Janna Hunter-Bowman’s commentary in the April 2010 issue of Sojourners, They’re Back, describes the stark toll that murderous paramilitaries are taking on Colombian churches—and, since press time, the Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman’s office has indefinitely “delayed” the crucial public hearings it had promised to hold on the subject. Below, Janna shares an example of the death threats that are common against church members and other civilians.
A pastor and community leader in Córdoba, northwest Colombia, was at home recently when a local teenager shoved this four-page letter into his hand (translation below). Rape, torture and death are foretold in the crudely written collective death threat; the paramilitary describes murder as the way to force change in the so-called “bad people” populating the churches and communities of southern Cordoba.
Church and community leaders believe that this threat, signed by the son of a notorious paramilitary commander, is intended to sow terror among the civilian population.
In this region, as in many throughout Colombia, economic interests including drug trafficking, mega projects, and mining demand unfettered access to land. The big catch? Subsistence farmers and indigenous communities live on the territory lusted after by the powerful. So violent coercion by the paramilitary is the mechanism used to clear vast swaths of land. The paramilitary rape, torture, and kill—carrying out orders from higher powers. Standing up to violence means putting one’s life at additional risk.
Church and local communities are scared, but many refuse to flee in spite of the real threats against their lives. Many church members protect the hunted, confront corrupt State powers and the paramilitary, lead resistance efforts, and comfort the victims.