Building Peace on the Ground, Not Just in Havana: The Colombian Peace Process according to Ricardo Esquivia

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Author: Jeanette Bonifaz

Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas, a human rights lawyer and leader working with the Mennonite Church of Colombia and the Colombian Council of Evangelical Churches, came to the United States last month to give a lecture at the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame titled “Building a Just Peace in Colombia.”  Ricardo Esquivia is a visionary leader for peace building efforts in rural communities devastated by conflict on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.  He and other leaders are currently facing threats of detention by the Colombian authorities and have also received numerous threats from paramilitary groups. 

On September 30, 2013, Mr. Esquivia gave a talk at the United Methodist Building in Washington DC about Colombia’s peace process and the challenges that leaders and peaceful social movements face in Colombia.  This is what he had to say:

The agreement is called Agreement to end the Armed Conflict. So, we need to understand that this is not a [comprehensive] peace agreement, it is an armistice and what they are negotiating is political power.

On the one hand, let me remind you that Santos was Uribe’s Minister of Defense, and that policy of “democratic security” was Santos’ idea, not Uribe’s. So Santos has not been thinking about a process to transform the country either. They want to avoid as much as they can a real dialogue, a dialogue that deepens the social and political conditions. On the other hand, for this process to happen, [Santos] has to have the acceptance of both the ruling class and the army, so he has to play well in all of this. The guerrillas are talking about agrarian reform, but Santos is speaking of rural development, which is different. Santos already has his rural development law prepared.

Santos is doing the same thing Uribe did but with a different style. Uribe cuts with an ax, Santos with a scalpel, but both of them cut. Now, how has this been playing out politically? On the one hand, Uribe feels betrayed by Santos, and Uribe is spearheading the right. The right wants to do the same thing Santos is doing, but without negotiating with the guerrillas. They think that it is possible to beat the guerrillas militarily and try them in court.  Then when Santos makes his proposal for a dialogue, the right is divided.  To the commercial and private sectors, the idea of ending the war is appealing.

There is a group within the army that does not listen to the President. So they are going to places such as, for example, Montes de María, on the Caribbean coast, where we work. This is one of the areas of consolidation that the government has. The consolidation areas are spaces where the government wants to reinsert its presence, its power, and its action; which increases the military’s presence. Then, in areas such as this, when people begin to organize and begin to believe in the peace process, and start acting different, accusations that they part of the guerrillas begin to emerge. And then they try to demonstrate that if there is no control, the guerrilla is going to take over the area.

In Montes de Maria, the churches are working with communities that are trying to return to their lands. Campesinos’ livelihoods depended on growing avocado, but ten years of displacement and abandonment has allowed a fungus to expand which eats the root of the avocado and kills it. During these ten years, the fungus affected 4 thousand hectares of avocado.

The government issued the Victims and Land Restitution Law, but they have many difficulties, among them a bureaucracy that consumes part of the budget. These farmers are calling for reparations, comprehensive reparations, and since the government has not responded, they decided to organize themselves and start a protest. We have worked to ensure that this protest is peaceful, from a perspective of non-violent direct action. It took six months to prepare for this protest. In April of this year, more than a thousand campesinos began to march. The march was magnificent. The government came out to meet with the march, and the campesinos stopped and asked for a dialogue.  The first dialogue lasted 15 hours and they reached an agreement. The government agreed to fulfill the agreement. They agreed to meet every month for a follow-up. The people were very happy. Neighboring villages were paying attention. When they saw that the national government came to speak with the farmers, that the government had plans, many of the neighboring villages started to join the process.

Everybody was excited and said, “It is worth it.” All of them began to think that the problem was not the guerrillas, but administrative corruption. Then, the group began to think about the upcoming elections and that they need to vote for new people in order to have real change. They are calling for reparations and the government, through the Victims’ Law, is responding, but 60 percent of the cost of reparations must be met by mayors and governors. So if a community wants to actually apply the Victims’ Law, they have to make use of the decision-making spaces and also understand that if they want to make it happen, it is better to have a mayor and city council [that is responsive]. All of this implies political preparation. So an army colonel noticed this process and movement (he was the former director of that center of consolidation) and said, “We cannot allow these people to advance because they are going to take our power away.” Then they began to see how they can stop that process, and the best way to do this was to say that this movement was part of the guerrillas, and that the leaders of the movement are guerrilla fighters.  With that false story they started legal proceedings against and detained the principal coordinator of this movement.

And because we are the ones supporting the community through a group that we call Sembrando Paz (Planting Peace), then they said that the person who is coordinating this also has to be jailed. Well, I am the one who is coordinating it, so they say that I am an old guerrilla fighter.

All this is to prevent people from realizing that the problem is not really the guerrillas, the problem is corruption and injustice.

There is a group within the army that does not agree with the peace negotiations, and it is they who are creating the insecurity. There was a threat issued last year that covered the entire Caribbean coast. It was said that it was from the Rastrojos and the Urabeños, but international organizations realized that it was not the Urabeños or anything like that, it was the army.

Colombia has had 15 or 20 peace processes. Some with more success, others with less success, but there have been several processes. And that is important to remember because this influences people’s spirit. However, now it looks like this time the historical conditions are in place for an agreement to be reached. The ruling class has realized that they can make more money in peace than in war.