Colombia: The Most Destructive Weapon
Colombians have long been ruled by fear. Now they are breaking free.
Colombia has been shaken by violence for the last two decades. What is and needs to be done to overcome the nation’s past?
Over a period of more than 50 years, the armed conflict in Colombia resulted in the death of 218,094 people. This figure was presented in the new report “¡Basta Ya! Colombia: Memorias de Guerra y Dignidad” (“Enough Already! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity”) published by the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH). While victim compensation is always a political issue, it is even more politically charged in a country in which parts of the military were involved in wrong-doing and the relationship of the state to armed groups has never been completely explored.
…81% of all victims were not involved in an armed group.
The report criticizes the government. Although it was officially signed by Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia since 2010, its findings have yet to be fully implemented. A closer look at the report clearly reveals the consequences the conflict has had for the Colombian civil population: Only 40,787 of the 218,094 victims were combatants; 177,307 were civilians. This means 81% of all victims were not involved in an armed group.
Additionally, more than five million people were forcibly displaced, a process that peaked between 1996 and 2012. The CNMH’s indisputable findings should be taken into account when honoring the memory of the victims and an entire nation that has fallen into disrepute and is in the process of trying to overcome it. The report should not be hidden from the global public for political reasons or a sense of shame, even less so at a moment when the possibility of peace and its implementation are being discussed. The report’s recommendations need to be enforced and enacted to turn this tool into a strategic project that could end the Colombian conflict by shedding light on its history so it can be overcome. The figures in the “¡Basta Ya!” report gain more importance when viewed in combination with data from the Unit for Attention and Integral Reparation of Victims (UARIV). The UARIV was empowered to oversee the progress of the Victims and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448) on a constant and daily basis, thus implementation of the law began immediately in June 2011. Since then 7,392,679 victims have submitted their cases to the UARIV. Of these, a total of 5,859,429 cases have already been reviewed and a process of assistance, care and reparations has begun. The number of victims is expected to climb to between 9 and 10 million people by the June 2015 deadline. This does not include those who have chosen not to submit their case for psychological reasons, continuing threats, or lack of evidence.
The victims included smallholder farmers, community leaders, students, workers, women, and human rights activists.
The Conpes 3712 document on the budget plan for enforcing Law 1448 warned from the very outset that tracking down all the victims would be a daunting task. It must be noted though that these figures are the clear responsibility of a state that has been lost for years. Now the state aims to shed some light on its dark history, a time during which it was reshaped with the support of death squads and private armies who were supposedly countering a communist rebellion. The victims included smallholder farmers, community leaders, students, workers, women, and human rights activists. Evidence has vanished, charges have not been filed, and lives have been lost. Local and regional authorities that acted in cooperation with military, paramilitary, and insurgent groups have denied the forced disappearances, displacements, and atrocities committed.
…reconstructing stories in an unequal and impoverished country is a titanic task which – against all odds – is being accomplished.
That being said, it is important to recognize the UARIV’s work in the public accounting and coordinating of policies for victims. Gathering data, calculating the figures, evaluating every single case, and reconstructing stories in an unequal and impoverished country is a titanic task which – against all odds – is being accomplished. In recent years, this work has uncovered historical insight as well as pain. Both are integrated into the national memory.
…the main focus has shifted to the perpetrators.
Victims’ voices are being heard because of the struggle in defense of their rights, a struggle that includes the approbation of Law 1448, a victory for the victims. Nevertheless, the media has cast doubt on their stories. Dangerous interpretations are making themselves heard quite loudly and the main focus has shifted to the perpetrators. Their “confessions” are consistently published, although they only tell part of the truth without taking the positions of the victims or the human rights organizations that took on the victim’s cases into account. This has further polarized the conflict-shaken country. These contradictions reached a climax on 28 July 2004, when military and paramilitary perpetrators Salvatore Mancuso, Ramón Isaza and Ernesto Báez appeared to testify to the Colombian Congress accompanied by congressional members. They strutted along the red carpet, waving to the cameras outside – escorted by Colombian police forces. This visit was vivid proof that military-paramilitary forces were in control of 30% of the Congress.
Law 1448 is designed to bring truth, justice and compensation, and prevent the repetition of acts of violence. The goals of the law should be fulfilled within ten years. According to Conpes 3712, 54.9 billion pesos have been budgeted for this aim. For obvious reasons, this budget has increased in recent years. Implementing the law faces a number of structural difficulties, however. First of all, the UARIV does not have ministry status, which sometimes limits its power over other entities. Secondly, implementation of the law began in 2011 – during the conflict, a situation that did not allow progress to be made regarding the proposed objectives in the context of a public policy win.
The wide gap between the victims and the law has never been bridged.
Toward the civil society no educational work has been done to improve comprehension of the law’s content. The wide gap between the victims and the law has never been bridged. The processes through which victims reclaim their rights is characterized by a high level of corruption and delinquency. Additionally the system is difficult to coordinate, making public policy slow to respond and causing disillusionment with the process and negative feelings about public policy over the length of time. It is also difficult to ensure institutions address the law, and they sometimes do not seem to understand that the law entails binding responsibilities that cannot be dismissed out of hand.
…the central goal of Law 1448 should be to overcome extreme poverty.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that the central goal of Law 1448 should be to overcome extreme poverty. This task is in the hands of the National System for Comprehensive Attention and Reparation of Victims (SNARIV). SNARIV comprises a number of public entities – both regional and national at the state and government level – in addition to other private and public organizations that formulate or execute plans, programs, projects and specific steps in caring for victims, redressing wrongs, and addressing extreme poverty in an integral manner. If extreme poverty can be overcome, the lives of those who suffered from the armed conflict could be rebuilt and it might also be possible to implement every element of the law. Additionally the law must focus on emotional recovery if it is to be successful. This strategy is a must in a country that has so far been unwilling or unable to face its pain without political or ideological pressure. A strategy of emotional recovery would strengthen participation in resurrecting the shared memory of victims’ experience, which departs from the official history. This memory in combination with the law would enable us to demand that silence and suppression be overcome. This is the only way we can think about peace as we reclaim and restore it to its rightful place.
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