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Leonardo, rewriting the rules of social integration in Colombia

The story of Leonardo Párraga Gutiérrez, “artivist” and human rights defender from Bogotá, Colombia

Written by: Patrick van Wersch
Edited by: Olivia Ayes 

Leonardo Párraga Gutiérrez, 26, from Bogotá, a self-proclaimed “artist working on social integration,” inspired Justice and Peace when we met him in 2018 in The Hague during Hague Talks. Read his inspiring story!

Peace Building Conversations

We are the “Fucha”

One campaign that Leonardo says translated art into activism was the 2017 Arts Biennale in San Cristóbal district in Bogotá. His foundation BogotArt worked in partnership with local communities and organisations, such as the Colectiva Huertopía and Colectivo Arto Arte, to ward off the possibility of people being displaced because of planned urban development projects.

The campaign allowed residents to co-create different artworks, including murals, songs, and art made from recycled materials. One mural reads in big bright letters: “We are the Fucha,” referencing the river Río Fucha where, besides The Biennale, several campaigns were done, including the festival “El Cecilazo,” and “Barrios Vivos, Fucha Libre.” Another drawing pointedly shows an excavator clearing away trees and bushes where high rise buildings would soon be erected. Leonardo says these joint projects put the message out there that this territory is inhabited by people that are united, organised, and clear on the kind of community they want to be.

Buoyed by the local support, the San Cristóbal residents went to Congress where organisations from their district presented their perspectives on the building initiatives. They were heard by the government entities involved and, in the end, were able to buy more time. Two years later, not a single building project has been realised.

“They don’t want anything imposed on them,” Leonardo sums up the general mood among the San Cristóbal communities. The seven neighbourhoods still organise events, such as classroom talks about environmental protection, concerts, and movie projections. “The impact of art at the community level, when done with intention, is that it integrates people,” says the BogotArt director with a clarity and purpose uncommon for most twenty-six-year-olds. “And it’s an impact that can last,” he adds.

Art as the great equaliser

The seed that grew into BogotArt sprouted from Leonardo’s brain back in 2012. The then 20-year-old realised he didn’t know his city very well. When a friend from Denmark visiting Bogotá invited him to go on a hike to watch a waterfall he didn’t know existed, he was happy to tag along. As they walked they passed by different murals depicting some of the species living on the mountain and scenes about taking care of nature. He found that those messages were reflected in the way people cared for this place. One man in particular made a lasting impression on Leonardo: Don Benedicto Galindo.

Galindo, with the support of many (international) organisations and community members, had helped transform the area called “Quebrada Las Delicias from a giant garbage deposit where the majority of people lived in uncertainty, often homeless, into an eco-nature reserve that has uplifted the community. The trash made way for an informative ecological path to the top of the mountain. Quebrada Las Delicias has become a favourite escape for city dwellers and tourists alike. Unfortunately, as Leonardo candidly points out, lack of proper control by the authorities is causing the area to slowly deteriorate again.

Nevertheless, the hike with his Danish friend showed Leonardo that no community is beyond salvaging. He learned that when people organise around a common purpose—in this case the wellbeing of their environment and future generations—they can use sustainable and creative means to express a sense of belonging. The experience inspired the young Colombian to leave his corporate aspirations behind and focus full time on social change. The BogotArt Foundation saw the light in 2013. Its mission: To promote a more democratic art and cultural scene in the city of Bogotá.

“Art can have larger social effects,” says the activist-artist, or “artivist” as it is more popularly known, with a matter-of-fact yet idealistic tone. “Artistic expression is a great equaliser. Everyone plays in the same field without categories of partisanship. This is what makes art so vital to the peace process. Art is a way of creating dialogue, providing a common ground, and a place of exchange where people can get to know each other from a position of empathy.”

Hard and heart-breaking

In a country whose international news headlines for decades were dominated by bombings, drug crime, and poverty, empathy seems to be a currency in high demand but low in supply. And although in 2016 a historic peace agreement was signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), research shows that human rights violations have actually increased since.

In 2018, research and advocacy organisation WOLA registered at least 120 assassinations of human rights leaders or members of vulnerable ethnic communities. The OHCHR documented the killings of at least 105 prominent activists from 2017 to 2018 (read this Human Rights Watch report on dissidents joining new armed groups amidst uncertainty over the implementation of the peace agreement. Amnesty International has sounded the alarm calling for an end to the killing of human rights defenders in Colombia. The global human rights movement reported that “since President Iván Duque took office, the number of reports of threats and attacks that these defenders report to our organisation has increased exponentially.” Duque was elected in June 2018 on a campaign promise to rewrite the peace deal.

In early 2017, the violence hit close to home for Leonardo when his childhood friend Albeiro Garibello, a policeman, was killed in a car bomb attack. He says his friend’s passion was “to improve safety and security for everyone,” and he considers him a human rights defender because of it. “An estimated 295 human rights leaders have lost their lives since the peace agreement,” says Leonardo. “My friend was one of them. This has to stop.”

Just days before the interview with Leonardo a car bomb went off outside a school for police cadets in Bogotá killing at least twenty people, adding yet another chapter to the series of guerrilla-like attacks that have come to be associated with Colombia for more than fifty years, further destabilising already diminishing efforts to implement the peace agreement in full.

The change maker from Bogotá finds the situation “hard and heart-breaking,” and feels the government fails to take sufficient steps to protect social leaders. Using words to paint a bleak picture he says: “In Colombia today, if you are part of a community in a remote area fighting to reclaim your land or advocating for your rights, chances are you will be threatened or even killed. The commission tasked with protecting you does not take your threats seriously. You think this must mean that being a human rights defender means putting your life at risk. It’s discouraging.”

“The impact of art at the community level, when done with intention, is that it integrates people,” says the BogotArt director. “And it’s an impact that can last,”

It’s a sobering portrayal of a country that had to wait more than half a century for a meaningful peace deal—one that was initially voted down in a people’s’ referendum, albeit with a tiny margin. The “no” voters held that the agreement was too lenient towards ex-Farc members, calling the deal a “reward for criminal behaviour.” One and a half months later, President Juan Manuel Santos pushed through a revised agreement.

During all of that, Leonardo campaigned for peace. He joined Paz a la Calle, a citizens’ assembly that discussed next steps in getting the peace agreement—current or new—implemented. With another group, Campamento por la Paz, he camped out on Bogotá’s main square to demand a bilateral ceasefire and a new peace agreement. Leonardo helped coordinate the art intervention of Doris Salcedo in Bolívar square which consisted of a massive white shroud with the names of war victims. The intervention was controversial and Leonardo thinks their message was somewhat drowned out because of it. Looking back, he’s sure that both groups he campaigned with shaped the agenda in the media and put pressure on the government to reach a peace deal.

Gradual transition to empathy

There is a calm determination to the way Leonardo speaks about his projects and passions. He’s eloquent and uses that skill to probe and elevate the human experience when he talks. In a place as polarised as Colombia, it’s easy to lose sight of who we are as people. Leonardo wants us to rediscover our humanity, talk to each other, cut through the noise of media and politics, and create a better world, together.

But getting to the place he’s in has been a long process. Growing up in Bogotá city with his parents and three older siblings—a sister, brother, and half-brother—it was hard for Leonardo to connect with other people. He says he lacked empathy, even describes himself as “a little emotionless,” and “in the autism spectrum.” Leonardo would rationalise emotions and imitate them as he thought they should be. “I didn’t really feel like I was fully being myself,” he says about that period in his life.

A gradual transition ensued when the young Colombian visited a small Afro-Colombian island community in the Pacific Ocean. The trip was part of his bachelor’s in Business’ graduation project at the Universidad de Los Andes. Talking to the members of the community, trying to impart some wisdom on being more business-minded, Leonardo saw himself reflected in them. “I always felt like an outsider, much like these Afro-Colombians who are routinely—and sometimes violently— reminded that they are not part of the ‘mainstream’ in Colombia. But I noticed on this island that their identity was immersed in their natural surroundings. Witnessing this strong bond, I decided I too would play a role in my environment, and connect to the people around me.”

Leonardo made friends that shared some of his views on taking community-based action to further social integration. With one of them, Cristian Palacios, he went on to do something that caught the attention of the world.

Say it in a letter

Letter writing seems quaint in an era of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and email. But seeing the handwritten letters inked on the sheet in your hands, imagining the sender at some point was holding the same piece of paper and weighing which words to entrust to it, you cannot help but feel a deep connection to the writer and his or her message.

In February 2017, Bogotá hosted the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. Leonardo attended and got a chance to meet and talk with 2014 Nobel Peace Laureate, Kailash Satyarthi. Referencing Valentine’s Day, less than two weeks away, Satyarthi wondered aloud why we rarely send letters to those who don’t receive a lot of love. In his thought experiment, refugees from the Middle East living in Europe were the letters’ would-be recipients. But Leonardo was quick to recognise the value and applicability of the idea for his country.

Leonardo talked it over with his friend Cristian. Together they founded the campaign Cartas por la Reconciliación, a project where members of civil society write letters to ex-Farc combatants, and vice versa, with the aim to ease the former rebels’ reintegration into society.

At its peak, a hundred people worked on the campaign, including Leonardo, his BogotArt colleagues, Yuliana Pérez—who provided a lot of support in the early stages of the campaign—and dozens of volunteers, mostly students. Once letters were exchanged, a group of letter writers would travel from the city to the remote encampments—also known as “reintegration camps”—to talk face-to-face with the former rebels. “We’ve had war in Colombia for more than fifty years because we failed to understand each other,” says Leonardo. “With this campaign, we felt strongly that there should be spaces for direct communication with ex-Farc members so that people can come to their own conclusions.”

Rebel perspectives on social justice

In the past two years, Leonardo has been exposed to hundreds of heart-felt stories. He recalls a letter sent by a girl whose whole family was assassinated in the Santander de Quilichao massacre. Writing the letter helped her get rid of her anger and hate. “It’s not the past that defines me, but it’s the future that we can create together,” Leonardo remembers her saying in the letter. There’s also his memory of a former Farc rebel sitting next to a rocket launcher, crying as he reads a letter from someone in the city he’s never met before.

One time, when Leonardo was visiting an encampment, he met an ex-Farc combatant named Vladimir who shared his life story with him. At 12 years’ old, Vladimir says his family was killed by government soldiers. As he got older he set out to achieve social justice for his rural community and he tried to raise his concerns and ideas with local government leaders. He felt ignored and got tired of not seeing any change. When Farc came knocking on his door he accepted their offer to join them. If nothing else, at least now he would be able to avenge the death of this family.

Vladimir’s ideals of a more just society were not radically different from Leonardo’s, the young human rights leader realised when they talked. The main difference, of course, was that the former Farc rebel used weapons to pursue his vision.

“None of the ex-combatants I met came across as radical,” says Leonardo. “Most of the stories I heard were about people wanting to take the pursuit of change into their own hands. Often they were those most affected by inequality, such as Afro-Colombians, and indigenous peoples. I don’t condone violence, but through my visits to the camps I’ve become more aware of the ‘person’ behind the ‘rebel.’ In some cases, out of desperation and frustration they chose a life of exile to fight against injustice. In other cases, where, for example, they live in remote areas but wanted to become doctors, their best shot might have been to learn this in a rebel group, giving the lack of study opportunities. What matters now is making sure these former rebels are given a fair shot at becoming citizens of this country again.”

“I always felt like an outsider, much like these Afro-Colombians who are routinely—and sometimes violently— reminded that they are not part of the ‘mainstream’ in Colombia. But I noticed […] that their identity was immersed in their natural surroundings. Witnessing this strong bond, I decided I too would play a role in my environment, and connect to the people around me.”

Most ex-combatants are still in the reintegration camps, also known as “disarmament camps,” located in rural zones that are monitored by the United Nations. The peace deal called for salaries for the former guerrillas for a period of two years, but so far the Duque administration has been providing only a monthly stipend of $220 —set to expire in August this year. Leonardo has seen that the accommodation and facilities in the camps are substandard to say the least, another inconsistency with key promises made to rural areas in the peace agreement. Observers have noted there’s also a lack of literacy and vocational training, and the camp dwellers don’t own land to use for farming. As a result, some former Farc rebels have left for the city. Others stay put and try to be self-sustainable to make ends meet. There’s a reintegration camp in Pondores, in northeast Colombia that has opened its doors to tourists, offering them a recreated taste of guerrilla life before the peace treaty.

The team behind Cartas por la Reconciliación has been in contact with the Verification Mission of the U.N. in Colombia—in charge of implementing the peace agreement—about expanding their campaign. Leonardo is positive that their support could help build more bridges between citizens and ex-combatants by allowing more city dwellers to visit the encampments and engage in dialogues with the ex-Farc members living there.

Without youth no peace

The Cartas por la Reconciliación campaign put Leonardo and his foundation BogotArt on the map in the international human rights community. It earned him the 2018 Youth Carnegie Peace Prize, among other accolades. Leonardo is also a prominent member of several influential youth networks, including Global Shapers, the European Development Days Young Leaders, the UNAOC-EF Summer School Alumni, and the Laureate Global Fellows.

It’s fair to say that Leonardo has truly become a citizen of the world. And being fluent in multiple languages, including Spanish, French, German, English, and Portuguese—some of which he picked up during scholarship programs abroad, including a Master’s at Harvard in International Education Policy which he only just completed—he can comfortably and confidently sit at most discussion and negotiation tables.

Getting more young people to sit at peace negotiation tables worldwide is a strong driving force for Leonardo. He wants them to be perceived not just as victims or war makers, but as peace builders. It’s a personal passion, but it’s more than that; he knows for a fact that there can be no lasting peace, not ever, not anywhere, without a significant representation of youth. “Young people are the future generation that will experience the consequences of what we decide on today,” Leonardo prophesises with conviction. “We are key allies for governments and international organisations negotiating peace treaties. We have to be engaged.”

Further proving his point, Leonardo pulls up a telling statistic: 900 peace agreements have been signed in the past thirty years, all without formal representation of young people in the decision-making process, even though new research shows that broader participation can influence the success of a peace process. He expects that without youth’s input and buy-in, any peace accord drawn up now could be easily torn down later. “We are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of these peace agreements,” Leonardo says. “Agreements that don’t even belong to us,” he adds. “We will have to deal with the political implications, the backlash, and the civil resistance. We deserve to be a part of the conversation.” He’s determined to make Colombia an example to the world of how youth participation in formal peace processes is instrumental for their success.

Every time the young human rights leader gets up on stage he feels supported by the Colombian communities he’s there to represent. Most often these are the ones without a voice that rarely get their messages across in decision-making spaces. They are his key support system and at the same time his biggest inspiration for drawing the people’s attention to the human rights situation in his country whenever he gets a chance. Through sharing these community stories he gives their social leaders international recognition which increases their negotiating power. And with international exposure their projects become easier to replicate.

Leonardo knows how to marry idealism with results on the ground. He’s not afraid to think big, try new approaches. He can conduct himself on the biggest international podia and unapologetically represent his city of Bogotá and his country Colombia. He’s an artivist, painting a brighter future—not one, but many brushstrokes at a time.