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Shepherding Colombia’s Capital of Violence

Prelate blames drug consumption, too

BY Alejandro Bermudez

December 8-14, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/8/96 at 2:00 PM

 

Q & A

As ordinary of Apartado, the most violent region in Colombia, Bishop Isaias Duarte Cancino, 57, played a crucial role in bringing peace to the now flourishing diocese. In September 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed him as the archbishop of Cali, which is home to drug cartels and one of the most violent cities in the world. The Register spoke with him during a recent visit to Lima, Peru.

Register: Could you describe the situation in Colombia, and particularly in Cali?

Archbishop Duarte: The figures themselves tell a dramatic story. In 1976, 26,000 Colombians suffered a violent death from drug trafficking, guerrilla warfare and other crimes. In one year, more people were killed in Colombia than in the Balkans or Middle East in recent years. Nevertheless, in cities like Cali there is less violence today than a year and a half ago when the cartel barons were still at large. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of violence, especially among young people in the shanty towns. Political and drug-related crimes have created what the bishops call a “culture of violence,” in which people believe that killing or harming is the most expeditious way to get things done. This is especially true for the youth raised in this environment. They do not realize there are other, peaceful ways to solve differences.

Would you elaborate on the kinds of violence wracking Colombia?

In the first place, guerrilla groups attack not only police and the army, but defenseless peasants as well. Then, paramilitary forces are frequently hired by landlords in response to guerrilla attacks. They are equally brutal. Violence involved in drug trafficking is now receding. However, there is still a lot of criminal violence, such as bloody robberies or kidnappings. Finally, there is excess force used by public officials and killings that result from irrelevant quarrels or crimes of passion.

How serious is Columbia's drug trafficking problem?

It should be reiterated that drug trafficking is not a Colombian problem, but a worldwide one. Colombia has the stigma of being a country run by drug money and drug power, but this isn't quite the case. Some towns are fully linked to drug trafficking, but most of the country is not. Even in areas where drugs are important, that's only the case because there are people and countries that consume drugs. Coca leaf or poppies would not have any significant value if there was not a huge demand, especially in the First World. The bishops, in this regard, believe the United States practices a moral double-stan-dard—it judges the countries that produce the most [drugs] and fights drug traffickers, but it does not show the same concern in combating its own problem of consumption.

What is the Colombian hierarchy's perspective on President Ernesto Samper's government?

From the beginning, the government has shown a special concern for investing in the poorest social sectors. Such a policy was badly needed, since the economic reforms of the previous administration had hugely negative consequences for the people. We have to acknowledge that Samper initiated a project of social reform without precedent in the last 50 years. But all this effort was paralyzed when news broke that his election campaign was financed by drug money. President Samper says that he was personally not involved. As Christians, we have to take him at his word until the contrary is proven.

Some Colombian bishops have said that he should resign.

Indeed. Even if he says he is personally innocent, the argument goes, his campaign was financed by drug money and he is ultimately responsible for that. That not only undermines the legitimacy of his campaign and victory, but the legitimacy of his whole administration. As a result, Colombia has a weak government that is unable to deal with its internal or external problems.

How do the Colombian people look on their government?

There are sharp divisions, which makes for a potentially explosive situation. There are enough conflicts in Colombia; we cannot afford to have any more. Many people support the government because of its successful social policy. However, most officials and opinion-makers know that, like it or not, the government is in a dead-end situation. I am afraid that Samper will stay on and finish his term, inflicting immense damage on the country. Internationally, he will leave the country with a tarnished image; domestically, he will leave us divided.

What role can the Church play?

We are committed to peace and reconciliation in the country. We are bishops, of course, and our message is not purely political or social. Our commitment to each Colombian is to serve him or her integrally, taking into account that a person's ultimate destiny is eternal. But we also have to think of this in worldly terms. We have been placed here by the Lord to do good for all people. The main problem in the country is violence. We have to work for peace and the means that bring it about. For example, we must demand and work for justice, as well as respect for human dignity. All Colombians have to understand that their interests and destiny are somehow woven together. We are not just a society, but also a community in which sharing is a must as the starting point of a dynamic by which everybody wins. The “mine-for me” attitude has been shown to be totally destructive.

What concrete steps have you taken in Cali?

We have created the Commission of Life, Peace and Justice, which has one main goal: to bring representatives from Cali's different sectors together to sit and talk. The best method for achieving justice is to create a culture of dialogue-as opposed to the culture of violence and conflict- so people can discover and learn to respect the other's point of view. People are discovering the wisdom of the Pope's words to us in January 1988: “Peace is everybody's or nobody's.” We are encouraging Colombians to realize that reconciliation today will create peace for their children and the country.

The same commission is also working to engage people in parishes and lay movements to meet the specific needs of the poor—refugees from the violence-ridden countryside and widows and orphans from the guerrilla war. We have also created the country's first faculty of Human Rights at the Catholic University. We believe teachers should get a degree from that department to be able to teach about the Christian meaning of life and human solidarity.

—Alejandro Bermudez