David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Teaching Peace in a Time of War: Colombian Teachers Try to Separate Children from Guns
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (5/28/02) -- On Sunday, Colombian voters elected President the former mayor of Medellin, Alvaro Uribe. The candidate of the right, Uribe has long-standing ties to the paramilitaries, who are accused of the worst of the human rights violations and massacres which have marked Colombia's decades-long civil war. Uribe has called for an all-out war against the left-wing insurgency.

Many Colombians fear that an escalation of the war will bring greater attacks on unionists and those sections of civil society which have already been targets for assassination. Last year, 159 Colombian trade union leaders were violently murdered. The year before, assassinations cost the lives of 129 others. According to Hector Fajardo, general secretary of the Unitary Confederation of Workers (CUT), 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986. Last year, out of every 5 trade unionists killed in the world, 3 were Colombian, according to a recent report by the United Steel Workers.

Those who know Uribe best, the residents of Medellin and the state of Antiochia, where he was also former governor, call not for an expanded war, but for negotiations and peace. Medellin itself has been the site of one of the country's most important efforts to create a culture of peace. Ligia Inez Alzate Arias is one of the many educators fighting to provide an education to Medellin's children in the midst of budget cuts and civil war, where teachers have organized a unique effort to get guns out of the classroom, and to begin teaching a culture in which the children of participants in different armed groups can learn to live with each other.

Alzate was general secretary of the Association of Instructors of Antioquia for 12 years, and a leader of the CUT in Antioquia. Five years ago she returned to the Presbyterio Camilo Torres Restrepo Elementary School, where she's now the principal, to begin finding ways to remove the war from the classroom.

Being a teacher union activist is the most dangerous job in Colombia. From 1986 to 2001, 418 educators were murdered. In just one week in early May last year, Dario de Jesus Silva, a 22-year veteran teacher in Antioquia Department (where Uribe was governor), and Juan Carlos Castro Zapata, another school worker in the same province, were assassinated. Both were activists in the teachers' union. On May 14, Julio Alberto Otero, a university lecturer and union activist, was also killed.

Over 85% of trade union assassinations are laid at the feet of the country's paramilitary death squads. But Human Rights Watch and almost all other observers say the Colombian military provides them arms and logistical support in a covert "dirty war."

The government targets teachers because they have helped lead resistance to budget priorities which threaten to abandon the country's educational system. The Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE) struck for 48 hours on May 15, 2001, over a proposal to cut the education budget by $340 million. Gloria Ines Ramirez, FECODE president, predicted that the cuts would deprive 500,000 of Colombia's seven million students of an education. Three million people signed petitions opposing the measure. "We will not allow the government to make budget cuts for two of the most important necessities for our poorest sector simply to pay interest on the foreign debt," she declared.

Ligia Inez Alzate spoke with journalist David Bacon about her experiences.

DB: What made you become a teacher?

LA: I was born in Medellin, in Colombia, and started as a teacher in 1975, at a time when the labor movement was still very strong, and people believed passionately in social change. At the time we wanted to improve the educational system and the quality of education. We were committed to making our union strong, and protecting the status of teachers.

I started teaching in a rural town 16 hours outside of Medellin, where we were actually building the school where I was assigned. At the time, the army was looking for guerrillas who belonged to the National Liberation Army (ELN). That August, the army bombed the school because they said the guerrillas were meeting there on Sundays, and we were allowing it. The government recalled me, saying it was too dangerous to work under those conditions.

DB: After twenty five years, those conditions don't seem to have changed a great deal. How do Colombian teachers cope with having to provide an education in the middle of a war?

LA: We had to invent a way of teaching that applies to this situation, and try to ensure that our students receive an education in the middle of this conflict. We call it the School for Living Together.

Students in our school belong to gangs formed by different social groups -- the guerrillas, the rightwing paramilitaries, criminal gangs, and the organizations of drug traffickers. They all take guns into the schools, and soon they're firing at each other at the school gates. Many young people have been killed.

So in our school we implemented a project called Living Together, and made our school a zone of peace. That means that everyone who comes in has to leave their guns behind, and learn how to live with other people. At the beginning it was very difficult, because we had to speak with the actual organizers of the gangs.

Adults are responsible for giving guns to the children. They even train them in how to use them. Drug dealers, for instance, give them guns to carry out functions in their organization. But they didn't expect them to bring them to school. So we began saying that we wouldn't accept the presence of weapons in the school.

DB: How many children were killed in your first year at the school?

LA: Just at the school, two, but in the area around the school, many more. The whole reason for carrying the guns was to use them. In the early 1990s, even teachers themselves were being killed by students who weren't allowed to graduate.

DB: Were the children afraid of what would happen to them if they began leaving their guns at home or outside of school?

LA: Yes, they were very afraid. First, they were afraid just to admit that they were carrying guns. Then they were also afraid about what would happen outside. We realized that the situation was even more serious in the schools around us. And we began discovering what the guns were being used for.

One boy told us he had a gun he was supposed to use at night, to kill people pointed out by the drug dealers. After confessing what he was doing, was found assassinated in a nearby barrio. That first year was very difficult, because no one wanted to talk.

One day, some of the principals were talking about what to do about the kids who were arriving late. We found they were using drugs outside of school time, and even making connections in the school. That's when we began to see that there were other actors involved. Investigating in the barrio, we discovered that organizations of drug dealers, of guerrillas, of common criminals were all involved. Paramilitaries too.

DB: How did the adults who were responsible react to this?

LA: Our conversations were very difficult. They felt that this was none of the schools' business, that it was their problem. Given the seriousness of the situation, we organized big forums in the community, called Agreeing to Live Together, and tried to talk with the adults who were training the children. But then the situation became even more serious, the students were killing each other.

We had meetings about living together, about non-agression, with the heads of the different organizations. They would come to these meeting with hoods over their heads, so their identity would be hidden.

At first, they tried to close their eyes to the problem, but after a while, they got used to having to talk about it. We also realized that to make schools a zone of peace, we would have to present some alternative to arms and drugs for young people. All over the state we got the government to build playing fields for sports, so young people would have something else to do. We built cultural centers.

The discussion about the violence became much broader than just the schools, to encompass the whole society. We told the women, "You're the mothers of the children who are killing other children. We have to talk about this." The discussion went out into the whole community. We were able to stop the war in our schools for two consecutive years.

DB: What is the situation in your school now?

LA: We no longer have children carrying guns. They are much calmer. Using the Peace Curriculum, the students speak about the benefits of understanding each other, and talking through disagreements. And as a result, our school is a place to study and learn, for knowledge and investigation, not for conflict. Our parents now defend our school and try to get the government to give us the resources we need. We have agreements about the appropriate behavior, and sometimes parents accompany their children to class. They're very concerned now about the quality of instruction.

DB: Is the escalation of the war having an impact on Medellin?

LA: This year the situation became very dangerous again, because the paramilitaries entered our city. They took over a big section of Medellin, in zones where we had been working. It's much more difficult to have a dialogue with the paramilitaries. They're organized and financed by the army. It's a way for the government to intervene directly in our communities.

Some schools have had to close for two or three months at a time, because the fights between the gangs have become much sharper. This causes the problem to spread, because the students who are displaced then go to other schools to finish their studies. Our classrooms are too small to accept them all. In some schools, there are 60 to 65 students in a single classroom. These schools then become the ones where the violence is the worst. The paramilitaries even stop public busses from entering those barrios, so the children no longer have a way of getting to school.

DB: Have you been able to get the cooperation of the government in controlling the paramilitaries?

LA: No. The conflict has gotten worse, and we haven't been able to get the paramilitaries to have the same kind of dialogue with us. The other groups have respected the education process. They've been willing to allow the process of making peace within the schools to develop. But not the paramilitaries.

DB: Is that because they look at teachers and unions as an enemy?

LA: To them, we are a military target. They accuse teachers of fighting against the government's education reform law. When we try to organize parents to oppose it, they accuse us of being insurgents. That stigma can result in being killed.

We know the government itself is behind them. When the workers began fighting the law which substitute individual negotiations with employers for collective bargaining, many of them were killed. When they try to take over bankrupt businesses that still owe them back wages, the owners send the paramilitaries to kill them. That's all called insurgency by the paramilitaries.

DB: How have teachers tried to assert their political rights given that level of repression, and how has the government responded?

LA: In our country, we have to carry out our profession in a very dangerous situation -- an internal war. It is very difficult to survive in that context. We try first to defend the labor rights of education workers, and then human rights, including the right to organize freely.

In 1992 we participated in formulating Colombia's basic education law. Teachers wrote some of the articles which incorporated into the Constitution,, and established that education was a responsibility of the state, the family, and the whole of society. We broadened the concept of education to include defending the environment, preserving life, the right to use technology, and in general looking at education as a process that goes on from birth to death.

Preschool teachers, for instance, helped draw up the law which covers that part of education. Teachers in technology or in academic subjects helped to decide what should be covered in those areas. We all contributed our experiences. The most important part of the law that we won was Section 60, which mandates a special budget for education consisting of 60% of the net national budget.

In May of 2001 the Interior Ministry, at the command of the International Monetary Fund, decided to break the back of the teachers movement and reform the education law, getting rid of the special budget. They substituted a system in which education became the responsibility of the different states, without providing them any resources. Today we basically have no guarantee of funds for public education.

The reforms the government proposes are all coming from the International Monetary Fund. They want to privatize social services, making individuals responsible for their own education and healthcare, although people have no jobs and often not even enough money for food. The government wants to make it easier for foreign companies to exploit our natural resources and labor.

DB: Hasn't Medellin been one of the most violent cities in Colombia?

LA: In past years, our city was ripe for war. And now having lived with it so long, we're the city that most wants peace. We're a city whose people cry out for life. But we're a city without work now, with high unemployment, and where access to education has become more and more limited.

DB: Do you think that peace is possible?

LA: This is a very critical moment, in which the war is flaring up again. But the people who are demanding peace are growing stronger. We are all working for peace. We have a strong civil society, which is very organized. We believe that we can each begin with ourselves. But there must be international intervention, which demands the will to make peace.

DB: What is it like to be a trade union leader in Colombia? We know that over 150 union leaders there are murdered every year.

LA: Being a trade unionist is very dangerous in Colombia. We're called terrorists, because we fight for better conditions and for collective bargaining, and because we oppose the restructuring of laws governing education, labor rights and so on. All these actions make us a military targets.

DB: Are you afraid?

LA: Yes, because we are constantly threatened. One of the reasons is that many political points of view are represented in our federation, including the traditional parties, as well as parties which may sympathize with the insurgency. We are constantly struggling against increased prices for basic services, denouncing the exploitation of our natural resources and the revenues from that leaving the country, fighting to keep the right to collective bargaining. All that makes us a target.

DB: Who is making the threats and doing the killing?

LA: A lot come from the large landowners and big business owners who are trying to reduce salaries in order to increase their profits. The paramilitaries attack trade unionists because we oppose the restructuring of the economy. We also run the risk of being silenced because we denounce the human rights violations, and the armed actors responsible for them.

DB: Do unions see a way out of the war?

LA: The CUT has proposed a number of steps towards peace. We want to include all the social movements in this process -- workers, women, youth, community leaders and others. All should be able to express their needs, propose their own agendas, and point to what they think are the sources of the conflict. Our work is part of something larger, a broader search for peace.

We declare internationally that no one represents us -- not the guerrillas or any other force. We are joining a large section of the population that is rejecting violence. We want the negotiations between the government and the guerrillas to begin again, and civil society needs to be included. We need a cease fire. No other solution is possible except for negotiation.

DB: The US Congress voted $1.7 billion for the Colombian military two years ago, under Plan Colombia, supposedly to fight drugs. What do you think of this policy?

LA: Plan Colombia is a time bomb. They fumigate the illegal crops, but they're ruining the land, and involving communities that have nothing to do with the drug war. The war has left a path of destruction, wreaking havoc in the areas of the oil pipelines, destroying many small towns. We need to build infrastructure in the country, reactivate our national economy and agriculture, and give people a way to make a living and stay on their land.

The money for the military is really going to support the arms trade, instead of supporting Colombians. Instead of investing in war, we need to invest in peace.

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