Camilo Torres: priest and guerilla fighter

Wednesday, February 14, 1996

February 15 is the 30th anniversary of the death in combat of the Colombian priest and revolutionary, Camilo Torres. LUIS AUGUSTO GARCIA GUERERO of the Camilista Union — National Liberation Army (UCELN) remembers Torres' life and work, and reflects on their significance to the ongoing liberation struggle of the people of Colombia and all of Latin America. Consideration of the presence and role of Father Camilo Torres in the Colombian guerilla forces involves not only consideration of his personal trajectory, but also evaluation of his thinking and political and revolutionary actions in the context of the birth of the National Liberation Army (ELN), which he joined as a combatant. The ELN was, among other things, the first guerilla organisation to count Christians in the ranks of its fighters. Camilo Torres formed the United Front in January 1965, at the same time as the ELN, which had been formed in July 1964, came to public attention in the mountains of Santander. From that time Camilo and the ELN formed part of the same history, and the same commitment to struggle to the death, if necessary, for the liberation of the poorest classes. Camilo was born in Santa Fé de Bogotá on February 3, 1929. From a very young age he expressed his intention to study for the priesthood. In 1954, after being ordained, he went to Belgium to study sociology at the University of Lovaina. On his return to Colombia five years later, he discovered the complex problems affecting Colombia and immersed himself in them. His contact with ordinary people, and his respect for them and their achievements, quickly led him to become an important leader of the people's movement. He was convinced that only through unity could the acquisition of power be achieved, and it was from this perspective that, along with other leaders of the people's movement, he formed the United Front. The front very quickly became part of the life of the poor classes of Colombia. Camilo's ideas were constantly developing, and he began to stress the need for unity between Marxists and Christians to achieve the common objective of making revolution so as to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty and give clothes to the naked. Camilo used to say, "Why should we debate amongst ourselves whether the soul is mortal or immortal, when we both know that hunger is mortal?" He called on Christians to live up to the moral and ethical demands of their faith, contending, "Revolution is not only permitted for Christians, but obligatory". He once described the objectives of the United Front movement in the following way: "Our principal work is to organise the non-aligned majority of the poor classes, who don't belong to any political party, into a program and a line of action that will lead us toward the taking of power by, and for, the poor". The work of the front gave meaning to its slogans, "For the unity of the people forever", and "For the taking of power by the people forever." Camilo realised that the corrupt political class of Colombia would not develop policies beneficial to the people, nor hand over power to them, and that it fell to the people to take power for themselves. In early 1965, Camilo began to have contact with the National Liberation Army because he shared the principles and objectives of this emerging guerilla movement. Later that year, in an open letter to the Colombian people, he wrote, "I have joined the ELN because in it I find the ideals of the United Front, and the desire for, and existence of, a unity of the base, a campesino base, without differences of religion or traditional parties. The ELN will not lay down its arms until power is totally in the hands of the people." The progressive radicalisation of Camilo, the repression against the United Front and the imprisonment of its members all hastened his joining the guerillas in the mountains. His life was under threat from the oligarchy, who feared him because they saw his leadership and ideas questioning the structures of repression and creating consciousness amongst broad sectors of the poor classes. On October 18, 1965, he joined the ELN as an ordinary combatant. He expressed his wish to be considered as just another soldier in a letter to the leadership of the ELN. He wrote, "Be sure that with God's help I will put aside all other considerations, except the good of the revolution, in whatever role I am assigned. I don't aspire to be a leader, just to serve up to the ultimate consequences." He remained true to these words until his death. In his difficult life as a guerilla, he happily performed his duties, rejecting any privileges offered him on the basis of his priesthood and history within the people's movement. Teaching campesinos to read, he shared with them the little food they could offer him and came to understand and share their needs. It was his strong desire to serve that led him to ask to participate in political-military actions. He was refused several times because of the risks involved. Nevertheless, he continued to ask, and eventually was allowed to form part of a column that was to carry out an ambush of army troops and attempt to seize their weaponry. On February 15, 1966, in Patio Cemento in the department of Santander, Camilo died in combat. The presence of Camilo, and his contribution to the development of the popular movement, despite his tragically early death, began a process of opening up spaces for Christians and gaining their commitment to the people's struggle. Consciousness of the continent's revolutionary history inspired Christians to collaborate in the transformation of reality. Through his actions Camilo Torres showed a path that would be taken by many Christian and non-Christian revolutionaries. It is a path which stresses the decisiveness of people's participation in revolution, and gives the example of personal commitment up to death, if necessary. Our guerilla commander Camilo Torres was convinced of the need to work with the masses. He used to say, "No-one can be truly revolutionary if he doesn't trust in the values of the people". Camilo personifies a liberation project in which men and women are guided by revolution as the unique option for transforming love for humanity into an effective reality. His actions and his thinking are permanent invitations to struggle, "so that the next generation of Colombians will not be slaves". Like Camilo, other priests also joined the liberation struggle as guerillas in the ELN. Among them were Fathers Domingo Laín, Antonio Jiménez, Diego Cristóbal Uribe and the commander in chief of the UCELN, Father Manuel Pérez Martínez. The example of these committed Christian revolutionaries has sown Camilo's seeds throughout Latin America. His influence continues to live in the struggle of our peoples, transcending Colombia's borders and opening new paths for revolutionary struggle and the social activity of the poorest classes. His thoughts and actions remain valid today in our struggle to liberate ourselves from the deadly exploitation and submission that capitalism engenders. In 1987 the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR — Free Fatherland) fused. They took the name Camilista Union National Liberation Army (UCELN) as a means of symbolising, and paying tribute to, the influence Camilo's thinking had within the ELN. In the hymn of the UCELN is the following verse: "Advance to combat, comrades! The conscience and reason of Camilo, our guerilla commander, are alive in our slogan: Not one step backward, Liberation or Death!" The life and example of Commander Father Camilo Torres continue to light the way forward in the march of the Colombian people toward a true peace, in which hunger and injustice will be things of the past.