From 1998-1999, Luis Gilberto Murillo served as governor of the the Colombian state of Chocó, in the country's Pacific Coast Region. On June 16, 2000, armed paramilitaries kidnapped Sr. Murillo in the suburbs of Bogota and held him for 24 hours, threatening to kill him and his family if he did not pay around $250,000. US$. After that terrifying experience, and frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of the government security forces to protect him, Sr. Murillo brought his family into exile in the US. A person of striking intelligence and integrity, Sr. Murillo is quickly distinguishing himself as one of the most important Colombian voices for peace in the US.
Before his abduction and flight to the US, Sr. Murillo had lived a charmed life full of achievement. As a youth he scored the highest mark on Colombia's national baccalaureate exam. His exceptional scores gained him a prestigious national scholarship to the Soviet Union, where he studied from 1984 to 1990, earning a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering and Master's Degree in Mining from the State Geological University of Moscow, Russia.
When he returned to Colombia in 1990, Sr. Murillo took an influential post at the state of Choco's Environmental Protection Agency (CODECHOCO). In 1993, the Colombian president, Cesar Gaviria, promoted Sr. Murillo, then 27, to head the agency. As director of the department, Sr. Murillo initiated novel projects to protect biodiversity and the land rights of Choco's rural Afro-Colombian population.
In 1995, Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus Sivickas appointed Sr. Murillo deputy director of the Environmental Protection Department of Bogotá (DAMA), the nation's capital. Sr. Murillo's hard work and innovative strategies while at the department soon made him one of the most well known Afro-Colombians in the country. He also has taught development, environment, and ethnic rights at the Externado, Saint Thomas, and Choco State Universities in Colombia.
Though people of African decent comprise anywhere between one-third and 43 percent of the population (surveys and census numbers conflict), the country's blacks are largely poor, lack access to education and health care, and are underrepresented in the nation's socio-economic and political life. Sr. Murillo's meteoric rise, then, is all the more exceptional when placed in this context.
In 1998, a coalition of Afro-Colombian organizations in Choco drafted Sr. Murillo as their gubernatorial candidate. Trusting in the democratic movement surging through Latin America, Sr. Murillo decided to reject politics as it had traditionally been practiced in Colombia; he didn't align himself with either of the establishment dominant parties, and instead decided to run as an independent. Sr. Murillo defeated both parties in a close race and was elected.
Once in office, he was determined to follow his mandate of reform. He implemented visionary land-use policies, constantly pushing for rural development in the state. Sr. Murillo also addressed the country's political conflict head on. In 1998 he attempted to declare Choco a neutral zone, a Territorio de Paz. But the combatants didn't listen to his appeals. Soon his political skill and popularity won him praise from the national press--including Colombia's venerable financial magazine Dinero.
But quickly the reforms came to a halt. In January 1999, a federal appeals court invalidated his election in a controversial ruling and removed him from office. (The 1998 Choco gubernatorial election was marred by last-minute fraud committed by the Liberal Party. An initial investigation found that the Liberals had forged 3,000 votes, and gave the election to Sr. Murillo. The appeals court decided to count those 3,000 votes, tipping the balance to the Liberals.) Sr. Murillo's removal from office battered local confidence in the democratic process. It also set back his environmental and land reform policies, and sunk the hopes of the state's Afro-Colombian population.
Between his removal from office and his exile in the US, Sr. Murillo continued to work for environmental protection and Afro-Colombian advancement.
Read Sr. Murillo's opinion essay published in the Miami Herald: A Plea For Peace.
Currently, Sr. Murillo is the Colombia Policy Coordinator for Lutheran World Relief and an active member of the Afro-Colombian Working Group and the Washington D.C. based Colombian Human Rights Committee. He also served as a board member of the US Office on Colombia and Latin American Peace Committee of the American Friends Service Committee.
*** At the center of Sr. Murillo's appeal is his illuminating explanation of the situation in Colombia. The humanitarian crisis created by Colombia's 35-year civil war is nightmarish. An average of 12 political killings occur each day. Thirty-five thousand people have died since 1990. More than 1.8 million Colombians have been displaced from their homes. The Colombian military is tightly linked to the right-wing paramilitary groups that, according to human rights groups, are responsible for 80 percent of the country's political killings. By increasing aid to Colombia in the form of military support, the US is escalating an already devastating conflict.
According to some supporters in the White House and Congress, the aid to Colombia is designed to limit drug abuse in the US by targeting drug production in Colombia, now the third largest recipient of US foreign aid after Egypt and Israel. But according to a RAND study, treating cocaine users here in the US is 23 times more effective than crop eradication in the supplying country. In fact, a close examination of the military support plan reveals that the aid package is designed mostly to advance the interests of US arms manufactures and oil companies. Colombia has some of the largest oil reserves in the world outside the Middle East, and US arms manufacturers will earn millions of dollars from the aid.
Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Struggles in Colombia
Human Rights in Colombia
Colombian Alternatives to US Militarism
If you would like to plan a speaking event with Luis, please email him at luigy68@hotmail [dot] com