This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Blogging from Colombia

This week I’m happy to have my wife Charletta Erb as a guest blogger. Charletta recently returned from a delegation to Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Her sharing is very timely as it coincides with an opportunity to take real action to lower the amount of money the US government is giving to the Colombian military. See this urgent action from Christian Peaceamker Teams.

In rural Cienega del Opon, we attended a community meeting with Programa, an organization mobilizing communities on development issues. One organizer, a young, urban, educated, Colombian woman explains to the community, “Programa has funding for one more year and I am afraid that you are becoming too dependent on us. We’re here to help you mobilize so that you can work for your rights and for improvement of the community.” An old man in a cowboy hat insists, “But we are abandoned, no one listens, we’ve tried. We’ve gone to the government offices.” She says, “That’s not enough. You need to ask many times, and you have to know where to take your petitions.”  

From the countryside around the Opon, many have been displaced to Barrancabermeja, where people come to squat on the land, forming slums. Many leave everything behind when they fled from the terror of violence in the countryside. When they arrive in the city, not only is there no aid, but they are also discriminated against so that it is hard to get jobs or health care. No jobs because the demobilized paramilitary members get priority. No medical treatment because they are given papers that say they are displaced persons.

We talked with one displaced couple who showed us their home and said that everything they had they had accomplished themselves, occasionally finding work on the farms of large land owners. They had nowhere to build, except by illegally squatting.

One woman we spoke with, was caring for 15 children every day in a childcare program on a meager budget. This provided time for parents to work. In her past life in the countryside, she owned and worked in a bar as the cook, running it together with her partner. A guerrilla group came through and asked her to be their cook. She refused. Though she was pregnant at the time, they shot her in the leg and left her. Worms crawled over her wounds. Through the violence of guerillas and paramilitaries she saw perhaps 15 people killed. When she fled the countryside there was no help for her. She resorted to sex work, but she didn’t want to talk about these things anymore. This woman who saw 15 killed, now cares for 15 children.

These stories illustrate a strong need for development, not more military funding. The new Plan Colombia under discussion would put a greater percentage of funding toward development rather than military spending. The link between the military and the paramilitary has been strong, according to observations of CPT and other NGO’s.

With so many people displaced, the likelihood that they will join armed groups as a way of surviving is dramatically increased. Or they may find other illegal sources of income because they are abandoned by the Colombian government and the international community who has spent seven years funding the military instead.

Funding of the Colombian military results in trickle down money for Colombian paramilitaries who, alongside the official military, commit atrocities against subsistence farmers and anyone who would organize for a better Colombia. Development could begin to address the roots of poverty and violence. A human rights organization we met with considered refusing development funds provided through Plan Colombia, because such a large portion of the funds were designated toward military spending. But they resolved to use the funding to work for a greater percentage of funds for development, because that is what Colombia needs most, no more violence, and more development.


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