COLOMBIA + 20, EL ESPECTADOR, December 24, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
In 2021, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Truth Commission, and the unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons showed their first results three years after their creation. The admission by soldiers of their “false positives” and their requests for pardon by their victims, charges against the FARC for kidnapping, the fact that four former presidents have furnished their whole truth, or the discovery of disappeared persons who had been kidnapped, are some of those results.
Special Jurisdiction for Peace
Three and one/half years after the Peace Tribunal got started in Colombia, it has already issued its first decisions in the kidnapping cases, the cases of extrajudicial executions, wrongly referred to as “false positives”, and of the FARC’s recruitment and use of boys and girls in the armed conflict. In the first two areas there have already been charges filed against some of those responsible, who in the most complicated scenario, have ended up being turned over to the Court’s Unit for Investigation and Indictment, which is the JEP’s prosecutorial unit. Criminal trials are contemplated.
In Case 01, (Taking of hostages and other serious deprivations of liberty), the first thing that the JEP determined is that in this country there are at least 21,396 victims of kidnapping by the FARC. On January 26, by means of Order No.19 of 2021, the Justices charged eight former members of the FARC Secretariat, including Rodrigo Londoño, Pastor Lisandro Alape, Pablo Catatumbo, and others, with war crimes and crimes against humanity. That was the first document issued after the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016 that attributed responsibility to the chief actors in the armed conflict in Colombia.
That decision, signed by Justice Julieta Lemaitre, also held that homicides, tortures, disappearances, sexual violence, forced displacement, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment had been committed in the practice of kidnapping. Some of these were later cataloged by the JEP as slavery. This last generated a controversy among the signers of the Agreement, even though they did not deny that these things happened. They have rejected that categorization unanimously, stating that the captives were never subjected to forced labor.
Two months after the charges were filed, the former members of the Secretariat admitted the charges, and the investigation is now proceeding to clarify the responsibility of mid-level commanders of the now-defunct guerrillas. Sebastián Arismendy, the son of Héctor Fabio Arismendy, one of the eleven Valle del Cauca Deputies that were kidnapped and murdered in 2007, insists that it’s necessary for the Jurisdiction to require more from the ex-FARC so that they “tell more of the truth and admit more difficult and more specific things about the kidnapping, because they can’t be so permissive and accept such generic responses.”
In Case 03 (Murders and forced disappearances presented as guerrillas killed in combat by agents of the government), the JEP issued, on February 18, Order 033 of 2021, in which it defined Antioquia, Norte de Santander, Huila, Casanare, Meta, and the Caribbean coast region as the priority areas of the country for commencing the investigation of this phenomenon. This document was controversial, among other things, because it revealed that, according to comparisons of official government data with data collected by social organizations, there had been at least 6,402 victims of false positives between 2002 and 2008, exactly at the time that Álvaro Uribe held the office of President.
Perhaps this has been the most difficult case to unravel, because the degree of admission of responsibility by the military has been practically nil. In July of this year, the JEP charged 15 members of the Army who belonged to the La Popa Artillery Battalion (César). In that same month, they also charged another ten soldiers and one civilian with 120 cases that took place in Catatumbo (Norte de Santander).
On December 11, 21 former soldiers admitted their responsibility for the crime. Some of them asked pardon for what had happened, as was the case with Retired General Paulino Conrado, former commander of the 30th Brigade (in Norte de Santander). Regarding that case, Sebastián Escobar, of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, which represents the victims of crimes committed by the government, stated that, “The most important decisions have involved the intermediate ranks, not to mention only those ranking lower in the chain of command; however, it would be relevant to emphasize that the JEP has been able to determine the geographic areas and military units where the cases were concentrated, something that had not been done by the ordinary justice system because of the high level of impunity that there was with this crime.”
Between November and so far in December, the JEP decided to send Colonels Publio Hernán Mejía (Retired), Juan Carlos Figueroa, and José Pastor Ruiz Mahecha– charged with being most responsible for the killing of at least 127 people by the La Popa Battalion—to the JEP’s prosecutorial unit to face criminal trials, as they denied their responsibility and knowledge of the crime. At that point in the process, the Unit for Investigation and Indictment, which now has their cases, will be the one to decide what penalty they must pay, in case they are found to be responsible.
The Truth Commission
The most important news for the Truth Commission this year was the news that their term had been extended by nine months by a decision of the Constitutional Court, after victims and human rights organizations argued that the pandemic had interfered with their collection of testimony that would be essential for their final report. Their term will last until June 27, 2022, with a period of two additional months for the distribution and discussion of the report.
In 2021, four former Presidents appeared before the Commission voluntarily to testify about how they confronted the conflict during their terms. On June 11, it was Juan Manuel Santos who admitted the seriousness of the wrongly named “false positives” and asked pardon of the families of the victims.
On August 16, Álvaro Uribe appeared to testify, previously unthinkable because of his stated objections to the Peace Agreement signed by Santos with the FARC. Still not recognizing the legitimacy of the Truth Commission, he received Fr. Francisco de Roux and Commissioners Lucía Gonzalez and Leyner Palacios at his ranch in Rionegro (Antioquia). They talked about the “false positives”, the Convivir, and the role of drug trafficking in the conflict.
On August 31 it was Andrés Pastrana’s turn. He gave Fr. de Roux a letter from the drug traffickers Rodríguez Orejuela about Ernesto Samper’s campaign for President. In it they confirmed that the ex-President did know about the intake of drug trafficking money into his campaign. Samper’s defense was that he recognized no moral authority in Pastrana, because of his supposed relations with Jeffrey Epstein. For that reason, Samper decided to appear before the Truth Commission a third time, on November 24.
The men that took up arms and ordered serious crimes, from paramilitaries to the FARC, also made their contribution to finding the whole truth about the conflict. On August 4, Salvatore Mancuso and Rodrigo Londoño held a public conversation with the President of the Commission, Fr. de Roux.
In the presence of 18 victims, they talked about the reasons that led them to be leaders in an armed conflict in which they were enemies. Mancuso stated that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia grew in coordination with the government, and Londoño said that the attacks on police stations and military bases located within civilian areas ended up being a bad mistake, because the people most affected were civilians.
On June 23, Rodrigo Londoño, Carlos Antonio Lozada, and Pastor Alape, together with other former members of the FARC, admitted in front of the whole country, the outrages they committed in the practice of kidnapping. Victims of the crime, like Ingrid Betancourt, Helmut Ángulo, Roberto Lacourture, family of the Deputies of El Valle were present, among others. In spite of that, one of the harshest criticisms of that session was the reluctance of the ex-FARC to ask for pardon.
With the Truth Commission, the FARC made other admissions and requests for pardon, such as what happened on September 30 in front of the inhabitants of San Pedro de Urabá. On that day, they admitted being responsible for the massacre in the district (corregimiento) of Alto San Juan and in the town (vereda) of La Rula, which provoked the forced displacement of the communities and the abandonment of all of their land, property, and animals.
The families of the victims of extrajudicial executions also received admissions and requests for pardon from members of the Army that were responsible for those events, by means of public ceremonies organized by this agency. On October 5, they met in Cali with more than a hundred families so that the country could hear the testimonies of pain and impunity. On November 10, it was the turn of soldiers like Retired Major Gustavo Soto Bracamonte, who commanded the military’s Anti-Kidnapping Unit (Gaula) in Casanare, and he accepted the blame for the killing of 70 young men. He emphasized that he was always under pressure from his superior to increase the number of “kills in combat”.
On December 1, two high-ranking soldiers, Retired Colonel Luis Fernando Borja and Major César Maldonado admitted publicly and in the name of their comrades their responsibility and that of the Colombian Army for the commission of extrajudicial executions. The officers admitted that the Army’s doctrine ever since the eighties incentivized violations of human rights, and the failure to do justice encouraged the degradation of military practices within the Army.
Jacqueline Castillo, leader of the organization Mothers of the Victims of False Positives in Soacha (Mafapo in Spanish), stated that, for them, the most significant thing has been that the JEP recognizes that this was a systemic practice, and not isolated events, as the Attorney General’s Office had been insisting. “Besides what happened in the legal system, with the Truth Commission we attained having someone like Juan Manuel Santos, who was Minister of Defense when those 6,402 events took place, has admitted publicly that our relatives were not guerrillas like they tried to make them appear.”
Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons
Of the three entities, the UBPD has received the most criticism for its bureaucracy and its lack of results in advancing the search for people who have disappeared in connection with the armed conflict. Social organizations and victims have pointed out that, instead of furnishing information on the cases, even possibly locating the bodies, this agency has taken a long time to give any answers and in programming the exploration needed to verify their information. Their concern is not just based on the years they have been waiting for the government to give the families some answers, but also in that the fathers and mothers of the victims have been dying before they could learn where their children are.
An example of the delays by the UBPD was what happened with Carmenza Castañeda and Gerardo Ángulo, a couple who, 68 years ago, were kidnapped, murdered, and disappeared by the now-defunct guerrillas in a rural area of San Juanito (Meta). Even though their family, with support from Equitas, the Colombian Jurists Commission, and the FARC’s Search Commission, identified the area where their bodies were buried, the agency took more than 2 ½ years before one of their forensic teams went to the location.
On October 20, the UBPD team at that site found what could be the remains of Carmenza Castañeda. Her bone fragments are now at the Institute for Forensic Medicine for verification of her identity, and the Unit has to continue searching for Gerardo.
In 2021, the Unit was able to find three disappeared persons who are still alive. Their reunion with their families took place in July and August of this year. In the first case, two brothers were searching for their disappeared father, who had unfortunately died of Covid-19. The second case involved a mother and her daughter, and each was searching for the other, years after the mother, who was a guerrilla, was forced to give away her baby.
So far, the Search Unit has obtained 11 regional agreements, signed by local authorities committing to aid in the search for persons disappeared during the conflict. Ten of them were signed this year, in Magdalena, Antioquia, Puerto Berrío, Bogotá, Buenaventura, Caquetá, Norte de Santander, Nariño, César, and Barrancabermeja. In the Buenaventura agreement, the city agreed to carry out the first search for remains disappeared in the ocean, an exceedingly complicated task that has never before been carried out in this country.
This year, the Unit also made progress in the investigation of the total universe of victims disappeared in the war. There are 99, 325 people believed to have disappeared. So far in the Unit’s term, besides finding five people alive, it has found 337 bodies, has made 132 dignified deliveries of remains to families, working with other entities such as the Attorney General’s Office, 314 humanitarian recovery activities, 99 surveys, and has obtained 2,508 genetic samples to hasten the process of identifying the remains now in the custody of the Institute of Forensic Medicine.