MCC Canada and MCC U.S. sent this letter to the Colombian government, calling them to take action on behalf of Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas, director of Sembrandopaz, an MCC partner. Esquivia and other leaders in the community of El Carmen de Bolívar have received imminent threats to their safety. Esquivia lead the formation of Sembrandopaz in 2005 with the goal of accompanying community processes of justice and peacebuilding in Colombia.


September 18, 2013

Dear President Santos:

We, the Executive Directors of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Canada and the United States, are writing to express our deep concern over recent threats and intimidations against Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas, the Director of Asociación Sembrando Semillas de Paz (Sembrandopaz), an MCC partner organization, as well as against other community leaders of the Mountain Zone of El Carmen de Bolívar, including Jorge Luis Montes Hernández.

As a faith-based peace and development organization, MCC has accompanied Colombian Mennonite and Anabaptist churches for the last four decades, supporting their social ministries and peacebuilding efforts. Through these long-standing partnerships, we have come to know and work closely with Ricardo Esquivia for 30 years because of his deep commitment to the principles of peace and nonviolence both in word and deed.

Recently, credible sources have confirmed an imminent threat to the safety of Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas and members of the coordinating committee of the Movement of the Mountain Zone in El Carmen de Bolívar, as well as threats to the legitimacy of the work of Sembrandopaz.

With the support and sponsorship of the Colombian Mennonite Church, Sembrandopaz was founded in 2005 under Dr. Esquivia’s leadership with the goal of accompanying community processes of justice and peacebuilding in the Montes de María and Caribbean regions. Previously, Dr. Esquivia founded and directed Justapaz (the Colombian Mennonite Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action) for 16 years, during which time he also worked closely with local church and community development efforts in the Montes de María region.

In recent years, we, the MCC Canada and U.S. Directors, have met with Dr. Esquivia, seen his work first-hand, and actively supported his organization. Because of our great confidence in the value and legitimacy of his nonviolent peacebuilding work, over the years we have sent several Mennonite Church leaders to Colombia to accompany and support the work of Sembrandopaz, as well as to live in the local communities. We support Sembrandopaz because it is an active expression of the values of nonviolence, solidarity, and love of neighbor to which the global Mennonite Church has been committed since its origins in the 16th century. 

In 2012, Sembrandopaz began accompanying the Movement of the Mountain Zone of El Carmen de Bolívar whose communities organized for their right to integral, transformative reparations for the massive displacements in the region; a dignified return to their land; guarantees of no repetition; and government support for solving the decimation of avocado crops in more than 40 rural communities in the Montes de María region.

The community Movement of the Mountain Zone in El Carmen carried out a nonviolent peace march from April 5 to 8, 2013 to seek dialogue with the local, state and national governments. This dialogue began in San Jacinto on April 7 and continues to the present day. The Movement has contributed to the promotion of reconciliation between once-divided communities in the Mountain Zone, and has encouraged citizen participation in the dialogue.

A few weeks ago on September 3, leaflets appeared throughout the Mountain Zone communities of Macayepo and Lazaro, threatening various leaders of the Movement including its coordinator, Jorge Luis Montes Hernández. This leaflet accuses the leaders of robbery, extortion, and affiliation with the FARC-EP, and is signed by a paramilitary group or BACRIM, “Los Urabeños.”

On September 9, the Prosecutor of El Carmen de Bolívar called the community leader, Jorge Montes, to present himself in his office. There, the prosecutor followed through on an order to arrest him. At the pre-trial hearing on September 11, the local prosecutor’s office accused Jorge Montes of belonging to the 35th Front of the FARC-EP; criminal conspiracy; homicide; forced displacement; extortion; and other charges. We are concerned that similar, unfounded charges could be laid against other community leaders, including Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas.

These threats, unfounded accusations, and arrests of community leaders in the Montes de María region signal a troubling turn of events for displaced Colombian communities in the process of accessing legal remedy for land restitution under the Victims and Land Restitution Law of 2011. The Mennonite churches in Colombia have kept us well-informed about the Colombian government’s work towards implementing this new law, as well as its efforts towards building a lasting peace agreement with the FARC. Based on these policies and actions, we are confident that the Colombian government will take our concerns seriously.

Therefore, we respectfully urge the Colombian national government authorities to:

1)      Publicly condemn all acts of threat and intimidation against Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas, Director of Sembrandopaz, and against the community leaders of the Mountain Zone of El Carmen de Bolívar, including Jorge Luis Montes Hernández;

2)      Fully investigate and prosecute threats against community leaders;

3)      Take measures to consult with community leaders to guarantee the physical safety of Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas, Jorge Luis Montes Hernández, and other community leaders of the Mountain Zone of El Carmen de Bolívar;

4)      Provide the family of Jorge Luis Montes Hernández with full visitation rights, and ensure Mr. Montes has access to a lawyer and transparent information about his legal process;

5)      Fully investigate and dismiss any unfounded charges against community leaders, including Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas and Jorge Luis Montes Hernández, and ensure that their right to due process is protected.  

We thank you for your support for these cases, and look forward to hearing from you about steps to be taken in response to this critical situation.

 

Sincerely,

Donald G. Peters, Executive Director, MCC Canada

J Ron Byler, Executive Director, MCC U.S.

 

CC:  Dr. Angelino Garzón,Vice Presidente de la República de Colombia

            Aurelio Iragorri Valencia, Ministro del Interior

            Luís Eduardo Montealege Lynett, Fiscal General de la Nación

            Dr. Jorge Armando Otálora, Defensor del Pueblo

View the PDF here.

View the letter in Spanish here.