The Common Good

Soul-Searching for Colombia

It's ripped from the headlines: A young person is killed, but the police seem to be casting aspersions on the victim. It outrages us when it happens in Florida, and it should outrage us just as much when it happens further south.

No violence photo, bbbar, Shutterstock.com
No violence photo, bbbar, Shutterstock.com

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It was not one person but five who were found murdered on March 15 in the town of San Isidro, Cauca, Colombia. They had been bound hand and foot and shot in the head. As in the case of Trayvon Martin, race was a factor: the victims were ethnically indigenous.

As I saw for myself when I visited Cauca last year, indigenous people in Colombia are (along with other historically marginalized groups) often stuck between a rock and a hard place —attacked or driven from their homes by both guerrilla insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries, both of which want to control territory and each of which accuses neutral parties of supporting the other side.

Unlike in Martin’s case, it may never be known who killed David Eduardo Gómez, 25, Edwin Carrillo, 33, Gildardo Yandi Sánchez, 20, Lizel Heider Becoche, and an unnamed fifth person. But it is known that words—specifically, the accusation of helping an armed group—can kill in Colombia.

When the police chief for all of Cauca reportedly told the media that the slain had "followed evil paths," his statement didn’t just blame the victims and suggest the killers would enjoy legal impunity (two problems that are appallingly common in Colombia). It also formed part of a malignant national pattern. In Colombia false accusations, particularly accusations of supporting the guerrillas, are tied to death threats from and murders committed by paramilitaries—for example, this text-message death threat sent on Valentine’s Day to indigenous officials and pastors in a community near San Isidro.

But the indigenous people of northern Cauca and their allies, while refusing to support armed groups, are anything but passive, as I saw firsthand when I visited with Witness for Peace. That’s why I’m not surprised that the notice several local advocacy groups put out about the San Isidro murders connected the dots not just to other deaths in the region—two others this year, and 37 murders in 2011—but also to the big picture. It demanded, among other things, that the Colombian government stop giving out mining concessions to multinational corporations, as paramilitaries often go after local activists resisting mining projects, and indigenous lands are under particular threat. The big picture also involves the U.S. government, which has serious pull with Colombia.For one thing, U.S. military aid to Colombia is by law tied to certification that the country is meeting human rights standards.

Earlier this week, I went to a candlelight vigil for Trayvon Martin held on the corner of 14th St., a block from the Sojourners offices. And in mid-April—just a month after the San Isidro murders—I’ll be participating in Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia, a time of focused advocacy during which ecumenical human rights groups in the U.S. will pray, educate others, and flood Capitol Hill with postcards and lobbying visits to demand that this country do the right thing for people in Colombia.

President Obama has justly said that Trayvon Martin’s death calls for “soul-searching” and investigation. I’d like to hear him, and leaders in Congress, say the same about the deaths of David, Lizel, and the others killed in San Isidro.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners. She visited Colombia in 2011 with Witness for Peace, and tweets @ZabPalmberg.

No violence photo, bbbar, Shutterstock.com

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