BOGOTÁ, Colombia – If you’ve ever wondered what happens while being held prisoner for three days by one of the world’s last remaining Marxist guerrilla movements, Bishop Héctor Julio López Hurtado of Colombia has a somewhat surprising answer: A remarkable amount of time can be devoted to dinner.
López, now 73, was kidnapped at gunpoint in 1997 by a band of teenage soldiers belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC. The guerrillas had imposed a travel ban in zones under their control to protest a pro-peace referendum, and grabbed López and 11 companions as he was making pastoral visits.
“They never mistreated us, and we were never afraid for our lives,” López recalled in a Monday interview at the Bogotá headquarters of his Salesian religious order. “The main frustration at first was boredom, because we had nothing to do.”
That problem was solved on day two, he explained, because the family home where his group was being held ran out of food. Two of the FARC guerrillas took a couple of their prisoners and went in search of something to eat, returning with a cow they claimed had been presented to them as a gift by a local peasant.
“I told them, you can’t seriously think that was a gift,” López said. “If you come up to somebody with machine guns and ask them for their cow, who’s going to say no?”
Much of the rest of the day, López said, was devoted to slaughtering the cow and cooking it, preparing half of the meat for transport up into the mountains to feed other members of the FARC forces. At the end, the group had what amounted to a cookout in the garden of the house.
So, did López at least get a good meal out of the experience?
“I didn’t actually eat any of the meat,” he said, “because I couldn’t bring myself to benefit from something I knew had been stolen.”
Although López survived his brush with danger no worse for the wear and tear, many of his fellow clergy haven’t been so lucky. According to the Colombian bishops’ conference, 85 priests, two bishops, eight religious men and women, and two seminarians have been killed in the country since 1984.
Those deaths mostly came as part of one of the longest-running civil wars in the world, which has been underway in this Latin American nation of 48 million for more than 50 years and has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives.
For the most part, the conflict pits the Colombian government against two main rebel forces: FARC and its rival ELN, the National Liberation Army.
(ELN was founded in the 1960s, with its most famous early proponent being a progressive Catholic priest-turned-guerrilla named Camilo Torres. Over the years it was led by a series of other priests who upheld the liberation theology movement, which seeks to place the Church on the side of the poor.)
Today, many critics say both the FARC and ELN maintain a veneer of Marxist conviction, but in reality often operate like criminal gangs, with deep ties to Colombia’s drug trade.
At the moment, representatives of the government and the rebel forces are meeting in Havana in peace talks, though hopes for a breakthrough dimmed in April when the FARC ruptured a cease-fire by killing 11 soldiers in the national army, leading the army to retaliate with attacks that left 26 FARC rebels dead.
López expressed skepticism that the talks will produce much, based in part on his personal experience of serving for almost 14 years in a FARC-dominated zone in the western part of the country.
“I don’t have much faith, to be honest,” he said. “The guerrillas don’t keep their word. Basically, peace talks usually amount to a period of time to re-arm and to get stronger.”
He also predicted the violence will get worse in the short term, as FARC fighters leave their hideouts in Colombia’s vast forests and launch additional attacks in an effort to boost their bargaining position.
López said his kidnapping reinforced his bleak view of the prospects for a quick end to the conflict.
When he was first detained, he said, he explained to FARC’s teenage gunmen that because he was a bishop, taking him prisoner would produce bad press. It turns out he was wasting his breath, because these teenagers had no idea what a bishop was.
“They were born without God and without law, and they’ve never had any contact with the Church,” he said.
López said he tried to engage the young fighters in dialogue, but found them “terse” and “indoctrinated,” wanting to talk mostly about their struggle to defend Colombia against imperialism.
López said there was a small radio in the house, allowing the group to follow news reports about their fate. That, too, compounded the frustration, he said, because at one point media outlets were claiming he’d been killed, others were saying he’d been liberated, and one even asserted the group had drowned in the river they’d been traveling on – an absurdity, he said, since the water was about knee-deep.
The most heart-rending moment of his three days, López said, came when the teenage rebels took an interest in a 15-month-old infant, the child of the couple whose home had been commandeered. At one stage, he said, one of the young guerrillas put the girl in his lap and playfully placed his rifle in her hands.
“It was incredibly sad to see a child being taken care of by other children with guns,” he said. “It’s as if the FARC was running a guerrilla kindergarten!”
When the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was beatified last Saturday, many experts said the deep significance of the act was a redefinition of the Church’s concept of martyrdom. It’s no longer necessary to be killed in explicit hatred of the faith to be recognized as a martyr – it’s enough to give one’s life in defense of the poor, human rights, and basic human welfare.
If that’s the standard, Colombia during its long civil war has been a factory for producing such martyrs.
Archbishop Isaías Duarte Cancino of Cali, for instance, was assassinated in 2002 for denouncing atrocities committed by both the FARC and the ELN. López said that in his former diocese of Granada alone, he personally knew four or five teachers in Catholic schools killed for trying to persuade their students not to take up guns, either with the guerrillas or various right-wing paramilitary groups formed to combat them.
López explained that contemporary Colombia doesn’t really have any St. Thomas More-style martyrs, who died for upholding Catholic doctrine. It does, however, have scores of Romero-style martyrs, often killed simply for refusing to abandon their posts despite the dangers they faced.
“It’s not so much that there’s violence directed specifically at the Church,” he said. “It’s rather that the Colombian people in general are suffering, and the Church participates in that suffering.”