"We could easily be killed for saying this, but the international church needs to know."
Crisis in Córdoba
So far in 2009 six Protestant church leaders from southern Córdoba have been murdered by paramilitary armed groups. Several attempted murders and dozens of death threats have caused the forced displacement of hundreds of people. Some churches have been literally caught in the crossfire. In one town six pastors were threatened to be killed if they failed to make extortion payments. A significant number of the victims were targeted for their community leadership in land-rights struggles and for opposing the violence affecting their communities.
We are profoundly concerned about the ongoing collusion between rearmed paramilitary groups and Colombian public security forces as well as the lack of response from other state agencies to this violence. “We would like to see a change in this marriage between the paramilitaries and the army. If the army were to really fight these groups it would be different,” stated a local pastor. In recent conversations pastors and community leaders spoke of their deep fear about reporting on paramilitary operations that have intensified in the past five months, “If the [state agents and paramilitary groups] knew what we were telling you, as soon as we left this meeting we’d be shot. We don’t dare talk about these things with Colombian authorities. It’s just too dangerous.”
In the province of Córdoba in 2008 there were 512 violent deaths, including six massacres. This is the highest murder rate in the past 18 years. If the violence that has been documented so far in 2009 is an indication, the rate will increase this year.
Since 2006 we have repeatedly denounced the rearming and remobilization of paramilitaries in Córdoba. The territorial dispute between the paramilitary groups has increased this year; the number of cases we have documented as well as the analysis of local leaders indicate that these groups are seeking to consolidate their control. As we have previously documented, the armed groups target local pastors and leaders as a strategy of coercion. According to local leaders and local and regional analysts, the current surge in violence is being driven by an economic interest in drug trafficking routes.
We have documented the following three murders in the past four months of 2009:
1. On September 6 at approximately 10:00 p.m. three hooded presumed paramilitaries came to the home of Foursquare Church Pastor Rafael Velásquez and shot him, killing him immediately. His wife and six young people from the church were present at the time of his murder.
2. On July 24, at approximately 11:20 a.m in the Santa Marta community, the geographic location of paramilitary demobilization talks with the government, four presumed Black Eagles paramilitaries shot and killed Marco Fidel Suárez Moreno. Marco was married to Elcy Ramos with whom he had four children ages 11 to 22. At the time of his murder Marco was a city council member in Montería and a community arbitration provider (Conciliador en Equidad) and a leader at the Galacia (AIEC) Church. Marco was a councilmember in Tierralta from 1998 to 2000 and had previously served as president of the Commmunity Council of Santa Fe de Ralito and Las Aguaditas.
3. On June 28, at 8:00 p.m. four armed men, presumed members of the paramilitary organization, the Self Defense Gaitanistas of Colombia, arrived at Jhon Jairo Martínez’s house in Montería and killed him. Jhon Jairo was a leader from the AIEC church and was married to Olga Isabel Hernández with whom he had three children, ages two to nine. They lived on a farm that had been given to them and 39 other displaced families by INCORA (the Colombian agrarian reform agency) in 1997.
We have documented more than 20 human rights violations in 2009 in the province of Córdoba, including threats, homicides and individual and collective forced displacement by paramilitaries and guerillas. The cases that we have registered corroborate the communities’ claims that the violence is caused by the armed groups’ fight for territorial control and drug-trafficking routes.
Sixteen international non-governmental organizations and denominations sent a letter to the Colombian Attorney General on April 2 of this year reporting paramilitary violence against church and community leaders, listing several specific cases and asking the Attorney General to investigate. Once again, we request a progress report in the investigation of these crimes. We request State agencies and civilian, military and police authorities to take immediate and effective action to ensure justice and to stop these activities that threaten life and human dignity in the province of Córdoba.
The alarming pattern of paramilitary violence is not the full story of Córdoba´s political violence; while they are fewer in number, communities in the department also report persecution from the guerrilla. All aggressions are equally harmful and wrong, no matter by whom they are committed. We condemn them equally.
We ask that you pray for the safety of communities in Córdoba. As Christians we pray for strength and guidance for the members of these communities; that they may persevere in their commitment to working for God’s vision of a nonviolent Colombia that can live in peace with dignity for all. We ask you to also pray for those responsible for this violence that they may turn themselves in, seek restoration of the damage they have done and transform their lives.
Please send the following model-letter to the Colombian Attorney General and copies to your Members of Congress and to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fiscalía General de la Nación
Guillermo Mendoza Diago
Fiscal General (E)
Diagonal 22 B No.52-01, Fax: (+571)570-2000 Bogotá D.C. Colombia
Dr. Guillermo Mendoza Diago,
I am writing to express my concern for church and community leaders in the province of Córdoba. So far this year six protestant church leaders and even more social leaders have been killed by presumed rearmed paramilitaries. Among those killed are Pastor Rafael Velásquez, murdered September 6, Pastor Marco Fidel Suárez Moreno, murdered July 24, and church and community leader Jhon Jairo Martínez, murdered June 28.
We ask the Colombian Attorney General’s Office to:
1. Investigate these cases as rapidly and thoroughly as possible.
2. Ensure that those responsible for the crimes be held responsible.
3. Ensure the protection and reparation for the victims of these crimes and their families, as well as that of all persons living in this region who are demanding the rights to their land, in light of the danger and importance of their work.
I ask you to please communicate the status of these investigations to Pablo Moreno, the National Coordinator of the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (Comisión de Paz del Consejo Evangélico de Colombia – CEDECOL) at 2-513-0781, email@example.com and Jenny Neme, Director of Justapaz at 1-287-3968, firstname.lastname@example.org