Bogota, Colombia. Creative Commons CC0

In the Guerrillas’ Hands

On November 11th, along with Fr Desiderio, he was kidnapped by FARC combat troops, and freed after a few days. A chorus of indignant voices had been raised all over the world. But even more, of prayers.
Alver Metalli

Bishop Jorge Enrique Jiménez has just returned to his duties as President of the Latin American Episcopal Conference, and shortly before this, to those of Bishop of his beloved Zipaquirà, a town twenty-five miles from Bogota. He was back among the faithful who did not cease even for a minute to manifest their indignation at his kidnapping and to offer prayers to God during the days he was missing. This morning, he has visited the jail where one of his kidnappers is imprisoned, who had asked Bishop Jiménez himself to hear his confession.

He was freed by the soldados after a chase lasting four days, a veritable manhunt, following a trail that at times was weak but was always distinguishable, indicated to the searching soldiers by the peasants themselves. The guerrillas of Front 22 of the FARC, the “Policarpo Salvarrieta” column, did not meet with cooperation or even neutrality along their path. The peasants, the very people for whom they claim to be fighting, betrayed them, enabling the soldiers to free the Bishop.

Were you aware of being a target of the guerrillas?
No more than others. Don’t forget that we live in a complicated country, a crossroads of violence. Petty crime is widespread. Guerrilla warfare, especially that of the FARC, is rooted in many parts of the territory, and the same can be said of the paramilitary troops. There are no Colombians who are not in danger and we bishops and priests, who are close to our people, run these same risks.

How did the kidnapping take place?
We were very close to the town of San Antonio de Aguilera, at a place called El Roblón, where I was going for the Confirmation of some children. Suddenly, two men in civilian clothes, armed with rifles and handguns, blocked our path and ordered us to stop. Both Fr Desiderio (Orijuela) and I could tell by the way they yelled at us to get out of the car that we were being kidnapped.

What did you think at that moment?
That we were in God’s hands; we entrusted ourselves completely to Him. Then I began to recite the Rosary; in fact, more than reciting it, I shouted it, and this confused our kidnappers a bit. I think they wanted to take us away in our own car, but it wouldn’t start, so they pushed us along a path.

Was there a moment when you thought you might die?
Yes, the idea did pass through my mind, and also in my conversations with Fr Desiderio we mentioned it. But it was mixed with the feeling that we were in God’s hands, that He was accompanying us also in this situation, and this feeling was stronger than the other. Today, I attribute my strength during those hours to the multitude of people who prayed for us from the very first minute.

Did you try to establish a relationship with your kidnappers?
The relationship was constant. When we reached an area covered with thick vegetation, there was a first conversation, somewhat tense, with the leader, then many others with the boys. As time passed, our relationship grew more intense, and almost always, with few exceptions, on my initiative. I asked them questions about everything, their intentions, their way of living, what they believed in, their faith. At times I scolded them, especially when I felt them to be more threatening or when they mistreated us. One time I said to them, “You keep telling me that the Colombian army uses torture. I don’t know if this is true, but I see what you are doing to us; this is very grave physical and psychological torture.”

Is there something that struck you about the guerrillas?
Yes, especially the boys, the ones–let’s say–at the bottom. I would ask them, “What do you want to obtain by all this?” And they would answer, “You see, injustice in Colombia is immense. You see it yourself, you observe it in your visits to the peasants…” I would answer that yes, this is true, social injustice in Colombia is harsh. In short, I could see in them a longing for justice. One time, I even said to them that I would like for all Colombians to have that feeling, that this feeling of theirs was respectable and that God had put it in men’s hearts. At the same time, I told them what a mistake they were making to seek justice in this way, and what a greater injustice they would end up causing.

How did they react?
They were silent. I asked all of them questions about their faith. At first, hearing themselves questioned about this, they would remain silent, but little by little they started talking. One night, before starting one of our interminable marches, while we were still sitting on the ground, we talked about prayer. They would hear us praying all the time, and would steal glances at us, so I asked them if they knew the prayers. They said yes, they did, but maybe they weren’t capable of reciting them all the way to the end. So I told them to start. I was curious to see how far they would get. They said the Our Father and Hail Mary well, and to my surprise even the Creed up to a certain point. One of the boys knew the Guardian Angel, which is a prayer we Colombians have on our lips from our early childhood.

I think that our Church has an immense responsibility for not having helped them bring this faith to maturity, for having left them in an infantile stage, which does not succeed in permeating the totality of life and coexists with other, tremendously contradictory forms.

After your kidnapping, an extraordinary uprising of solidarity surrounded you, which touched all of Latin America and even Europe and the United States. The Pope himself intervened twice. You found this out after you were freed…
No, I heard about it while I was still sequestered; the guerrillas told me. The second day, they said to me, “There is immense solidarity with you.” The leader of the guerrilla commando surprised me by saying, How much they love you!” Then they told me about the Holy Father, who had asked that I be freed. His concern, his love, leave me speechless.

I want to thank everybody. Your prayer sustained me in my imprisonment, and the words said to me after my liberation are very moving to me. Msgr Giussani sent me a beautiful telegram; I thank him with all my heart.

The list of priests murdered in Colombia and acts of intimidation against the Church seems to have no end. And yet, reality and logic clearly show that it is an unpopular and politically inopportune action. One of the things that helped bring about your liberation is the very fact that people would not cooperate with the guerrillas in any way. So why, in your opinion, is there this attack against the Church?
They have done a great many unpopular things in this country, and yet they do them, and defend and promote them. When there was still the so-called “area of détente,” and when the President of the Colombian Episcopal Conference, HE Alberto Giraldo, was active in facilitating the meeting of the two sides, the Church enjoyed enormous respect among the guerrillas. The situation is no longer the same. At various times during my imprisonment, I heard the word canje, exchange. I believe that our kidnapping–and that of other religious–was aimed at increasing the number of people in their hands in order to step up the pressure on the government.

Some observers trace the shift toward terrorism of Colombian guerrilla warfare and its attack on the Church to the moment of collapse of Communism. Does a connection like this make sense to you?
What is certain is that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the guerrilla wars in Latin America entered into a very difficult situation, especially in terms of economics, which is crucial for an armed struggle; without money, it would be impossible for the guerrillas to continue their fight. But it is precisely on this point that we can see the anomaly of Colombia. Guerrilla warfare here is mixed up with the drug trade, and this brings in a lot of money, added to that coming from kidnappings, extortion, and the vacuna [to extort money]. This is why it is so hard to defeat the Colombian guerrillas. They have means of support.

Negotiations with the FARC–the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces–have failed and been resumed on various occasions. Despite the discouraging precedents, do you feel that this is the direction toward which efforts should be concentrated?
The peace process is an absolute necessity, and dialogue is an irreplaceable instrument. Conflict leaves an interminable sequel of dead and wounded, of hatred and vendetta. I know that dialogue is not easy, but my view of the current government is hopeful. It has demonstrated good sense in the way it handles things; it is a government that has authority and is respectful of Colombians’ freedom. We have to find the way to diminish the intensity of the violence and then formulas to integrate the nation, in which the insurgent groups can bring about a contribution to greater justice in a peaceful manner.

Do you think that the current moment is a good one for resuming negotiations?
The supreme authority of the FARC, the Central Secretariat, has been silent during this period. President Alvaro Uribe is also a lover of confidentiality in carrying out dialogue; these two things are not necessarily negative. And too, it is now clearer than ever that the vast majority of the Colombian people want to emerge from this tunnel of violence that has lasted forty years by now.

In these very days, the Self-defense–the paramilitary troops, as they are better known–have called a truce. It is known that secret negotiations are in course that could lead to their demobilization. Do you think that this step might favor something analogous also with the guerrillas?
I am sure of it. This is the best news of these days. We hope that with the paramilitary troops, a process has been started in which there is no turning back.

What can be done for the hundreds and thousands of kidnap victims who are still in the hands of the guerrillas?
I think a great deal, every day, about the people being held prisoners by the guerrillas. I thought about them while I was sequestered; today I understand their suffering better. Whenever I have the chance, here, in my diocese, I ask people to pray for the kidnap victims. The very hardest thing for someone being held prisoner is that as the days pass, hope dies out. This is dreadful. The families of the victims suffer enormously. We are preparing a prayer just for them, so that not one day can pass without supplication to God for their liberation.

What can Europe do for Colombia?
There are many things that Europe can do for us. I believe that the European governments should support our government explicitly. We are sometimes discouraged by hearing ambiguous statements and reticent words that do not correspond to the reality in which we live. The International Criminal Court is another important factor: it is important that there be an authority where crimes against humanity are punished. Europe, which brought us the Catholic faith, has to be united with us in prayer. Prayer is weighty, efficacious. God moves hearts, He is able to do anything.

What is your hope for the new year?
That this armed conflict be the last, that guerrillas and paramilitary troops will lay down their arms, that the government will create a space where their best claims may be accepted, that reconciliation will take the upper hand over hate.

I want to thank the many people in Italy and in Europe who have sent their solidarity to Fr Desiderio and to me. Dios les pague, may God reward them.