Human Rights, Latin America, Politics

Colombia: both victim and spectator of its own violence

In three decades, 450,664 people were killed and 7,752,964 were victims of forced displacement as a result of the armed conflict. Massacres, disappearances, kidnappings, rape and land dispossession were perpetrated by paramilitaries, guerrillas and members of the armed forces, among others. The state is also to blame. The Truth Commission has documented this reality.


Desaparecidos. Photo by CICR / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Monica del Pilar Uribe Marin


The incredible – and unacceptable – figures go beyond that: in those thirty years (1985-2018) the military forces killed 6,402 civilians (but said they had died in combat), around 30,000 children and adolescents were recruited by armed groups and more than 50,770 people were kidnapped.

There were also thousands of cases of sexual violence, torture, forced disappearance, death threats, massacres, arbitrary detentions, plundering, destruction of protected property, confinement, forced labour, extortion, attacks and other crimes that took place in a Colombia whose fields were strewn with anti-personnel mines that mutilated or killed hundreds of Colombians. A Colombia where communities were intimidated, hidden, stripped of their homes and land, driven into misery.

This violent reality, which took place between 1985 and 2017/18, is the result of the armed conflict experienced in Colombia and today is documented in a very thorough way in the final report “There is a future if there is truth” (Hay futuro si hay verdad) presented last week by the Truth Commission (Comisión de la Verdad) in the South American country.

The report is historic as the first major effort to uncover the truth and seek reconciliation in a country mired in violence. This violence dates back to the early 1960s and continues to this day, even though different governments persist in denial, especially when they talk about the country in the international arena.

In the framework of the Peace Agreement signed between the Government of Colombia and the then Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) in 2017, the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition spent more than three years documenting the facts, the people actively involved and the reasons for this violence and produced a book of more than 900 pages, including findings, conclusions and recommendations.

Colombia. Photo: Agencia Prensa Rural /Flickr. Creative Commons License.

To achieve this, as the President of the Commission, Father Francisco de Roux, said on the day the report was made public, they listened to more than 30,000 victims in individual testimonies and collective meetings “in 28 places where we set up Casas de la Verdad (Truth Houses), in Afro-Colombian reserves and communities, in gypsy kumpañys and among the raizales (natives), also among those in exile in 24 countries”.

They conducted 14,000 interviews and received more than a thousand reports from the civil society organisations. They also listened to former presidents, intellectuals, journalists, artists, politicians, bishops, priests, pastors, military forces and those testifying before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). They also had meetings “and acts of acknowledgement with former FARC-EP combatants, members of the Comunes party, former members of other guerrillas, former paramilitaries of the Railito Agreement (Pacto de Railito) and other perpetrators who are in prison”.

The report was carried out together with those whom the Commission calls its allies: victims and victims’ organisations, communities, collectives, government institutions, social and private organisations, ethnic-territorial authorities, the international community and people from different sectors, professions and regions. A total of more than 3,300 allies who gave their all to make this truth-seeking possible.

Colombia. Photo: Sin Fronteras / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

From the extensive report, which takes a long time to read and contains heartbreaking testimonies, as well as statements, necessary data and recommendations, it emerges that the main victims of this conflict have been the civilian population, since eight out of every ten people who died had nothing to do with the war, had never carried a weapon or belonged to an armed group or to the army.

It is also clear that violence hit them more brutally according to their poverty, gender, education, race, ethnicity and location, especially women and, in general, ethnic minorities, social leaders and trade unionists.

Cattle ranchers, policemen, soldiers, students and businessmen were also victims and suffered all kinds of violence.

De Roux says that the country did not react to all this violence. And he is right. There has never been a single generation in Colombia that has lived in a country at peace, and perhaps that is why death has become the norm, as is the fact that the direct or indirect perpetrators of so many crimes not only deny them but have also done everything possible to keep the truth hidden.

The report has sparked the rage of the far-right in Colombia, which has branded it as biased, of not having interviewed victims from all sides (which is not true, since testimonies were collected from victims of guerrillas, paramilitaries and the army) and of seeking to discredit the armed forces.

Photo: Pixabay

This position comes from President Duque himself, who said that he and the national government hoped that the report would not be “loaded with post-truth” and that “there are no right-wing or left-wing murders in the country”. (Duque has been widely criticised for not attending the launch, despite the historical importance it represented. He was travelling).

Duque’s statements, as well as the detractors of the Truth Commission, become meaningless given the results of the analysis carried out by the Commission together with the JEP and the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (Hrdag). In order to carry out a comprehensive analysis, 112 databases from different entities were cross-checked to estimate the number of victims of disappearances and forced displacement, homicides, kidnappings and recruitment of minors. (Information was collected from 17 State institutions, including the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar, the Agency for Reincorporation and Standardization (ARN); the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses; JEP,  Procuraduría General de la Nación (PGN); la national Police,  and the Registro Único de Víctimas).

This analysis found, for example, that arbitrary detentions were directed at an alleged “internal enemy”, social leaders and trade unionists, who were persecuted, threatened and killed.

Photo by Nathan Raia / The Prisma

On the other hand, and as another finding, it is clear that drug trafficking has permeated everything. It is what feeds the war and prevents it from ending, as it has permeated paramilitary groups and guerrillas, the current FARC dissidents, criminal groups, smugglers, the banking sector, the business world, politics and its politicians.

The report of the truth contains, as de Roux put it, “uncomfortable truths that challenge our dignity, a message for everyone as human beings, beyond political or ideological choices, beyond cultures and religious beliefs, beyond ethnicities and gender”.

And it also contains recommendations, all of which are valuable and will hopefully be heeded. Some of them: Recognise the victims of the armed conflict in their pain, dignity and resistance; recognise the injustice of what they have experienced, and the collective trauma we share as a society; build peace on the basis of the comprehensive implementation of the Final Peace Agreement; rethink the problem of drug trafficking and find political, economic, ethical and legal routes that allow progress to be made in regulating the drug market and go beyond prohibition; and establish a new vision of security for the construction of peace.

The members of the Commission have expressed their wish that its legacy, in the form of its findings, recommendations and lessons learned, be taken “as a basis for reflection and social and political action on fundamental issues of history, the present and the possibility of community life in the future”.

Photo by Nathan Raia / The Prisma

They urge this because, in the face of long-lasting horror, definitive questions arise, which de Roux raises, and which are the same questions that millions of Colombians are asking themselves: Why did the country not stop to demand that the guerrillas and the state stop the political war early on and negotiate a full peace? Which was the State and the institutions that did not prevent and instead promoted the armed conflict? Where was the Congress, where were the political parties? How far did those who took up arms against the state calculate the brutal and macabre consequences of their decision? Did they never understand that the armed order they imposed on the peoples and communities they claimed to protect was destroying them, and then abandoning them to paramilitary executioners? What did religious leaders do in the face of this crisis of spirit? What did educators do? What do judges and prosecutors who let impunity accumulate say? What role did opinion formers and the media play? How dare we let this happen and how dare we let it continue to happen?

The final report can be read on the Truth Commission website.

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