Colombia’s Peace-Whisperer Makes Plenty of Enemies
CARTAGENA, Colombia — For a champion of peace, Leyner Palacios faces a lot death threats.
The latest menacing message came in February, when Mr. Palacios, 47, was warned he had 12 hours to leave the region where he was born on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, and to “never come back.”
The last time he had received a similar warning, in March 2020, one of his bodyguards was killed.
So Mr. Palacios, who served on Colombia’s Truth Commission, announced on Twitter he was going into hiding for a while.
“I do not want them to see my coffin full of my unjustly murdered body,” he wrote. “I have understood that the threat is the door to the cemetery.”
The 11-member commission spent four years investigating every aspect of Colombia’s conflict, which was fought between government forces, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups from 1958 to 2016.
The commission’s final report, issued last June, determined that 450,000 people had died in the fighting — twice earlier estimates — and issued a stinging critique of the way many Colombians had been treated as internal enemies by security forces. The report recommended sweeping changes in the country’s police and military forces, including ending the relative impunity with which they had grown accustomed to acting.
While Mr. Palacios said he wanted the commission to reveal what had happened to all victims, his role was to focus on the war’s impact on the country’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations.
Afro-Colombian himself, Mr. Palacios was one of 24 children of a small farmer. He grew up in Pogue, one of many tiny hamlets at the edge of the jungle within the borders of the Bojayá region.
“Catching fish with my hands, deer hunting with Dad, dancing to our drums,” Mr. Palacios recalled of his boyhood during an interview he gave last year, shortly before the commission released its findings — with two government-provided bodyguards standing nearby.
His father made his sons pick cacao beans and chop wood. “That’s how I was able to buy my first pair of shoes,” Mr. Palacios said.
The way problems were solved in his impoverished but close-knit community along the Atrato River would inform his belief into adulthood that dialogue and negotiation were the best ways to settle disputes.
There was one day a year when all of Pogue, whose residents were mostly Black but also included the Indigenous Emberá people, took to the streets in costumes to play pranks and throw mud at each other, “especially at those with whom you had problems.”
At the end of the day, everyone would eat, dance and talk.
“Everything was resolved with conversation,” he said. “Never with guns.”
That’s not to say that armed men were absent from Bojayá.
Guerrillas belonging to the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, patrolled the surrounding rivers in canoes, and Mr. Palacios would sometimes hitch a ride with them for his three-hour trip to school. “They had guns,” he said, “but I was never scared.”
Right-wing paramilitary groups also were present, but until his late teenage years, there was a tacit truce, and Mr. Palacios said he mostly felt safe as long as he was careful where he went.
In 2016, the FARC fighters signed a peace deal with the government, a condition of which was the formation of the commission.
His most influential teacher growing up was a Catholic priest, the Rev. Jorge Luis Mazo.
“I listened to books on his tape recorder until the batteries died,” Mr. Palacios said.
Father Mazo introduced him to the church’s missionary work in the communities along the area’s rivers, and he met nuns living in a convent in Bellavista, a bigger village along the Atrato.
In what turned out to be a perfect match for his skills, the nuns hired the newly married Mr. Palacios at 21 to pilot their canoe. He knew the rivers well — and how to talk to the communities the sisters wanted to visit.
Church figures in the area soon realized this shy young man had a special talent. “If I needed to go talk to the guerrillas, I brought Leyner. And if I needed to go talk to the paramilitary, I’d show up with him as well,” said the Rev. Jesús Albeiro, a Catholic priest who has worked in the region for decades. “He could explain what the community needed better than me.”
That ability to communicate with all sides is one reason Mr. Palacios was chosen to serve on the commission, which he joined in September 2020.
“A lot of it is the way I was raised,” Mr. Palacios said of all the different cultures and viewpoints he had to straddle to navigate life in Bojayá. “A precarious life makes you understand all the dynamics of the conflict, and when you’ve lived it, you just want it to end.”
That reputation for being able to interpret for all sides put his life in danger even as a young man.
When the FARC started recruiting minors from the region, local church leaders in 1997 asked the guerrillas to hear a public request not to involve civilians in the conflict. Mr. Palacios was chosen to address them in Bellavista. “I spoke and when I finished I closed my eyes, expecting a bullet,” he said. “But then everyone applauded. Even them.”
By that time, the local truce had faltered, and the FARC was losing control to the United Self-Defenses of Colombia, or A.U.C., a right-wing paramilitary group. And to the A.U.C., anyone not with them was an enemy, and they began targeting civilians.
In 1999, Father Mazo was killed when his riverboat was intentionally rammed, and a “devastated” Mr. Palacios named his newborn daughter Luisa, in his honor.
In 2002, FARC guerrillas attacked paramilitaries in Bellavista in a three-day battle. On the final day, a FARC gas-cylinder bomb was fired through the church’s roof, killing 119 people, including 28 members of Mr. Palacios’s extended family.
In 2014, when the government and the FARC were discussing peace in Havana, Cuba, Mr. Palacios was asked to tell the story of the massacre, and its aftermath.
“They think that when their lightning strike arrives and burns everything, that’s all that happens,” he said. “I told them that after they strike, they have transformed life for a very long time. The consequences are huge and long-lasting.”
A public apology from the FARC was part of the peace deal, and Mr. Palacios’s testimony helped convince the group to choose Bojayá as the right place to give it. Mr. Palacios said he made sure the ceremony, held on the steps of the burned-out church, was organized entirely by the community, not the guerrillas.
“This time we told them what to do, not the other way around,” he said.
His role in the apology catapulted Mr. Palacios onto the national stage, turning him into the face and voice of those Colombians who had suffered the conflict’s atrocities but believed in reconciliation.
In the years before he joined the commission, Mr. Palacios served as the local leader for a network of nonprofits working to improve life in Chocó, the state-level department along Colombia’s northern Pacific Coast, which includes Bojayá.
In that role, in 2016, he denounced collusion between security forces and the newly formed paramilitary group that had gained control of the area. Within hours, he received his first death threat.
After the commission’s report came out, he returned to Bojayá and continued speaking out, lamenting that FARC guerrillas and A.U.C. paramilitaries had merely been replaced by other armed groups.
“Chocó is paralyzed with delinquency,” he said. “Only the letters on the insignias have changed.”
As he publicly deplored the situation, and the extortion and displacement still plaguing the region’s residents, the death threats returned. “They must have said, here comes Leyner with the same speech again,” said Mr. Palacios, still protected by government security.
Mr. Palacios estimates he heard about 900 testimonies on the commission, including from a former president, senators, landowners, small farmers, drug traffickers and ex-members of the FARC and the A.U.C.
One meeting was with a self-described hit man, who told Mr. Palacios he had been a target on his long list. “Of all the names,” Mr. Palacios said he was told, “I was the only one alive.”
The onetime assassin then asked for forgiveness. Mr. Palacios’s response?
“We hugged,” he said, adding he was grateful that the hit man “taught me some good survival tips.”