government recognize the ongoing war and destruction of natural resources. It must take action to protect the environment, journalists, and activists against wild-cat individuals who are ruining resources, and killing those who get in the way. Caliche’s killers must be found and brought to justice.
Area-wide protections must be established. Powerful interests such as corporations and paramilitaries employed to kill activists need to be faced and defeated. Colombia has the experience on the ground and institutionally to create an exemplary model for the Americas. This is a significantly better choice for the country than sanctioning the murder of activists by looking the other way. It is time to change the status quo, and enable individuals and families to continue to heal and regain trust in others. Colombia and the Earth depend upon it.