As the sun went down on Wednesday, December 9, I rested in a hammock. A cool breeze to calm the day’s heat. The verdor of trees and plants, sky turning pink and orange beyond. Tiny growls and yips of puppies sparring. A cool cup of agua panela con limón. As I got up and prepared to head home, two sweet little girls sprinted down the road to give me a hug, followed by their more decorous sisters and their mother. A perfect moment, a drop of sweetness, at the close of a most difficult day.
Thirteen hours earlier I had jolted awake to the sound of my predawn alarm and prepared to face another day of uncertainty with the community at El Tamarindo. I arrived, wearing clerical collar and cross, to news that the riot police were at the other entrance on the far side of the territory. Two men arrived on motorcycle at our entrance shortly afterward, and my friends observed from the official license plate and the pistols at their belts that they were plainclothes police detectives. At 8:30 the parade of police vehicles began to arrive, with 2 small buses, 4 SUVs, and 4 riot police transport vehicles in the first group. They were joined by a large group of day laborers hired to take machetes to the largest plants and help with the demolition demanded by the purported owners of the land. My hand trembled as I took my first photographs of the assembling forces.
Anxiety began to swell among the community members gathered at the territory’s main entrance. Seeking to calm their fears and my own, I turned to the most beloved text in the Bible. “Jehová es mi pastor, nada me faltará. (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.)” I read the words aloud as the police lined up, preparing to begin the day’s destruction. The context gave the words a deeper meaning and power than I had felt before: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”
I spent the next two hours there at the entrance with community members, while the first crops and homes were bulldozed. We prayed and read scripture and joked by turns, and received occasional updates on what was taking place down the road where accompaniers from the FOR Peace Presence and Colombia’s Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz were continuously documenting and observing the eviction. I hope I never again am called on to pray with people while their homes and livelihood are being deliberately destroyed.
It went on for hours, a slow and relentless process: the police inspector stopping at a farm, dictating the official document enacting the eviction, and then moving on to the next. Due to convoluted legal issues, some of the farmers were granted a 10-day stay of eviction in order to arrange their possessions. Others were not. On farm after farm, the machete men and bulldozer entered and began to demolish homes and to cut down and uproot crops and trees. The tube that delivers water to El Tamarindo was slashed early in the day, cutting off the water supply for almost all of the farms until the community could get it adequately patched up almost 24 hours later.
As I walked and prayed, greeted people and photographed, I was disgusted by the needlessness of the whole situation. What constructive, reconciling, humane settlement could have been offered to the community with the funds spent not just this week, but in over 40 other forcible eviction actions against this community? That money could have been used to build up the future for these families. Instead, the company and local authorities have preferred to invest in destruction.
On Wednesday, the police forces maintained a posture that was as non-threatening as riot gear can be. The hired hands were under strict orders not to slash crops indiscriminately but to await orders. To my knowledge, there were no physical altercations. The miscarriage of this questionably legal version of “justice” was carried out smoothly.
That was Wednesday. On Thursday, as the police inspector continued the evictions with fewer cameras on hand, the action was more hostile, with threats of calling child services and aggressive demands made by the company’s lawyer to demolish homes as quickly as possible. The police inspector finally finished his process of evicting residents around 6:30 in the evening, well after sundown. I walked with my friend Marisol back down the unlit road, each passing police transport covering us in dust.
Late Wednesday afternoon, one of the evicted campesinos departed with his wife in a truck loaded with their pigs and possessions. He has no family here in Atlántico, so they are going to stay with relatives in another state. He has been displaced four times before by the armed conflict, and now the authorities have sanctioned this new abuse. He is 78 years old.
After he left, I stayed on his farm for a time, bearing witness to the pleasantness of his garden, with butterflies dancing around the flowers in the afternoon sun.
What seems perhaps most clear in all this is the truth of these ancient words: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” 1 Timothy 6:10
But I choose to remind myself of this challenge: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21
Right now, in this situation, I’m not sure how we go about that. But I am confident that we are on the side of God’s justice. And I am grateful for the privilege of accompanying the people of El Tamarindo.
The community’s work of advocacy and planning continues. They are still standing. As they find the way forward, please join me in praying for God’s guidance and provision to come through human hands and hearts.