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Mennonite lawyer discusses peace in Colombia

By JACK ROONEY | Friday, October 4, 2013


On Thursday, prominent Colombian Mennonite, human rights lawyer and peace worker Ricardo Esquivia gave a lecture titled “Building Just Peace in Colombia,” in which he said the progress of peace is slow but is making strides. 

The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies sponsored the lecture as the 15th annual Dialogues on Nonviolence, Religion and Peace. Esquivia gave the lecture entirely in Spanish while a Ph.D student provided an English translation. 

Esquivia said the Mennonite Church provided him with the foundation for his work in Colombia. 

“I’ve never regretted arriving to the Mennonite Church,” Esquivia said. “Sometimes I’ve been closer, sometimes I’ve been more distant to the Mennonite Church, but I’ve always been a part of it since I was nine years old – that is to say, for more than half a century.”

Esquivia said he became a Mennonite when his father was diagnosed with leprosy and sent to a government leper colony. Esquivia and his siblings became orphans until a Mennonite community for children in similar situations took them in. 

“At this time, leprosy was seen as a curse, and this concept was very much influenced by the biblical notion,” Esquivia said. “And it was also seen as a public crisis, and so the state believed it was its own obligation to protect the society from the lepers.” 

With his Mennonite foundation, Esquivia saw the ongoing conflict in Colombia through a different lens and said the scale of the violence troubled him deeply. 

“This [conflict] has left more than 300,000 people dead, thousands of people ‘disappeared,’ thousands of people kidnapped, close to five million people internally displaced violently and the social fabric has been ripped apart,” Esquivia said. “The state is delegitimized.”

 Esquivia said the government lost its credibility because it succumbed to the corruption of guerrilla groups.

“The government was delegitimized because it was used as a platform for the armed groups to protect and maintain their privileges,” Esquivia said.

Esquivia said the drug crisis in Colombia only adds to the conflict.

“To complete this sketch, because of the internal disorder and the social injustice and war, the internal drug mafias have taken over the country, making the armed conflict particularly cruel and difficult to end,” Esquivia said. 

When asked about how to address the issue of drug violence in Colombia, Esquivia said the United States knows what ought to be done.

“I believe that the [United States] has the answer to that question,” he said. “Here, alcohol was prohibited and that prohibition created great mafias. In order to get rid of the mafias, they got rid of prohibition. This applies to the [United States] as well as any other part of the world.”

Esquivia said society should consider addicts as people with illness, rather than as criminals. 

“And so in this way, we are changing lenses and allowing us to see the person as someone who needs help and not as someone who needs to be incarcerated or go through the legal process,” Esquivia said. 

After graduating from law school in 1973, Esquivia said he set out to find solutions to the violence in Colombia and found them in the nonviolence demonstrated by people like Gandhi and American civil rights activists. 

“So also during this time, I was following the civil rights movement of the blacks in the United States and I became very interested in nonviolence,” he said. “Studying nonviolence, I arrived at Gandhi, and then studying Gandhi,  I returned to Jesus. And it was in this way that I discovered the rich vision of the Mennonite Church as an historic peace church.”

Throughout the years, Esquivia said progress in Colombia has come slowly, but it has come nonetheless. 

“Right now, the Columbian civil society is awaiting the outcome of dialogues between the national government and the largest guerrilla group in Colombia known as the FARC,” he said.  “These dialogues are not easy. More than 60 years of war does not end quickly.”

Esquivia said organizations like the Mennonite Church are necessary to help Colombian peace become reality. 

“We know that those who make war cannot, by themselves, pact and end to the war,  and that is why the role of the Mennonite Church in Colombia is particularly important,” Esquivia said. 

Contact Jack Rooney at jrooney1@nd.edu