I set out on my first accompaniment with Christian Peacemaker Teams early in the morning on Tuesday, February 18.
As international accompaniment, CPT’s role is to document events that team members are invited too, to publicize human rights abuses and military infractions, and to use our privilege to protect community members if necessary. Members of most armed groups are aware that harming an extranjero (foreigner) will mean imprisonment, because the northern countries will force the Colombian government to punish the offenders. Therefore, they are less likely to attack violently if there are extranjeros at a community event than if only Colombians are present.
On this particular accompaniment, the community lawyer and leaders of Las Pavas, one of our four partner communities, requested that we travel with them to be a presence at a workshop series on security and government reparation.
Typically, we travel by boat, bus, and motorcycle, but this time we caught a ride with the leaders in their state-funded bulletproof vehicle. The truck was driven by an armed bodyguard who accompanies the leaders on trips and for events in Las Pavas. I was uncomfortable with armed protection, and began to cycle through in my mind all the terrible consequences that using weapons could have for the community. I decided to ask my teammate Stewart more questions about the situation later, in private, and to befriend our group’s bodyguard as soon as I could.
We arrived in Buenos Aires after dark, just in time to sit in on a well-attended community meeting. The gathering was in the street outside the house we were staying, and roughly 50 of the displaced families were represented. The Colombian media had recently awarded Las Pavas a National Peace Prize, so Don Misiel, one of the community leaders, was trying to encourage everyone to spend the award money collectively. The proposal was met with resistance. In the past, the security guards of Aportes San Isidro (the palm oil company) had burned their crops, destroyed their homes and stolen or broken their collective tools, so the community members were not eager to risk another loss. I went to sleep wondering what the next step in the process would be.
The next morning we set out on the winding trail to Las Pavas early, to beat the full sun. The trek took us through pastures, across rivers, and through a forest. When we got closer to the community centre, we had to cross a fence set up by Aportes San Isidro that bars all vehicles from passing. The intent was to make it impossible for the campesinos (farmers) to transport crops, tools and equipment.
In the afternoon I could feel Stewart’s energy for translation draining, after a full morning of workshops, so I decided it was time to make good on my plan to befriend the bodyguard. He was sitting over by the women who were cooking, and had periodically been carrying a tray of coffee or treats around the workshop for participants to snack on.
At the present, he was sitting on a table with a huge bowl of candy in his lap, running his hands through it as he swung his feet. I was struck by how young he looked. I walked up and took a seat next to a mother holding a baby, and after playing with the baby for a while, made a joking comment about how serious the bodyguard was when he was driving, thankful for the excuse language learning gave me to start conversations in awkward ways.
He laughed and asked me if I could drive, and I replied that I could, but that I wished I could drive a motorcycle. That got a good laugh out of everyone. Then I noticed he had a tattoo poking out from under his shirt sleeve, and I asked him what it was. He had two—one on each arm. The first was a rose and the second was a gigantic depiction of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns. I chuckled a bit at the irony: the gun hanging off his belt juxtaposed against this image of a tortured-looking Jesus peering up at me.
Then it was time for me to go back and join Stewart, so I excused myself and left. Glancing back, I watched him pick up the baby and hold it high over his head as it giggled, periodically lowering it down to make funny noises in its ear. I hoped fervently that he never felt the need to use that gun.
As the workshop wrapped up and community members began to leave, the security guards on Aportes San Isidro’s base gathered at the fence. They started chanting the name of the Las Pavas lawyer, Vanessa, and calling out, “Bitch, Bitch, we named our dog after you.” I saw Etni and his bodyguard exchange glances. Then they both pulled on the bulletproof vests they had been carrying with them all day.
Vanessa took out her cellphone and pointed the camera towards the security guards as she walked. One of them climbed up to sit on top of the fence with his legs hanging over, as if he were about to jump down. The others stood by the fence shirtless, calling while they flexed their muscles. I was reminded of little boys trying to act tough in a schoolyard. Then we moved quickly through the gate and into the forest, so that was the last I saw.
After the walk back to Buenos Aires, the bodyguard who accompanied us offered me an embroidered towel, similar to a scarf, but with a hole in it to drape over my head and shoulders. He told Stewart it was a gift for me, and we exchanged smiles.
As we parted ways, I wondered whether the guards of Aportes San Isidro would also welcome a stranger so warmly, if given the opportunity. I decided that it was likely. The only thing getting in the way was the machismo illusion that they had learned to believe was as important as the bulletproof vests on their backs. I am almost certain though, that beneath the illusion is fear. The vest represents a literal fear of being killed. The machismo illusion represents their fear of being perceived as weak or vulnerable. I can’t help but think that addressing this fear will bring us one step closer to peace.