Escopetarra: Instrument of peace

By Norha Restrepo

Musician César López works with UNODC to raise awareness about violence and firearms. Photo: Nación Sana

The instrument that Colombian musician César López plays at anti-violence events comes from the former German Democratic Republic.  Dropped from an airplane as part of a consignment of weapons smuggled to leftist guerrillas hiding in the Colombian jungle, it later fell into the hands of right-wing paramilitaries.

Both illegal armed groups used the AK-47 as an instrument of war. López transformed it into an instrument of peace.

He came up with the idea to convert a weapon into a guitar after witnessing the aftermath of a bloody terrorist attack in February 2003. In the attack, attributed to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a car bomb at an exclusive club in Bogota killed 36 people and injured 170.

López and his friends reacted to the violence in the only way they knew how: they played music. As peace activists and artists, they wanted to show their support for the victims and call for an end to the bloodshed. While performing close to the ruined club, López noticed that a soldier held his rifle in the same way he held his guitar. The first escopetarra was produced a few months later.

The rifles are provided by the Colombian authorities. Once the firing components are removed, luthier Alberto Paredes-an expert in making guitars-adds the pieces that forever change the object of death into one of hope-an electric guitar.

In Spanish, the word for shotgun is escopeta and the word for guitar is guitarra. Together, they become a powerful symbol of peace. For César López, the escopetarra represents the union between humanity's ugliest invention and one of the most beautiful. He created the instrument to encourage people to think about what the country is going through and what they can do to change this collective reality.

The escopetarras are made with rifles that often bear chilling marks listing the number of people they have killed. Initially, López worked with shotguns  previously owned by guerrillas, paramilitary groups and organized criminals. Now, he uses assault rifles that paramilitary fighters turned in when they demobilized.

"The fact that a weapon is transformed in such a radical way speaks of the possibility the whole planet has to change, even if it seems absurd," López told Perspectives in an online interview from his home in Bogota.

The instruments are given to prominent musicians to help them bring attention to the cause of ending violence and curbing the spread of small arms and light weapons.

Artists are the perfect recipients of such a symbolic instrument, López says. "They are the active conscience of a culture and the most powerful tool to transform the vision and stand of human beings."

Artists with a cause

Each escopetarra is donated to an international artist, an institution or an individual working for peace.

Colombian superstar Juanes was the first musician to receive the instrument. Juanes, a Grammy Award winner, is famous worldwide for hits such as "La camisa negra" and "A Dios le pido". In his albums, he talks about the injustice of war, the fear of violence and his dream to live in peace.

Based on the design below, rifles are transformed into electric guitars at a renowned luthier's workshop. Photo: UNODC Colombia

When he saw the escopetarra, Juanes could not believe his eyes or his ears, for the instrument looked like a rifle but sounded like a guitar. "It's a very powerful symbol," he said at a press conference in 2003. "I wish all weapons in Colombia and the world were like this one."

Argentinian musician Fito Páez was presented with a rifle-guitar in 2004.

An escopetarra was donated to the United Nations permanent exhibition on disarmament in New York and to the United Nations Office at Vienna. Other recipients to date include musicians Manu Chao (France), Miguel Botafogo (Argentina) and Bob Geldof (Ireland).

Musician and activist Bob Geldof (right) examines the escopetarra he received in Cartagena, Colombia. Photo: UNODC Colombia

Since 2006, López has been working with UNODC on a 'No Violence' campaign. Through the Office, César has received the funds and the 17 assault rifles needed to continue producing escopetarras.

"These weapons that have caused so much pain, harm and death, will be resurrected as instruments of love, life and creativity," said Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón.

Disarming souls

César López, 33, started playing music at the age of 12. As the years went by, music became his profession and a way of life. "I'm a musician because I cannot do anything else in life," he writes.

Over the years, he has studied piano, percussion and composition. He has also been a member of rock bands and chamber music groups. With fellow musicians, López has recorded 10 albums.

In his blog, López writes that he has never "lost the appetite, the curiosity or the faith" to keep doing what he does. Although he still feels happy to play, compose, record and give concerts, he believes an artist's responsibility goes beyond merely providing entertainment. That is why he has been developing creative projects aimed at giving ex-combatants, young people caught up in violence and victims a chance to share their stories.

The escopetarra campaign calls on citizens to denounce violence.

As part of the 'No Violence' campaign, López and other musicians have travelled to communities afflicted by violence to collect testimonials on video that are now shown at interactive concerts entitled Resistance. While an orchestra plays classical and electronic music with instruments such as the escopetarra, stories shown on screen focus on peaceful resistance to violence. The audience is encouraged to participate.

The campaigners have also played in prisons, schools and universities. UNODC supports their work with young people, particularly with those linked to conflict and gangs. "Music and art show them that there are alternatives to violence," says UNODC Associate Expert Stefan Liller, who has participated in several events.

López says his meetings with many young men who belonged to armed groups or street gangs have had a profound effect on him. "Most of them have deep scars in their skin and soul," he says. "They need to go through a difficult process to stop being firearms themselves."

This is where the escopetarra can help. Seeing a weapon transformed into a musical instrument can give hope to those who have only known violence that change is possible. 

Some of the young men López met are now members of his Experimental Group of Reconciliation, a hip-hop band. Two were in the ranks of the FARC, one joined the paramilitaries, and another was in a street gang. Their band and the music they create give them an opportunity to heal by sharing their feelings.

Most of the gun-related violence in Colombia and around the world is committed by young men. According to López, "guns have an inevitable glamour that we have learned from movies such as Rambo and Mortal Combat." That does not stop him from trying to strip guns of their power to destroy lives.

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Up in Arms

Colombia's armed conflict has raged for over four decades, causing thousands of civilian casualties and the displacement of more than 2 million people. Leftist guerrillas are fighting the Government and right-wing paramilitaries are fighting the guerrillas. The civilian population, particularly in rural areas, are caught in the line of fire.

Organized crime also fuels violence. Colombia is the world's top producer of coca and cocaine, an illegal business that is worth billions of dollars. According to the Government, drug money is a significant source of financing for armed groups in the country. Moreover, drug traffickers are also involved in arms trafficking, money-laundering, extortion and other crimes. Since the drug cartels were dismantled in the 1990s, traffickers have been working more closely with international terrorist and criminal networks.

A recent UNODC report entitled Violence, Crime and Illegal Arms Trafficking in Colombia found that violence was not indiscriminate but highly selective. As Sandro Calvani, UNODC Representative in Colombia, noted, "The idea of a culture of violence can then be discarded."

UNODC is custodian of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its three protocols, including the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition.