Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Dear friends,

My friend Fernando was in a wheelchair in front of his office supplies store in Saravena on May 13. It was the first time I had seen him since he was shot in October 2008. I asked him how he was doing and he replied “blessed.”

He invited me to a cup of tea and began telling me about his experience. Two men had come into his home and shot him. One of the bullets struck the right side of his chest, passed near his lungs and heart, and exited the left side of his chest. The other bullet hit his spine.

A friend came to the house and took him to the hospital. “I was nearly dead when I arrived. My friend told me ‘Think about your children Fernando!’ and I clung to that. The surgeon opened me up here (pointing to his chest), massaged my heart, and I began the struggle to survive.” He was flown to Cucuta the next day, where he spent 27 days in intensive care and three more months in recovery.

Valentina (6 years old), Maria Fernandez (12) and Camilo (18) are his three children. The office supplies store is named Mafer, the nickname of his oldest daughter.

“What do you think, and feel, about the two guys that did this?” I asked him. “I already forgave them,” he replied. “I don’t have any anger, hostility or hatred.” He also said, “I talk with the pain. I say ‘we have to live together so don’t bother me so much,’ and I don’t take painkillers.”

Fernando is hopeful that he’ll be able to walk again someday. The bullet produced trauma, but didn’t sever, the spinal cord. He told me that “stem cell treatment for a non-severed spinal cord injury” is performed in Brazil and the U.S. and could restore his ability to walk. If you have any information or contacts that could help Fernando receive this treatment, please let me know!

I was visiting Saravena and Arauquita (in the state of Arauca) for a week of “rest” from the work here in Barrancabermeja. My friend Jose was standing in front of the Catholic church in Arauquita on May 10. The last time I had seen him was in the Arauca City prison in December 2008. We gave each other a big hug and then sat together for mass.

Jose was the president of the Arauquita chapter of the Arauca Small Farmers Association. The army detained Jose and 13 other people in Arauquita for the crime of “rebellion” on January 12, 2008. The municipal human rights official, Tatiana Blanco, went to the army base to inquire about the people who were being held there and she was also detained. Jose was finally declared innocent, and released from prison, on April 9 of this year.

Jose was a sanitation worker and the sole source of income for his spouse and their four children, who suffered a lot while he was in prison. He told me that he is trying to get his job back but the mayor’s office has been unwilling to reinstate him.

Marisol called out to me as I was walking by the Arauquita park on May 11. A guerrilla had killed Paola, her 13-year-old daughter, a month earlier. I asked Marisol how she was doing and she began to cry. “It’s hard to see the man (the killer) and not be able to say anything,” she told me. She would be risking her life if she spoke out. She said it’s very painful to lose a daughter, “but I have three other children” – and that keeps her going forward.

I talked later with the coordinator of the “Integral Well-being for Rural Girls” program being implemented in Arauquita by the Humanity in Force organization. The program includes psycho-social accompaniment, holistic medicine, legal assistance, education, communication and research. Marisol participated in a workshop organized by a psychologist and she’ll be receiving on-going support from the program.

The perseverance of Fernando, Jose and Marisol help put my minor frustrations into perspective and inspire me to continue our collective work of creating a more humane world.

In love and solidarity,

Photos of Fernando in front of the Mafer office supplies store; and Jose, his spouse (left), children, and neighbor during a visit to the Arauca City prison:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Marching for the lives of teachers

Dear friends,

More than 2,000 students and teachers marched through the streets of Puerto Berrio on March 17 to protest the killing of a teacher and his wife. Duvian Rojo and Veronica Cadavid were killed by two gunmen in the center of town on the evening of March 13. Puerto Berrio is controlled by paramilitary death squads that have relations with the police and military, and the killing occurred just two blocks from the police station. Duvian and Veronica were the parents of twins that are less than a year old.

The paramilitaries have been extorting more than 20 teachers in the town – demanding that they pay protection money in order to avoid being killed. Duvian filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office that led to the arrest of two men, although none of the paramilitary leaders were arrested. His colleagues believe that he was killed in retaliation for speaking out about the extortions.

I felt a lot of tension at the beginning of the march, more so than at any other activity I’ve accompanied here in Colombia. I asked the parish priest, who had invited us to the march, if I could take some photos. He responded that it would be better if I did not. One of my teammates, who had been married by the priest, talked to him later and he agreed to let me get some shots. I was introduced to a man who then walked with me to the front of the march. The march stretched out for several blocks and it was very inspiring to see so many students in the streets of Puerto Berrio.

We met with a group of teachers after the march in the church, Our Lady of Sorrows. One man was wearing a t-shirt with a photo of Duvian that read, “Friend Duvian, you will always be in our hearts.” The teachers were very concerned about their safety and asked us to not mention their names. “You wonder if you’ll be the next victim,” one of them told us.

They described the relationship of the paramilitaries with the police and military. “These groups are mixed together with the authorities.” They also talked about the location of the killing – two policemen are usually stationed there and it’s near the station. “They (the killers) exited to the left and the police came in from the right.”

Puerto Berrio is a town of 50,000 inhabitants, located two hours south of Barrancabermeja. Two paramilitary groups are fighting for control of the cocaine trade in the region, and one of those groups has apparently entered into an alliance with the National Army of Liberation (ELN) guerrillas. The priest told us that three to four people were killed each week in Puerto Berrio during February. In the midst of all this, the teachers are determined to continue forward and to denounce the abuses that occur in their town.

Sister Miriam accompanies workers in the palm oil plantations near Barrancabermeja. During the meeting with the teachers, she said “Peace can appear to be a distant dream. However, there are new sprouts and signs of hope. We’re weaving together networks of people.”

In love and solidarity,

Photo of students with banner, “It’s in your hands to respect and value life. I love it, do you?”:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A friend becomes a killer

Dear friends,

My friend Jaime Carrillo killed his spouse, Carmen Gutierrez, on February 26. Jaime had dedicated his life to defending human rights but he acted just as brutally as the paramilitary death squads that had threatened him. It appears that the calm and soft-spoken man I had known went into a frenzy of jealousy and rage.

Jaime was the human rights coordinator of the Arauca Teachers Union and president of the United Labor Federation in Arauca. I met him in June 2004 when he was living in the union office in Arauca City. The paramilitaries had threatened to kill him and it was too dangerous for him to stay in his home.

I visited Jaime again two years later. He gave me a list of 28 teachers that had been killed in Arauca and told me, “I knew most of those people.” The union office had an armored door, bulletproof windows, and video surveillance camera; and Jaime moved around Arauca City with two armed bodyguards. Jaime said, “I sense that I could be the victim of a bombing and I worry about my spouse.” Carmen had also been mentioned in the threats against him.

According to media reports, Jaime and Carmen separated a month ago. Carmen was a nurse at the Arauca City public hospital and Jaime was waiting for her after she finished her shift on February 26. He stabbed her ten times and then cut his own neck. He didn’t succeed in killing himself and is now in prison for murder. Carmen and Jaime had three children who are nine, seventeen and twenty years old.

I called Sonia (president of the Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation) to talk with her about Carmen’s death. She told me that our friend Salinas said he was “very perplexed” and that describes how most of our friends feel.

I’m used to denouncing the actions of corporations, governments, and armies. Denouncing the murderous action of a friend is more difficult and confusing. In addition to the crucial question about the root causes of this violence against women, it also raises personal questions for me. What am I doing here and is there any value in this?

In response, I find myself reflecting on the ideal of being consistent in our words and actions. It seems easy to focus on the abuses committed by others while ignoring the abuses that we commit within our own organizations and relations. I’m also realizing my need to have a firm foundation from which to act. For me, that’s my sense of spirituality which is a bit shaky at the moment. Finally, I’m aware of the need to maintain balance in my life in order to avoid falling into burn-out – to be able to recognize and experience the love and beauty that continue to exist on this earth.

None of these reflections will change the agonizing death of Carmen or the suffering of her children. However, in the midst of this confusion and fatigue, hopefully they will enable me to continue forward doing what I can in our collective efforts to end all forms of violence.

In love and solidarity,

Photo of Jaime in the union office in July 2006, showing some of the threats that he received (including a booklet about the alleged dangers of communism):

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Prayer as a call for justice

Dear friends,

Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) organized a public action in Bogotá on Ash Wednesday (February 17) to call on the government to provide land titles to the communities of Las Pavas and Garzal. Fifty people gathered together in front of the Colombian Institute for Rural Development (INCODER) and used song, readings, theater, liturgy and prayer in a powerful and moving cry for justice.

The ash that we received on our foreheads was from trees that had been chopped down and burned by the Daabon company in the Las Pavas farm. Daabon had 123 families evicted from the farm in July 2009 and is destroying the cropland, wetlands and forest in order to create an oil palm plantation. That eviction could be reversed if INCODER finally provides the land title to the people of Las Pavas. The ash was placed on us by Mariela whose community of Garzal is also at risk of losing their land if they don’t receive titles from INCODER.

Alix, president of the Colombian Mennonite Church, faced INCODER as she read through the megaphone from Isaiah 58. God calls on her people in that passage “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”

Adriana and Gerardo shared the reading of the metaphor in 2 Samuel 12 in which a rich person kills the beloved animal of a poor person. Gerardo read the original verses while Adriana read verses that adapted the story to INCODER’s mistreatment of Las Pavas and Garzal.

Phil played guitar and led us in singing “No Basta Rezar” (It’s Not Enough to Pray). “No, no, it’s not enough to pray. A lot of things still need to be done in order to achieve peace.” He also wrote a song for the action called “Oiga!” (Listen up!) – “Listen up! We’re not going to accept this injustice. Listen up! We’re moving forward. We’ll always work for peace.”

Representatives of Las Pavas, Garzal and CPT then went to the entrance of INCODER and delivered a letter that began, “We’re writing to you on this day of Ash Wednesday; a day to reflect on our actions and attitudes, and to seek the path of repentance and forgiveness. We respectfully invite you to seek this path and to recognize that you have failed the communities of Las Pavas and Garzal. These communities have been waiting years to receive their titles.”

According to Colombian law, people can occupy vacant or abandoned land and then receive title to that land after they’ve been there for five years. Members of the Buenos Aires Small Farmers Association (ASOCAB) moved onto the abandoned Las Pavas farm in 1997. An INCODER commission visited the farm in 2006 and verified that the families met the requirements to receive the title. Emilio Escobar, the former owner, returned to Las Pavas later that year with a group of armed men. He threatened the families who then abandoned the farm. The Daabon company signed a purchase agreement with Escobar the following year. The 123 families of ASOCAB moved back to Las Pavas in January of last year and Daabon had them evicted in July.

The letter to INCODER ended, “In this season of Lent, INCODER has the possibility of giving new life to these communities by providing those titles.” Alix concluded her reading of Isaiah with these verses, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness…you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”

In love and solidarity,

Photos of Mariela placing ash on Stewart, a CPTer dressed as an INCODER representative; and Alix facing INCODER as she reads from Isaiah.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Love, community and perseverance

Dear friends,

I recently returned to the state of Arauca for a visit and I received a wonderful gift of love, community and perseverance. I’ve been reflecting on that gift during this season of solstice, Chanukah and Christmas.

I was able to be with my godchild, Kuss Bryan, for the celebration of his fourth birthday in Fortul on December 1 (see attached photo). His mother, Alba, was severely wounded in her left shoulder during the bombing of Santo Domingo on December 13, 1998. The Colombian air force dropped two U.S.-manufactured cluster bombs on the community – killing 17 people and wounding 25. Employees of Airscan, a U.S. corporation providing security for Occidental Petroleum’s oilfield and pipeline in Arauca, provided the coordinates for the bombing. The survivors sued the Colombian government and the government was forced to pay reparations last year. Alba used the money she received to build a small house for herself and Kuss.

Alba’s father, Wilson Garcia, was the president of the Santo Domingo community council and he was killed by the guerrillas on March 24, 2006. Alba is six-months pregnant with her second child and is due to give birth in March. We talked about the new life that will be arriving in her home during the same month as the anniversary of her father’s death.

Father Luis invited me to lunch the day that I arrived in Arauquita. He’s very committed to the struggle for social justice and he has denounced the economic violence in Arauca – people living in poverty in a region rich with natural resources. “We’re here (on this earth) to love and be loved,” he said the last time that we shared lunch. At the end of evening mass he announced, “We’re glad to have with us again the human rights defender, Scott, who is now living in Barrancabermeja but has a special relation with our parish.”

I stayed with Maria Ruth and her six children while I was in Arauquita. Maria Ruth is a member of the Arauquita municipal council and has been threatened by both of the guerrilla groups that operate in Arauca. She’s told me, “You’re part of this family,” and they always manage to create space for me in their home.

That evening, I dined on a slice of fruit pizza prepared by Maria in her cart near the park. I’m a very loyal client whenever I’m in Arauquita. “We were just talking about you last night,” she said when I arrived and she gave me a hug.

In Saravena, I stayed with my friends Hugo and Rosa. Hugo is a surgeon at the public hospital and we share a love for classic rock music. He was listening to Jethro Tull when I first visited their home three years ago and he was pleasantly surprised that I recognized the band – the start of a wonderful friendship.

I became very sick while I was in their home with an intestinal infection that I apparently acquired during the last trip to the countryside here in the Middle Magdalena region. Hugo took me to the emergency room and I saw my friend Aide there. Her father, Alirio Martinez, was the president of the Arauca State Peasant Association. The army executed Alirio, along with two other community leaders, on August 5, 2004. Aide just completed seven years of medical school in Cuba and she is continuing her father’s legacy by serving the community as a doctor in the Saravena hospital.

The gift of love and community that I received from the people of Arauca fills me with joy and hope. Their strength and perseverance also inspires me to continue on this path of working together to create a better world.

In love and solidarity,

Photo of Kuss and Alba:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Indigenous Day dam protest

Dear friends,

More than 500 people occupied the Sogamoso River bridge on October 12 (“Columbus Day”) to protest construction of a hydroelectric dam on the river. The action was part of a national mobilization called the Minga of Communal and Social Resistance. Minga is an indigenous term for collective action, and it is the indigenous movement that is leading the way in the struggle for social and environmental justice here in Colombia.

The Sogamoso River is beautiful as it flows through a narrow canyon near the bridge. Sadly, heavy machinery is now scraping away at the side of the mountain in preparation to build a 600 foot-high dam which will flood 17,000 acres of land.

The blockage of the river will destroy the livelihood of approximately 200 people that provide for their families by fishing in the area directly below the dam site. The Sogamoso feeds into a vast network of swamps and wetlands that will also be affected by the dam – impacting the lives of many more fishers and their families.

Nearly 20 buses brought people from the cities of Barrancabermeja and Bucaramanga to the Sogamoso River on October 12. The people divided into five groups with each group discussing one of the five main issues of the Minga. Each group built a cooking fire and began preparing a large cauldron of stew for lunch. Community was created as people joined together in cooking and conversation around the fires.

“Land and Territory” was one of the issues of the Minga. Strong opposition was expressed to the recent military accord signed by the Colombia government and the administration of Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Barack Obama. The accord enables the U.S. military to use seven bases in Colombia as part of the “war on drugs and terrorism.” The concern is that this will escalate the war in Colombia and that the bases could also be used to intervene in the neighboring countries of Venezuela and Ecuador.

“Economic System” was another of the issues of the Minga, and strong opposition was also expressed to the “free trade” agreement between the U.S. and Colombia that was negotiated by the Bush administration. The agreement would be particularly harmful to small farmers in Colombia who can’t compete with subsidized industrial agriculture from the U.S.

When Barack Obama was campaigning, he declared his opposition to the agreement due to the repression of union activists in Colombia and his stance generated a lot of press coverage here. However, in April he spoke about promoting Congressional approval of the agreement. Obama’s Commerce Secretary, Gary Locke, and Trade Representative, Ron Kirk, are both strong proponents of corporate free trade.

After lunch was shared alongside the Sogamoso River, the people then occupied the bridge to protest construction of the dam. The bridge lies along the Barrancabermeja-Bucaramanga highway and traffic was shut down for more than an hour.

Honorio Llorente, president of the Sogamoso Bridge community council, participated actively in the Minga. His opposition to the dam apparently angered some powerful forces in the region. Five days later, on October 17, Honorio was shot and killed.

In love and solidarity,


Photos of the protest at the Sogamoso River bridge and the view of the river from the bridge:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Palm Oil Pandemic

Dear friends,

The Daabon company had 123 families (more than 500 people) evicted from the Las Pavas farm in the state of Bolivar on July 14. The company is cutting down trees and planting palm where the peasant farmers had been growing food for their families. I participated in a Christian Peacemaker Team delegation that visited the community from September 26 to 29 and witnessed the destruction caused by Daabon.

Daabon claims to be a socially and environmentally responsible leader in organic agriculture. The company sells The Body Shop ninety percent of the palm oil used in the production of their soaps. The Body Shop portrays itself as protecting the planet and defending human rights.

Leaders of the Las Pavas women’s association told us how they were evicted from their land. Approximately 200 children and 300 adults were at the Las Pavas farm on July 14. The police arrived around 8 A.M. They were accompanied by several armed men, dressed in civilian clothes and with cameras. The riot police arrived two hours later. The police encircled the farm and began closing in on the community members, with the riot police beating their clubs against their shields. They stopped just a few feet away from the people of Las Pavas.

Police overturned the community’s containers of drinking water and pots of cooked food. Various people told us that it appeared the police were trying to provoke a reaction that would then be filmed by the men with cameras. Around 4 P.M., the police threatened the community – if the people didn’t leave peacefully, they would be forcibly removed. In the face of that overwhelming force, the community decided to abandon their farm.

The people were not allowed to return to their fields and their 150 acres of food crops (squash, yuca, and corn) have been destroyed. Fourteen houses that were used to shelter farmers and their harvests were knocked down, carried away, and set on fire. Large trees have been chopped down, cut apart, and used to fill in wetlands.

The members of the Buenos Aires Peasant Association began working communally on the Las Pavas farm in 1997. The farm is located two miles from the community of Buenos Aires and had been abandoned by the previous owner, Emilio Escobar. Colombian law enables people to take possession and use abandoned land, and to then receive legal title to that land. The Colombian Institute for Rural Development (the government agency responsible for that process) visited Las Pavas in June 2006 and verified that the land had been occupied and farmed by the peasants.

After that visit, Escobar came to the farm with a group of armed men and threatened the peasants. A paramilitary group also went to the farm in late 2006 and issued a threat – if the people didn’t leave, their family members could be killed. The peasants abandoned the farm and two Daabon subsidiaries (C.I. Tequendama and Aportes San Isidro) signed a contract with Escobar a few months later. On January 15 of this year, the people returned to Las Pavas to begin planting their food crops. Daabon sought a court order to have them evicted and the police carried out that eviction on July 14.

Seventy percent of the arable land in El Penon county (where Las Pavas is located) is now planted in palm – primarily to produce fuel. The community asked us to film the destruction caused by the palm companies in the area. The companies have acquired large amounts of land and are draining the swamps and wetlands to plant palm.

We traveled along a raised roadway to a point where we could see a beautiful body of water on one side of the road – the Elubero swamp. Another body of water, the Escondida swamp, used to exist on the other side of the road. A channel had been dug from the swamp to the road, two large pipes placed under the roadway, and another channel dug from the road to the Solera river branch - draining the entire swamp. There are now rows of palm plants growing on that land.

The plantation on that side of the road represents the Colombian government’s vision for this region. There are already 190,000 acres of palm plantations in the Middle Magdalena river valley, and the government plans to have 1.7 million acres of palm here by 2018. The swamp and wetlands on the other side of the road represent the Buenos Aires Peasant Association’s vision for the region – preserving what remains of the natural environment and using agricultural land to produce food for the people.

In love and solidarity,


P.S. Photos of some of the Las Pavas families and the destruction caused by Daabon: