Carrying a Cross at the SOA Vigil

by Shannan Vance-Ocampo

"Guillermo de Jesús Ariza."

That was the name on the cross that I was given to carry at the School of the Americas Vigil last weekend.   The SOA research team writes this about the massacre that Guillermo was killed in thirteen years ago:

“On 11 November 1988 heavily armed men drove in trucks into the center of Segovia, opened fire and threw grenades indiscriminately, killing 43 people, including three children, and wounding over 50 others. The regular garrisons of the police and military (belonging to the Batallón Bomboná of the 16th Brigade) stood by while the killers moved freely through the town for over an hour.

Their entry appeared to have been facilitated by the removal of military checkpoints normally stationed on the road into the town. The paramilitary force made its getaway in three vehicles in which they travelled from Segovia through the neighboring town of Remedios towards Puerto Berrío. No attempt was made by the security forces to detain the group. Local army spokesmen immediately attributed the killing to guerrilla groups, but after the army version was challenged by survivors the then Minister of the Interior, César Gaviria Trujillo, said a "right-wing paramilitary group" was responsible.”

Now I had a cross with his Guillermo’s name on it in my hands twenty-three years later, a cross I carried with me all day, lifted high in the air with each Presente!, a cross I placed into the gates of a military bases in my own country that has trained so many people who have returned to their countries throughout Latin America to commit massacres, torture, and intimidation of their people.   I thought about Guillermo all day last Sunday during the Vigil outside the gates of Ft. Benning—I wondered about his life, and who he was—and I prayed for his family that I am sure is still grieving the senseless loss of his life today.

Guillermo’s cross, now placed in the gates of Ft. Benning.

Amnesty International has also written about the massacre that took Guillermo’s life along with those of 42 other innocents:

“The Northeast of the department of Antioquia is made up of the municipalities of Amalfi, Anorí, Cisneros, El Bagre, Maceo, Remedios, Vegachí, Yalí, Yolombó, Zaragoza and Segovia. This is a region rich in mineral deposits, particularly gold, exploited by international companies who employ 5% of the economically active population. Approximately 45% of the economically active population live in marginal urban areas in the region and earn a meagre living panning for gold in sites abandoned by the transnational mining companies. The remainder of the civilian population works in the agricultural sector.”

“Mining interests in the region, particularly those associated with gold and silver, together with construction of the Oleoducto Colombiano, Colombian Oilpipeline, means that the northeast of Antioquia is a region of considerable strategic importance, one in which mining and other powerful economic interests are keen to ensure that guerrilla groups and legal leftwing political parties do not represent a serious challenge to their interests.”

Sound familiar?

This past year the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship worked tirelessly along with our other grassroots partners to try to stop Congress from passing the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.   One of the main reasons for this was that we have been told by our partners in Colombia that the CFTA will allow for great incursion of multi-nationals to take over and exploit the land of Colombia.  Our program of Accompaniment in Colombia is with displaced communities and a church that has committed its life and mission to walking beside and serving the displaced people of Colombia.  We worked against the CFTA because we know it will only increase land-grabs and forced displacement in Colombia which is a direct link to the ministry of the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia, our mission partner.

This fall Oxfam released a report in Colombia titled “Land and Power[1] and its lead writer Asier Hernando gave an interview just this past week to Caracol Radio in Colombia where he stated that, “Colombia is one of the countries in the world with the most inequality in the access to land. There are few countries more unequal than Colombia, and this leads to massive rural poverty, contributes to conflict and limits the country's development.”

The cross I carried last Sunday at the SOA for Guillermo de Jesus Ariza is a cross that ended up representing the struggle that we have been about this past year.   Land grabs.  Multinationals teaming up with paramilitary forces and even parts of the Colombian armed forces to keep local people off the land that they want to exploit for economic gain.  Greed that leads to death of people and death of a way of life.

All of these thoughts have been swirling around in my head this past week after going to the SOA Vigil.  I was honored to carry Guillermo’s cross.  I was honored to receive this particular cross, to have the opportunity to go back and figure out who he was and to be reminded that the struggle we in PPF were a part of this fall is part of a larger and deeper struggle of conscience against war, militarism, death, and violence.   Carrying his cross last Sunday was an act of faithfulness for me.   It was yet another transformative experience.  I keep thinking about how honored I was to carry Guillermo’s cross.

My final thought on the SOA is this:  we walked together on Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in Ordinary Time before the beginning of the Advent Season.  In her beautiful commentary on the scripture readings for the first Sunday of Advent in the new book Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Leanora Tubbs Tisdale writes these words about the first Sunday of Advent:  “The church glimpses an answer to that prayer [of the Prophet Isaiah in 64: 1-9] in the birth of the Incarnate One, the child who in his very being bridges that great chasm between heaven and earth.”   She goes on to write about the Mark reading that “this means that continue doing what Jesus said: to grow in discipleship, to announce the coming of the realm of God, to cast out demons, and to carry this ministry to the Gentiles.  The congregation is to continue these activities even when suffering.  In Mark’s world, these acts of witness all point toward social justice, for they point toward the realm of God as a social world in which all circumstances and relationships fully manifest God’s purposes of love, justice, peace, mutual support, and abundance.”

As we reflected last Sunday night with friends from the Chicago Religious Leadership on Latin America about our weekend at the SOA Vigil, a pastor from Chicago said that his yearly pilgrimage to the SOA is his way of getting ready for Advent.   I found that for me, that was also very true.  I found myself thinking about Advent all weekend, as I thought about Guillermo.  I was thinking about our faith in the Resurrection, but also that this faith frees us to live without fear and to proclaim the message of Christ wherever we go—even into the places of the deepest pain and sorrow we can imagine.

I am praying for Guillermo’s family this Advent Season.  I am so grateful to have been able to be at the SOA Vigil last weekend and to be handed a cross that reminded me of the connections between faith, justice, and the world we struggle for that I and PPF has been a part of this last year as we seek together to follow the Risen Christ.

As we journey into Advent may we continue to do the same.