“The only way to change the nation’s destiny is to help the victims tell their story.” —Colombian journalist Hollman Morris.
On February 4, 2008, Colombians marched in the millions in a powerful rejection of violence by the FARC guerrillas. It was an inspirational, authentic cry by Colombians weary of the horrific guerrilla tactics, and a show of solidarity for the suffering of the many Colombians held for years as captives of the FARC. While the march was a citizens’ effort, the government supported it enthusiastically, and President Álvaro Uribe offered “our voice of gratitude to all the Colombians who today expressed with dignity and strength a rejection of kidnapping and kidnappers.”
For many of the victims of paramilitary violence, the march’s enormous scale raised the question of why the same Colombian society that stood so united behind the victims of the FARC would fail to stand behind them. Why did so few seem to care about the families of the thousands of people who had been killed or disappeared by the paramilitaries, about the mass graves in the countryside, about the bodies that washed up on the banks of the rivers, or about the several million people forced to flee their homes, many by paramilitary violence? Why would the government lend support and credibility to this march, but remain mute about paramilitary crimes? Victims called for a second march a month later, to reject the violence by paramilitaries, as well as the actions of the soldiers and politicians who had supported them. As movement leader Iván Cepeda explained, victims wanted Colombian society to “offer a just homage to the displaced, the disappeared, the families of those assassinated or massacred… We don’t want just a moment of remembrance, we want solidarity.” Yet Colombian society was divided about participating, the government held this march at arms length, and march organizers faced a wave of death threats and violence.
The tale of the two marches helps to explain why a process that demobilized thousands of paramilitaries, members of a murderous armed group, would be so controversial. The victims, after an astounding period of violence, expect and demand not only an end to violence, but some tangible measure of truth, justice and reparations. But the victims of paramilitary violence are still waiting for the acknowledgment they long for, from the government and Colombian society: to recognize what they suffered, to admit the role of government officials, politicians and members of Colombia’s armed forces in aiding and abetting paramilitary atrocities, and to say: “Never again.” There is a palpable fear that on some level the demobilization is a sham—with groups that never really demobilized, others rearming, and paramilitary power maintaining a lockhold over national politics and local communities.
LAWGEF’s new report, The Other Half of the Truth, explores the limited opportunities for truth, justice and reparations available to victims of paramilitary violence through the official process established by the Colombian government. It takes the story up to the recent roadblock created by the controversial decision by the U.S. and Colombian governments to extradite the top paramilitary leadership to the United States on drug trafficking charges—a move that greatly complicates efforts to try them on human rights charges. Then the report highlights the often heroic efforts by diverse actors—human rights activists, journalists, prosecutors, Supreme Court judges, a few politicians, and especially victims—to wring, if not yet reparations and justice, at least a little more truth from the process.
For the limits to the truth offered by the official framework began to unravel as many different actors in Colombia tugged at truth as if at a tightly wound ball of yarn. Some one hundred and twenty-five thousand people attempted to register with government agencies as victims. Victims groups, many vociferously denouncing the official process, began to carry out their own truth sessions, mock trials and alternative registries of stolen land. Human rights groups assailed the obstacles to achieving justice through the demobilization law, and redoubled their efforts to document new abuses by the military and the rearming of paramilitary groups. Journalists published investigative stories and thoughtful opinion columns that sparked public debate on a subject long shrouded in silence. Colombia’s highest courts pried open the door to more justice than contemplated by the executive by setting some minimum standards for application of the demobilization law and hauling the politicians behind the paramilitaries into court. By the end of 2007, Semana columnist María Teresa Ronderos could say, “Like rabbits out of a magician’s hat came the names of businessmen, military and other accomplices of the paramilitary barbarie…. The truth that emerged this year has been sufficiently enlightening… that this year can pass down in history as the one in which we began to discover the truth.” These heroic individuals’ quest for the truth is an unfinished story, but it is an inspirational tale.
The report concludes with recommendations for how U.S. policy can best support the struggle for truth, justice and reparations in Colombia.