Colombia Investigates Bishops Said to Aid Leftist Guerrillas

Article excerpt

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's most powerful judicial official, Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff, has announced that he is investigating three Colombian bishops for allegedly aiding left-wing guerrilla insurgents.

De Greiff's announcement has caused a major confrontation between the government and the Colombian Episcopal Conference in a country where the notoriously conservative Catholic hierarchy has historically backed the political and economic elites.

According to de Greiff, the bishops could have steeped outside the law by engaging in "dialogue" with members of the ELN, the National Liberation Army, and the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. Antiterrorist legislation imposed by public-order courts prohibits Colombian citizens from contacting left-wing rebels without informing the government of the guerrillas' whereabouts.

Officials from the U.S. Agency of International Development helped design the public-order courts and repressive legislation under U.S. government Administration of Justice programs in Colombia (NCR, July 30, 1993).

Fr. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, the head of the episcopal conference's press office, said the government is confusing "political" with "pastoral" dialogue.

"The sun shines on those who sin and those who don't. If the guerrillas are behaving destructively, if they have chosen inappropriate methods, they need the pastoral guidance of the church even more than other people," Rodriguez said.

He also said problems have arisen because government officials have a difficult time understanding the concrete reality of the zones of guerrilla conflict. The officials, unlike the bishops who reside in zones of guerrilla activity, "watch the bullfight from the bleachers" instead of "digging their feet into the sand in the bull ring."

De Greiff could have a legal basis to investigate the bishops. But the judicial action may have been backed by political motives.

All three of the prelates under investigation have criticized the Colombian armed forces for human rights abuses. Two of the three bishops head pastoral programs that clearly emphasize the needs of the poor.

For example, Bishop Leonardo Gomez Serna, head of the San Gil diocese in the central Santander department, publicly announced this month that many crimes attributed to left-wing guerrillas in the zone had actually been committed by right-wing paramilitary groups.

In early March, De Greiff called Gomez a "rebel courier" because the prelate admitted he had spoken with FARC leaders in his region. His diocese is a hub of rebel and paramilitary counterinsurgency activity. Under Gomez' direction, pastoral activity has highlighted the needs of the poor peasantry living in this conflict-ridden zone.

Moreover, Gomez was the only bishop to publicly criticize the government's November 1992 declaration of a full-scale war against the rebels, claiming the poor would be hurt most by such an initiative. …