Civil war wreaks havoc on schools in Colombia - one of the most perilous places on the planet to teach
WASHINGTON AND BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA — Colombian teacher Maribel Enríquez didn't leave her hometown, Barranquilla, when callers threatened her with death if she kept teaching high schoolers and organizing local residents. She didn't even move from the northern coastal city last October after a bullet landed in the living room of the home she shares with her husband and six children.
It wasn't until November, when a teacher living a few houses away was murdered, that Ms. Enríquez fled to the capital of Bogotá, leaving the 3,500 students at her Barranquilla high school without a social sciences teacher.
Enríquez is not the only teacher caught in Colombia's deadly, 39-year civil war, which pits rightist paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas against a central government that's lost control of huge swaths of the country.
Teachers, along with others viewed as community leaders - including judges, union organizers, and journalists - have been targets of intimidation, death threats, kidnappings, and assassination for more than a decade.
The situation is only getting worse as rebels intensify their fight for control over the country's most lucrative cash crops: cocaine and heroin.
Since 1998, 300 teachers have been killed and 2,900 displaced, according to the Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE), the teachers' union. Last year alone, 83 educators were killed, making the country one of the deadliest places on earth to teach.
Murdered teachers account for just a fraction of the 3,500 civilians killed in the civil war each year. But the impact on Colombian education is immense: teachers too frightened to teach, whole schools shut down, and a generation of college graduates fearful of entering one of the country's most dangerous professions.
"Teachers, unionists, and religious leaders are key actors for revitalizing a civil society [besieged] by violence," says Aldo Civico, a researcher at Columbia University's Center for Conflict Resolution in New York and a guest lecturer at the University of Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia. "Fear and terror aim to silence [their] consciences."
Professor Civico's research found some 290,000 children - about 3.6 percent of the nation's public primary school students - were out of school temporarily or permanently last year due to the forced displacement of 2,000 teachers and the destruction of more than 100 schools.
Colombia's teachers run the risk of becoming targets for an alphabet soup of militants: leftist revolutionaries such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), or rightist paramilitaries under the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC), which is allegedly linked to drug dealers and the national military.
There is no single reason why militants target teachers. Some rightist paramilitaries object to history lessons that highlight class differences. Both sides view schools as lucrative opportunities for extortion.
Most teachers, though, are singled out for what they do outside their classrooms as labor activists. Paramilitaries often associate union involvement with leftist sympathies. FECODE, Colombia's largest union, estimates that paramilitaries are responsible for 95 percent of teacher killings.
Indeed, many teachers say they are sympathetic to leftist guerrillas. "I don't tolerate injustice," says Enríquez, the teacher who fled to Bogotá from Barranquilla, Colombia's fourth-largest city. But Enríquez says she had never been directly involved with leftist causes when she started receiving threats at home and school.
Colombian guerrillas also attack teachers. FARC recently labeled teachers legitimate military targets after they refused to allow rebels to recruit in their schools.
Teachers are often most at risk in rural sections of the country, where the central government has lost authority and even soldiers are afraid to tread. Both sides consider it vital to win teachers' loyalty so as to bring locals over to their cause.
"In these rural areas where illiteracy is high, teachers are the most educated people in town and are often seen as community leaders," says Adam Isacson, who researches Colombia for the Center for International Policy in Washington.
Even where teachers are not singled out for attacks, the civil war still seeps into classrooms in other ways. Armed militia members infiltrate schools as students, demand payment from teachers or blackmail them. Children sometimes are kidnapped by guerrillas seeking ransom money from parents.
At universities, professors and students alike must watch what they say for fear of drawing the attention of classmates who may double as informers.
And fewer college students see teaching as a good career move. "It just isn't worth it, considering the low pay, instability, and the threats they often face," says Combertty Rodriquez, who is the regional representative in Costa Rica for Education International (EI), an umbrella group of national teachers' unions.
Colombian teacher salaries start at $155 per month and rise to $517 after 30 years.
Nowhere in Colombia is the war's impact on education more acute than in the north central state of Antioquia, where the paramilitary movement was born. Sixteen teachers have been killed there since the beginning of last year, including Ana Cecilia Duque, who was kidnapped in April. Her body was dumped alongside a road near Cocorná by ELN guerrillas.
Duque was not murdered because of anything she did as a teacher. Rather, she was killed when her father refused to execute a paramilitary leader on command. Nonetheless, Cocorná Mayor Guillermo Pelaez says that many teachers "haven't wanted to teach out of fear" since her death.
Teacher absences in the region have forced many students to attend school elsewhere. Twenty percent of children in the region are not going to school because of the violence, says John Jairo Gaviria Arango of the Antioquia teachers' union. Twelve entire schools in the area of Los Mangos and Campo Alegre, enrolling 200 to 250 students total, have been closed.
Many social studies and history teachers who do show up sit silently in classrooms, afraid to speak, says Jill Christianson of the US-based National Education Association in Washington.
Mayor Pelaez says the national and local governments lack the ability to protect every teacher. "The educators run their own risks," he says. "We don't have the force to cover the zone constantly."
As a result, the only option many teachers feel they have is to leave their homes and escape to cities controlled by the Colombian government.
That's the situation of Luis Fernando, a former high school philosophy and humanities teacher from the small village of Briceño in southwestern Colombia. He finally moved to Bogotá eight months ago, after three years of facing threats and accusations that he sympathized with the guerrillas.
Callers told him to stop helping organize a strike by farmers and environmentalists who were demanding better funding for healthcare, education, and housing. Mr. Fernando fled, he says, when paramilitaries arrived in his town in August 2002 and chased him on his motorcycle.
Now in Bogotá, Fernando passes his days at FECODE's headquarters, along with 60 other teachers displaced this year. Each awaits reassignment to a school in safer regions. By law, displaced teachers are supposed to receive shelter and some salary.
In the most extreme cases, teachers have sought refuge in foreign countries with EI's help. Over the past few years, several hundred Colombian teachers fled to Costa Rica until things cooled off back home. That nation has since tightened visa requirements, and Canada and Spain have stepped into the gap.
But union officials say they are reluctant to rely on relocation as a permanent solution because it drains the country of teachers. Instead, they say, the Colombian government must do more to protect teachers. International human rights groups say the United States should make protecting civilians as high a priority as stopping drug traffickers and patrolling oil pipelines.
"Very little has gone toward turning Colombia's security forces into the kind of institution that will protect Colombians from armed groups and reduce the impact of the conflict," says Mr. Isacson of the Center for International Policy.
Other Colombian professionals also feel in danger. Half of all local mayors, for example, resign or move their offices to provincial capitals to avoid rebel reprisals.
A State Department official in Washington who tracks Latin America says the US government is "doing [its] best to aid the Colombian government in rebuilding civil society."
Such assurances do little to satisfy Enríquez, the Barranquilla teacher now in Bogotá awaiting reassignment with her family. For now, she has no job, but her salary was recently reinstated.
Back at the secondary school where she served as both headmistress and instructor, there is no teacher now who can teach history, geography, and philosophy to her former pupils.
"We are not getting support," Enríquez says in tears.
"Colombia wants to destroy all its leaders. The teacher is the one who guides, the one who forms," she says.
• Sara B. Miller contributed to this report from Boston.
In many ways, the plight of Colombian teachers mirrors that of teachers in another nation hobbled by civil war: Nepal.
Nepalese teachers are also rural leaders targeted by all sides in a seven-year-old civil war, says Liz Rowsell, who tracks the war for Amnesty International.
Nepalese teachers are caught between Maoist guerrillas and the monarchist government they're trying to overthrow. Insurgents kidnap, torture, and murder teachers who refuse to close schools or who allow students to sing the national anthem.
The government, in turn, arrests teachers, along with thousands of students, farmers, and lawyers suspected of disloyalty. One teacher turned human rights activist was held blindfolded for five months last year. A cease-fire that began in January has eased tensions, but teachers are still subject to acts of violence, Ms. Rowsell says.
- Seth Stern