Pastor Salvador Alcántara, from the rural precinct of El Garzal, Simití, Sur de Bolívar, Colombia, is an exemplary and inspiring man. He is a husband, father, grandfather, pastor of the Foursquare Gospel church in El Garzal, farmer, president of the local comunal action council (junta de acción comunal), and vice-president of ASPROAS—the Alternative Producer Association of Simití. His ability to follow through with all of his commitments has allowed him to gain the respect of the community in Simití and the small rural precinct of El Garzal.
His understanding of pastoral work as a commitment to one’s neighbor has involved him in his community’s struggle to stay on their lands despite the constant threat of massive forced displacement.
El Garzal is a rural precinct of 11,000 hectares (~27,000 acres). It is located along the banks of the Magdalena River, two hours from Barrancabermeja, an oil city in the Santander Department. It is muddy and swampy land, and Garzal’s residents have lived here for decades on fishing and subsistence farming (corn, beans, yucca, and plantain). The region, however, has suffered violence from all sides—-from guerrilla group, the drug trade and paramilitary groups. Today this region is sought after for pasturing cattle, growing African palm and extracting petroleum.
The demobilization of paramilitaries (2003-2006) and the recovery of lands formerly controlled by guerrillas has not brought security to the families of El Garzal. On the contrary, the government has denied them titles to their land, instead giving the titles to drug-traffickers. According to Colombian law, after an occupant has lived on previously unused land for only five years, the land is turned over to the possession of the occupant. The majority of residents in El Garzal have lived on their land since the 1970s.
The owner of land titles in the region left when his cocaine laboratory was destroyed at the end of the 1980s, and he was not seen again until he appeared in 2003 accompanied by paramilitaries. He gave the community of El Garzal an ultimatum. “You leave or you die.” Various families were displaced, and Salvador, as representative of the community, was personally threatened. He was also offered bribes to remove people from the community.
Years later Salvador ran into a demobilized paramilitary who expressed surprise that Salvador was still alive.
“I thought you were dead! I had orders to kill you, but I knew you were a good man of much integrity, and I couldn’t follow through with my orders. But I thought someone else would!”
It would seem that in addition to the respect of the community and the church, Salvador has won the respect of some of his enemies. Salvador says that he is alive because of the grace of God. The threats to this pastor have continued, given that the community continues to demand the return of their land. Since December of 2008 Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) has been accompanying this community and pastor Salvador, due to the constant threats they receive from groups of armed men contracted to enforce the original mandate (“leave or die”).
Fortunately the displacement has not worked. Possibly because the river overflowed and the armed group decided to wait until it dried out again. Or possibly because the army flew surveillance in the region and the armed group dispersed. Or it could be because God sent a guardian angel to protect Salvador. Or maybe it is a combination of all of the above. Simple miraculous acts of protection for his life.
In December of 2011 Salvador had to leave together with his family at the recommendation and insistence of his community. They had detected armed groups circling his house. The Colombian Mennonite Church received the family and sent them, for their protection, to another region of the country where there also was a faith community. The family has now returned to El Garzal, and although many insist that Salvador leave the region, he is clear that to stay on his land, together with his brothers and sisters, is a decision and act of faith that he does not want to relinquish.
Pastor Salvador sees the hand of God in all things and he has chosen to look for ways in which he can actively collaborate with God. His faith in God is never an excuse to do nothing. His is an example we can all learn from.
And while the authorities fill out paperwork and decide who are owners of the land, the inhabitants of El Garzal will continue to pass sleepless nights, waiting for either the arrival of the machines that plant African palm or for the news that very soon they will be the legitimate owners of their precinct.
Submitted by Alix Lozano. Translated by Elizabeth Miller