Andrew Willis Garcés, US activist educator, shares insights from Colombian human rights defense. 

The conversation on care in US social movements has had me thinking about how we draw lines around what is and is not considered “movement,” or “care,” or “practice.” My own perspective around this was expanded through interactions with Colombian activists who, in their struggles for fundamental rights land, gender justice, environmental and other rights clearly weave together strategies of resilience promotion with base-building, advocacy, direct action and other marcos estratégicos. The conditions on the ground are distinct; death threats, for instance, are routine for many organizers. Still I think it’s worth reflecting on the integration of emotional, mental, spiritual and organizational wellness currently underway in suramérica.

Around four million people are currently displaced from their homes in Colombia, the vast majority indigenous people, campesinos (small farmers) and Afro-Colombians who make their living from the land – land valued for rich soils or resources that lie underneath. Resistance to forced displacement has been widespread, and communities looking to organize for justice and restitution must simultaneously recover from violent acts and defend themselves against new aggression as they demand land titles and work for daily subsistence in hostile regions.

Rural activists working for justice have long counted as allies a handful of attorneys in urban areas, and even unarmed bodyguards from (mostly) Western countries who serve as volunteer “accompaniers” to deter attacks from armed groups. Less visible have been the teams of Colombian psychologists, social workers and healing-centered laypeople who together bring a focus on mental and emotional well-being to solidarity work. (Important note: No doubt all Colombian ethnic groups have maintained wellness traditions that exist separate from those of the largely blanco mestizo urban activists who control most resources in Colombian movements. This article focuses solely on collectives based in Bogotá and trained in Western disciplines.)

Inspired in part by the work of Jesuit psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, who was murdered by Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s, several collectives currently provide what is variously described as liberation psychology or psychosocial attention to survivors of violence, torture, forced displacement and forced recruitment into armed groups in indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesino communities. The people who provide this attention often see themselves as bringing but one of many necessary strategies to defend human rights and support autonomous peoples’ movements. And running counter to almost all community psychology programs in the US, these collectives, who work almost exclusively with survivors of violence, use very little individual therapy. Their goal: Boost the resilience and existing strengths of whole communities to promote recovery and wellness, prevent future trauma, promote justice in the here-and-now and reduce dependency on outsiders.

Although focused on mental, emotional and spiritual health, and taking place in professional contexts the trauma recovery and resiliency promotion these groups practice takes place in the context of grassroots movement-building. All of the people interviewed for this article emphasized their participation in the national coalition Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), which has chapters in every Colombian department. Local and national mobilizations have called attention to state complicity at all levels of violence and impunity, and coalition leaders have exposed ties between government officials, paramilitaries and resource-exploiting corporations. And local partners for the four national organizations profiled here (Justicia y Paz, AVRE, COPSICO and Cátedra) often participate in MOVICE chapters, in addition to other networks and coordinating bodies.



It’s about making it possible for people to understand what happened to them, from what territories they’re from, what their rights are. And more than anything to help them strengthen their organizations, knowing that only they can bring about resolution to their problems. We contribute to a process of comprehension of the people around what happened to them, connecting acts of violence with the natural resources in their territories, the armed groups that are present and the ‘development’ plans the government has in mind. In this way we facilitate comprehension processes based in concrete realities and not in supernatural or mystical beliefs that justify human rights violations, for instance when it is believed that what’s happened is because the population is getting ‘payback’ for a misdeed. People and organizations can vehemently exercise their rights while strengthening their organizations at the same time as they fight for the common good.

– Hada Luz García Moreno formerly of Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Interecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace) and now of the COPSICO collective

The work of organizations like Justicia y Paz , COPSICOTaller de Vida (Life Workshop), Corporación AVRE and Cátedra Libre Ignacio Martín Baró, all based in Bogotá, varies widely – from human rights education and legal support, to trainings for resilience “promotion,” supporting the development of income-generating projects and theatre projects, to week-long workshops on recovering collective memory and cultural traditions, to rituals drawing on expressive arts therapy.

Taller de Vida began in 1992 with two Afro-Colombian psychiatrists, sisters whose family was displaced from the state of Córdoba, accompanying 25 displaced families living behind the La Picota prison in Bogotá. As Stella put it, “we were all displaced from the violence of war to the violence of the city.” Since then they have set down roots in two neighborhoods, and have broadened from human rights training and trauma healing to wellness exercises, arts programs and productive work projects with youth and adults. Like other groups, they rely largely on European foundations and development agencies for support, which has been sharply curtailed since 2009. The following video demonstrates aspects of Taller de Vida’s work.

AVRE and Justicia y Paz were founded in the same era, responding to the humanitarian crisis created by early-1990s paramilitary violence. Although based in Bogotá they accompany communities and organizations across the country, in many of the areas with the highest concentrations of valuable natural resources, and the presence of Colombia’s four armies – right-wing paramilitaries, narcotraffickers, Left guerrillas and the state military. AVRE’s focus is on building capacity for communities and organizations to deal with psychological trauma. Justicia y Paz has many areas of peace-building work with partner communities; their psychosocial collective is responsible for bringing attention to psychological and emotional wellness.



All of these psicosocial collectives work with communities where they are, be it a conflict zone or a camp far away from their original homes. Unlike many nonprofit employees in Bogotá, members of these collectives spend very little time behind a desk. AVRE workers are on the road every other week, and members of another capacity-building psicosocial collective, Cátedra Libre Ignacio Martín Baró, spend around 21 days a month in the field as a matter of policy.

These psychosocial practitioners reach a mass scale uncommon outside of disaster relief work. In a recent two-year period, AVRE alone – with a paid staff of around two dozen professionals – worked directly with over 11,000 people through their integrative accompaniment and training programs.

Taller de Vida and Justicia y Paz practice permanent accompaniment, in which communities at risk of displacement or violence have an ongoing presence, and AVRE, COPSICO and Cátedra place a high priority on building long-term relationships with communities they accompany. AVRE will assist communities they don’t know in emergency situations, but not often. Taller de Vida has roots in two specific neighborhoods, and Justicia y Paz provide an ongoing physical presence in the communities at highest risk of violence.

As an example, for over six years now AVRE has accompanied the Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC in Spanish). The ACVC, which has thousands of members, many displaced several times over, has for over a decade been waging a struggle to have their river valley declared a natural reserve off-limits to industrial exploitation, and many of its leaders have been assassinated and imprisoned by state authorities. AVRE workers are assigned to coordinate with leaders in the different zones of the valley, and propose work plans for strengthening resiliency – or the community’s ability to “bounce back” quickly from traumatic events – through intergenerational committees, periodic workshops and cultural rituals. Together they also develop training curricula for community leaders. “Whenever we write a new curriculum, community members serve as our editors. They have the last word,” says AVRE psychologist Constanza Acero.

Taller de Vida, in a slight contrast, seeks to create transformative experiences for their members, like the “Mountain Climb Challenge” (borrowed from Paulo Coelho). Youth members are led to a nearby mountain, and are given eleven challenges – or questions – at stations along the path. “Most of our kids have never been asked, ‘do you know where you want to go?’” explains Stella. They also exhibit youth artwork in a “Gallery of Resiliency,” and study resilient community activists – from Afro-Colombian ancestors to Anne Frank and Rigoberta Menchú. All four groups deploy metaphors in their therapeutic processes. Taller de Vida compares the youth they work with to bamboo, which bends to endure stress, and has a root system expert at decontaminating water – resilient like children who eject stress from their bodies.

Psicosociales also offer support in developing revenue-earning projects to support self-sufficiency. Taller de Vida incorporates productive work as a key element, supporting youth and adult groups to produce crafts and cards, stained glass windows and even recording and selling CDs. Through their arts workshops they’ve nurtured several bands, including a rap group for middle schoolers. “We’re not really training artists, we’re training human beings who can change the country,” said Carlos Cortés who, like virtually everyone on staff at Taller de Vida, arrived in Bogotá fleeing violence in his home state. These programs offer a potent alternative to joining armed groups; some of their youth members were forcibly recruited before finding Taller de Vida.

Likewise, the group’s analysis extends beyond the state’s responsibility toward ensuring the respect of human rights. Jenny, who’s spent almost half her life with Taller de Vida, notes that “the kids love Vicente Fernández,” a popular Mexican singer, “but many don’t understand that he’s a principal shareholder of CEMEX, which owns mines that are destroying their neighborhoods on the hillsides.” This deepening analysis is evident in the lyrics of a Taller teenaged rap group, whose young emcees rhyme about the lucrative exploits of armed gangs in the neighborhood, and the multiple forms of violence targeting young women.

Sometimes the work in community bends toward restorative justice, as Constanza with AVRE shares: “In San Carlos, Santander, we noticed the group of displaced families divided in two. One turned out to be the victim’s family, the other that of the persecutor, and the church pastor thought the best way to get to reconciliation would be to bring them together. So we helped them create a space for each family to express what they needed.” In the state of Cauca AVRE worked with a group working to stop the CIMA Corporation from privatizing water resources. It was right after a massacre, “and so a few of us worked with the large group talking about what produces fear in us, what do we do when we’re afraid and how those responses help us, and a few others worked in individual therapy with a man who was tortured, a woman who’s son was killed, and others still reeling from the violence.”

With AVRE and other groups, as the relationship with partner organizations and communities evolves, permanent committees of women, youth, elders and others are often formed. “In some communities, for instance, there’s a rupture between the older generation and youth, and we often try to include youth in our trainings as health promoters. In one community the youth came up with their own work plan after a training and we helped them find resources they needed to implement it,” according to Constanza.

All psicosociales stress the different approaches taken depending on the community. Facilitated reflection is given a high priority, as needs may evolve over time and threats, tensions and even successes must be reflected upon by the community as a whole.

Continued in Part 2, including prompts for reflection.