EL ESPECTADOR, February 8, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Beginning Monday, February 8, the international tribunal will be the scene of a debate for which the Patriotic Union Party victims have been waiting for almost three decades: whether or not the Colombian government is responsible for the thousands of murders, disappearances, and threats suffered by the militants.

This Monday, February 8, 2021, from San José (Costa Rica), the Inter-American Court for Human Rights initiated a debate scheduled for four days on a crucial matter in Colombia’s memory: the government’s responsibility for the liquidation of the Patriotic Union Party (UP), a political party that arose out of a peace agreement in 1985. Today there are 6,002 accredited victims of massacres, murders, disappearances, exiles, attacks, and threats.

To begin the proceeding, the President of the international tribunal, Elizabeth Odio Benito, who is in charge of the hearing, recognized every one of the participants. The first to set forth her position was the representative of the Colombian government, Juana Acosta. She stated that it was the first time that the government had submitted a case to the Court, as “Colombia has rejected and rejects the acts of violence against members of the UP and maintains that the victims deserve to be recognized.” However, the government’s representative placed emphasis on the true number of victims of the acts of violence.

Acosta began by admitting that the case is highly relevant for the Colombian government because it is unprecedented in its magnitude, and because it involves events that took place over a period of more than 20 years, in more than 15 geographic regions of the country, with a multiplicity of modi operandi that varied depending on the geographic area and on the time period in which they happened; and with a multiplicity of individuals alleged to be responsible, including agents of the government, paramilitary groups, drug trafficking groups, common criminals, and even some guerrillas.

In spite of the foregoing, stated the representative, the government has warned that there are serious shortcomings in the list of alleged victims included in the decision on the merits by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (CIDH). That decision referred to a total of more than 6,000 alleged victims. The problem, according to Acosta, is that more than half of those individuals do not have identity documents or any other evidence of their existence. Therefore, she stated, the government itself created a “review manual” of all of the documents in the file.

“After the review of the comments sent by the victims’ representatives and the Commission (Inter-American Commission for Human Rights), the verification of multiple sources of information, and comparing the list with eight different data bases, we were able to identify just one fourth of the records offered by the Commission. They are people for whom there is a certificate of citizenship or other documents that accredit their existence. The government has requested the exclusion of 2,420 alleged victims that are not identified and for whom the victims’ representatives and the Commission have not furnished any element whatever that would permit accreditation of their existence,” she explained, adding that alleged victims whose circumstances have not been clarified must also be excluded.

In this regard, the government’s representative stated that there are only 219 alleged victims for which the Commission included facts in its in-depth report that would permit analysis of the government’s alleged international responsibility. “The government insists that, without a description of the events in the complete report, the listed data are not sufficient for the Court to analyze and attribute responsibility to the government and determine eventual full reparation measures,” Acosta stated.

Moreover, she stated that the victims’ representatives and the Commission were trying to overcome the lack of information about alleged victims, using cases that were identified as “representative”, an interpretation that the government “completely opposes.” She explained that the Commission had not indicated how it selected those cases and that if they were to be a representative example, that has “serious methodological deficiencies” that would interfere with extrapolating the findings to the universe of alleged victims.

In other words, the government opposes what, on the one hand, has a maximalist conception of the universe of victims, and asks that those that are not completely identified, and those where the events are not fully described, be excluded. Then, between one subtraction and another, the government finds that there is a total universe of 219 victims identified (out of the 6,002 that the Commission presented in its complete decision) that have a clear factual platform. And, on the other hand, the government insists that the case has to be resolved in individual cases in Colombian courts.

In fact, Juana Acosta stated that in the three legal-criminal models in Colombia, they are already undertaking the events related to the UP. On the one hand, she said, in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), case 006 prioritizes victimizations against the members of the UP, and case 004, covers the region of Urabá, which also includes related events. Later on, she mentioned that in the Peace and Justice proceedings, the judges had characterized the acts committed against members of the UP in different ways and, even in the decision against the paramilitary “alias H.H.”, they characterized what happened as a “genocide against the political group.”

Finally, said the government’s lawyer, in the ordinary justice system, at least 67 cases related to the UP are classified as crimes against humanity. “That shows that the government is not trying to deny the occurrence of one or more international crimes in this case because, in fact, the national authorities are continuing to work to determine who was responsible. The government’s application is more intended to emphasize the limitations of the international tribunal to handle the technical-legal complexities of this evaluation,” stressed the attorney.

In contrast, the representative of the CIDH, Jorge Mesa, pointed out that “what the government is presenting to the Court is in reality a controversy with respect to the identification of the victims in the case (…) the Commission recalls that, even though it is up to the Commission to identify the victims in its full report, Article 35.2 of the Court Rules establishes an exception: when it can be justified that it was not possible to identify one or more alleged victims of the events that are massive or collective violations, as has taken place in this case,” he said.

He added that it’s true that the actions taken against the victims in this case are numerous, and that they occurred at different times and places, but that all of them have the same aspect of adding up to government responsibility; their connection with the UP and the actions and omissions of the government that contributed to them are the same. “In the lists there is a name, a type of connection with the UP, the kind of violation of rights, municipality and date of occurrence. The consolidation of the list by the Commission in those terms is, in addition, the product of the positions that the Colombian government took before the Commission,” he stated.

He explained that on the one hand, the government didn’t challenge the list of alleged victims during the proceeding, and that, moreover, the government admitted its responsibility when the Commission explicitly requested that because this is the stage for identifying and individualizing the victims in the case, and identifying the events, based on the evidence available. In other words, he said, with regard to the lists that Colombia refuses to accept, they didn’t deny what happened, which has legal consequences. Besides that, Mesa added that the government isn’t offering its own efforts to identify the victims.

At their turn, Luis Felipe Viveros and Juan Estaban Monroya, representatives of the victims and the organization, Rights with Dignity, argued that the IDH Court—and not the Colombian government—is the one with authority to decide completely whether the violations complained of with respect to the victims in the case had been proved or not. In addition, they insisted that the totality of the victims that they are representing belonged to the UP and were victimized because of that, “and thus we have proved every part of the case.”

Furthermore, they referred to the direct reparation, pointing out that, “there are not enough funds in Colombia sufficient and effective to guarantee the reparation of the victims of serious violations of human rights.” For its part, the organization Restart, which also represents victims in this case, commenced its presentation by referring to the removal of the Patriotic Union Party’s legal personhood by the National Electoral Council (CNE in Spanish) and it asked the IDH Court to articulate fully about that event, keeping in mind that, with that governmental action, “the exercise of political rights by people connected to the movement was severely undermined. He explained that that point was crucial because it showed the implementation of the intention behind the genocide: interfere with the UP’s participation in the country’s political life.” More than that, because the removal of the legal personhood of the Party was done so that it would not be able to obtain the minimum number of votes legally required, as a consequence of the violence. Along with that, they filed a request with the Court to classify the events in the case as political genocide and as a crime against humanity. In addition they requested that the classification take effect in the orders issued by the Court to the Colombian government in the area of investigation and punishment for the actions.

Furthermore, they argued that the cases entitled “representatives” are those where they had been able to obtain more information, which “does not mean that the other cases didn’t happen and that they cannot be part of this case, and much less that the cases with more information should determine the patterns of the occurrence of the genocide. Those patterns must be clarified by Colombian judicial authorities and as of this date, they continue to fail to do that.” In this connection, the victims’ representatives alleged that it’s the Court’s duty to determine the government’s failure to carry out its obligations through the nearly 30 years of persecution of the militants of the UP.

With the first session complete, there was a recess and at 12 noon, Colombia re-initiated the proceeding. The first witness in this session, called by the Restart organization, was the current Senator Aída Avella Esquivel, who 30 years ago was chosen as President of the Patriotic Union Party and subsequently became a member of the Bogotá City Council. That post cost her an attack on May 7, 1996, but, miraculously, she survived. Two days later she sought asylum in Switzerland, where she lived for 17 years and six months.  She returned to this country when legal personhood was returned to the UP, but in February of 2014, she began once again to receive death threats and to be harassed, so she traveled back and forth between Colombia and Switzerland.

Finally, in 2018, she was elected Senator and she now lives in this country. When she was asked about what happened with the Patriotic Union Party, she began to explain that, in 1986, it was the first time that a third party was competing in presidential and congressional elections. At that time they won 14 seats in the Congress: five Senators and nine representatives in the Chamber. That year, the UP also offered its first presidential candidate: Jaime Pardo Leal.

However, joy was quickly turned to grief, and political ambition into its main executioner. Avella told how, one by one, the militants were murdered. She began by mentioning Leonardo Posada, Pedro Nel Jiménez, Jaime Pardo Leal, Teófilo Forero, among others. “Those were very hard and difficult times, we had to be going to the funerals of those who had been designated in the “Mercy Killing” plan. Because in Colombia there were plans to kill us all; this genocide was planned, systematic, generalized, and directed not just to eliminate the people and members and militants of the UP, but also to dilute our political presence by means of the murders,” stated Senator Avella.

In that connection, she was referring to operations like “The Red Dance”, “The Plan to Return”, “The Emerald Plan”, and several massacres that took place in different provinces like Antioquia, Meta, and Santander. “Nobody understood why they were killing us that way, and the answer was political intolerance. They didn’t want our party to make any gains (…) and that was the horror, it was experiencing something that we can’t express in words because our militancy was taking us to the cemeteries. Every day we had to see our comrades falling. So we went to the government, thinking it could do something, but it didn’t do anything,” Avella said.

Senator Avella stated that international mercenaries came to Colombia for the express purpose of killing the UP militants. They came for that reason and not only the civil authorities, but also military authorities welcomed them. That is what we cannot support; to this day we can’t take in that pain, we don’t know to endure it, we don’t know whom to ask for justice, but in Colombia that’s impossible. The index of impunity is 97.6% and that is why we go to international tribunals. In Colombia not only do they prevent even a glimpse, in some cases, of punishment of those responsible (…) Every time I talk about the genocide, it’s very difficult seeing your political family die, seeing them killed, and that the government does practically nothing for their protection,” she said.

The second witness in this session was María Eugenia Guzmán de Antequera, the widow of José de Jesús Antequera Antequera. As she explained, her husband was a lawyer, a student leader, Secretary General of the Communist Youth group and a founder of the UP. He served the UP as coordinator of public relations. In other words, he was in charge of managing the communications with other political groups, with other entities, with the Church, etc. In addition, they assigned him an essential task: coordinating the election campaign once the Party became official and a campaign had to be organized. In fact, at the moment he was assassinated, March 3, 1989, he was in charge of coordinating the second campaign in the 1990 elections.

“What I’m going to describe and what it cost us as people or as a family, was the same thing that happened to more than 3,000 people that were murdered selectively during the existence of the UP. From the moment the UP was formed, once the election campaign started, what started for us as victims was a very organized, selective killing spree, practically a list of people they were killing every day, just for belonging to the UP. Of course this event and our connection with the movement was terrifying because we were constantly attending funerals and physically seeing our people’s pain, on the television and on the radio,” she said.

María Eugenia Guzmán admitted that they were certain that their names were on “the list”, until the day finally came, at El Dorado airport, at 3:45 in the afternoon. Her husband was murdered by machine gun fire, in spite of the fact that he was protected by bodyguards employed by the DAS[1]. She said that it was so obvious what was going to happen to them; in the morning of the day of the murder, Antequera had complained in a nationally circulated magazine, with names and surnames, that 720 people had already been murdered. When the magazine came out, José Antequera would be killing no. 721.

“Those threats reached us as a family and they were constant. Messages (condolences) arrived at our house, expressions of sympathy that are sent in Colombia when someone has died. We received wreaths of flowers that people send to funerals, they painted our front door with a black cross, they put a bomb in the building where we were living, and they also placed a bomb in his (her husband’s) office, and a person was killed. All of that happened before José was assassinated. There were too many threats, too many terrors suffered by our children for the simple fact that there were bodyguards at our front door, DAS agents who had to stay there day and night. It concentrated the fear into our souls, and was an intrinsic part of our daily lives,” she said.

This is how the first day ended of the four days in which the IDH Court will hear the victims and put together the necessary materials to make a thoroughgoing decision in a case that has been under the shadow of uncertainly and legal controversy for nearly three decades.

[1] Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security, abolished in 2011.

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