Small town becomes a peace model

Using the Bible and Constitution, a grass-roots effort takes back aColombian town.

It's an unlikely setting for a revolution. The only signs of life in this isolated, sunbaked farming town in northern Colombia are a few schoolchildren heading home past sacks of coffee beans drying on the cobbled streets.

But last year, the people of Mogotes - from children to the elderly - snatched the reins of local government. With the Bible in one hand and the constitution in the other, they created a citizens' assembly, stamped out corruption, and set a new model for peace and local democracy.

"This is a peaceful insurgency - it's a revolution in service of the people," says assembly president Pedro Neira.

The town won Colombia's national peace prize last month, prompting calls for "a thousand more Mogotes," but peace activists warn that the country's labyrinthine conflict - which pits leftist rebels against right-wing militias and government forces - defies formulaic solutions.

"You can't hope for a simple multiplication of one successful model, because so much depends on local circumstances," says Laurent Cespedes of the Peace Network, an organization that promotes local peace initiatives.

But while official peace talks with leftist rebels grind on, many Colombians are quietly working on local solutions to problems of violence and social injustice.

Previously, says author Esperanza Hernandez, "People had three options: They could join the armed conflict, they could flee, or they could wait to become victims. Now they are building peace in the midst of war," she says.

According to Diego Pea, of the state human rights office, many local initiatives arise simply because the government offers so few solutions. "The state is so weak that people are forced to take responsibility for their own lives and seek new ways of resolving conflicts," he says.

The Mogotes assembly was spurred into action in December1997, when guerrillas of the Cuba-inspired National Liberation Army attacked the village, killing three policemen and two local women, and kidnapping the mayor - whom they accused of pilfering municipal funds.

Few villagers were surprised by the allegations: local politics had long been dominated by one family, which divided lucrative government posts between relatives and allies. It's a familiar story in rural Colombia, where nepotism and vote-buying go hand-in-hand with poverty and underdevelopment.

But what was different was the villagers' reaction. Fiercely proud of a heritage that blends the pride of the extinct Guane indigenous tribe with the determination of 19th-century German settlers, Mogotes's citizens refused to give in to intimidation.

Within days of the rebel assault, the villagers launched protest marches and sent delegates to negotiate with guerrilla leaders. Simultaneously, they looked for ways to prevent this from recurring. After three months of pressure, the rebels freed their prisoner - who returned home to find that 90 percent of the villagers had voted him out.

Brandishing a dog-eared copy of the Colombian constitution, Mr. Neira, explains why. "This book says that Colombia's sovereignty lies in the people. So we decided to reclaim that power and use it. We understand our own problems, so we should solve them."

With the help of local priests, the townspeople organized a plebiscite calling on the mayor and town councilors to resign - and demanding that all armed rebel groups respect the people's decision.

The townspeople then launched a 180-member assembly to represent all sectors of the community - the youngest member is 11 years old. A newly elected mayor works alongside the assembly, which acts as a watchdog over all local spending and development projects.

Support from the Roman Catholic Church was crucial early in the project.

Parish priest Octavio Arias says there's a long history of church-sponsored political activism in this region. in 1780, Catholic priests in Mogotes led the first protests against Spanish colonial rule.

"The church in the region has always worked on the political training of the community - we remind them that the person who goes to church is the same one who votes in elections. A Christian community always takes care of its social and political responsibilities," says Fr. Arias.

According to Neira, the Bible and Constitution still guide the assembly. "They're very similar. They have the same rules, but the bible has more pages," he says. "They describe all our rights, and all our duties. We just have to put them to work."

Peace activist Mr. Cespedes says that the church's influence is one of this project's greatest strengths. "This is the result of more than a decade of pastoral work. In Mogotes, the church has also worked on organization and training - building an infrastructure for peace. That's why this experience has a great chance of survival."

A year and a half later, the town's efforts were recognized with the $25,000 national peace prize, but many townspeople are wary of their newfound fame.

"There are many problems: The country is very big; communications are very bad," says peace activist Cespedes. "But people are tired of the war. They don't feel represented in the peace talks, so they take up the struggle themselves."

A recent conference in Bogot brought together representatives from dozens of local peace projects, from rural schoolteachers campaigning against recruitment by armed groups to indigenous tribes with a proposal for regional peace conventions.

What united the diverse projects was the conviction that the country's problems must be solved on a local level.

"To end the war, we first have to end corruption, nepotism, and sectarianism," says Mogotes' mayor, Mr. Gualdron.

In talks with the rebels, he says, "The government is starting at the top, making peace between the leaders. But we must make peace from the bottom upward. We have to start with the peasant."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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