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Colombia. Across the Magdalena River region.

The country has been the battleground of an undeclared civil war for more than 50 years. The conflict has involved also several guerrilla groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The Colombian government and FARC rebels are currently holding peace talks in Havana. The Church promotes reconciliation and peace and the process of reparation for the victims of the conflict.

The conflict originates from the violent tensions which date back to 1948 between the two traditional political parties of Colombia, the Liberal and Conservative parties, which warred against one another for nearly 10 years. In 1956, exhausted from nearly a decade of bloody rivalry, the Liberals and the Conservatives joined forces to create a new political coalition called the National Front. The power sharing agreement came at the expense of political representation of the lower class.

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It marginalized political groups opposed to the policies of the Liberals and Conservatives. Requests for land reform and other welfare programs were ignored or were answered with only modest adjustments in policy. Some small farmers from the remote mountainous region of Marquetalia, in central Colombia, disenfranchised from the national political discussion, took up arms against the landlords and the government supporting them. The region became home to around 50 families of communists, outcast Liberals and other outsiders protected by a small band of guerrillas. The rebels staged their First Conference in 1965, and the guerrilla group which was then the ‘Southern Bloc’, would become the FARC in 1966.

Seeking peace
FARC peace negotiations began in 1982, when the then Colombian President Belisario Betancur attempted to establish a framework of political reforms, as a part of his political agenda, to facilitate peace accords. But Betancur lacked the necessary political support for such effort and peace negotiations failed.
From 1990 to 1994, President Cesar Gaviria played a key role in beginning peace negotiations with the M-19 and other guerrilla groups. The negotiations brought to the demobilization of the M-19, the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and the Quintin Lame.
In 1991, President Gaviria favoured the participation of a broader spectrum of social and political groups in the National Constituent Assembly, which was established to draw up a new Constitution. The new Constitution would create the possibility of direct democracy in some spaces as well as more elections, and more opportunities for citizen participation in policy decisions. During Andrés Pastrana’ s presidency (1998-2002), Plan Colombia was approved, and was signed into law by the then US President Clinton. The bilateral agreement between Colombia and the US was a military and diplomatic aid initiative aimed at combating Colombian drug-cartels and left-wing insurgent groups.

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Peace talks in Havana
Colombia’ s government, under the presidency of Manuel Santos, and FARC rebels have recently resumed peace talks, which had started on 18 October, 2012 in Havana (Cuba). The agenda includes deals on: land reform, political participation for the rebels, the solution to the problem of drug trafficking, the compensation and recognition of victims and the end of the armed conflict. Since these negotiations started, the guerrilla group ELN (National Liberation Army) leaders have increased their statements and interviews expressing a desire to start talks with the government to join the process of reconciliation and peace in the country. According to a report by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory more than 220,000 people have been killed in the armed conflict. Eighty percent of them were civilians, the report says.

The role of the Church
Throughout the decades of violence Colombia went through, the Church has always supported the political and diplomatic means employed to bolster the peace process. The Church has also outlined some necessary steps to be made in order to achieve genuine and lasting peace, such as decreasing military spending, increasing humanitarian aid, and enhancing the defense and promotion of fundamental human rights. Monsignor Luis Augusto Castro, the new President of the Episcopal Conference of Colombia, has unfailingly supported the process for the implementation of permanent national peace policy. He is 72 now and served as bishop in the conflict area of San Vicente del Caguan. He did outstanding work in maintaining permanent contact with the main insurgent organizations in order to promote discussions and negotiations which could lead to peace. On several occasions, however, he declared himself to be skeptical about rapid solutions, which might favour impunity, and emphasized the importance of national unity.

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The Church has also tackled the post-conflict scenario. All representatives of the Church agree that Colombians must forgive if they really want a lasting peace. People to conciliate and live in peace need to forgive each other. Only through forgiveness, can Colombians guarantee the benefits of stable peace to future generations. Lasting peace implies respect for life and for differences, and dialogue to solve problems peacefully.

Starting a new chapter
The Catholic Church addressing all parties involved, has reiterated more than once, the importance of the compensation and recognition of victims, and the need to avoid the impunity of those who perpetrated crimes. The concept of ‘reconciliation’, which according to the Church is essential to achieve peace in Colombia, must become a reality and forgiveness must come from the heart.

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Some Catholic Church representatives, led by Bishop Jorge Leonardo Lopez Serna and inspired by the Virgin of the Rosary of Chiquinquira, are travelling across the Magdalena River region. This spiritual journey is aimed at bringing the message of reconciliation through one of the poorest and most violent areas of the country. The Magdalena River is a synonym for death to many, because it was used by the guerrilla groups as a hiding place for the perpetration of the most heinous massacres committed during the conflict. The purpose of this spiritual and symbolic reparation is not only to try to change the minds but also the hearts of the victims of crimes, taking them to the path of forgiveness, recognition and truth.
The Church wants to be the voice of the victims of the Colombian conflict, far from the political scene and mediatic visibility, and intends to keep on supporting peace negotiations, without giving up, however, the principles of truth, justice and reparation. (J.G.)

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