Are Colombians Ready for Peace?

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By James Patton

On the one hand, there is the young man who was taught by his father to care for the livestock and the family ranch. After sitting by the side of the bed while his father bled to death, following an assault by guerrillas claiming an egalitarian economic cause, he joined the paramilitary defense groups to seek revenge on the “socialist murderers.” On the other hand, there is the young woman who witnessed the brutal execution by chainsaw of her family and neighbors, designed to be a gruesome warning message to the guerrillas operating with impunity in her village. She subsequently joined those “resistance fighters” to seek the recourse that an absent government justice system couldn’t provide.

Workshop with Indigenous_Medellin(July2013)2What program, be it on civics, vocational training, or education, can possibly heal those wounds and have these two individuals, and the hundreds of thousands like them, reimagine themselves as part of a shared community in Colombia?

Colombia is making increasingly positive strides in its effort to end half a century of internal armed conflict, as the government and the principal rebel group, the FARC, have agreed on major points in the ongoing peace process in Havana, Cuba. A successful accord, like the laying down of arms by the paramilitary “auto-defense” groups almost a decade ago, will result in large numbers of former fighters who will have to make their way back into a deeply divided and wounded society. An agreement in Havana would constitute an historic milestone, considering the seven failed peace processes that have come before, but a truly durable peace will ultimately be built at the level of a profoundly wounded and cynical civil society.

ICRD is capitalizing on the collective influence of women’s leadership networks and those of religious and spiritual communities in promoting the processes of reconciliation and social cohesion that will be required to heal those rifts in the coming years. There is great risk that Colombia’s violence simply shifts from internal armed conflict to massive and destabilizing criminal and narco-trafficking violence, as has been seen already with former paramilitaries. Social rejection by both communities and businesses has been specifically blamed for the ongoing drift into illicit activities. Together with a ready set of skills, networks and experience, this makes former combatants very vulnerable to recruitment into these criminal groups.

Read more about ICRD’s Colombia program HERE.

In a country full of intelligent, compassionate and hard-working people of diverse backgrounds, the effect of nearly a century of continuous violence means that no one really knows what a “Colombia at peace” will look like. It is not uncommon to find a deep strain of resignation or outright support for the pervasive and perpetual violence. Gang killers pray for success to the Virgin Mother, Patron of the Assassins, with no sense of irony, and common phrases taught to children include “if you don’t take advantage of the weak, then you’re weak.”

Each of the diverse groups that ICRD has engaged has manifested unique challenges for the achievement of peace. For instance, in preliminary workshops with former combatants, including guerrilla leaders serving time in prison, ICRD has sought to gauge their concerns and outlook with respect to the shared values that could help to reconstitute Colombian society. In an atmosphere of general commitment to resolving the violence, they bristled at the term “demobilization.” In the minds of these leaders, while guerrilla groups are rejecting armed violence as a tool, they are categorically not demobilizing – a point that the government would do well to understand. “We remain mobilized for our cause of justice,” they said, “and if reintegration means returning to the state [of social marginalization] we were in before arming – then we simply won’t do it.”

A group of Colombian women peacemakers are a central counterpart for ICRD. With previous outside support, they have brought together interfaith women from eight regions of the country for training in conflict resolution techniques. Representatives of this group and ICRD are identifying areas where those skills can be in reconciliation work with local, conflict-affected communities. The female perspective is commonly underrepresented in both the analytical process and in the program planning that accompanies it in many areas global conflict. In the Colombian context, it takes on additional importance, as much as 35-40% of the FARC guerrillas may be women. Despite great strides in bridging doctrinal differences and applying them practically, the patriarchal religious establishments to which these women belong – as well as their own difficult experiences in the face of the violence – mean that many of them are understandably cautious in taking on such sensitive work.

Additionally, it has been estimated that as many as 7000 members of the guerrilla forces come from the largely rural and disproportionately conflict-impacted Indigenous communities. Preliminary workshops with Shamans (spiritual leaders) from some of the diverse Colombian Indigenous groups identified a common crisis – the weakened role of spiritual practice in their communities, largely due to pressures from outside religious, cultural and armed forces. They contend that recovering their internal spiritual leadership is a critical first step in applying it to broader social problems. Many Shamans expressed passionate interest with respect to ICRD’s initiative; however, a history of cultural clashes with Christian religious doctrines has left behind a wide gulf and deep sensitivities that will require its own trust-building process to mend.

Evangelical Christianity and the Catholic Church have come into conflict in recent years in Latin America, leaving a significant division and lingering suspicion. ICRD workshops with Christian leaders have explored their role in a broader inter-religious effort despite doctrinal differences, and they have reflected over the “spiritual call” to prioritize peace-building over evangelization, particularly where the latter would likely close the door on collaboration. Local Christian leaders of all confessions have expressed a new-found commitment to exploring shared spiritual values in a pluralistic framework – including with non-Christians. The call to “build the Kingdom” through reconciliation, the protection of rights, restitution, forgiveness and the reduction of violence has emerged as a priority.

The danger to Colombia’s stability has long been centered on internal armed conflict between anti-government forces and the military and paramilitaries – with everyone else caught in the middle. That might soon change; but another threat is waiting in the wings. As one participant stated – violence is often the “only thing we can identify that we all truly share.” It is the only way of life that most Colombians have known, and one to which many have simply grown resigned. However, within Colombian society – as manifested by spiritual and women leaders – lie the seeds for developing and articulating a new set of shared values with which to heal historic wounds and shape a new future that no longer sustains a culture of violence.

To learn more about the Colombia program, visit

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