By Paolo Moiola
Ezio Roattino is an Italian Consolata missionary who is working in the southwest Colombian department of Cauca, where guerillas, the Army, and paramilitaries clash non-stop at the expense of the same civilians they say they are fighting for.
After 30 years in Latin America, Roattino heads the church in the town of Toribío, in the north of the department. It was there that the patience of the community — largely indigenous Nasa — ended July 10, when members of the country’s main guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, launched a cylinder bomb into a Toribío hospital. A nurse was gravely injured and 12 other people received minor injuries. The event triggered actions by the local population to remove the armed actors from their territory, including government forces.
“The FARC, as far as I know — I’m talking about Toribío and Cauca in recent years —, aren’t fighting for a social ideal anymore, but rather have entered the realm of terrorism. For example, the use of the so-called ‘cylinder bomb’, in my opinion, goes against any revolutionary ethic,” Roattino said.
A year earlier, July 9 was farmer’s market day. A truck full of produce from the fields was due in, but what arrived instead was a bus full of bombs and explosives that blew up near a police station, not far from the parish. Three people died and 122 were injured, a toll which would have been much higher if the church and rectory didn’t have a retaining wall that muffled the blast wave and protected the people packed into the market in Toribío’s main square.
The most recent attack on the Nasa population was the assassination of the community’s doctor and spiritual leader Lisandro Tenorio Trochez, 64, on Aug. 12. According to witnesses, two armed men entered the home of Tenorio Trochez, who had received threats from the FARC and the Army. With his wife, daughter, and granddaughter present, they shot him.
“Our territory is in disharmony when they murder our people and when they blow up Mother Earth. The resistance and the conscience of the Nasa nation have allowed the continued defense of all life. Those who assassinated Elder Lisandro hurt not only his family, but all of the Nasa community. We demand an investigation and punishment for the assassins of our spiritual guide. Death, no matter where it comes from, and the destruction of Mother Earth are the ruin of indigenous, campesino, and Afro-descendent populations, (while) the ones who benefit are the large multinational corporations,” the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, or ACIN, said in a written statement.
Father Roattino is as hard on the State as on the FARC. He doesn’t allow the police to enter the church in Toribío armed, an act which is often considered a lese majesty crime.
“One day, a commander from the local police station asked to read Scripture during Mass. But I opposed this. ‘I don’t doubt your faith’, I told him, ‘but you represent an armed State’. Sometimes, I feel obligated to remember that Jesus Christ died at the hands of security forces… The word of God —‘Do not kill’— applies to both the guerrillas and the State. A just war doesn’t exist,” the priest said.
New treaty, new groups excluded
Since August 2010, the Colombian president is Juan Manuel Santos, who is not new to the political scene. He was defense minister during the administration of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and comes from one of the country’s most influential families, the Santos family, which was once the owner and is now a shareholder in El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper.
Father Roattino doesn’t see the progress in the country as it is touted by politicians and media.
“The globalization of the country is exalted because, on Oct. 12, 2011, the US Congress approved the Free Trade Agreement [FTA] with Bogotá. But the FTA will without a doubt be a blow to the Colombia of the disenfranchised. The products coming from the United States will flood the Colombian market, displacing local products with their low prices,” the priest said.
Even on the issue of internal armed conflict, the proclamations of Santos’s administration collide with reality. In July 2011, the Victims and Land Restitution Law was passed with the goal of returning land to the people displaced by the internal conflict and compensating the victims of human rights abuses.
There are at least 4 million internally displaced people in Colombia, according to official figures, but the nongovernmental Observatory on Human Rights and Displacement, or CODHES, puts that number at 5.3 million. There are at least 6.5 million hectares (16 million acres) in the hands of unlawful owners.
“I highly doubt this law’s efficacy. Let’s think for a moment: Who has the courage to reclaim lands on which other people are established, without a doubt stronger and more protected than a displaced family?,” said Roattino, referring to large landowners and paramilitaries.
It is worth noting that the 2005 Justice and Peace Law, the axis of paramilitary disarmament pushed by Uribe, has largely failed. Now there are new paramilitary groups that, according to official statistics, have around 5,700 members.
The land is coveted by everyone, but those who prevail are the same as always. In recent years, multinational mining companies rooted themselves in Colombia’s Andes Mountains, which contains an enormous water reservoir that spawns all of the country’s major rivers: Magdalena, Putumayo, Caquetá and Cauca. It is here that the government has granted 64 mining concessions for the extraction of oil and minerals like gold.
“Here there are indigenous reservations turned over to mining companies without prior consultation with the communities as required by the Constitution,” explained Father Roattino. “Therefore, the water and forests belong to the newcomers. Suddenly, history has regressed 500 years!”
This year, Colombia is expected to see 4.5 percent gross domestic product growth. But this development follows the usual paths of inequality, as Roattino highlighted: today in Colombia, the most disadvantaged — the indigenous, Afro-descendants, and campesinos — are worse off than before. “There is no doubt that exclusion is increasing. The same as insecurity,” he said. “In Bogotá, there is a saying the goes something like this: in our current condition, the poor can no longer eat, the middle class can no longer buy, and the rich can no longer sleep [out of fear they will be robbed].”