issue 215 - January 1991
Fifteen years of solitude
It was 15 years ago that what the peasants call 'the criminal law of silence' began in Santander province, in the central Magdalena Medio region of Colombia. Nobody could say anything to anyone and nobody could say anything about anybody.
The peasants were caught in the crossfire of a conflict that has involved the army, communist guerrillas and right-wing vigilantes. But in 1987 the peasants took the initiative - and began an extraordinary process of dialogue with the factions that were making their lives an endless nightmare of violence, poverty, fear, silence and corpses carried away by rivers.
Miguel Barajas, an agronomist who had dedicated himself to the peasant cause, was determined to publicize what they were doing. He particularly wanted to narrow the divide between the efforts of intellectuals in the cities and those of the peasants in their mutual quest for peace.
The peasant peace process could easily have not happened at all. It began in May 1987 when right-wing paramilitary groups, backed by the army and local drug-barons, arrived in the area - adding to the problems created by the army itself and the guerrillas from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The paramilitary informed the peasants that anyone who betrayed them would die. Two days later the same group of men turned up, accompanied by a captain in the army. They elaborated on their previous communication. 'From now on, you join us or you join the guerrillas or you leave the region or you die,' they declared.
At first people began to leave. Others joined the paramilitary. But then a new idea was put forward by some of the peasant leaders. How about staying put - on their own terms. If peasants were going to die they may as well die defending their own cause. A meeting was called. The first step was decided - to start a dialogue with the army, with guerrillas and with the paramilitary.
The peasants negotiated an agreement with the guerrillas that there would be no more killings. They then negotiated peace with the army, and started talks with the paramilitary. Then they began to organise the Peasant Association of Carare. A board of directors was elected, a town committee was organised. The peasants created a provisions store, bought two buses, lowered the cost of transport and started work on other projects that would benefit people in the community.
The guerrillas withdrew and both the army and the paramilitary were kept at bay. As word spread the people began to return.
According to Miguel Barajas: 'We made it possible for people to talk and sing the way they wanted. Now, in our beloved region, no one dies in silence. Only one silence is allowed; the silence of guns. United, under the banner of the right to life, to peace, to work, we've freed ourselves from dogmas. We no longer look upon those whose ideas we oppose as enemies but as neighbours who may be able to help us in our search for solutions.'
For Miguel Barajas, education was central. The Peasant Association built a High School, encouraged the exploration of Carare Indian culture, built an archaeological museum and library, and established a link with the University of Los Andes in Bogota. News of their success reached the rest of the country: 'It is less costly to make peace than war,' ran one headline.
But peace was short-lived. In 1989 the guerrillas moved back into the area. The local army commander accused the peasants of collaboration and the paramilitary moved in. On February 26, 1990 Miguel Barajas was assassinated at point blank range, together with the President of the Association, José Vargas, the Secretary, Saul Castaneda, and radical Colombian journalist and writer Silvia Duzán. They were meeting with her to provide her with information for our film Behind the Cocaine War, which she was researching. Silvia Duzán was deeply concerned about escalating violence and human rights abuses in the country and was preparing a book on death squads. No one has been charged with the murders - and the investigation has been blocked by intimidation and a weak judicial system.
The assassination of people who campaign prominently for peace and justice has become a feature of Colombian life. But where one person is slain, another steps forward. Today the leadership of the Peasant Association of Carare is in the hands of Orlando Gaihán. Despite heavy hearts and a deep sense of loss, the Association is continuing to promote dialogue with all the armed groups to maintain the peace process and to secure their development plan. As Miguel Barajas said to Silvia Duzán: 'We will only stop accumulating sorrow the day the creative forces of the country win over the self-destructive ones.'
Sarah Hobson is executive producer for the film on which Silvia Duzán was working - Behind the Cocaine War (Produced by Equal Media Ltd. for Channel 4 TV, UK)