A candlelight vigil held at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis on March 6 commemorated the victims of more than 40 years of civil war in the South American country of Colombia. The small gathering of people told stories and gave tribute to murdered family and friends, personal and professional connections lost in a country where everyday violence surrounds the control of what are the two largest sources of wealth—cocaine and oil.
“Colombia is also extremely controversial right now because of its proposed inclusion in free trade agreements,” said Alicia Ranney of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, who was on hand to add her support during the vigil. “A free trade agreement modeled after NAFTA or World Trade Organization arrangements would open the Colombian border to multinational corporations with little or no labor protection policies. And Colombia is No. 1 in the world for assassinations of labor union leaders,” Ranney said.
The Colombian Supreme Court is investigating the paramilitary ties of members of the Colombian Congress, according to American human rights group, the Colombia Support Network. As many as 35 percent of its congress members have paramilitary ties, and an estimated 140 high-placed officials in Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s administration have participated in or supported paramilitaries, says the Network.
At the church vigil, Rosita Balch, head of the local branch of the Colombia Support Network, passed around pictures of Colombians with the Spanish words for “arrested, missing and killed” closing their short biographies.
“The paramilitaries assassinate 800 people per year on average,” said Balch. “At least 31,000 have been ‘disappeared’ since 1990 and there are 10,000 in 3,000 common graves,” Balch said.
One woman, part of a religious order dedicated to bringing charitable aid to the victims of Colombian violence, told the story of a Colombian priest, who had defended the right of an old tree that stood in front of his parish doorway to exist, telling his parishioners, “The tree is a living thing, and has a right to live.” The woman said that one day, soldiers came to the church and drug the priest outside.
“They tied him to the tree and shot him several times,” said the woman, straining to finish the sentence.
St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Co-pastor Luisa Cabello Hansel said that her church has been trying to assist a group of displaced and orphaned children in Colombia through church donations, but that money has been returned because of the danger of carrying cash in the streets.
“My heart goes out when I picture those children there with no one to help them,” said Cabello Hansel.
“We estimate 21,000 children under 1 year of age die each year of preventable causes in Colombia,” said Balch. “Three children under 5 years of age die each day of malnutrition,” Balch said.