Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Using an Ambulance to Save some Lives

By Eran Wade
Santiago (name changed) began his story, “It is very sad what I see and know. It is very sad the story of them. I am able to tell a story of one woman in 1997 that lived near a mountain. One afternoon, one group of paramilitaries came to her house, and killed her husband and her two older boys. They told her she better leave because her family had collaborated with the guerillas. They didn’t, but that’s what they were accused of. She came to live close to my house with her other four children. The smallest one was still in her arms. She lived 15 days in the area, when the chief of one of the armed actors came with the army. They told her she had to leave and she could never come back. She came to me and asked me to take her to a nearby bigger city. She had nothing. Only her children. And a lot of fear. That year, I was driving an ambulance. I had to decide if I would help her and take a chance that I too would be assassinated. The only way of taking people from that place was by ambulance. If they left another way they would be attacked. I finally decided to take her. We left in the night with her kids and nothing else. She would leave with absolutely nothing—no food and no extra clothing. They arrived in the nearby city at 1 in the morning of a wintry rainstorm. It was a very sad moment for me because they had no place to go. When I dropped them off, they didn’t know the city. I let them out and they went under a bridge to protect themselves during the winter storm. I never heard of them since. I hope they are alive.”

While here in Colombia, Santiago and other human rights advocates like him have told me there are many, many stories like this.
Why would anyone want to threaten and kill church workers, lawyers, and university professors who advocate for human rights? Who would cut down people who stand for freedom of speech, freedom of petition, and the democracy we espouse in the United States?

Lonely Planet’s guidebook on Colombia explains the political and military situation of those involved by saying, “Talks began in January 1999 and inched on and off with practically no results. The guerrillas refused a cease-fire as a precondition of the peace dialogue. So the war went on as it had for decades. The FARC also wanted the government to dismantle the right-wing paramilitary groups, but the government denied any links with them…Since the state has been unable to control the areas lost to guerrillas, private armies (so-called paramilitares or autodefensas) have mushroomed with the Colombian military turning a blind eye and even supporting them. These right-wing squads operate against rebels in many regions including Uraba, Cesar, Cordoba, Antioquia, and Cqueta, and have committed some horrendous massacres of civilians allegedly supporting the guerrillas.”

Here’s how the situation is described to me by the social justice leaders. The two groups are fighting over land and the rural farmers are caught in the middle. Let’s pretend group A is fighting with paramilitary group B. One armed group will come to the farmer with a gun and force them to give them something that helps their group. Group B will then come and accuse that farmer of collaborating with the other group. The farmer and/or family will be killed or intimidated and will have to flee to a city or somewhere to get help.

The leaders here allege that the paramilitary is supported and tied to the government. If a social justice worker does anything to stand up for or help a displaced person, they too are labeled as a terrorist, threatened and/or killed. At the very least, human rights violations done against the social justice worker by the paramilitary is ignored by the government. Seven lawyers were assassinated in 2007 in Barranquilla (a coastal city of 2 million people).

Santiago told me, “In my pueblo both the FARC (rebel group) and the AUC (paramilitary) have left victims. On February 4th, there was a huge march in Colombia, “NO MAS FARC!”-- No more FARC! My position is that the church needs to march in the defense of life, there are no other marches, but in defense of life.”

The struggle here is a human rights issue. The lawyers, pastors, and human rights workers allege there is not freedom of speech or freedom to petition one’s government. They say the government is corrupt and linked in with the paramilitary. It is not enough to be against the guerilla groups who are taking people hostage and using drugs to supply their rebellion. They are saying the cause must be a cause for the protection of life no matter where the assassinations are coming from—guerilla groups, private armies, or government. They accuse the government of doing what Lonely Planet’s guidebook says, “…private armies (so-called paramilitares or autodefensas) have mushroomed with the Colombian military turning a blind eye and even supporting them. These right-wing squads operate against rebels in many regions including Uraba, Cesar, Cordoba, Antioquia, and Cqueta, and have committed some horrendous massacres of civilians allegedly supporting the guerrillas.”

I would love to report that the government and paramilitary are shining examples of First Amendment freedoms. It would be nice to report that the guerilla groups are the bad guys and the government is the good guy in this story. It would be real easy to say the problem is only the FARC. However, the people here give a different account. But my eyes do not deceive me. I see a group of 120 displaced families trying to farm and survive after being forced from their farms. I read newspaper articles of a government that has promised to help the displaced to find new farms and new lives and then turn around and then try to give those new farms to private large agribusinesses instead. I read non-profit web sites in the U.S. that confirm the stories that are being told.

It’s weird to have dinner with a friend, who is risking their life to help the displaced. It is weird to have a conversation where he tells you that his friend was killed 2 weeks ago in the kind of scenario I describe above.

The leaders here are courageously standing up for the rights of the poor here in Colombia. They envision a Colombia where the people are protected and the conflict is ended. They dream of a government that actively works against innocent killings rather than corruptly collaborating. The rights of freedom of speech and freedom of petition are squashed by fear of and actual disappearances of those educated church pastors, university professors, and some of the brightest minds that you and I would enjoy as friends in the United States.

Click here for Eran's previous post
about Colombia


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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