Church offers mediation between gangs and government in Colombia

.- Bishop Julio Cesar Vidal Ortiz of Monteria, Colombia says he is confident the Catholic Church can help bring about the eventual surrender of the criminal organization, Bandas Criminales.

Monteria is located 500 miles north of Colombia's capital city of Bogota.

Bishop Vidal said the members of Bandas Criminales, known as BACRIM “do not want a situation similar to that of Mexico, they only want the Church to help them open a channel of surrender to the government.” The bishop spoke to reporters during the 90th Assembly of the Bishops' Conference of Colombia, which will run until Feb. 11.

BACRIM brings together a number of criminal organizations in the country that are strongly linked to drug trade, including the mafia, paramilitary groups and street gangs that formed after the dismantling of the United Self-Defenses of Colombia in 2006.

The United Self-Defenses was a vigilante organization founded to oppose terrorist groups like FARC and the National Liberation Army.  Its most well-known leader is Carlos Castano, who was killed in 2004.  Under his leadership, the organization carried out massacres across Colombia, occupied lands and engaged in the drug trade. In 2006, it began a process of dismantling an accord with the Colombian government and international organizations.

Bishop Vidal said he has not met with leaders of BACRIM, but that they have “sent communications and have often expressed their desire that the Church help them surrender to the government with dignity.”

He said confronting crime and the drug trade demands a comprehensive response, involving the military and the police. “But this needs to be accompanied by proposals to vindicate rural residents, allow them to improve their lives and have access to education,” the bishop said.

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