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I ask for explications not forgiveness

Colombia: Comment on the Catholic Church’s position on paramilitary violence

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh 

15 March 2017

On March 1st, the Jesuit priest Francisco de Roux published a column in El Tiempo, where he asked for forgiveness.  The headline made me briefly think that the Jesuit was going to ask for forgiveness for centuries of murders and land grabbing carried out by his religious order throughout the continent, or at least forgiveness for the sexually abused children at the hands of the Catholic Church.  I was wrong, he sought forgiveness from the business leaders, the military and the paramilitaries that filled this country with graves.  The reasons why he thinks he should seek forgiveness from such people are worse.  I don’t know whether to begin by responding to the most serious issues or in the order they appear in his column, a certain sense of powerlessness overwhelms me regarding the words that are backed by the powers that be in this country, both the legal ones and the shadowy ones that we should still fear.  In order to facilitate the reader, we will take them in the order the Jesuit uses to justify the hell that Colombia has been put through.

He begins by saying that he seeks forgiveness for the generalisations he has made about the businesspeople and the paramilitaries.


I incur in a generalisation when I write that the paramilitaries were financed by businesspeople. When, in truth, some paramilitary groups were financed by businesses, whilst the majority of women and men to whom we owe the production of goods and services in this country did not finance the paramilitaries.

He says “some paramilitary fronts”.  And what did the rest live off?  Besides the coca, extortion, prostitution and theft that all fronts lived off.  Here De Roux wants to put forward a serious lie that the paramilitaries only depended on companies in some parts and only satisfied their needs in some parts, but not in all.  To a degree, he is right, one or other, falls outside the framework.

The worst part is that it was only some business people.  One has to acknowledge that he might be right; there might be a businessperson who did not finance the paramilitaries.  We would have to define what is meant by a businessperson, did he apply the tax office’s definition where a women selling chewing gum outside the cinema is a businessperson? Or did he apply De Roux’s very own concept, where the peasants who were tricked into planting African palm in the Productive Alliance projects, that he himself promoted so much are businesspeople?  If so, well then, we can say that not all businesspeople  did this.  But Salvatore Mancuso, was very clear that all the oil companies in the department of Casanare paid up, the political head of Martín Llanos (independent paramilitary leader) also declared that the oil companies paid them.  We also know that Chiquita Brands paid.

It is now a cliché to talk about cattle-ranchers and paramilitaries.  They, unlike the priest, De Roux, are not ashamed of what they did, rather, they publicly acknowledge it. In 2006, José Felix Lafaurie, the head of the cattle-ranchers admitted that the ranchers financed the paramilitaries.  He didn’t say some, but rather the cattle-ranchers as a sector and he tried to justify it in the face of a supposed lack of a state presence (even in regions where there is a strong state presence).(1) He wasn’t the only one to acknowledge his criminality.  In 2006, 10,000 people, mainly ranchers from the department of Antioquia publicly proclaimed that they had financed the paramilitaries.(2) It is not a small number, and almost all of them were from the subregion of Bajo Cauca, a sparsely populated region, but even so, they could find 10,000 people who financed the paramilitaries.  De Roux, should explain, and not in general terms, but specifically who are those that were slandered in his columns, who are the businesspeople that did not finance the paramilitaries.  We all know it wasn’t Mrs Mercedes selling chewing gum outside the cinemas, but who are the palm companies, the mining and oil companies, the cattle-ranchers who did not finance the paramilitaries. I do him the favour of formulating the question like that, as to ask for a list of those who did, would be a lot of work and very long.  When LaFaurie justified the cash they handed over to the murderers of the AUC he said that he knew of many other companies that did the same, amongst them mining and oil companies and palm oil companies.  He never gave names, but maybe De Roux can confirm those that didn’t, those that he has slandered in his columns.

The apologist for the businesspeople goes on to state “there are those who were forced to do it, under threat and contributed against their will because they had decided to build a business despite the costs of extortion.”  He suggests that many of those who financed the paramilitaries were forced to do so.  Anyone, who knows Colombia, knows that one day an armed person shows up and says “Sonny, pay-up or I’ll kill you” or “sell me the farm or I will buy it from your widow”.  It is a reality, but again we are talking about Mrs Mercedes.  Many peasants, owners of small businesses, hardware stores, cereal stores in the towns had to give part of their profits to the paramilitaries and some times directly to the military battalions.

But this is not what it is about.  Who are the oil people that were threatened like that?  None.  One thing is that under the cloak of moonless night armed men come to the farm and press a pistol against the temple and place their finger on the trigger before you sign the “sale” of the farm or hand over the monthly payment.  Quite another the CEO of an oil company, a cattle rancher or palm grower who from his office in Bogotá or New York makes the decision to hand over money to the paramilitaries.  That man is not in danger, his family will not die in that very instant, rather he makes a cost/benefit calculation and decides that if he gives a million dollars to a particular front of the AUC he will get 100 million from the oil well that is in their area of operations.  He wasn’t forced, rather he calculated that 99 million dollars for his company is more important than the thousands of deaths that will result from the million he gave to the paramilitaries.  He is perhaps the worst kind of scumbag in the Colombian conflict and perhaps the person who should spend longest in jail, even if he is a friend or has been slandered by De Roux.

But the Jesuit has not finished with his insults of the victims of the paramilitaries.  He goes on to immediately state that:


Others out of rage, following the kidnapping and payment of the ransom, supported the AUC to attack the kidnappers.  Others did so because they didn’t trust the state’s security forces.

Here he repeats the propaganda myth of the same paramilitaries and functionaries that have wanted to justify the bloodbath.  The myth that the paramilitaries are a reactive force, a response to guerrilla violence and the lack of trust in the Colombian state.

In his excellent rigorous work, the historian, Renán Vega showed in his contribution to the Report of the Historical Commission on the Colombian Conflict that the counter-insurgency existed long before the insurgency and not by a few years, but by decades. It is not a reactive force.  The Jesuit priest, Javier Giraldo, unlike Francisco de Roux has dedicated his life to revealing, showing and denouncing the links between the paramilitaries and the state and the proactive role those groups have had from the Decree 3398 of 1965, later turned into Law 48 of 1968, the Rural Security Cooperatives (Convivir), the peasant soldiers and the varied methods the state has used to cover up its dirty war.(3) De Roux, however, repeats without any repugnance or blushing the myth of the paramilitaries themselves that they are a response to guerrilla violence.  On this De Roux coincides with the former Commissioner for Peace and actual fugitive from justice, Luís Carlos Restrepo who stated that the so-called self-defence groups i.e. the paramilitary murderers, received support because “many people, in good faith, made the mistake of supporting illegal security mechanisms and the dynamics of private security groups.  The self-defence groups were a national mistake…”(4)  Maybe, when they finally catch the criminal Restrepo, De Roux can visit to hear his confession and discuss their common ideological positions.


I must also acknowledge that I have been unfair when I have generalised about soldiers and police officers in Colombia.  I admit that I have an intellectual and emotive abhorrence of weapons on all sides.  I am a follower of Jesus who once and for all separated God from all wars and preached efficient non-violence.  But I know there have been many and increasing numbers of men and women in the Armed Forces who see service to the homeland as a service to the dignity and rights of every human being and the collective good of peace.

Such arrogance.  One would like to know when he has been unjust, in his view, to the state forces.  In the midst of the paramilitary takeover of the city of Barrancabermeja, where he lived then, De Roux, tried with little success to convince the social organisations of the virtues of the state forces that accompanied the paramilitaries in their trail of death.  He has never been “unfair” to the military or the police; he has always been their lackey.  Moreover, it is not about individual soldiers, although it is as well, but about the institutions as such.  What is their role?  It is that of the repressive arm of the state.  That definition sounds very Marxist, dirty to the sanctified ears of the favourite Jesuit of the palm oil businesspeople.  So lets put it in simple terms that even he must accept.

Throughout the Colombian conflict, the armed forces have played a decisive role.  Their battalions are linked not only to various massacres, for which we can blame the so-called rotten apples, but to a war strategy designed and implemented from on high.  If we take the city of Barrancabermeja where this Jesuit lived for many years we can see how it is.

The Naval Intelligence Network 07 murdered some 430 people according to human rights groups based there, amongst them 130 leaders.  The prosecutor brought charges in just 68 cases.  They remain in impunity.  The murderers were absolved by General Tapias.(5)  This case was not an exception.  After the peasants protests due to the abandonment of the state and murder of their leaders, the then president, Pastrana, accepted something De Roux wants to deny that the paramilitaries were out in the open, although Pastrana talks about some state agents and not all.  They could have coffee together.

The National Government, in the face of acts, that violate human rights, the constitution and the laws, carried out by paramilitary groups against the civilian population in Magdalena Medio for over a decade, rejects, condemns and repudiates their public, open and permanent presence in this region…

The National Government reiterates its political will to prevent and combat the criminal association between some agents of the state and the paramilitary groups.(6)

One year after pronouncing these words, the Colombian state through the paramilitary groups, when not directly engaged, murdered hundreds of leaders in the area, a situation that De Roux knows well, as in his role as priest and leader of the NGO, Programme for Development and Peace in Magdalena Medio he would have met with many a widow.  He is not mistaken, his memory is not foggy, rather he lies about the role of the state forces to convince us of their virtues just as he lied about the virtues of the palm crops to the peasants.

Asides from the case of the Naval Intelligence Network 07, we can cite the case of the XIV Brigade that trained the Castaño brothers (7) or the XX Brigade that had to be dissolved because its links with the paramilitaries were so evident that not even the government of the USA could stomach it (and that is saying a lot), or the DAS (Administrative Department of Security) the shadowy state security agency.  The levels of collaboration with the paramilitaries were such that the president and Uribe’s ex-minister for Defence, Juan Manuel Santos could not put up with it any longer.  All these phenomena have one thing in common; they are not about individuals but rather about state structures.  We would like De Roux’s list of those in the military or the police that were slandered. First, tell us which military structures have had nothing to do with the paramilitaries.  It would  be a short list as there is no military structure that hasn’t committed some crime against humanity.

The aim of De Roux’s article is not to seek forgiveness but rather to do what he has always done and that is the ideological work of the state and it should be acknowledged he does it well.  He is not lacking in the arrogance of a Jesuit, but he knows how to talk to social organisations in the language they use.  What he does is another shot in a war against the victims and he aims to sow doubts about the nature of the victimisers and the state strategy to persecute the grass-roots movement.  In doing so, he is a loyal servant of the oligarchy.  And he is not without his followers amongst the “left” who reproduce his articles and invite him to give conferences on human rights. He, more than anyone, represents the triumph of the peace process, oligarch, promoter of palm, priest, an apologist for the state and its lackeys and the greatest representative of the NGOs stake in the so-called post conflict.


(1) El Cambio No 704 diciembre 2006/enero 2007 Diez Preguntas (Interview with José Félix Lafaurie p. 48)

(2) El Espectador (17/12/2006) La hora de los ganaderos, p. 2A

(3) There are various documents to be found on the subject that can be freely consulted on 

(4) El Espectador (17/09/2006) Autodefensas fueron un error, interview with Luís Carlos Restrepo p. 11A

(5) Corporación Colectivo de Abogados “José Alvear Restrepo” y CREDHOS, Hoy, como ayer, persistiendo por la vida , Bogotá, 1999.

(6) Acuerdo entre el Gobierno Nacional y la Mesa Regional del Magdalena Medio de Trabajo Permanente por la Paz, Octobr1999 (bold not in the original).

(7) Founders of the modern paramilitary structures.

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