On Friday, December 9th, shortly after Salvador was warned that armed actors wearing balaclavas had come looking for him, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) Colombia accompanied Salvador and his family safely out of the Magdalena Medio region. CPT has been accompanying Garzal and Nueva Esperanza’s struggle to remain on their lands for more than four years now. (To learn more about community leader Salvador Alcántara see article below).
Salvador’s situation is not exceptional. Here in Colombia leaders of millions of campesinos seeking to remain on their land or return to the lands from which they were displaced are more likely to be killed than receive state protection and titles to their lands that would guarantee their safety. (To verify this claim try typing “displaced, leader, killed” into your browser search engine. Including the word Colombia in your search is optional).
Despite years of campaigning, both nationally and internationally, the communities of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza along with their national and international allies (including CPT) have been unable to convince the state to recognize and protect the right to land titles and protection from those who seek to displace them. This most recent threat threat came only one day after a delegation of supporters including national and international church representatives, Swiss embassy and Swiss non-governmental organizations (NGOs), national NGOs, and CPT visited the community and heard first-hand reports of the situation.
Although the forced displacement of one of their strongest leaders underscores the precariousness of their situation, community members remain determined to stay on the land that is rightfully theirs. CPT Colombia affirms that right and continues to accompany the communities of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza. Receiving a great deal of national and international attention helps keep them safe. Please circulate this article widely!
(For further information see recent newspaper article on Garzal in El Espectador [in Spanish])
January 26th, 2009
Reverend Salvador Alcántara
– by Stewart Vriesinga
“I thought you were dead! I had orders to kill you! I knew you were a good man –a man of integrity—and I couldn’t carry out those orders, but I thought another one of my colleagues would!”–a demobilized paramilitary
Reverend Salvador Alcántara, from Garzal township of Simití municipality in the southern Bolívar province, is a remarkable, exemplary and inspirational man. He is a husband, father, grandfather, pastor of a local church, farmer, president of the Garzal town council, and vice-president of ASPROAS – Association of Alternative Producers of Simití. That he is able to take on all these tasks and do them well has earned him the respect of both the larger community of Simití and his own smaller community of Garzal. His interpretation of his pastoral duties has led him to become involved in his community’s struggle to stay on their lands in the face of constant threats of forced mass displacement..
The much-heralded achievements of the Uribe administration –the demobilization of the paramilitaries and the recovery of large tracts of land once controlled by guerrilla groups, have failed to provide residents of Garzal with security. On the contrary: The government has refused to recognize them as the legal owners of the land and instead granted title to these lands to a drug trafficker. Most residents of Garzal have lived there since the early seventies and should have received squatters’ rights after only five years of occupation. (See photo essay) The title-holder left when his cocaine laboratory was raided in the late 1980s, and he wasn’t heard from until 2003, at which time he returned in the company of paramilitaries. He then presented local residents with an ultimatum: Leave or die. Some families fled, and Salvador as the local representative received both bribes and personal death threats. Years later Salvador ran into a now-demobilized paramilitary, he expressed shock at seeing Salvador alive:
“I thought you were dead! I had orders to kill you! I knew you were a good man –a man of integrity—and I couldn’t carry out those orders, but I thought another one of my colleagues would!”
It seems that in addition to the respect of his local community and parish, Salvador has also gained the respect of some of his enemies. Salvador attributes his being alive to God’s providence.
In December of 2008 Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) received an accompaniment request because of fears that a large group of armed men gathering nearby had been contracted to carry out the original death threats.
Fortunately the much-feared forced displacement never happened. Maybe it was because the river had flooded its banks, and the armed group decided to wait for things to dry up a bit; or maybe it was because the military had sent planes to fly over the area and the armed groups dispersed; or maybe it was because the guardian angel God sent to protect Salvador prevented it. Or maybe it was a combination of all of the above.
Salvador, I know, sees God’s hand in all these things, and has chosen to look for ways in which he can actively collaborate with his God. He never allows his faith in God to become an excuse for doing nothing. May we all learn from his example!