Ivan Cepeda’s Testimony Before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus

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Congressional Human Rights Caucus Briefing
"The Colombian Conflict: The Victims’ Search for Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation in Colombia"

LAWG invited four members of the Colombian Victims' Movement to the U.S. to speak directly with policymakers in Washington and New York. The delegation testified in front of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in the House of Representatives. Below is the testimony of Ivan Cepeda, Director of the Manuel Cepeda Foundation, Colombia.

Honorable Members of Congress:

I thank you for listening, in this briefing, to the voices of people who are directly affected by the violence in Colombia.

I represent the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, a coalition composed of over 200 organizations of persons and communities affected by violence of State or paramilitary origin. I have been struggling for 11 years so that the crime committed against my father, a Colombian senator from the Patriotic Union (UP) political movement, Manuel Cepeda Vargas, who was assassinated by a team of military and paramilitary members on August 9, 1994 in Bogotá, be resolved and properly punished.

After the assassination of Manuel Cepeda Vargas, the Patriotic Union was left without representation in the Parliament. My father was the last member of Congress to be popularly elected from this political movement. Seven of his congressional colleagues from the same political party were assassinated before him as a part of the political genocide that has been perpetrated in Colombia against the Patriotic Union over the last 20 years.

The UP was the result of a negotiation process between the government of President Belisario Betancur and the guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the mid 1980s.

Despite its being the result of a peace agreement, the new opposition movement was subjected to a process of systematic annihilation. This systematic action has consisted of a combination of criminal acts, repression and harassment with the aim of accomplishing the total or partial destruction of this opposition group. Close to 5000 of its members and supporters have been assassinated or “disappeared.” Thousands more have been displaced or forced into exile. Selective assassinations have been committed against its leadership. Two presidential candidates, Jaime Pardo Leal and Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, were assassinated in 1987 and 1990 respectively. Hundreds of mayors and representatives to local governing bodies have been eliminated. In certain occasions the assassinations of up to four successive mayors from the movement have occurred in a single place. The UP headquarters has suffered the devastation of over 30 dynamite attacks, and witnesses, survivors and families of victims have been forcefully silenced.

The great majority of cases have remained unresolved to this day. On the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the UP’s existence, and of its uninterrupted extermination, there are only 10 registered cases in which a conviction has been reached. In 2002 the government put forth a resolution which removed the official status of the decimated political party. The National Electoral Council justified the measure affirming that the movement did not have the number of electoral votes necessary to maintain its status as an official party.

The acts of violence and terror perpetrated against the UP constitute a harsh blow to the idea of democratizing the Colombian society. It has increased the fear of openly exercising political opposition, it has created an atmosphere of skepticism towards the viability of civilized political action, and it has permanently emboldened the conviction of those who believe only in a violent solution to the nation’s problems. What future is there for a society that accepts as a norm the annihilation, over two decades, of a complete political party? Is it proper to deem “democratic” a system in which legal opposition is treated this way?

Manuel Cepeda Vargas was a political leader, a journalist and, in the last days of his life, a member of Congress. His work as a journalist, his party activities and his service in Congress were dedicated to the exercise of opposition and to proposing alternatives based upon his ideological convictions. For this reason he was victim to a long chain of acts of persecution and harassment. He was accused, detained and incarcerated unjustly in 1961, 1964 and 1982. Between 1966 and 1970 he had to live in exile with his family. In 1993 a new, eventually unsuccessful, legal case against him was started, and in 1995 – a year after his death- it was brought to trial. His innocence was proven in all of these cases of unfounded and arbitrary accusations.

Finally, in 1994 there was an attack on his life. The assassination of which he was a victim was planned and executed in a joint operation between the highest levels of the Colombian Armed Forces and of paramilitary groups. The General of the Republic, Rodolfo Herrera Luna (who died in 1997) and the paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño Gil were implicated. Also implicated as material authors of the crime were two lower-level officers of the Armed Forces and three paramilitary hitmen.

After many threats and pressures, with my family and the foundation we created in honor to my father, we managed to demonstrate the State’s and the paramilitary groups’ responsibility for the crime, but only the two officers involved in the crime were convicted. Because of death threats, my wife and I had to live in exile for four years. Currently we live in Colombia with a permanent accompaniment by Peace Brigades International because of our high-risk situation.

Honorable Members of Congress:

The situation of the victims of the armed conflict in Colombia is extremely difficult. They have suffered, directly or indirectly, the impact of violence. The inhumane acts that have compromised their integrity, their physical and psychological well-being, and their plan for their lives, generate effects that in the majority of cases are irreversible. To this severe trauma is added the fact that the crimes regularly remain unpunished, adding to the suffering originally caused by violence a feeling of injustice that severely limits the full exercise of their rights. The victims are also subjected to a systematic disregard for their situation, and to a social stigmatization created by the justifications that the authors of atrocious acts make to justify their crimes.

The process of dialogue advanced by the government of President Alvaro Uribe Velez with paramilitary groups does not take into account the rights of the victims and their proposals for obtaining truth, justice and reparations. On the contrary, a legal framework has been adopted- law 975/05, called “justice and peace” and decree 128/03- that leads towards impunity and that does not promote the full dismantlement of these groups, nor the recovery of the land and goods that they have forcefully taken from hundreds of thousands of people. Contrary to what is argued by the Uribe Administration, the paramilitaries have strengthened their power in the last three years; they have created powerful mafia networks in vast areas of the country and have contributed to the legalization of drug-traffickers. Paramilitaries have even managed to infiltrate the Congress and control State institutions in vast regions of the country.

We ask you, in representation of the citizens of the United States, to send messages that are clear about the need to support the people and communities affected by grave violations of human rights. Also, that you make explicit references to the need to respect the associations of victims and survivors. We also ask you to oppose any economic aid that would finance the process being developed now with the paramilitary bosses, because they have not turned in anything in exchange for extensive benefits and their immense fortunes continue intact. The option for the international community has to be to side with the victims, and not with the aggressors.