After Colombia’s Civil Conflict: From Killing Machines to Ambassadors of Peace, Forgiveness


Russell Martin Stendal (left), an American preacher, and former guerrilla FARC leader Jesus Santrich in Bogota, Colombia, on July 2017. (Photo: One We Stand)
Russell Martin Stendal (left), an American preacher, and former guerrilla FARC leader Jesus Santrich (right) in Bogota, Colombia, in July 2017.  (Photo:  One We Stand)

BOGOTA, Colombia – Building peace after over 50 years of war was never going to be easy.  Even now Colombia still faces massive problems.

In July, One We Stand’s special correspondent met people who have laid down their weapons and renounced violence.  Their transformed lives have potential to change the nation.

I shook hands with former paramilitary leader Manuel de Jesús Pirabán, alias “Jorge Pirata” or Jorge Pirate, who took responsibility for over 200 crimes that his men committed including murder, disappearances and robbery.  I also hugged FARC – a former armed guerrilla movement – leader and ideologue Seusis Pausivas Hernández, alias “Jesús Santrich.”

I met both men in Bogotá, Colombia, with ex-paramilitary leader Pirate (he had an eye disease so he wore an eye patch), having been released from prison a year earlier in 2016 after nearly 10 years in jail. 

Pirate is traveling to town hall meetings with some of the former guerrillas and paramilitary members asking for forgiveness from the people in specific regions that were victims.    

“They have all repeatedly asked pastors, priests and Christians to forgive them,” Russell Martin Stendal, an American missionary who was kidnapped multiple times by the rebel group FARC, paramilitary and also arrested by the Colombian government, explained to One We Stand. 

Stendal is close to both Pirate and Santrich, and was the host of this correspondent. 

The Colombian government and FARC, previously known as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, came to a peace agreement in 2016 after more than half a century of fighting that left more than 220,000 people dead, mostly civilians (177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters), and more than 5 million people internally displaced, creating the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory.  About 2.3 million children have been internally displaced and 45,000 children killed, according to UNICEF. 

Pirate, whose hatred of guerrillas began with the murder of his godfather, was imprisoned in 2006 after surrendering with 10,000 of his men, and was told by the Uribe government that his paramilitary group would be given a limited amnesty and would not be given more than 3 years in jail.  However the courts did not uphold the deal and Pirate was sentenced to several long prison terms of 20 years or more each. 

When asked by this correspondent how he felt about being deceived about the length of his prison sentence, he replied humbly that he deserved 40 years and was glad to be alive at all. He spent every day in prison reflecting on life, God, and forgiveness. 

His decades of prison time was shorten as an indirect effect of the Havana peace accords, which took place in Havana, Cuba, and began in September 2012, between the Colombian government and guerrillas.  The government and the courts at that time realized that the guerrillas, whom they were negotiating with, would not trust them because of how they treated the paramilitary (their mortal enemies).  So the process began to reduce sentences of paramilitary members in exchange for confession of their crimes, and in Pirate’s case, he helped dig up the bodies of over 500 victims and apologize to their families. 

Pirate now emphasizes the importance of process to resolve long-standing problems.

“This (digging up mass graves and apologizing to victims’ families) was very traumatic for him (Pirate) and for his men,” commented Stendal to OWS. 

Stendal has actively served Christ in Colombia for all his adult life and is the son of a missionary who also served the indigenous in Colombia.  He made headlines worldwide for his unofficial role in helping to negotiate the peace deal between guerrillas and the Colombian government between 2012 and 2016.  Although he was not involved directly, the guerrillas requested his presence in Havana, Cuba, and he acted as a spiritual mentor and advocate for peace during the landmark Havana peace meeting. 

After the peace deal, the leftist FARC rebel group, founded in 1964 to fight rural inequality, rebranded itself as a political party and has turned over more than 8,000 weapons to the United Nations, according to Reuters.  The 2016 peace deal allots FARC’s party an automatic ten seats in Congress through 2026, and the group may gain additional seats through campaigning. 

FARC leader Santrich, whom I met, is running for a seat in Congress in the 2018 election. On the day I met Santrich he had just finished a 26-day hunger strike to try to get the government to keep some of the promises it made during the peace process.  He spoke about having laid down all weapons in order to fight corruption through peaceful political processes, and said that he felt very close to God now and subscribes to the philosophy of overcoming evil with good. He is choosing to believe that there really will be peace.

One We Stand is committed to encouraging all people of goodwill to work toward peaceful resolution of intractable problems.  Like Pirate and Santrich, OWS wants to emphasize life and hope in Christ in the face of darkness and death.

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