Lerma: from bloody nightmare to peace
In the 1980s, the small town of Lerma in Colombia was a real nightmare. A bloody war raged between drug cartels, and a quarter of the population was killed. But the people decided to turn things around. And they succeeded.
A dusty dirt track goes right through the heart of the little town. Now and then, a horse or the odd car passes by. People move slowly in the midday sun. Lerma gives the impression of being a sleepy town. But its history is something else entirely.
“People were terrified to come here, and those of us from here were ashamed to say we were from Lerma. People thought we lacked respect for life. Here, people committed murder and rape. Everyone knew that,” says Luis Alberto Gomez, one of the town’s changemakers involved in Diakonia’s partner organization Cima.
In the 1980s, before Colombia had become infamous as a producer of cocaine, the first drug dealers came to Lerma. Here, coca bushes have been grown on a small scale as long as anyone can remember. Chewing coca leaves has been a natural part of the culture. The leaves energise you and still your hunger. Only when they are chemically processed are they turned into cocaine. And it was only when the drug dealers came and wanted to buy large quantities that the plantations became a problem.
With the cocaine-war came money, weapons, and violence. Bars were opened on every street corner. The alcohol flowed. And the violence escalated. With the course of a few years, a quarter of the town’s population was killed.
There have been several armed groups in the area; death squads, paramilitaries and various guerrilla groups. But this was worse than anything else.
From coca wars to symbol of peace
The survivors reached a breaking point. They came together and discussed various ways to tackle the situation. Some suggested more police and a bigger military presence. Finally, they agreed to focus on children and young people, to make sure they grew up with healthy values.
“We decided to close all the bars, build a school and lay the foundations for a thriving cultural sector. Identity, leadership and a sense of belonging became our catchwords.”
Today, Lerma is a symbol of peace. In the middle of the small town center is a large tree that’s 125 years old. It has a bullet hole right through it, a memory of the nightmare of the 1980s. But it’s also a reminder of what the town is and wants to be today. On the trunk of the tree hangs a sign with the message: “Here, we love life and create peace. Welcome to Lerma.”
“Here in Lerma, we’ve proved that it’s possible to create peace from the bottom up. We’ve worked on inclusion, participation and dialogue around how we want to live together. The rest of the country can learn from this,” he says.
“Now that Colombia is faced with the difficult task of creating real peace, we want to share our experiences,” says Luis Alberto Gómez.
To achieve such peace, he thinks it’s important to feel a sense of belonging and understand the rules of democracy.
“Peace isn’t just about silencing the guns. It’s so much more than that. A structural change needs to take place. Only when children get to go to school, when nobody needs to go hungry, when families have land to farm, when there’s no discrimination – only then can we say that we’ve achieved real peace,” says Luis Alberto Gómez.