Is Civil War Returning to Colombia?
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One pastor missing, three others reported killed in past month.
COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, November 4 – Christians in Colombia are anxious to learn the fate of pastor William Reyes, missing since Sept. 25, even as three other pastors have gone missing.
Reyes, a minister of the Light and Truth Inter-American Church and member of the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao (FRAMEN, Fraternidad de Ministros Evangélicos de Maicao), left a meeting in Valledupar, Cesar, at 10 a.m. that morning heading home to Maicao, La Guajira. He never arrived.
Family members and fellow ministers fear that Reyes may have been murdered by illegal armed groups operating in northern Colombia. Since March of this year, FRAMEN has received repeated threats from both the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary units.
Abduction is another possibility. Often criminals hold their victims for weeks or months before contacting family members to demand ransom, a tactic designed to maximize the anxiety of the victim’s loved ones before proceeding with ransom negotiations.
In the past month, three other Christian pastors were reportedly killed in separate incidents across the country. According to Pedro Acosta of the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL, Consejo Evangélico de Colombia), two ministers died in the northern Caribbean region and a third in Buenaventura on the Pacific coast.
At press time, members of the Peace Commission’s Documentation and Advocacy team, which monitors cases of political violence and human rights abuse, were traveling in those areas to verify the identities of the victims and circumstances of the killings.
Demand for Action
On Oct. 4, churches organized a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Reyes. Thousands of marchers filled the streets of Maicao to demand his immediate return to his family. The FRAMEN-sponsored rally featured hymns, sermons and an address from Reyes’s wife, Idia.
Idia Reyes continues to work as secretary of FRAMEN while awaiting news of her husband. The couple has three children, William, 19, Luz Mery, 16, and Estefania, 9.
CEDECOL and Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-based organization that assists violence victims, launched a letter-writing campaign to draw international attention to the case and request government action to help locate Reyes.
“We are grateful for the outpouring of prayer and support from churches in Canada, the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom,” stated an Oct. 26 open letter from Janna Hunter Bowman of Justapaz and Michael Joseph of CEDECOL’s Peace Commission. “Human rights violations of church people and of the civilian population at large are ongoing in Colombia. Last year the Justapaz Peace Commission program registered the murder of four pastors and 22 additional homicides of lay leaders and church members.”
Some of those killings may have been carried out by members of the Colombian Armed Forces, according to evidence emerging in recent weeks. Prosecutors and human rights groups have released evidence that some military units abduct and murder civilians, dress their bodies in combat fatigues and catalogue them as insurgents killed in battle.
According to an Oct. 29 report in The New York Times, soldiers commit the macabre murders for the two-fold purpose of “social cleansing” – the extrajudicial elimination of criminals, drug users and gang members – and to gain promotions and bonuses.
The scandal prompted President Alvaro Uribe to announce on Wednesday (Oct. 29) that he had dismissed more than two dozen soldiers and officers, among them three generals, implicated in the murders.
Justapaz has documented the murder of at least one evangelical Christian at the hands of Colombian soldiers. José Ulises Martínez served in a counterinsurgency unit until two years ago, but left the army “because what he had to do was not coherent with his religious convictions,” according to his brother, pastor Reinel Martínez.
Martínez was working at a steady job and serving as a leader of young adults in the Christian Crusade Church in Cúcuta on Oct. 29, 2007, when two acquaintances still on active duty convinced him to go with them to Bogotá to request a pension payment from the army. He called his girlfriend the following day to say he had arrived safely in the capital.
That was the last she or his family heard from him.
Two weeks later, Martínez’s parents reported his disappearance to the prosecutor’s office in Cúcuta. The ensuing investigation revealed that on Oct. 1, 2007, armed forces officers had presented photographs of Martinez’s body dressed in camouflage and identified as a guerrilla killed in combat. Later the family learned that Martínez was killed in Gaula, a combat zone 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Bogotá.
Such atrocities threaten to mar the reputation of Colombia’s Armed Forces just as the military is making remarkable gains against the FARC and other insurgent groups. Strategic attacks against guerrilla bases eliminated key members of the FARC high command in 2008. A daring July 2 rescue of one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other high-profile FARC hostages was greeted with jubilation around the world.
Yet in Colombia’s confused and convoluted civil war, Christians are still targeted for their role in softening the resolve of both insurgent and paramilitary fighters.
“I believe preventative security measures must be taken in order to protect victims from this scourge that affects the church,” Acosta said in reference to the ongoing threats to Colombian Christians. “In comparison to information from earlier [years], the cases of violations have increased.”
Report from Compass Direct News