(Translated by Dan Baird, a CSN volunteer translator)
By Ainara Lertxundi
Published in the Basque Newspaper Gara
April 2, 2009
The brother of Gloria Luz Gomez disappeared in 1983. He was a student leader who “dreamed of seeing a high standard of education in Colombia”. His body was found a few days later bearing the marks of torture. Linda Paola Medina lost her brother in 1988. As well as being a student activist, her brother took part in the founding of the Patriotic Union (a left-wing political party). The two women have united to seek truth and justice and to rescue the disappeared from silence.
Disappearances, extrajudicial executions, paramilitarism, the corpses of peasants presented as guerrillas killed in combat so that their killers can receive financial reward—the list of human rights violations in Colombia is endless and, at times, it looks as if the Army ordered them, with the complicity of others. Gloria Luz Gomez and Linda Paola Medina are striving, through the organization Asociacion de Familiares de Detenidos (ASFADDES, Association of Relatives of the Detained), to rescue from silence the victims of the “Dirty War” and to discover what happened to their relatives.
Two decades have passed since their brothers disappeared. What have the years of searching been like?
Gloria Luz Gomez: “They’ve been very difficult. My brother was 19 years old and studying for the final year of the Baccalaureate in a secondary school in Bogota. He was always heavily involved in student actions and one of his greatest wishes was to bring about high-quality education. On November 14, 1983 he went out to buy a few things and never returned. Some days later we found his body, extensively tortured. We never discovered who kidnapped and tortured him, much less who killed him.
“Leonardo was a friend of other students who were being gradually targeted and ‘disappeared.’ This went on from March 4 to September 13, 1982, and was the reason our association was founded. After 26 years, their relatives still don’t know what happened. They found the bodies of two of them, tortured and mutilated.
“In March, ASFADDES had been in existence for 26 years. On March 4, 1983, we went out for the first time into the central streets of Bogota to demand justice and the punishment of those responsible for the crimes. Since then, our work has been to publicize them. In Colombia between two and three people disappear every day. It’s impossible to give exact figures because some families are too afraid to report the disappearances and many others have to move away to the cities because of threats.”
Linda Paola Medina: “My mother, who was a humble peasant, started the search. The National Police arrested my brother on February 19, 1988 in Neiva, in the Huila region. They brought up a van and took him to the prison of one of the security agencies. We never found out what happened to him. He was a student leader in the Faculty of Linguistics and Literature at the University of Colombia. He was involved in setting up the Patriotic Union (UP). After twelve years we succeeded in having the second lieutenant of the Police in Huila sentenced to 45 months in prison. But he didn’t spend a single day there. He had previously been dismissed and had joined the ranks of the paramilitaries. It’s sad to realize that, at the age of 70, my mother is still waiting. When you speak about the disappeared, it’s different from what happens with kidnap victims. In the case of the disappeared, the idea is put about that ‘they did something bad’ and that’s why they disappeared. When you go to report a disappearance, you’re told that the person ‘has gone away because of debt, or other women, or because he’s gone to join the guerrillas.’
“In my brother’s case, we didn’t get justice but at least we made what happened known because the case was even considered by La Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (Inter-American Commission for Human Rights).” Human rights organizations report that their work has been criminalized by the State. Has ASFADDES experienced that?
Gloria Luz Gomez: “As victims of the disappearances, we’re constantly threatened and persecuted. Our organization isn’t recognized as legitimate. The Government targets us every day. The paramilitary groups who’re supposed to have disbanded have simply changed their names and continue to threaten all human rights organizations. Anyone who demands their rights is branded a ‘terrorist.’ Human rights defenders in Colombia are repressed by Alvaro Uribe’s government. In spite of the harassment and condemnation we get from the Government, we continue to be with the families in their search, and to press for the State to put into practice the legal powers it has to end abuses and to stop granting immunity.
“In our struggle, which has gone on for years, we’ve succeeded in having forced disappearance categorized as a crime. Although the Army opposed it at the time, in July 2000 Law 598 ordered the setting-up of a commission to search for disappeared people. But in the nine years since then there has been little progress because there’s no political will to strengthen that commission and enable it to carry out its functions.
President Alvaro Uribe boasts about the achievements of his Policy of Democratic Security (La Politica de Seguridad Democratica). How would you evaluate it?
Gloria Luz Gomez: “For us, the Policy of Democratic Security is a distraction, a more refined form of repression that is carried out secretly, to hide it from the eyes of the international community.”
It is reported that every day in Colombia two or three people are disappeared. What media coverage do these disappearances get?
Gloria Luz Gomez: “The media is totally at the service of the Government. The reality in Colombia is not shown. The cases that they make known they use for propaganda and because they can’t cover them up. The majority of serious human rights violations remain hidden. The media only talks of kidnappings and rescues, of Ingrid Betancourt, but they don’t mention the thousands and thousands of disappeared Colombian citizens, whom we can’t even count, or the families affected by this practice. They do not talk about forced displacement, the criminalization of protest, or of the unsanitary conditions in which political prisoners are held.
“All these problems are hidden by the media, which only picks up and shows what the Government orders them to. They talk of kidnapping, which is equally serious, but not as serious in scale as the cases of forced disappearance. There are more than 50,000 of these. The ‘false positives’ (‘falsos positivos’—innocent civilians killed by the Security Forces to boost their ’kill’ figures against the guerillas), which have now come to light because the situation got out of control, are the responsibility of the Armed Forces and have been happening for 20 years.”
The disappearances are the order of the day, just like threats and attacks. How can people live in this situation?
Linda Paola Medina: “There’s constant fear and anxiety in knowing that at any moment you can be the victim of a forced disappearance. When you walk down the street, you can’t be sure that the agents of the State, posted only meters apart and supposedly there to protect you, won’t harm you at any moment.”
Extrajudicial Executions to Justify the Army’s Tactics
The International Mission for Observation on Extrajudicial Executions and Impunity in Colombia (La Mision Internacional de Observacion sobre Ejecuciones Extrajudiciales e Impunidad en Colombia), consisting of thirteen independent professionals—jurists, journalists, anthropologists, forensic scientists and human rights experts—expressed its concern at the “high number” of extrajudicial executions that “remain covered by absolute impunity.”
“ We have met community leaders for whom these are not isolated incidents but systematic behavior showing evidence of premeditation. The victims were ordinary peasants, indigenous people, community leaders and the socially marginalized. In many cases, they were arbitrarily deprived of their liberty by the Army, dressed in military clothing and executed. Their bodies were afterwards presented as guerrillas ‘killed in combat,’’’ concluded the Mission’s final report, made public in Bilbo yesterday.
The report warns of the ‘existence in the Security Forces of economic and professional incentives and rewards for displaying ‘positives’—allegedly ‘enemies’—and for the intimidation of relatives and witnesses”. It sees as ‘worrying’ the fact that senior functionaries of the State publicly suggest that human rights organizations are carrying out their work of reporting in order to discredit the Armed Forces, “a suggestion that puts these organizations at serious risk.”
In statements to Gara, the lawyer, Liliana Uribe, of the Medellin Legal Association for Liberty (la Corporacion Juridica Libertad de Medellin), who took part in the presentation of the report, cited the example of Juan Manuel Santos, the Minister of Defense. In September 2008, Santos accused organizations operating in this field of “opening a legal and political war in favor of the guerrillas.” Liliana Uribe emphasized that, “The difference from previous periods is that now it is the Army that directly carries out executions and disappearances, on the pretext of the fight against crime or guerrillas or the paramilitaries.” She points out that, “The Government allocates for war 6.7% of its gross domestic product (GDP), a higher percentage than the United States or Israel. There is a permanent need to show that they can defeat those groups by military means. In this battle the sacrifice of many lives is seen as unimportant. The President himself has told the Police and the Army ‘Kill them, that is my answer.’ There is no respect for human life. The death penalty is allowed by the highest levels of power, even though it is banned in the country.”
Bogota has just announced a new operation against the FARC (the main guerrilla movement), called ‘Strategic Leap’ (‘Salto estrategico’). Liliana Uribe has no doubt that it will involve “more violations against the civilian population.”