BOGOTA, Colombia — Shouting "No more!" to war and violence, millions of Colombians took the first steps toward change by marching for peace on a drizzly Sunday morning.
For the first time in 35 years of civil war, the civilians victimized by the conflict became the protagonists. Mothers of soldiers held by Marxist rebels, peasants driven from their homes by right-wing private armies and middle-class professionals afraid to take their families for weekend drives in the country united that day late last month into a peace movement.
The gathering and other grass-roots efforts mark the rise of a social movement that promises to change this country as profoundly as antiwar protests altered the United States three decades ago. By crossing class lines and geographic boundaries to demand a say in Colombia's future, the marchers fundamentally altered the mentality of a nation where survival has dictated developing a thick veneer of indifference bordering on cynicism.
"We demonstrated to the violent, armed groups that they are not the people, that they should not usurp the right to speak for us," said Clara Marcela de Ayerbe, spokeswoman for UNICEF, one of more than 100 local, national and international groups that helped organize the nationwide march. "This country belongs to us."
The march was the most visible expression of that attitude, which has been building for the last three years and is increasingly being manifested by local communities and civic groups in their contacts with leftist guerrillas, right-wing private armies and even the government. With everyone from wealthy kidnapping victims to police cadets marching against violence, to demand peace is no longer subversive.
Mogotes, a town of 15,000 people about 150 miles northeast of Bogota, the capital, was honored last month with the National Peace Prize. The award, given by Colombia's most prestigious media, recognized the town's success at nonviolently repelling an attempted guerrilla takeover.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, this nation's largest insurgent group, abducted the mayor in December 1997, killing three police officers and two town hall employees in the process. They announced that he would be "tried" for corruption, a common occurrence in areas under guerrilla influence.
But unlike other towns, Mogotes did not accept the rebel interference in its community affairs, even though residents themselves had complained about the mayor's antics. Villagers demonstrated two or three times a month, marching through the streets to community Masses, until the mayor was returned 76 days after his abduction. Then he resigned and they elected a replacement.
Across the country on the Pacific Coast, the Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca also has taken a stand for peace and autonomy from the rebels. The council has offered to host a national assembly to present a civilian proposal for resolving Colombia's armed conflicts.
"They think that they are wise and that we Indians have to follow their orders," Inocencio Ramos, a council member, said of the guerrillas. "They do not represent us and they, as outsiders, have no reason to try to solve the internal problems in our communities."
Such resentment also found an outlet in the march on Oct. 24, the same day that government and FARC negotiators began discussions on a broad range of topics that will decide Colombia's future. Many of the marchers were glad that talks to end the fighting were resuming, but they were also furious that 15,000 rebel fighters presumed to be speaking for them.
The insurgents tried to cloak themselves in the peace movement, hanging banners with the slogan "No more" throughout the town where the talks took place that day and reciting a litany of "no mores"--no more corruption, killings by police, divestitures of government companies--in their inaugural speech.
But the rebels have not acceded to any of the demands to halt kidnappings--a major source of guerrilla revenue--or to shield civilians from the war.
"The armed groups cannot just keep thinking that they are acting against a defenseless, apathetic population," said Angelica Gutierrez, program development consultant at Up With Citizenship, a civic group that backed the march. "This is a first step, but an extremely important step."
March organizers are trying to find ways to build on the momentum of an event that could mark a turning point in the nation's history of violence and apathy.
Colombia has been at war, in one form or another, during most of this century and constantly during the last 50 years. Political parties, Marxist guerrillas, drug cartels and cattle owners with ranches the size of counties have violently carved out and controlled rural fiefdoms. In the last decade, an estimated 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes and 35,000 have been killed.