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Fire in the mountains

Rural Colombia remains a ‘Wild West’ of guerrilla and paramilitary violence, but amid threats and attacks village pastors preach the gospel of Christ

Fire in the mountains

Colombian soldiers train in Tumaco, Colombia. (Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

In a small room in a nondescript building near Colombia’s mountainous border with Venezuela, Pastor Juan Martinez leans his slight frame over a bulky Bible and describes Christian ministry in his rural Colombian village: “I am currently under threat of death for preaching the gospel.”

Martinez isn’t alone.

In the same room, three other Colombian pastors tell similar stories about the dangers of leading evangelical churches in rural regions where armed militants still roam the hills and demand control.

(Martinez is a pseudonym, and WORLD agreed not to name the pastors because of threats against their families and their lives.)

One pastor says three different guerrilla groups are clashing in the area around his hometown. Ministry grows dangerous as militants accuse pastors of aligning with one group against another, though ministers say they simply speak about Christ with anyone who comes to their churches. In some cases, that includes militants now interested in Christianity.

In other cases, church members fear militants kidnapping their children for forced recruitment—a practice the pastors say continues, despite a 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, known as FARC.

The fighting has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced some 7 million Colombians from their homes.

On Sept. 16, members of an armed group assassinated 55-year-old Pastor Elfren Pérez outside his home in a rural village in northwest Colombia. The advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported the pastor had pushed back against militants’ demands to control the village.

In November, Colombia will mark the two-year anniversary of a peace accord aimed at stopping five decades of civil war between FARC, paramilitary forces, and other guerrilla groups. The fighting has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced some 7 million Colombians from their homes.

Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the “Omar Gomez” Western War Front of the National Liberation Army guerrillas practice maneuvers in Pie de Pato Colombia. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

But instead of planning celebrations, the country is facing fresh conflict. The controversial peace treaty is fraying, as thousands of FARC dissidents and other guerrillas re-group in the mountains of Colombia, where coca fields now stand to produce more of the plant used to make cocaine than ever in Colombia’s history.

The country’s new president, Iván Duque, has said he will revise the peace deal and pursue new measures to curb the production of cocaine—a process watched closely by U.S. officials worried about a recent surge of cocaine-related deaths in the United States.

For Christians living in the Colombian countryside—and for those displaced to other areas of the nation—a different concern arises, particularly for pastors leading churches: How can they best maintain ministry in dangerous conditions—and encourage their congregations to welcome militants now interested in the gospel?

For Pastor Martinez, his own history compels him to continue ministry, despite threats against him and his family. “I share the gospel because the Lord has transformed me,” he says. “I was once a member of those groups too.”

TRANSFORMATION IS A POPULAR THEME in Colombia, a Latin American nation with a burgeoning middle class and modern skyscrapers nestled into verdant valleys surrounded by the Andes Mountains.

In bustling cities like Medellín—once infamous for drug lord Pablo Escobar’s brutally violent cartel—residents stroll city streets, commute in a modern metro system, and sip coffee in upscale shopping malls.

Colombian forces killed Escobar during a 1993 raid at the kingpin’s Medellín hideout, and the crackdown on drug cartels helped improve living conditions in urban areas.

Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

A church in western Colombia. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, paramilitary forces battled guerrilla groups that had roamed the countryside for decades: The guerrilla organization known as FARC (a Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) arose in the 1960s, with Marxist militants claiming to fight for the rights of the poor in the countryside.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the FARC guerrillas were fighting for a cut of the drug trade and wreaking havoc in rural areas with fields producing the coca plant used to manufacture cocaine for a global black market—including the United States.

Paramilitary groups formed to fight the guerrillas, but Colombians say many of those forces fought for a slice of drug trafficking and control of rural areas too. Even today, when some villagers describe the bloody conflict they’ve endured for decades, they often aren’t sure whether the violence came from guerrilla or paramilitary groups.

Colombia’s former president, Juan Manuel Santos, gained international praise (and a Nobel Peace Prize) for a 2016 peace deal with FARC guerrillas to halt violence.

But the plan was unpopular at home: It stipulated FARC guerrillas must surrender their weapons and report to transition camps, but it also allowed thousands of militants to go free without punishment for past crimes. Many evangelicals and Catholics also opposed a portion of the peace accord they said would introduce gender theory into local schools.

In a nationwide referendum in October 2016, Colombian voters rejected the accord. A month later, the Colombian government signed it anyway.

Christian Escobarmora/AFP/Getty Images

Relatives mourn an indigenous leader killed in the mountains near Tumaco. (Christian Escobarmora/AFP/Getty Images)

Setbacks came quickly.

Earlier this year, federal prosecutors in New York charged FARC members and associates with conspiring to import 10 tons of cocaine into the United States in 2017. One of the accused surrendered to authorities and was extradited to the United States. Another was one of the FARC leaders who had negotiated the peace deal and was slated to take an unelected seat in Colombia’s Congress.

Meanwhile, violence in rural areas has spiked again, as FARC dissidents unhappy with the peace accord—or unable to acclimate to normal life—regroup in the countryside. Villagers report smaller guerrilla groups and paramilitary members also remain in the area, making the countryside a combustible brew of competing forces.

It’s not an easy place to lead a church.

The rural pastors I met near a Colombian border town this summer had gathered from different regions for a training session on how to disciple former guerrillas and militants interested in learning about Christianity.

But the pastors must also contend with militants hostile toward their churches. They reported that some armed groups vying for control of towns incorrectly suspect local pastors of allying with their enemies. Other militants see pastors and churches as competition for the loyalty of local residents, and as obstacles to gaining control.

Some pastors have reported armed groups demanding their churches remain closed at certain hours, and that they surrender portions of their Sunday offerings. The threats can grow dangerous, particularly if pastors stand up to militants seeking to kidnap young people. Militants have forced boys into fighting and girls into sexual slavery. Women and girls have reported enduring forced abortions. One of the pastors at the conference said parents have knocked on his door early in the morning, begging him to help them recover children or teenagers taken in the night.

Pastor Martinez wasn’t kidnapped, but he said he was conscripted into an armed group as a young child. By the time he was a teenager, he says, he had risen to a leadership role in the group: “But I felt empty, and the Lord sent His Word to me in different ways.” He became a Christian, left the group at age 16, and eventually became a pastor.

Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Tasi, a rural village in Alto Baudó, department of Chocó, western Colombia. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

His past experiences inspired him to reach out to others in armed groups. Some have threatened him for supposedly competing with their rule, but others have come to him interested in learning more about Christ.

That’s when another challenge arises: the response of local church members. The pastors say their congregants often are frightened of militants who once threatened them, but who now want to join them, even if informally.

They often teach their church members about the story of the Apostle Paul—a former persecutor of the early church who converted to Christianity, but initially faced fear from Christians who knew about his former way of life. One pastor said he reminds his congregation, “From a former militant, the Lord can make a great servant.”

FOR MANY RURAL COLOMBIANS, staying in violent areas eventually became untenable.

Over the last five decades, officials estimate some 7 million Colombians have fled their homes because of violence, making those Colombians the largest internally displaced group of people in the world.

Many fled to the hills and mountains just outside of major cities like Medellín and the capital city of Bogotá, setting up a mixture of shantytowns and permanent structures, including schools and churches.

In Medellín, lavish homes of wealthy residents dot sections of the surrounding hills, with stunning views of the Andes Mountains. Other parts of the mountains are filled with makeshift homes without basic services like running water.

From well-kept metro platforms around Medellín, residents and visitors can catch rides on a system of gondolalike cable cars that ascend from the city streets up hundreds of feet into the air to the dirt roads and steep hills of the surrounding mountains.

On a day when the cable cars aren’t in service, a ride on a packed bus around the steep streets of the winding mountains is a lesson in how many of the residents in the surrounding hills make the long trip down into the city for work or school.

On a warm weekday morning, the air grows cooler as the bus climbs higher into the hills, going up as far as its last stop allows. From there, it’s a steep hike on dirt roads into a neighborhood of lean-to houses and small stores carrying supplies residents might need without making a trip into the city below.

On this bright morning, Emperatriz Arrieta stands outside her small wooden home, sweeping dirt off a front step. Arrieta has lived here for 15 years and is a founding member of a nearby church. She’s known as a mother to the neighborhood and quickly invites guests to step down into her small home. It offers a snapshot of life for many displaced Colombians living in similar circumstances all over the country.

Jamie Dean

Emperatriz Arrieta (Jamie Dean)

In a tiny living room, Arrieta’s adult nephew greets visitors from a wheelchair. Nearby, a motorbike sits propped up against a kitchen table. It seems like an out-of-place item in such a small room, but Arrieta’s husband explains that local gang members demand a fee for parking the bike outside.

It’s an arbitrary “tax” imposed by gangs threatening residents who don’t comply with similar demands—storekeepers pay a tax to sell their own eggs, water, propane, and other items. They often pass the cost to customers, who sometimes pay more than they would in the expensive city at the bottom of the mountain.

Long after Arrieta serves large mugs of piping hot coffee she’s brewed for our visit, she mentions the gang members have cut off the neighborhood’s water supply at a nearby spigot. Apparently, a resident hadn’t paid the “water tax,” and the gang members cut off access for the whole neighborhood.

That didn’t keep Arrieta from sharing with her guests the limited supply of water she had saved, and when a young boy arrived at the doorway asking if she had any water to share with his family, she grabbed a jug and filled up the empty pitcher he brought.

Her reputation for serving the neighborhood has drawn gang members to seek her out for prayer, and she says they sometimes tell her they wish they could leave the lifestyle behind but don’t know how to leave.

Arrieta knows about leaving a life behind. She fled to Medellín from a rural town near the coast in 1990, when guerrillas terrorized her village: “If you didn’t do what they said, you were in trouble.” She says militants especially targeted pastors. After she and her family left, they never returned: “Not even to visit.”

They first lived in Medellín, but the drug violence of the 1990s eventually drove them up into the hills. Thousands of people have moved into the area since then. Arrieta began holding prayer meetings in her home on Wednesday nights, and the group used flashlights to read portions of the Bible before electricity came to the area.

Jamie Dean

A World Relief worker gives instructions on child health (Jamie Dean)

Eventually, mission groups and churches from Medellín helped Arrieta and others build a church building near her home. A pastor from Medellín travels up on Sundays to preach to the congregation.

Arrieta leads the way up a steep road to the church building that others in the community use during the week. On this morning, workers from the Christian group World Vision are holding a meeting on children’s health.

These hills can be a difficult place for children.

On a separate part of the mountains, another church group has built a community center for local youth. The volunteer directors say drug use, domestic violence, and underage prostitution plague parts of the communities. Social workers come once a week to teach at-risk girls job skills they could use to find employment in the city, but the Christian workers say the challenges remain great for a community of people displaced and scattered.

Arrieta says it’s true in her part of the hills as well, and she says she hopes eventually to start similar classes to teach a trade to vulnerable girls in her area. “We pray for them,” she says. “But we need to give them something practical as well.”

For now, she keeps her home open to young people who come looking for comfort or prayer. She serves a meal, she listens to them, she prays with them, and says she hopes “that they will really hear the gospel.” She’s satisfied that it’s enough for now: “We thank God for this place He has given us.”

BACK DOWN IN THE CITY of MedellÍn, life is much safer than it was in the days of Pablo Escobar, but gangs and drugs still rule parts of the city and make them unsafe for visitors and sometimes for residents.

On a Sunday afternoon, a former pastor glanced around at the faces in a Subway sandwich shop before he talked about his life as a former associate of the Medellín cartel. He left the group 20 years ago but says his former connections could still put him and his family in danger.

Jamie Dean

Christian volunteers at a community center in the hills mentor at-risk youth (Jamie Dean)

The pastor lost two brothers to drug violence before he became a Christian and left the cartel. A decade ago, he moved to a rural area to try to reach militants with the same Christian gospel that had converted him out of sin and a life of danger. He was surprised at the differences: In the city, gangs were more organized into controlling separate parts of the city. In the countryside, he said: “Everyone had a machete and a knife. It was the Wild West.”

Still, he did reach some members of both FARC and paramilitary groups, and even cartel members who had fled to the hills. He remembers one woman showing up at church carrying a pistol and a hand grenade.

Violence in the countryside eventually drove him back to Medellín with his wife and young children a few years ago, but he hopes to begin to reach out to gang members in the city again, when the timing is right.

In the meantime, it’s unclear what the time ahead will hold for Colombians, including Christians living in still-dangerous circumstances. But during a shared cab ride a couple of hours after morning worship, the pastor said he’s been moved by how he’s seen deeply hardened people change as they come to Christ.

Before he hops out to head home, he pauses to add something to his story. “One important thing I shouldn’t leave out,” he says. “I give God all the glory.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.