Ongoing violence in Colombia

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 15th of November, 2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, the ongoing violence in South America, particularly in Colombia.

To visualize where that country is, it’s the nation that physically connects South America to North America via Panama.

The rural parts of Colombia are marred with guerrilla and paramilitary violence. But here’s where faithful pastors in small villages are making a big difference.

REICHARD: WORLD Magazine National Editor Jamie Dean is here to talk about it. Jamie, you spent some time in Colombia earlier this year, but this month marks a significant anniversary for Colombia. Talk about that.

JAMIE DEAN, NATIONAL EDITOR: That’s right, it does. November marks the two-year anniversary of a peace deal between the Colombian government and a group of guerrillas known as FARC.

With all the wars that are happening all over the world, the fighting that’s taken place in Colombia has sometimes gone less noticed in recent years, but it’s important to consider the magnitude of what’s happened there: This is a nation has gone through nearly a half century of civil war that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced more than 7 million Colombians from their homes.

It is just a massive conflict that at one time appeared to have no end in sight.

REICHARD: What was the cause of the conflict?

DEAN: Well, it’s complicated, as you might imagine, but the guerrilla group known as FARC formed way back in the 1960s, with Marxist militants who were claiming to fight for the rights of the poor in the Colombian countryside. But by the 1980s and 1990s, FARC guerrillas were fighting in another conflict that was ravaging Colombia, and that was the massive drug trade that brought brutal violence to both urban and rural areas in Colombia.

So into that stepped paramilitary groups, and these were sort of non-military special forces who said they were going to combat FARC and other bad actors, but most Colombians will tell you that the paramilitary got entangled in the chaos, too.

In fact, when I spoke with Colombians who grew up in villages essentially terrorized by militants, they couldn’t always tell me whether these were FARC guerrillas or paramilitary troops or drug runners. They just knew they were violent men. And almost everyone I talked with had a story of how their lives were touched by this kind of violence—people would say, my father was killed or my cousin was kidnapped or even things like, “We saw people beheaded in the streets.” And millions of people fled their homes to try to get away from this violence, and many of those people—even now—still live in very poor areas in the hills surrounding major cities in Colombia.

REICHARD: How did the Colombian government manage to make a peace deal in the middle of all this conflict?

DEAN: Well, the drug trade did ease somewhat in the 1990s when the Colombian government killed Pablo Escobar in a raid in the city of Medellin. And through more government crackdowns and other efforts, the cities did become much safer places than they were before. In fact, Medellin is a very beautiful city to visit.

When it came to the FARC, the guerrillas continued their campaigns in the mountains, but eventually, essentially, everyone grew weary of civil war—even on both sides of the conflict. And so the former Colombian president engaged FARC to draw up a peace deal in 2016.

REICHARD: And were Colombians happy with this peace deal?

DEAN: In a word—no. Most Colombians want peace, but not at any cost. And this particular accord allowed a lot of FARC offenders to basically go free and unpunished for crimes they had committed over the years. And this did not sit well with many Colombians. In fact, Colombian voters actually rejected the peace accord in a national referendum, which stunned the government, but the government signed the peace accord anyway.

REICHARD: How has it gone since then?

DEAN: It’s been quite tenuous. The drug trade has certainly continued, and it actually seems to be picking up in some significant ways. And there are many FARC guerrillas who were not happy with the peace accord and are re-grouping again. In many cases, these are men who have never done anything except be a militant, and they perhaps don’t know how to live another life. Whatever the case, violence is picking up again in the rural areas, and villagers are starting to see these similar patterns re-emerge.

REICHARD: I’m wondering, what’s all this meant for the church?

DEAN: Well for churches in the countryside, it’s quite dangerous. I spent an afternoon with four Colombian pastors from different rural areas of Colombia, and one actually introduced himself to me by saying: “I’m currently under threat of death for preaching the gospel.” You don’t necessarily expect to hear this in a nation like Colombia, so it was very striking. And these pastors explained that militants in the countryside have always seen the church as a form of competition for the loyalty of the local villagers. In some cases, pastors have been the only ones who have stood up to militants and saying: You can’t take our children away for your armies. And those kinds of things have put them at severe odds with guerrillas, and that is continuing.

But they also say that some militants have grown interested in hearing the gospel, and that creates a very interesting challenge for the churches: The pastors say many people in their congregations are understandably afraid of militants from a group that maybe killed members of their families or drove them from their homes. So some Christians struggle with how to be discerning but also welcome people who need to hear the gospel.

REICHARD: How do the pastors help them?

DEAN: Well, I think that’s a very moving part of this whole story. One pastor told me that he often talks with his congregation about the Apostle Paul. And how Paul was once a great persecutor of the church. But he reminds his congregation how Christ saved Paul and made him a great servant of the Lord. And these pastors encourage these wary Christians living in a very difficult place that God can and still does do the same thing in the lives of sinners. One pastor said he tells his church: “From a former militant the Lord can make a great servant.”

And that’s really how they encourage people outside of Colombia to pray for them—that they will remain courageous in the face of threats and that God will bless their desires to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them.

REICHARD: Jamie Dean is WORLD Magazine national editor.  Thanks so much for this report, Jamie.

DEAN: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images) Members of the “Omar Gomez” Western War Front of the National Liberation Army guerrillas practice maneuvers in Pie de Pato Colombia. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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