Apartadó Mayor Visits Wisconsin: Colombia's Peace Said to Need U.S. Restraint

Related Article by Francisco de Roux, SJ, discussing Apartadó's relationship with Madison, in El Colombiano (Medellin)

By Leslie Wirpsa
National Catholic Reporter
May 12, 1995

A delegation representing Colombia's violence-torn, banana-producing region, Urabá, recently warned that the mixing of anti-narcotics and counterinsurgency strategies by US foreign policymakers could seriously jeopardize fragile steps toward peace in Colombia.

"A clear distinction must be made between guerrillas and drug traffickers in Colombia. If the U.S. continues to push for a war against a so called 'narco-guerrilla' force, the peace process with our left-wing insurgencies will be bashed," said Jesuit Francisco de Roux.

De Roux and Gloria Cuartas, 34, the mayor of the city of Apartadó, the hub of the Urabá region, which occupies the northern tip of Colombia's northwestern Antioquia dept., participated in a week of educational forums and ecumenical activities in Madison, WI, April 24-30. The week of events, sponsored by the Madison-based CSN and the Dane County-Apartadó Sister Communities Project, was designed to raise awareness in the U.S. about the crisis plaguing Urabá, a microcosm of much of the Colombian countryside.

The delegation originally included Apartadó Bishop Isaias Duarte Cancino. But Duarte canceled his visit at the last minute because his presence was vital to a high-level international peace commission analyzing violence in the region.

The commission, whose members include Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, will attempt to identify the specific actors behind violence in Urabá and devise a strategy to resolve more than a decade of conflict.

In Duarte's stead, Cuartas and de Roux outlined the crisis of human rights facing Urabá -- a region that has been plagued by paramilitary killings and massacres, brutal repression by the military, drug trafficking and violence from left-wing guerrillas. Not infrequently, the violence in Urabá has resembled conflict in Central America -- including massacres of scores of peasants and the daily killings of union activists, community leaders and grassroots politicians.

Urabá, Cuartas said, is a microcosm of conflicts that spread throughout Colombia, and the peace process there is also a mini-model for the rest of the country.

Judicial investigations of killings in Urabá have linked members of the military, drug traffickers and Israeli mercenaries to paramilitary death squads responsible for atrocities like the March and April 1988 killings of 22 unionized banana workers and 31 peasants. Left- wing guerrillas have also been implicated in the spiral of violence: Preliminary investigations tied a rebel organization to the January 1994 slaying of 35 people in a poor neighborhood in Apartadó.

Jesuit de Roux stressed the importance of Colombia's peace process. Formerly the head of the Jesuit-run think tank, CINEP, in Bogota, de Roux now facilitates peace initiatives. He has followed the Urabá process closely.

De Roux urged people in the U.S. to take a critical stance against "Jesse Helms and members of the U.S. Senate" who are pushing for a stronger military intervention in Colombia.

"They put a dangerous equal sign between guerrillas and drug traffickers," de Roux said. "The U.S. cannot intervene directly against the drug traffickers, because they are criminals and should be judged by Colombians." To justify stronger intervention, de Roux said certain U.S. policymakers want to "show that a Marxist guerrilla army is involved in the drug business and this army is threatening U.S. security."

According to a 1993 study from the Andean Commission of Jurists, drug traffickers are behind less than 2 percent of political killings annually in Colombia; the army, police and paramilitary organizations are responsible for more than 70%. A 1994 Amnesty Int'l report put the rate of political killings in Colombia at 10 a day and it described the human rights situation there as "certainly one of the worst in the hemisphere and possibly one of the worst in the world."

In this context, de Roux said, U.S. pressure for stronger intervention could negatively affect peace negotiations.

"The Colombian military would love it if the U.S. would get more involved in warfare in Colombia. And the U.S. military would be happy to get involved because they are running out of places to fight. The Colombian guerrillas would be happy, too, because stronger U.S. presence would motivate more young people to join their ranks," de Roux said.

The losers in this scenario, de Roux said, "are civilians who are not involved in the guerrilla war or the army's war or the paramilitary war."

Cuartas said the solidarity of U.S. groups like those in Wisconsin has meant a great deal to the people of Urabá. "At least when Jesse Helms is thinking and saying things against Colombia, there is another part of the U.S. that understands, that is thinking and saying something else."

Cuartas was equally enthusiastic about a meeting between de Roux and Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland. "Monsignor Duarte has been very alone in promoting the peace process in Urabá. It is very important that the concerns of the region have made an echo with another bishop. The support of the Catholic community for peace in Urabá is very important."

(To Subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter, call 1-800-333- 7373)

Back to CSN's Home Page