The Common Good
July-August 2001

On the Ground in Bogota, Colombia

by Rose Marie Berger | July-August 2001

Voices from the Colombian church's human rights community.

Name: Hector Hernan Mondragon-Baez
Church: Teusaquillo Mennonite Church
Résumé: Human rights worker for 35 years; homeless family advocate at Pro-Shelter Center, 1974; International Labor Organization, 1980; consultant to Colombian Congress, 1991; representative to the Indigenous Territories Commission, 1996; Oak Human Rights Fellow at Colby College in Maine, 2000.

Hector Mondragon's hands tremble as he reads the morning paper. He jumps when someone comes too quickly out of the kitchen. His piercing, gray-green eyes are bloodshot and constantly shifting. He has a contagious smile. "If you see me tremble," he says, "it's not because I'm nervous, it's because I was tortured when I was 23" [by a general who graduated from the U.S. Army's School of the Americas]. In 1996, death threats forced Mondragon's wife and children into exile in Spain. In 1999, Mondragon's name appeared on a hit list distributed on the streets of Bogota. He has lived underground since that time.

"My work is not secret, but I always have to speak as I am today, somewhat covertly. To create a routine is to commit suicide. I have to make my appointments on short notice and only with people who are trustworthy. I don't sleep in the same bed two nights in a row. I used to teach Sunday school, but now I can't attend church any more. For the past two years, the government and paramilitaries are daily trying to figure out how to kill me.

"Abandoning all routine in my life is the only thing that has allowed me to stay alive. The method that is used by the elite in Colombia to 'take care of business,' or kill people, is by hired guns. My friends and colleagues have been killed attending birthday parties and picking up their children after work. I can't do anything to establish a traceable route. But this is how many Colombians live, under this threat. In 2000 the massacres exceeded one per day. While we talk here right now a massacre is being carried out somewhere in Colombia. And the people who work to change this are selectively assassinated.

"The real 'crop substitution' that has happened in Colombia is substituting poppy for coffee. This is the fault of the World Trade Organization. Colombia produced 16 million sacks of coffee per year; now we produce only 9 million. What do you think that the people who used to collect those other 7 million sacks plant now? Poppy or coca. Or they sign up for the guerrillas, paramilitaries, or army.

"If you speak out against injustice in Colombia today, then you have four ways to live. One, you can leave. Two, you can live like a gypsy and never sleep in the same bed twice. Three, you can hire armed guards. Four, you can die. I choose to live like a gypsy. And yet, we burn with Jeremiah's fire. If not, then we couldn't continue organizing and struggling. God's word is a burden here, but we burn with Jeremiah's fire. That is our faith."

Name: Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas
Born: August 30, 1946, in Cartagena, Colombia
Married: Patricia Zapata in 1978; four children: Maurico, Gerardo, Camilo, and Daniel
Church: Teusaquillo Mennonite Church
Work: Human rights lawyer for 30 years; director of Christian Center for Justice, Peace, and Nonviolent Action (JustaPaz), 1990; director of the Human Rights and Peace Commission of the Council of Evangelical Churches in Colombia (CEDECOL), 1995; general secretary of the National Assembly of Civil Society for Peace, 1999.

"Afro-Colombian" may not be a familiar term, but for Ricardo Esquivia it carries weight. "I was advising a director in the government's human rights office at the Ministry of the Interior building in Bogota," Esquivia says. "When I tried to enter the building, the guard said 'No, no. We don't want any more homeless people here. You can't come in.' He said this because I'm black. So I had to go find a telephone and call the director so that she would come down and escort me in. She fussed at the guy at the door, and apologized to me, but this is symptomatic of life as an Afro-Colombian." In the early 1990s, threats against Esquivia's life became so constant that he fled to the United States. Now he splits his time between Bogota and international travel.

"Much of my work with JustaPaz and CEDECOL is to get Protestant churches involved in the Colombian peace process. This hasn't been easy because the theology that's typically existed in the Protestant churches in Colombia has been a theology of separation from the world—a more conservative, more fundamentalist theology. For many years the Protestant churches felt that any type of social work, social action, was politics and the whole social arena belonged to the political arena, and not to the religious arena.

"But history started to kick the church, causing the church to change its theology. In the past four years, 50 Protestant pastors have been assassinated. We have about 3,000 displaced families in our churches. Pastors are threatened and kidnapped. Even four missionaries from the United States have been assassinated. More than 400 churches have been shut down. Five years ago there were only four of us doing this work in the Protestant churches. Now there are more than 500 people trained in human rights and peace. We are working hard on having our churches be 'Sanctuaries of Peace.' We want to connect them directly with sister-church relationships in the United States.

"Our work at JustaPaz is to change Colombia's vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle. To do this we have to look beyond the United States' Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia puts blinders on us and only allows us to look at the war. We don't want to end up with peace accords like those signed in Nicaragua or El Salvador or Guatemala. We don't want our peace process ending with an armistice between the armed groups. That's really not a peace accord. We believe what the Bible says, that peace is a product of justice.

"I would really like to change this image that people in the United States have that Colombians are all drug traffickers, narcotraffickers."

For more information on churches involved in Colombia, visit: www.churchworldservice.org/colombia_denom_work.htm.

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