What intruders took from our church office in Bogotá: two computers.
What they apparently wanted—given what they left behind—was highly sensitive information on victims of violent human rights abuses, those who document the cases, and local churches courageously working for peace.
In the early morning hours of June 14, intruders entered through the roof, disabled the alarm system, and stole two central processing units (CPUs) from the office of the justice and peace ministry of the Colombian Mennonite Church, Justapaz. They left behind other computers, a fax machine, and the office safe. Soon after the break-in, night watchmen from a hotel and a clinic a block from our office observed policemen stop two men with a CPU, but the policemen didn’t arrest them or report the incident. The Justapaz break-in was at least the sixth in a series of political robberies targeting the information of nongovernmental organizations, but it was the first time a church organization was attacked in this way.
The attack chilled me to the core. It reflected intimate knowledge of our organizational workings. It ripped from our staff the ability to protect the subjects and collectors of the sacred stories shared with us in strictest confidence. It shredded our desperate desire to believe that doing nonpartisan truth-telling could continue unmolested, even as the world began to pay attention and ask, “What can we do?”
Stories like Manuel’s, a lay leader and lawyer, fill my mind. “I trembled,” he confessed when the armed group responsible for the atrocity he had just documented stopped him at a roadblock. His wife took his hand and said calmly, “We’re doing the right thing.” The soldiers who searched Manuel didn’t find the notes hidden in his shoe.
On the Sunday after the attack, a persecuted widow with five children sought me out after church. She was on the stolen lists because she had documented her horrific story of loss and continued persecution. The widow (I’ll call her Maria) cried as she clung to me, choking on her fear that her whole family was now going to be killed, just as her husband had been a few years ago.
Many others across the country, like this widow, had told me that our program was their only hope for release of their deepest pain and grief. It takes personal, face-to-face interviews to record meaningful testimony because phone lines may be tapped and e-mail is not secure. For many, the government’s formal procedure for receiving testimonies of human rights abuses is neither trustworthy nor safe. Maria’s fears are founded in the repeated attacks on survivors and the reprisals experienced by witnesses who dare to speak their truth.
Especially targeted are those demanding the return of lands stolen by the paramilitary, which is a militia group that is currently engaged in a questionable disarmament and peace deal with the government. The government is unable or unwilling to guarantee the safety of witnesses who speak out.
One colleague reflected on the attack on our offices saying, “Yes, these are the consequences of following Christ in an insecure environment.” Those who “lift the veil of silence” may increase their risk of being the next victim. But the “extreme scandal of the cross,” in the words of Miroslav Volf, comes when “radical obedience,” leads to pain. Yet those who steal and kill enjoy impunity for their crimes, and the power of the perpetrator is strengthened. In the face of violent attack, personal sacrifice to stop these cycles of death becomes a “cry before the dark face of God.”
What these brazen thefts created in me, however, was a new appreciation of the power of two things: the strategic use of fear as a political tool, and the power of the Holy Spirit within transformed believers to deny fear its victory.
Twelve days after the incident, we can’t confirm who committed this crime, nor do we know what they plan to do with the stolen information collected by the two programs. Both the program to register stories of political violence experienced by Protestant church people and local hopeful efforts and the initiative to accompany local social justice ministries are joint ventures between Justapaz, the Mennonite Church, and the Peace Commission of the Colombian Evangelical Council of Churches. These efforts aim to contribute to a culture of respect for human rights and a nonviolent solution to Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict.
While we are concerned for the safety of armed-conflict survivors, those most at risk from the recent theft of human rights documentation from our office may be the trained, committed, and courageous regional documentation teams of church leaders responding to the calls to record the persistent violence, calculated cruelty, and haunting terror in their land.
Unless decisive measures are taken to prevent further attacks, Justapaz could be hit again or other organizations could experience similar information thefts, as in fact happened a week later. Those responsible must be identified and held accountable. A statement by the government and the other armed groups rejecting such attacks and in support of peace initiatives would be another positive measure. It means a commitment by all parties to proceed expeditiously to negotiated, nonviolent solutions to the armed conflict. As shared in our organizational alert on the attack, as people of faith, we pray for strength and clarity to stand firm in our commitment to God’s vision for a society characterized by nonviolence, peace, and human dignity. We are convicted that we have no choice but to work toward true reconciliation, not only in this case, but in the thousands of life-stories of violence and victimization that have taken place.
As a source within the attorney general’s office affirmed, the information theft we experienced is not an ordinary crime. We at Justapaz believe that those responsible are after the information we have been collecting, and that they may be seeking access to the international communication network that uses this first-person evidence gathered for policy education and advocacy purposes. I am concerned that they intend to silence the victims and repress our efforts to contribute to a culture of human rights and international peace building.
As was the case with the attack on the office the Fellowship of Reconciliation offices on June 2, crime-scene investigators failed to collect physical evidence—blood samples, finger prints, a stray hat. Other similarities between the Justapaz and some earlier information thefts include the hours-long delay in a police response and the failure of authorities present to inform victims on proper procedures for case reporting and follow-up.
Why the lack of rigorous protection and prevention? Beams of truth shining through the government smokescreen on the nature of the long-simmering conflict in Colombia offer one explanation: To date, more than 40 members of the Colombian congress, administration, and military are either jailed or under investigation for their connections with the paramilitary.
But the nature of the response of the international community could have a decisive impact on the outcome of this act of intimidation. A strong outcry will make a big difference. We believe that international accompaniment campaigns have proven effective in the past in warding off violence aimed at Justapaz, the Mennonite Church of Colombia, and other nongovernmental organizations.
The Colombian government is highly influenced by the posture of other governments, especially that of the United States. Colombian President Uribe has made numerous trips to Washington this year to ensure that the U.S. Congress keeps the faucet of military funding open and to secure the signing of a trade agreement, but he’s been met with unprecedented resistance. For the first time since the passage of the Plan Colombia aid package in 2000, policymakers are refusing to renew high levels of military and police aid, approximately $600 million a year, to the country with the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere, and many are voicing concerns about the dizzying “paramilitary politics” scandal within his administration.
One Colombian preacher says, “When Washington lawmakers listen to the full story on Colombia, those who bring the stories and those who live them may face new levels of intimidation from within Colombia.” Maybe he is correct.
At this moment in U.S.-Colombia relations, the flexible network of churches, nongovernmental organizations, and grassroots groups have an important role to play in helping the governments of both countries develop a sound policy that can produce lasting peace and respect for human life and dignity, rather than a continuation of the armed conflict.
At this pivotal moment, every voice raised to say “yes” to truth-telling, “yes” to nonviolent alternatives to war, and “yes” to building peace from the ground up really counts.
Janna Hunter-Bowman works for Mennonite Central Committee as the Coordinator the Documentation and Advocacy Program forJustapaz, the peace and justice ministry of the Colombian Mennonite Church. Learn more about how you can take action to respond to this attack.