Political Persecution and the Power of Labels

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IMPORTANT NOTE: This blog post is my lived experience and interpretation of the situation and not the official action alert nor the official position of Sembrandopaz or MCC.

Political persecution sounds like something out of those political intrigue novels full of stock characters I used to devour in middle school. Life is an adventure and the good guys always win in the end. Jet-setting around the world and fighting evil at cocktail parties: these themes probably first sparked my interest in my current work of peace-building and accompaniment.

We laugh hard as we travel around in the heart of the Montes de Maria taking pictures of bad roads and dying avocado trees. Despite evidence of destruction, there is joy in being together, in acting to make a difference and in the sheer miracle of being alive. Jorge, Larisa, some local youth and I stop and chat with families eager to share about the joys and sorrows in their lives; a history of violence and of resistance are threaded into each section of rutted road and family farm. For lunch, we eat chicken off of banana leaves and finish by drinking the water out of the largest coconuts I have ever seen.
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Armed conflict and the struggle to control land has been a way life in Colombia ever since colonization 500 years ago. In this context, those with the power to name hold the keys to imprisonment and freedom. Civilized. Savage. Guerilla. Paramilitary. Guilty. Innocent. Left. Right. Terrorist. Hero. Labels have fragmented communities, families and torn a country apart. Mampujan was accused of being a guerrilla supporter and was displaced; twelve people were massacred in neighbouring Las Brisas. Especially during the Uribe years, many human rights defenders and community organizers were accused of being terrorists and then killed. Rather than seek sustainable and lasting peace, it is easier to label opponents and then treat them as their label supposedly deserves. As Mennonite leader Ricardo Esquivia says, “War is the art of deception and the truth is its first victim.”

I twiddle my thumbs in another team meeting at Sembrandopaz. The ordinary, important, logistical details of running an organization, even one that accompanies and supports communities affected by armed conflict, sometimes drag on. What is happening this week at the office? How do you start a farmer’s market when no one has money to buy organic vegetables? How much interest should be charged on small loans? Apologies for miscommunications, biblically based devotions of the importance of social justice, and endless discussions about mission and vision, are all part of using a nonviolent methodology. There are days when I just want to go to the apartment in Sincelejo and shower with running water.

The excitement is palpable the night before we march. The aroma of soup being cooked on firewood from dead avocado trees fills the air. Communities have set aside years of mistrust and the labels they have always heard about each other`s affiliation with armed groups. Youth rush to carry sacks of root vegetables and play soccer until late on the field. I feel privileged to have been invited to participate as part of Sembrandopaz`s team and almost cry when members of Mampuján arrive. They are accompanying the march and providing trucks to haul all the food and assorted paraphernalia that goes with a giant peace march. They purchased the trucks with the reparations money from their own non-violent action a year earlier. The circle completes itself and curls outward in a spiral of dignity, reconciliation and hope.
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Undercurrents of power flow beneath the rich soil of the Montes de Maria. I sit in the Office of External Affairs in Bogota staring at a wall map of oil and mineral resources located on the Caribbean coast. I am waiting to for an interview to begin a visa verification process. A colleague and I have been informed that someone has denounced us for our accompaniment of small farmer movements on the coast. We are told we may face fines or deportation. (To date the case remains unresolved)

Nonviolence is truth. In a world where might seems to make right, the very act of behaving differently reveals the falsehood of that certainty. Nonviolence is an effective strategy because it unmasks hidden power dynamics and delegitimizes the violence of either the state or other armed groups. Nonviolence reminds us of the humanity of all and the right that we all have to a life of dignity and freedom.Where war is the art of deception, nonviolence is creativity, courage, hope and the refusal to accept labels or the status quo.

I am making coffee when my phone rings on Monday morning (Sept 9). It is a colleague from the coast, calling to tell me that Jorge Montes, one of the movement’s community leaders has been arrested and accused of the crimes of belonging to the 35th Front of the FARC-EP, criminal conspiracy, homicide, forced displacement, extortion, and others. A trustworthy source has claimed that Ricardo Esquivia, director of Sembrandopaz, is also facing threats of detention. A leaflet has arrived in the communities, accusing the movement leaders of stealing government money and threatening them with violent repercussions.

Political persecution is real and is scary. There are no stock characters and I am no longer convinced that good always wins nor that working for change is glamorous. Life is messy, complicated, sometimes boring, but also beautiful and full of hope. I believe in following those small signs of hope. This movement is a powerful sign of hope and because of that power, there is a backlash. I do not know what will happen, but I do know that you can help. Consider sending a letter and signing a petition for protection and truth.

Here is the official action alert complete with background and a sample letter, UrgentActionRicardoEsquiviaBallestas.docx (1), and the petition is here. Letters hold more weight than petitions, so please think about doing both.

For a history of movements in the Montes de Maria, read these or these.

Ricardo Esquivia
Ricardo Esquivia

14 comments on “Political Persecution and the Power of Labels”

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