Truth Commission: Colombia Examines Conscience
More than 60 years of war marked several generations. The longest internal conflict in the Western Hemisphere left figures difficult to imagine. More than 260,000 dead, seven million displaced, tens of thousands of disappeared. There is not a Colombian to whom violence has not gone through in some way. A society sometimes anesthetized by so much pain will have to face its own horror this Tuesday. The one to which the peace agreement signed with the FARC in 2016 wanted to put an end to. The Truth Commission, which emerged from that historic pact, presented the final report on Tuesday after more than three years of work to try to understand how it was possible for Colombia to bleed to death for decades. “We bring a message of hope and a future for our broken and broken nation,” began the president of the Truth Commission, Jesuit Father Francisco de Roux.
In a public speech, De Roux called on the country to begin a period of reflection and reconciliation after a war in which 80% of the victims were civilians and only 2% of those killed fell in combat. To try to turn the page on an eternal conflict of diffuse fronts, turned into a fight against the entire Colombian society. The final report, although its nature is not judicial or binding, aims to open a debate to reflect on what happened and prevent it from happening again.
Hundreds of victims accompanied all the commissioners – in charge of drafting the report, with an extension of thousands of pages – in this central act marked by the father’s speech in the noisy absence of the outgoing president, Iván Duque, who is traveling in Europe. An absence that ends up closing the circle of the limited attachment of the president to the Truth Commission and everything that surrounds the peace agreement with the FARC signed by his predecessor. Duque was not even present at the constitution of the Commission. Who did participate, and even made his first speech since the elections on June 19, was the president-elect, Gustavo Petro. “There are expectations of peace, of a great peace,” he said.
The country heard from the slow voice of Father Roux the horror of a war without simplistic solutions, in which there are no good guys or bad guys and in which evil nested in all levels of the State. He made resounding affirmations, such as that the strategy of so-called false positives, by which the army passed off thousands of civilian victims as combatants killed in combat in exchange for perks, was an established and generalized policy and not isolated or one-off events. A policy that was applied massively during the government of Álvaro Uribe, but that also existed before and continued after, with the mandate of Juan Manuel Santos, the man behind the agreement with the guerrillas and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The Commission has published this Tuesday two fundamental chapters of its work in these years. The summary of findings, recommendations and conclusions, with more than a dozen recommendations, will serve as a summary and starting point for an in-depth debate that points in several directions. The Army will be one of the axes. The Commission recommends changing the doctrine that has plagued the security forces since the 1950s, even a decade before the appearance of the FARC, within the framework of the Cold War. The “doctrine of the internal enemy”, in which security is structured around the threat of communism. A military trained for decades in the idea that everything that is not with me is against me.
The Commission asks to transform a security system focused on war and not on people. An Army dedicated to protecting the infrastructure, the companies, on the property, but that forgot the population that was involved in the conflict. It also affects the Police, with a reference to the Constitution. Article 218 states: “The National Police is a permanent armed body of a civil nature, in charge of the Nation, whose primary purpose is to maintain the necessary conditions for the exercise of public rights and freedoms, and to ensure that the inhabitants of Colombia live together in peace”. In reality, the report shows, the Police today defends the State and its interests. A discussion that, as different international organizations have already done, includes the need to separate defense from security, sheltering the Police under a different umbrella from that of the Ministry of Defense.
To understand the conflict it is also necessary to understand the evolution of the guerrilla. In a graphic image that ranges from the peasants who took up arms in the 1960s in Marquetalia to the commanders of gold chains and horse collections, enriched with money from drug trafficking. From the guerrilla hymn “El barcino” to the narcocorridos. Drug trafficking permeated Colombian life as a whole, occupying a political, economic, military and territorial place. The report highlights that the drug trafficker intervened in the conflict on both sides, even touching the DEA itself.
There is a key moment in the war, which Commission sources refer to as “the chaos.” Between 1998 and 2002, the FARC thought they were going to win the war, with seven fronts around Bogotá. The logic of excessive violence was imposed on all sides. The guerrilla thought that the proximity of victory allowed anything. The Army decided that everything was allowed to stop that defeat. Between 1994 and 2010, 90% of the victims of the conflict occurred.
Going forward, the report also calls for negotiating what many have called “complete peace” with the National Liberation Army, ELN, the last active guerrilla group in Colombia after the agreement with the FARC. Born under the influence of the Cuban revolution in 1964, and inspired by liberation theology, the ELN had sat down to negotiate at the end of the Santos government, but that umpteenth attempt was blown up when Duque had not completed a semester in the power. The guerrillas carried out a car bomb attack against a school for police cadets in Bogotá, which left 22 dead and dozens wounded. After the attack, Duque ignored the rupture protocols signed by the parties –including the guarantor countries–, with which he left the ELN negotiating delegation in Cuba in limbo. Diplomatic disagreements between Bogotá and Havana were the rule during the rest of his term, while the rebels grew stronger in different territories, including along the extensive and porous border with Venezuela.
The leadership of the ELN, however, has just expressed “its full willingness to advance in a peace process” with the Petro government that resumes the negotiations that had begun in Quito in 2017. The president-elect, for now, has announced that his foreign minister will be Álvaro Leyva, who advised the Havana table with the FARC.
Given the dialogic tone that the next government has shown, the report lands in a favorable environment after the commissioners had to navigate for years in the midst of polarization. The Commission also highlights the need to discuss the country’s economic model, a taboo for many, but the origin of the enormous inequality and the exclusion of many layers of society. The practically constant growth of one of the most stable economies in Latin America has not been accompanied by well-being or security for many of its citizens, as evidenced by the social outbreak of recent years led by young people throughout Colombia. .
Although the Commission’s work culminates with its long-awaited final report, it has another two months to socialize it. Dignifying the victims has always been at the heart of its mission, and on Wednesday there will be an event with several hundred of them in the Plaza de los Artesanos in Bogotá. The peace agreement has also received strong support from the international community, so that in the coming weeks the commissioners will visit Brussels and New York, the headquarters of the European Union and the United Nations, to present the report. This international tour will also take them to several cities in Spain, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and the United States.
From this same Tuesday, the Follow-up and Monitoring Committee also comes into operation, in charge of reviewing that the recommendations are implemented. Among its functions will be publishing semi-annual reports to assess progress. It will be made up of seven members for a period of seven years. Additionally, the Commission has always been part of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition that emerged from the agreements. From the beginning it was conceived as the component with the shortest mandate, but the other two, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) and the Unit for the Search for Persons Given as Disappeared, of longer duration, will bear witness to its findings. . In search of reconciliation, Colombia looks at a painful but restorative truth.
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