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From Seeking Narcos to Seeking Peace at UM

By Katie Chalmers-Brooks

Children growing up in regions threatened by drug traffickers have an advocate in UM student and former marine Omar Tejada.

He came from Peru to UM for its Master of Arts in Peace and Conflict Studies program—one of only a few in Canada—and says his thesis investigating the impact of drug wars and narcoterrorism on kids will shine a much-needed spotlight specific to his home country.

With the Peruvian Navy, Tejada would go deep into the jungle near the Colombian border to chase guerillas out of isolated communities and fight the stronghold of organized crime. He and his troops would also jump into planes, helicopters, and armored speed boats to protect local villages in Peru’s mountainous wilds, what’s known as “cocaine valley.”

This area—where the large and rushing Rivers Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro flow—is one of the world’s largest cocaine producers and it’s where drug lords reside in a symbiotic relationship against the rule of law with narcoterrorists belonging to The Shining Path.

Eight years since he’s witnessed these violent clashes, Tejada still thinks about the rebel group’s youngest and most vulnerable victims. He says little attention is paid to their recruitment of child soldiers from within their families, or to the children they target and take from local Indigenous communities for combat or sexual exploitation.

“It’s completely invisible—this topic is completely invisible, the kids, the Indigenous people are still being hijacked by Shining Path,” says Tejada. “These kids are full of life—but with few options to have a decent life.”

A child plays in the coca leaves in a coca-growing region in Peru known as “cocaine valley” // Photo by Ernesto Benavides / AFP via Getty Images

A child plays in the coca leaves in a coca-growing region in Peru known as “cocaine valley” // Photo by Ernesto Benavides / AFP via Getty Images

For his thesis he’ll interview former child soldiers, military members and journalists.

“Some of the kids are born inside Shining Path and they don’t know another thing. They don’t know the world. Their world vision is so limited that they actually believe that outside Shining Path everything is bad.”

He plans on identifying gaps in national and international initiatives designed to protect children. The UM master’s program, in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, attracts students from around the world, with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Tejada’s classmates have first-hand knowledge of gender violence, human rights inequities and environmental battles, he says. “It’s an amazing mix of important lived experiences and current affairs in the world.”

Among the roles on his own CV: peacekeeping affairs officer with the United Nations in New York, dealing with missions in Colombia and the Middles East; and commander of 366 peacekeepers in Haiti, providing cover to local police from organized crime while coping with a humanitarian crisis post-earthquake.

My heart says that we all have to be warriors—not warriors of war but warriors of peace.

In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tejada made meaningful connections with at-risk youth, giving them lessons in self defence to help grow their confidence. And he launched efforts to rebuild a dilapidated orphanage made of broken plywood, providing shelter to some-80 boys and girls.

“After many years of serving in my country and abroad in war-torn scenarios, I have realized that the only thing that would pay off for all the sacrifices I made was a kid’s smile,” he says. “That happened in Sudan, in Haiti, and in the jungle of Peru. And that has been my main motivation throughout this journey.”

It was in 2007 that Tejada first made the switch from combat to peace keeping. Deployed to Sudan as a military observer with the UN, he verified peace agreements between the North and South of the African country during civil war. “I was able to see one side of the coin and I was ready to see the other—from war to peace.”

The relationship between the two is multifaceted, says Tejada, and one he thinks about often. “We have to start from what it means to be a military—what are we trained for? We are trained for war, for fighting wars. Actually, now I understand that maybe by fighting wars or trying to solve conflict we are seeking peace in some ways, somehow. I don’t believe in violence to solve conflicts but in some places that is the only reality, unfortunately.”

During his first peacekeeping mission it quickly became clear the battle is uphill.

“My heart says that we all have to be warriors—not warriors of war but warriors of peace. We have to keep the fight. It’s not easy. It will not be easy. We have to change the whole system, the way it is, to be able to even imagine peace—a peaceful world. If we don’t keep the fight then there is no hope. We have to be idealistic and dream of a better world; that is the only way to find our motivation and not give up the pursuit of peace.”

Tejada got a chance to speak with Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire about the global impact of child soldier recruitment when the celebrated human rights advocate visited UM for the Sol Kanee Lecture Series for Peace and Justice in 2023. Dallaire is best known for defying UN’s orders to withdraw from Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and staying behind to protect those seeking refuge.

The two shared experiences of their missions as UN peacekeepers and Tejada says he learned more about the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security, created to end the use of children in violence, which includes a presence in Montevideo, Uruguay, specific to the problem in Latin America.

“Not only his experiences but his humility and openness impressed me, and inspired me,” says Tejada. “He gave me a boost of motivation in pursuing my mission of seeking peace.”

Point of View // Omar Tejada on Choosing Canada and UM

Having worked alongside many Canadians during his military career, Tejada says he got to know the “Canadian mindset,” characterizing it as an openness to dialogue. “I’ve always believed you don’t need to go to a place to know it because the country is made by its people. I knew Canada even before I came here.”

He narrowed in on Manitoba since it’s home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights—the world’s only museum dedicated to human rights education and awareness—and to UM because of its unique peace and conflict master’s program.


UM’s Faculty of Graduate Studies is celebrating a milestone in 2024—75 years of grad students shaping knowledge in their fields through innovative research and critical thinking.   

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