russian roulette: the unlawful eviction of el tamarindo

BENEATH THE SHADE OF a tree we stood, freshly chopped sugarcane in hand, gnawing on that chewy plant and sucking the juice out of each bite. No matter how much noise we made, it was not enough to cover the whir of the bulldozer plowing down Nelson’s plantain trees right before our eyes. His was one of the last plots of land to be destroyed in December 2015, when a private company unlawfully evicted over 70 campesinos from an area formerly known as El Tamarindo.

My heart was all over the place that day. Temporarily relieved by the smiles and hugs of those who were about to be evicted, the heaviness in my chest turned into resentment at the sight of the corporation’s representatives arriving to finalize the eviction. How could they live with themselves for the suffering they had caused so many families?

DSCN1278Despite the tension, everyone exchanged casual banter. Small groups of people conversed in hushed voices, but there seemed to be an unspoken effort from all parties to remain civil. Marisol, one of the campesinas, even handed me a snack (see photo on right). A gift of comfort in the midst of an ugly situation. It captured so perfectly the resilience of El Tamarindo.

The final signing of documents occurred with little fanfare. The leaders of the community went about it methodically and silently. After recurring threats of eviction throughout the previous weeks, they’d known this day was coming. There was nothing left to do but to acquiesce to the demands of the powerful.

DSCN1282For years the families fought to remain on the land, which had been abandoned when the campesino Colacho made the first settlement 14 years ago. They came from different parts of the country, forcibly displaced from their previous homes. Over time they worked the land and filled it with crops of all kinds: plantains, yucca, corn, cantaloupe, tomatoes, pumpkins, sesame seeds, papayas, mangos, guavas, and more for miles and miles. Their productivity gained such a reputation that customers used to come directly to them to buy groceries.

Then their government made a deal with the United States of America. Signed in 2006, the United States-Colombia Free Trade Agreement went into effect on May 15, 2012. That same year the first invasion of El Tamarindo took place. But why? What does a bilateral trade agreement have to do with a community of small farmers living on the outskirts of town?

The trade agreement expanded the boundaries of existing duty-free zones in Colombia. Duty-free zones are areas where foreign goods are imported without being taxed, i.e. without import duties. The district of Atlántico, of which Barranquilla is the capital, has three permanent duty-free zones. Guess where El Tamarindo was located?


The woman on the far right is the lawyer of the company that evicted El Tamarindo and offered them money to buy new land. The man next to her kept eyeing me suspiciously before telling me to put my camera away. I may or may not have complied.

A community that had lived in relative obscurity quickly became a magnet for opportunistic businessmen. Strangers, including representatives from the aforementioned corporation, Inversiones Agropecuarias Los Turpiales S.A.S., began showing up at El Tamarindo to claim title to this previously uninhabited land.

According to Colombian land laws, if a self-proclaimed landowner tries to claim a piece of land after campesinos have lived there for more than five years, the “landowner” along with the State must indemnify the campesinos, e.g. insure them against their loss or provide reimbursements. That did not happen with El Tamarindo. On the contrary, on more than 40 occasions at the request of so-called landowners, the police tried to move the campesinos off the land.

Year after year they saw sections of their territory destroyed, homes and crops alike uprooted. The initial evictions were violent. On my first visit to El Tamarindo in September 2015, community members recounted these horrific experiences. Guns, chainsaws, bulldozers. Motorcycles and cars zooming by their houses late at night to harass them. A member of their community lost her life due to the depression that resulted from experiencing these cruel evictions.

I couldn’t understand their words, but I felt the distress in their faces and voices.


This used to be fertile farmland filled with houses, livestock, crops, and families. The gold dome in the background is a giant concrete mixer that has become for me a symbol of the oppression of El Tamarindo.

By the time I arrived, only one section remained. Called El Mirador, this last strip of land gained recognition as a United Nations humanitarian zone. With the help of religious leaders, lawyers, human rights defenders, and local supporters, El Tamarindo’s case was taken up in Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Considered the highest court in the country, the Constitutional Court guards the constitution of Colombia and protects individuals against violations of human rights.

Meanwhile, El Tamarindo received notification from the police of an eviction scheduled for December 4, 2015. On December 1, the Constitutional Court issued a three-month stay of eviction to give the families time to relocate to lands that met their needs. When I visited El Tamarindo two days later, uncertainty hung in the air. Would the police obey the court’s petition?


Rev. Chris Lieberman (lower R) and his congregation in Louisville, KY, hold signs and candles in support for El Tamarindo in Dec. 2015, as part of the solidarity campaign I helped launch.

Yes, but not really.

The December 4 eviction was suspended. We rejoiced. We regained hope.

The following day, the eviction was rescheduled for December 7. We continued our advocacy campaign. Our US partners got in touch with the US Embassy in Colombia.

The December 7 eviction was also suspended – and rescheduled for December 9.

On December 9, the local authorities decided they’d had enough fun playing Russian roulette with El Tamarindo. The local police and the anti-riot police arrived to begin the evictions. How I wish I could have been there standing side by side with the families, offering my presence as an international witness and sharing their pain. I was told to stay in the office in case the situation grew violent as had happened so often in the past.

During the rest of the week, the atmosphere in the office felt subdued as we went about our daily tasks and received updates on the situation from afar. I was thankful for our US partners who called for the end of the evictions, demanded responses from the US Embassy, and expressed their support for El Tamarindo.

DSCN1283The toughest part for me was that nothing seemed to make a difference. God knows how long and hard the campesinos of El Tamarindo had fought to stay on their land. They got organized and set up meetings and demonstrated in public. When staying on their land proved unattainable, they rightly demanded help in relocating to new land where they could continue farming. For years the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, my ministry site, walked alongside El Tamarindo, building trust and advocating for them at both the district and national level. Numerous other actors, including the British Embassy, visited them and heard their stories.

Yet there they were, standing at the same table with their oppressors to sign an agreement that offered only a fraction of what they had asked for: money to buy 10 hectares of land for 10 families instead of 400 hectares for the 100+ original families of El Tamarindo.

When the leaders of El Tamarindo had signed all the papers, the lines on their faces loosened with relief. It wasn’t until later, when I talked to my co-worker Germán about it, that I understood why they smiled: Yes, the agreement fell way short of their initial proposals, but with it came the end of fighting a losing battle. At least for these 10 families, the dream of living on their own land without harassment was becoming a reality.


Members of El Tamarindo and of the company posing with the checks that would pay for the campesinos’ new land.


el tamarindo in the news

A STORY OF El Tamarindo’s struggle appeared in today’s edition of El Heraldo, a leading newspaper in the Caribbean region of Colombia. El Tamarindo is a community of small farmers who were displaced by their country’s armed conflict. In recent years they have come under threat of eviction because the land they occupy has become part of a duty-free zone.

Below I have translated the news story as best I can. The original story is found at According to my knowledge at the time of this blog post, the unlawful eviction scheduled for today was once again suspended. The families of El Tamarindo are staying put for now but remain vulnerable to the whims of the local government.

Families protest at the Cathedral to prevent eviction

By Álvaro Pión Salas · Monday, Dec 7, 2015

Norma Baldovino holds a banner with a clear message for the mayor’s office of Barranquilla: respect our rights, NO to eviction.

The 40-year-old woman is part of one of the 44 families living in El Mirador, a strip of the property known as El Tamarindo, who could be evicted today as an effort moved forward by the owners of the land before the Police Inspectorate.

The terrain is located on one side of the road La Cordialidad, between Barranquilla and Galapa, in the International Duty-Free Zone of Atlántico (Zofía). The Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial (POT) established that the land in that zone are for industrial use and therefore cannot be inhabited.

Baldovino is a native of Chalán (Sucre) and raises her poster because she fears passing the Day of the Little Candles (today) on the street. She arrived in 2007, after having been in different places, trying to get settled.

The reason for her nomadism is that she had to flee her town after her house was attacked in 1996 “by the 37th Front of the FARC” and her mother was wounded and consequently passed away in a hospital in Corozal.

Like hers, the other 23 families were displaced by the violence of the Colombian armed conflict. They arrived from Cesar, Magdalena, Bolívar and Sucre to rebuild their lives but again have to gather their belongings to move to a place that is yet to be determined.

“We are tired of being moved from one side to another. We are not fighting for those properties, we only want a place where we can cultivate our food and our animals. The only thing we ask is that they relocate us,” Baldovino assured.


Alfredo Palencia, director of Unidad de Víctimas in Atlántico, pointed out that an agreement had been reached last week to make sure the eviction would not be immediate.

“The order for exit is tomorrow [Monday], but the victims will have 15 days to leave the land. Money will be deposited in a trust fund for them to use to buy land elsewhere and continue their economic recovery,” Palencia indicated.

Regarding those who are not injured by the war, he asserted that it is the District Government that should find them a solution.

Other proposals that were presented in negotiations were to relocate the families en Villas de San Pablo, although the argument remains that the families cannot farm and that the only thing they know how to do is to work the land.

That’s why they hope that the administration will help them relocate when they leave the premises and that they won’t keep moving around the country to settle.

repost: angels in el tamarindo

ON THURSDAY I joined a group of about 15 faith leaders, lawyers and justice & peace advocates on a visit to El Tamarindo, a community of women, children and men who have been displaced at least once and have relocated to land just outside the city of Barranquilla. It was my 4th visit to El Tamarindo, and I was excited to see familiar faces again.

I’d like to share the following piece by Rev. Sarah Henken, a short but compelling story on our time at El Tamarindo. Sarah is my site coordinator/mentor this year and serves as mission co-worker in Colombia through the Presbyterian Church (USA). The original post can be found on her blog.

Angels in El Tamarindo

Posted on December 4, 2015 • By Sarah Henken

Today is Angel Gabriel’s birthday. Yesterday, our words shrouded by the uncertainty of whether his home would be destroyed today once again, he told me that his birthday always brings sorrow.

Gabriel is a member of ASOTRACAMPO, the association of campesinos resisting one more round of unjust and violent uprooting from their homes on the farmland of El Tamarindo. (If you’re unfamiliar with this courageous community, I’ve written about them on this blog and for the journal Unbound.) They had received word that an eviction action would take place today, but at the last minute that action was stayed yet again. An unexpected respite from the immediate threat, but not a full reprieve. The eviction could take place as soon as Monday.

While they wait to be relocated to new farmland—land to which they can hold undisputed title—they don’t sleep easy at night. This year they have had their water shut off, received threatening phone calls, faced intimidation at meetings with the rich and powerful who want their case to go away. They live crowded together, neighbors previously uprooted taking refuge on their farms, with little land available and not much heart to plant crops that may soon be razed to the ground. And yet, life finds a way.

Fields which a month ago were dry have grown lush and green; a little bit of water has renewed their beauty. As we sat in the oppressive heat, we prayed for the movement of God’s Holy Spirit to flow amongst us, and the breeze picked up to refresh us over lunch. For a community whose path was unclear, a new door has opened as the constitutional court plans to review their case.

A poem for Advent by Ann Weems begins: “Angels still appear to those / ready to receive blessings / in spite of the barren / impossibility of their lives.” El Tamarindo is one of seemingly countless places where hope is hard to find right now. And yet, we await a miracle, an incarnation, for Christ to come and join us in the midst of impossibility and show us the way. This Advent season, it seems we need that improbable blessing more than ever.

I pray today for hope in the face of impossibility, for protection from harm, for light that counters darkness, for hearts of stone to regain their humanity, for wisdom in choosing words and actions, for strength and imagination to nurture peace in the midst of so much violence. And I pray with thanksgiving for Angel Gabriel, that God guide and uphold him, and bless him with many happier birthdays to come.

psalm thirteen

THE FOLLOWING TEXT from the Bible came to mind as I read about recent shootings in the United States. Jamar Clark, 24, lost his life on Sunday after cops shot him in the head “under unclear circumstances.” Even though I didn’t know Jamar, I know that we shared the same state of residence and the same number of years lived.

Increased media coverage of police brutality and the consequent taking of Black lives does not seem to be making lasting change. I don’t expect it to. It’s just discouraging that racial injustice and violence seems to be dominating more and more each day. I don’t know what to do about it. So I pray this lament as a collective cry for justice.

How Long, O Lord?

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

shut it down already (easier said than done)

Are you a journalist?


“Oh, so you’re just a question-asker.”

I nodded somewhat sheepishly as the Witness Against Torture member walked away. Yet despite the sense of awkwardness it produced in me, his statement was one of the most succinct summaries of my personality; it was precisely my desire to know that propelled me towards Saturday’s “Make Guantanamo History” rally marking the 12th anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo prison camp. (Yeah, that’s me photobombing. Oops.)

I didn’t plan to be there. I learned of the protest less than 24 hours before it began, and I wasn’t even sure what Guantanamo was until the evening before, when I watched the documentary Doctors of the Dark Side. Simple in cinematography, the film focuses on the application of medicine and psychology in “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a fancy synonym for torture. As I absorbed the images and words from the film, I was inundated with deep sorrow and bewilderment – a sinking sensation in my spirit at the gross distortion of the Imago Dei.

What drives an ordinary person to willingly inflict torture upon a fellow human being? What justifies the use of psychological and psychiatric expertise to not heal but to break?

In my short existence of twenty-odd years, I’ve never encountered a social justice issue that seemed as black-and-white as torture. To me, the extraction of information is not compelling enough of a reason for inflicting physical and psychological damage upon an individual, no matter how “guilty” he or she may be for a crime. But seeing as few things in life are clear cut, I need to unpack this a little further.

For one, I am seeing only patches of the big picture. I do not know the coherent story behind the establishment and maintenance of Guantanamo. Indeed, when I bombarded another Witness Against Torture member with questions that perhaps had too much angst for small talk (i.e. “WHY IS GUANTANAMO STILL OPEN IF IT’S CLEARLY INEFFECTIVE AND DEHUMANIZING?”), he shrugged and said, “There are political forces that prevent the President from shutting it down.”

I wanted to slap him.

But the man has a point. Any given issue – be it torture, mass incarceration, academic tracking – is tangled up in the interests of multiple stakeholders: politicians, private firms, homeowners, etc. The web of competing interests sways towards the ones that hold more weight (in other words, power). Surely there are political and economic forces beyond my comprehension that support the status quo and block progress. The President should not be the object of blame.

In the passionate spirit of the rally, I tweeted at the President: “you CAN do more #closegitmo”. Almost immediately afterwards, I wish I hadn’t. What I didn’t know was that on December 26, while I was still recovering from food coma from Christmas, President Obama was busy signing the 2014 Defense Authorization Act, and he said, “I have repeatedly called upon the Congress to work with my Administration to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” (emphasis mine). He emphasized the need to bring the prosecution of the detainees under the authority of the executive branch and to try them in domestic courts.

So, if even the leader of the world’s most powerful state can’t shut down Guantanamo, what is holding him back? I’m sure political scientists can give much better answers than I, so I will briefly consider some opinions I’ve gathered.

One thing that’s keeping Guantanamo open is an inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to accept the definition of torture. Take force-feeding as an example. Opponents against Guantanamo consider force-feeding a form of torture as it not only inflicts physical pain but also usurps the autonomy of the individual. Descriptions of and reasons for force-feeding at Guantanamo seem to violate international law’s stance on torture as “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.”

Yet in a Washington Post column from July 2013, Marc Thiesen wrote that force-feeding at Guantanamo is not torture but is merely “common procedure used thousands of times a day by doctors and nurses in hospitals across the United States.” He also stated that “many of the detainees refusing food at Guantanamo are not doing so voluntarily but are under pressure from terrorist leaders inside the camp” and that “force-feeding prevents forced suicide.”

Mr. Thiesen’s words may be true to a certain extent, but they address the issue of torture only at the surface. We need to venture deeper into Guantanamo, for force-feeding is but one manifestation of the horrors of Guantanamo: it is a response to a mass hunger strike by inmates, who were protesting the prison’s substandard living conditions and arbitrary confinement of hundreds of men, which were perpetuated by doctors and other people supposedly working for the common good, which has been jeopardized for the sake of the security and well-being of the United States of America.

The atrocities at Guantanamo are public knowledge, so it’s not public scorn or an immediate threat of delegitimization that’s holding back the U.S. government. Rather, it is in part an issue of power and privilege: the combined military, political and economic leverage of the U.S. empowers it to determine its own terms of conduct. Understandably, the U.S. initially sought out terrorists in response to 9/11 for the sake of its security. The lives and assets of American families were deeply affected, and the government would’ve lost legitimacy in the world if it hadn’t reacted aggressively.

But that was 12 years ago.

And as the years passed and more and more people learned of the injustices at Guantanamo, the prison remained open. Because American lives have been deemed more worthy than Yemeni lives or Afghani lives or Pakistani lives. Because the life of an American citizen is counted more important than the life of Shaker Aamer, a Saudi Arabian man who is a British resident and was never tried for a crime. Shaker Aamer is just one of over 70 men held under indefinite detention at Guantanamo. Because of the U.S.’s power and privilege in the world, it gets to protect national security even if it means violating international law, and it gets to violate international law without penalty at the expense of justice.

To be honest, I don’t know where to go from here, and this isn’t even 10% of the iceberg. All I want are answers, but all I’ve got are questions.

So I lift up these prophetic words of hope that were proclaimed at the rally:

SOMEWHERE, there is justice.

But it’s not where Shaker Aamer cannot be a father. It can’t survive force-feeding. And yet it is born rebellious, in every breath the detainees are breathing.

And so we stand here believing that somewhere, justice serenades the sky.

There is a sacred space where all human rights are respected, and we acknowledge that all life is connected, that all life is sacred, and it cannot be strapped down, and justice can’t be taken.

If your fist tightens, if your heart is breaking, it’s because justice might be hooded.

Well, one day, it will awaken.

– adapted from a poem read at the Make Guantanamo History rally

franciscan blessing

Had the privilege of attending church with my friends today at Grace and Peace Community in Humboldt Park, Chicago – a vibrant, thriving community dreaming big dreams for the restoration of systems and homes for the glory of God. The service closed with the following Franciscan prayer:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that
you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

And the Blessing of God, who Creates, Redeems and Sanctifies, be upon you and all you love an pray for this day, and forever more.


daily resistance

WOMEN have come a long way in history. But our progress looks so different from country to country.

Having grown up in the suburbs of the Midwest, I’ve enjoyed relative freedom in personal expression as a woman. Of course, I experience disrespect as a woman from guys when they dismiss my intellectual reflections or treat me as a “bro,” but I can hardly complain for long when I consider the situations of my sisters across the world. Even when I recently visited Hong Kong, a developed society, I felt incredible pressure to act cute & needy and have pale, blemish-free skin simply because I was a woman (please excuse my broad generalizations of Hong Kong’s culture).

So then, what about women who live in societies that CONSTANTLY expect them to submit their words, their actions and even their bodies to men? What is it like to have the courage to protest structural injustice, only to have my opinions smothered and my body exploited by the very people who are supposed to administer justice?

And then to be accused of contributing to my own sexual exploitation? (click to read the story by The New York Times)

My heart stirs in anger for these women in Egypt. These things should not be.

In the midst of the injustice, there are voices proclaiming truth. In the above article, the husband of one of the women who was sexually assaulted defends her innocence: “My wife did nothing wrong.” It saddens me that his words will probably have more legitimacy than his wife’s because of his sex. But I am thankful for men like him.

Since the beginning of history, women have been framed as weaker and less valuable than men. The irony is that the very efforts of society to subdue women are perhaps making them even stronger. One can read this article and say, “Well, it’s just one story.” Sure, but to dismiss it as just another story highlighting the follies of ultraconservatives and the sufferings of women in the Middle East would be to overlook the one word that describes these women in Egypt, indeed, throughout the world: