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.
Justapaz invites you to send a letter of support, care of email@example.com, to encourage the churches who received this death threat, and let them know that they do not stand alone. (Justapaz will translate letters written in English, and also welcomes letters written in Spanish).
Church leaders risk their lives to speak out so that the international community will know the truth. Let them know their faithfulness is not in vain.
Janna Hunter-Bowman works in Bogotá, Colombia, as national coordinator of the Justapaz Documentation and Advocacy Program, supported by Mennonite Central Committee.
Translation of the death threat:
Attention Ralito, Corinto, Quebrada Acosta, El Burro, Charuas, and Las Saletines communities:
You are forbidden from going out at night by car, motorcycle, horse or foot.
Don´t go out with a flashlight or without one. We take responsibility for no one [who is outside] from 8 at night onward. Whatever you don´t get done from 6 in the morning to 7 at night, will have to wait.
12 hours for civilians. 12 hours for us.
We are going to be making some visits to farmers, banana farm workers, and merchants— everyone, the rich and poor, in these communities.
Extortion and death. Why, you ask? To the proud, spies, prostitutes, gossips, men and women: we are going to wipe you out and clean up the area. Pastor, we are not fooled. There are wolves in your midst… [the letter continues:] …30 or 40 of us are coming. Don´t resist when we knock on your door or we will burn you alive inside your house… [To the communities] …We will [crude references to rape with sticks and knives]. Men, we´ll pour gasoline... and burn you. Who will save you? God will not hear you because Evangelicals don´t matter one iota.
Wait for us.
Head leader of the Rastrillos [rearmed paramilitary group], “Popular Yeison” or “The Little Red Devil” [nom de guerre]