Rebel Uprising in Colombia Shouldn't Derail Church-Brokered Peace Talks

BOGOTA, Colombia—Leaders of Colombia's guerrilla factions stepped up their offensives in early August in a bid to show their strength before newly elected President Andrés Pastrana took office Aug. 7.

The country's army said the 1,200 rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, attacked 120 soldiers and 70 police officers at their base in the southeastern department of Guaviare, scene of the heaviest fighting. Details of the fighting remain sketchy, but the number of confirmed deaths since the offensive began last week stood at 102 soldiers and policemen, three civilians and one guerrilla, officials said. The insurgency was the bloodiest in the country since an uprising in 1964.

The new president vowed to make peace with the insurgents. In recent weeks, Pastrana has met face-to-face with the leaders of FARC.

Last month, the 10-year-old stalemate between the Colombian government and the second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), was broken when the parties agreed to peace negotiations with representatives of Colombia's civil society. The negotiations are scheduled for October and, despite the recent FARC offensive, are expected to remain on track.

The enthusiasm sparked by the prospect of peace caused many to overlook the fact that the talks were actually negotiated and signed in Germany with the help of the national government and the German Catholic Church. It was a clear step away from the usual route of seeking the mediation of other Latin American — or at least Spanish-speaking — countries.

So, how did the government and the Catholic Church in Germany broker an agreement for peace talks in a country located almost 10,000 miles away?

The story goes back to 1996 when three German engineers were kidnapped by the ELN. Instead of issuing a clear ransom demand, the guerrillas sent a number of confusing messages. Fearing the possibility that their workers would be killed, the German government and oil companies sent an “informal” representative to negotiate with the guerrillas. That move introduced the first of two people who would play a decisive role in pointing the country toward peace talks. His name was Werner Mauss. Descriptions of Mauss range from “a man of good will” to speculation about him being a member of the German Secret Service. In fact, little is known about him except that he is German and married to a Colombian.

Mauss traveled to Colombia last year and established contact with the ELN. After long negotiations, he returned from the Colombian jungle and proposed that Germany host peace talks between the ELN and the civil society.

Whether the proposal of German mediation was made by Mauss or the ELN is still unknown. What is known is that Mauss played a key role in negotiating the terms of the talks.

“Mauss and his wife played a decisive role in contacting the guerrillas and setting some key terms for the meeting,” German State Minister Bernd Schmidbauer said in a recent interview with the German magazine Semana. One of the problems in arranging a meeting was that the ELN wanted to negotiate only with “representatives of the civil society” and not with the government of outgoing president Ernesto Samper. Samper's credibility has been shattered by accusations of the use of money by his administration. But the German government could not officially host a meeting that would deliberately by-pass the Colombian government.

So, the Catholic Church in Colombia looked for an alternative solution and contacted the German bishops. In general, the German bishops are welcomed in Latin America since the German Church, through institutions like Adveniat, Aid to the Church in Need, and Misereor, is one of the main providers of financial aid to Church initiatives in the region.

The Church in Colombia established a particularly close relationship with the German bishops during the late 1980s and early '90s when the president of the Latin American Bishops' Council (CELAM) was German-speaking Colombian Bishop Dario Castrillon Hoyos. Pope John Paul II elevated him to cardinal earlier this year and the prelate now heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy.

Some Colombian newspapers speculated about Cardinal Castrillon's role in securing the German bishops' involvement, but on a recent visit to Colombia, he said, “I helped the peace talks [only] by praying, praying, … and praying.”

The necessity of having the German bishops as hosts of the peace meeting opened the door to the other crucial person who would play an important role: Bishop Emil Stehle. The German-born bishop is well known in Latin America, at least by name. Having been a former head of Adveniat, he has had contact with every Latin American bishop who's requested grants over the past decade.

Bishop Stehle was also a missionary in Colombia and Ecuador and a candidate for the Nobel Peace Price in the 1980s for his role in negotiating the peace agreement that ended El Salvador's 12-year civil war. He was also the apostolic vicar of Santo Domingo de los Colorados, a missionary diocese in Ecuador.

The bishop seemed to be the ideal link between the German episcopate and the negotiators. In fact, it was Bishop Stehle, together with (German) Father Hans Lagendorfer, who made the arrangements to have the meeting at Himmelspfroten (Heaven's Gate), a retreat house, formerly a Cistercian abbey (dating to 1250), which now belongs to the German Bishops' Conference.

The Colombian Bishops' Conference requested permission to appoint two delegates as part of the civil society's representation at the talks. They sent Bishop Luis Augusto Castro and Father Jorge Martinez. Bishop Castro, who has served for several years as Bishop of Caqueta — one of the most troubled areas in Colombia — is well-acquainted with the ELN, having overseen tense negotiations that lead to the release of more than 70 soldiers who had been held hostage by the ELN earlier this year. Father Martinez, secretary of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission of the Colombian Bishops' Conference, had the combination of sympathy and toughness required to moderate the meeting.

Indeed, some of the participants recall him providing the necessary discipline in the midst of a tense dialogue: “Please, keep that door closed.” “Please sit down.” “Please, speak one at a time.” Father Martinez was helped by Father Lagendorfer and they were described by several Colombian participants as “always nice but German to the bone.”

The details of the conversations in Mainz, Germany, remain secret, but most Colombians agree that the meeting was fruitful. The meeting, although only supposed to have been a preliminary exploration about the chances of formal peace talks, had two concrete results.

One important outcome was that the parties involved agreed to hold a national convention to discuss peace. The first meeting is scheduled for October. The government of newly-elected President Pastrana — a Catholic with credibility among all parties concerned — has promised to support such talks.

The second outcome was that the ELN agreed to stop using kidnapping as a source of financial gain “in the near future.” For now, guerrillas have suspended the kidnapping of children, pregnant women, and the elderly. But undoubtedly the most important fruit of the Mainz meeting is that it created positive momentum for peace in Colombia.

And while the right wing paramilitary has also offered to join the peace process, Archbishop Alberto Giraldo Jaramillo, president of the Colombian Bishops' Conference said, “We have to avoid any over-optimism … Nevertheless, we have to recognize at the same time that, for the first time in 10 years, we have made a commitment to serious peace talks.”

Whether the recent rebel insurgency will dampen long-term peace prospects remains to be seen.

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.