Virginia Bouvier, USIP senior program officer of Latin America, describes her recent visit to Colombia where she spoke at Arauca’s first International Forum on Peace and Reconciliation.

July 13, 2012 by Virginia Bouvier

I left Bogota Thursday evening, heading northeast through Colombia toward the Venezuelan border. Our Satena commuter plane navigated through dark clouds and sheets of rain, pitched through a final electrical storm, and then lurched into safety one hour later at the airport in Arauca in the rural department of the same name. 

A region rich in oil and coca, Arauca is a territory occupied by all of Colombia’s major armed groups. The Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline running through this zone and operated by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, is a frequent target of guerrilla groups, especially the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group. The kidnapping of oil workers is common here. In recent years, the ELN, Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), and various paramilitary groups, in shifting alliances with corrupt politicians and military forces, have fought each other for control of the region’s plentiful resources. 

I had been invited to speak at Arauca’s first International Forum on Peace and Reconciliation, held on May 4 and 5, 2012. Convened by a variety of Catholic, Protestant and other civil society organizations, the two-day event was co-sponsored by U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), among others.

The event had been cancelled twice in the last two years because of poor security conditions. Less than two months ago, the Colombian Army bombed a guerrilla camp in Arauca, killing 37 people, including eight minors—half of them teen-aged girls. The FARC responded with its own assault, leading to dozens of new deaths in the cycle of mutual retaliations. This time, though, the conference organizers used the escalation of violence to underscore the urgency of the forum.  

Shortly after arriving, the speakers and local organizers met to review the agenda and methodology, which would consist of plenary sessions and smaller working groups. We created a “mesa de escucha”-- a listening table—where Araucanians could register concerns that were not addressed elsewhere in the program. 

The next morning, some 200 people arrived from all seven municipalities of Arauca. The program opened with words of prayer, welcome and song. Speakers discussed reconciliation experiences in other conflict zones, including Rwanda, the Basque Country, Northern Ireland, South Africa, elsewhere in Latin America, and other parts of Colombia. We pondered the meaning of reconciliation, particularly in the midst of ongoing war; and discussed the extent to which reconciliation requires truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition.  We agreed that reconciliation is both a goal and a process that will continue beyond any peace agreements. Facundo Castillo, the governor of Arauca, and Paula Gaviria, from the Colombian government’s reparations unit in Bogota, spoke of the need to rebuild confidence between the state and the citizenry, particularly in relation to the new Victims’ Law. 

Participants shared poignant testimonies of how the war has impacted their communities. They shared experiences of displacement, disappearances, land mines and sexual violence. They told us that the town of Saravena registered 30 suicides in the past year. Participants were shaken by the recent suicide of a 10-year old and a growth in child prostitution in the area. We heard about intimidation and stigmatization of those who denounce human rights violations. We heard words of fear and frustration, as well as hope and determination.

At the listening table, residents registered complaints about unfulfilled land agreements, and we forwarded their documentation to the relevant authorities. We also received two letters—one from the leader of an indigenous community facing extinction, and the other from the eastern front of the National Liberation Army (ELN). The first letter attested to how the war over the region’s natural resources, fueled by foreign companies, has affected the lives of the 669 members of the Hitnu community. The leader wrote that the Hitnu, who dwell at La Ilusión at the nearby reservation of Las Vorágines, live in a state of violence that threatens their existence.

The letter from the ELN welcomed the forum on reconciliation insofar as it would address the roots of the conflict, and offered a series of reflections on the causes, nature and manifestations of the war. Among other things, the letter outlined conditions under which the ELN might reconsider its military offensive against oil companies, subsidiaries, and related infrastructure. 

At the end of the forum, participants announced the official launching of Citizen Commissions for Reconciliation (CCR) in Tame, Saravena, Fortul, Arauca and Arauquita, and the intent to establish CCRs in Cravo del Norte and Puerto Rendón. Forum participants issued a final statement that outlined an ambitious 10-year plan with a dozen concrete actions for each municipality for advancing peace and reconciliation in Arauca.  These included strategies to build confidence between civil society, institutions, the state, and NGOs; and establishing a working group to develop and carry out dialogues with armed groups, public security forces, private companies, and the Araucanian population more broadly. The statement called for the support and consolidation of the CCRs in the region as a vehicle for ensuring that public policies, educational initiatives, and local and regional development plans advance the theme of peace and reconciliation. 

The CCR model, initially developed by Ricardo Esquivia of Sembrandopaz with funding from USIP, now links 220 organizations across eight departments on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It provides a new and apparently replicable tool to help mitigate violence, strengthen local peace-building processes, and engage communities living in conflict zones in the search for non-violent solutions.

Virginia Bouvier blogs at

Explore Further

  • Read the concluding statement “Declaración de Propósitos
  • Read a report on the conference by Katherine Torres Sanchez, national coordinator of the Bridges for Peace project of the Mennonite Church, Justapaz, and Project Counseling Services.
  • View photos from the conference:


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