By Edwin Bohorquez Aya, EL ESPECTADOR, June 29, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Many people are cataloging it as a historic document, because of the courage of its content as well as its construction of the violent reality of this country. They consider it a necessary base for the peace that is coming.
It’s Wednesday, EL ESPECTADOR EXPLAINS DAY. Imagine if you could hear and compile 28,543 testimonies from people that have been touched by Colombia’s armed conflict. Yes, the one that many of us experienced first hand, the one our parents have told us about, the one we have been telling our children about. Imagine that in those 28,543 testimonies there are members of the Armed Forces talking, politicians, business owners, indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombian people, campesinos, members of illegal armed groups, people who laid down their arms and now are on a path that isn’t violent, and are trying to become part of society. Imagine that every one of those stories is a piece of the puzzle that will help to build the whole map of our country, this country that needs to learn the whole truth of a violence that has left much pain and sorrow. Imagine more than 60 years of war—and it’s not over—told in fragments, and now trying to put it together in just one document. Or better yet, several documents, because that much barbarism can’t be compiled into a short history.
So that’s what we are starting to see this week, as we see the first part of the Truth Commission’s Final Report, the reason for this bulletin: to explain what we are seeing now, and to furnish the whole context that’s necessary, as we reveal a historic publication that will serve, as stated by those who also have spent years documenting and analyzing the violent events in Colombia, a publication that we hope will serve as some reparation to the victims, reparation based on the construction of memory. We don’t forget to go into all of the connections that will be left for later, because with those we can understand every detail recounted by our journalism colleagues: Colombia+20, and the legal and political writers at EL ESPECTADOR. Let’s get going.
“We bring a message of hope and of a future for our damaged and broken nation. Uncomfortable truths that challenge our dignity, a painful message for everybody as human beings, beyond our political or ideological stands, our cultures and religious beliefs, beyond our gender and ethnicity. We bring words that come out of listening and feeling for the victims in most of our territory and even those in exile; from listening to people who struggle to maintain memory and resist denialism, and from people who have accepted their ethical, political, and criminal responsibilities. A message of truth to halt the intolerable tragedy of a conflict in which eighty percent of the victims were civilians and not combatants, and in which less than two percent of the deaths were in combat”.
With these words, the President of Colombia’s Truth Commission, Jesuit priest Francisco De Roux, presented the Final Report prepared by the team he leads. It was the biggest news this week. In general, it was a plea for the following necessities: “We are calling on people to be aware of our way seeing the world, and to realize that we are trapped in a ‘war mode’ in which we can’t conceive how others may think differently. So we see them as enemies, while it’s possible that some of them were turned into the smoke that came from the cremation oven chimneys of Juan Frío; or some person that the soldiers thought of as hunting trophies for the guerrillas, and we will find bags full of the bullet-riddled bodies of politicians; or that we get used to the suspended killings by kidnapping, while every day we pick up the bodies of inconvenient leaders.”
The first document of the Final Report
But before we continue, we need a little context to understand how we arrived at the delivery of the Report. After the Peace Agreement was signed, the Truth Commission was created to investigate what it was that happened in more than five years of conflict in Colombia, through the work of eleven Commissioners and their respective teams, so that the country would have access to the whole document. The work was divided into 10 chapters: historical narrative, violations of human rights and of International Humanitarian Rights, Women and the LGBTIQ+ population (the first time in the world that this has happened), children and adolescents; exile, testimonies from the countryside (campesinos as victims of the illegal armed actors), the government’s responsibility, impacts, coping strategies and endurance (mental and physical health during the war), impact of the war on the environment, and on the ethnic peoples. The Report closes with the chapter on synthesis, findings and recommendations that, even though they are last on the list, are first to be published, on subjects like drug trafficking, conflict for land, and armed groups that never signed the peace.
Who are the Commissioners? Why were these individuals appointed? What role have they played in Colombian society? So here are the profiles of some of them, those who have studied the relationship between violence and health, that have been victims of the FARC, of the ELN, of the paramilitaries, and even of the government; there are also some that have dedicated their lives to the dignity of the Afro-Colombian and feminist struggles in Apartadó and Urabá, or for example, the precursors of methodologies for the reconstruction of memory and truth:
Carlos Beristain: leader of the Truth Commission’s project on exile
Embracing the different and honoring Afro-Colombians and women; that was Angela Salazar’s life
Saúl Franco, the doctor who has diagnosed the pains left by the war
The choice made by Marta Ruiz to narrate the conflict until it reaches all of Colombia
So, between context and news, what does the report say? Some of the recommendations say that it’s necessary to “create a Ministry of Peace, regulate military promotions, end the prohibitionism in the fight against drug trafficking, and concentrate on a policy of memory.
Colombia+20 comments, “According to the Commission, of the more than 10,000 proposals the Commission received in its public and private dialogs, most of the demands by the victims are focused on complete reparation, the transformation of the countryside, access to land, and the importance of changes in the political regimen in this country.” They speak of “gradually eliminating compulsory military service, separating the Police from the Ministry of Defense and locating it in another agency so as to guarantee its civil character” and also of “reforming the promotion system for military and police so that those that have credible complaints against them for human rights violations will face a more rigorously controlled process.” They speak of “the importance of leading a complete reform of the defense system, including a transformation of the military doctrine.
Now we are going to look at different sections. Why are they talking about transforming the military doctrine? Because, they say, the military have committed “violations of International Human Rights Law” when their work should be to guarantee and respect human dignity and the principle of distinction. They recommend that the Inspector General’s procedures be open, so that they can “guarantee the application of a provisional suspension of officials who are being investigated for those kinds of crimes.” And on that same list of proposals for reform, they recommend that intelligence and counter-intelligence activities of government agencies “be subjected by the government to independent civilian control, and that the controls apply to all of the work of the Armed Forces, and particularly of its most intrusive activities affecting the right of privacy, profiling, and monitoring the electromagnetic spectrum.” They speak of eliminating compulsory military service with the idea of moving toward social service agencies of civilian character.
They also cite the need to eliminate the contracts between the Armed Forces and private businesses that are present in rural areas “without prejudicing the necessity of attending to the security of citizens and communities in rural areas, as well as the protection of business activities.” They ask for increasing the number of Police inspectors in the countryside, besides the community guardians (indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and campesino) in their activities in protecting their own communities. The list of reasons in this section is long, and it also speaks of control and possession of weapons, of the reason for the proposal to remove the Police from the Defense Ministry and remove it to an agency of a more civilian character, and other important subjects, all of them cited and explained in that part of the text.
The reporters in the Judicial section have explained why Colombia’s security model has been such a failure or, to use the words of the Report: “After 60 years of useless war, Colombia can’t keep relying on weapons to maintain security.” It questions the strategies the government used to end the conflict and criticizes the strategies that are still in effect, even those that were agreed to in Havana. They talk about the “militarization, using the power of weapons against civilians, rather than making the Police into a body that attacks violence, about supporting paramilitaries, fomenting a military doctrine focused on ‘the internal enemy’, among others,” among the key points regarding security in the national territory.
But when will this Report be published? Sebastián Forero Rueda, the reporter who had the task of following the Commission for its four years of existence, says there will be another edition. That raises the question of how to obtain the report at the exact time that the eyes of the whole country will be focused on the transition? “That’s the goal,” he wrote. Therefore, with reflection resulting from understanding the first chapter, it was also necessary to recall how this all began. “The Commission commenced in a scenario with a lot of controversy about the Peace Agreement and the mechanisms of transitional justice, and there were a lot of attempts to kill that, but they failed. Transitional justice has been consolidated; the peace was imposed as a reality,” Truth Commissioner Martha Ruiz told this paper.
Here are some figures contained in the Final Report, including data as recent as June 13, 2022.
“The value of the Truth Commission, which went where other government institutions were not able to go and which, not being judicial, obtained information from individuals who might have feared prosecution, is that it will provide visions that we have not seen before. The history of the violence we already know, but we have never had such an ambitious effort to tell about the nation’s suffering, and all of the actors that were involved.” This from an editorial in EL ESPECTADOR on June 28, 2022.
It also speaks of the creation of a Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation. That’s in line, not just with the Peace Agreement, but also with the creation of the Commission itself, as the first thing it asks is that there be compliance with what was promised in that Agreement. So for that new Ministry, they note that it must have “a clear territorial focus, and also articulate the policies, programs, and projects that are dispersed in different sectors and agencies, which limits their reach and impact, and makes it difficult to repair the social fabric affected by the armed conflict, as well as to re-establish confidence in our institutions. Both conditions are necessary to make the measures proposed effective, and to make peace in the countryside into a sustainable process.”
And it also says that the new Ministry would have to work directly with the Ministries of Education, Interior, and Information and Communication Technologies. The reason for that is that what has been called a public policy of peace must have a robust governmental structure and be the path for finding a sorrowing person who can take charge of guiding the Truth Commission’s legacy, and disseminate its finding and recommendations, they explain. To do that there will also have to be a policy of reintegration, the de-escalation of the armed conflict, and the dismantling of the armed groups that were born when the paramilitary leaders negotiated their demobilization. All of the details are in the text signed by Commissioner María de los Angeles Reyes.
We have already provided the profiles of the first four members of the team of Commissioners, and here are four more: the social leader outstanding for his leadership with the victims of the massacre at Bojayá in Chocó; the woman at the front of a peace process with 120 boys from the Medellín gangs, and who worked on the demobilization of the urban militias; the person that has worked for “the right to have rights” among the ethnic populations and also that feminist, economist and Master of Political Studies from Cali who compiled the impact of the armed conflict on women and on the LGBTIQ+ population.
Layner Palacios: the survivor
Lucia González, in charge of the Truth Commission’s Legacy
Patricia Tobón Yaga, a guardian of the truth in the struggle against prejudice
Alejandra Miller, the woman who knew how to listen to other women
The Report talks about traveling on a road that would permit Colombia to eliminate forced eradication of coca plantings and renounce glyphosate definitively. “The Commission concluded that it’s time to go ahead with a commitment to the definitive elimination of prohibition,” states the document. “The policies outlined by the Commission in this reiterate what has already been said about drug trafficking, “we have to progress with the paradigm of change, from prohibition to responsible legal regulation,” according to reporters familiar with the document. It says that this country ought to be leading the international debate toward regulation, ending the criminalization of consumption, which, for example, “would free private individuals punished for minor drug crimes; ending mass incarceration should be promoted, among other things, such as measures for social inclusion in particular, and focus on organized crime and not in ending availability, not without first warning of the need to redesign the strategies to deal with plantings of coca, marijuana, and poppies,” adds the team of reporters that came to cover the delivery of the Final Report. To do those things, the Commission recommends using the help and participation of the campesino and ethnic communities.
From the political standpoint, the Commission in its Report also goes into a recent discussion where many people criticized the extradition of “Otoniel” before he had time to tell everything he knows while still in Colombia, and also to face the victims of his trail of violence during the time he fought in several illegal armed groups. The Truth Commission proposes that in the cases of individuals solicited for extradition for serious human rights violations or violations of International Humanitarian Law, Colombia’s investigation should take precedence, as long as the defendants are making a contribution to the guarantee of the victims’ rights.
And in the debate that already has been requested by many economic analysts, they also place on the table the matter of the equitable distribution of land. Worded as economic reform, it would also be a major agrarian reform, definitely, because it’s necessary to remember that dozens of academics and think thanks have talked about the possibility that Colombia could turn into a food pantry for the world, in great measure, if the campesinos could not only be able to work their land, but also live in peace there. “The Final Report synthesizes those requests from the rural communities into 15 recommendations directed principally to government agencies: Administration, Congress, and control agencies. Several of them put together elements that are part of the Integrated Rural Reform, the first point in the Peace Agreement with the now-defunct FARC. Some of them are adapted directly from the current context of the countryside, five years after the Agreement was signed; others that are not explored thoroughly are added, according to the Commission’s researchers.”There are clear suggestions like distributing 3 million hectares among campesinos that are on the agricultural border, the definition of which is another of the Report’s recommendations. Another suggestion is regulating the legislation about wrongful accumulation of uncultivated land. They also recommend that the Land Restitution Statute, which expires in 2031, be revised, and they also make clear the necessity of making mitigation of climate change a priority in the new land regulations.
Who are the other protagonists in the research on the Final Report? One of them, a Colombian sociologist, journalist, and writer of more than 30 books and hundreds of columns and articles, died in the midst of his efforts to find the truth. Another is the psychologist in charge of the chapter dedicated to the children and adolescents that suffered in the armed conflict. Another who worked on the Report was the attorney and human rights defender who was part of the truth commissions in Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú, and Guatemala, and also in the group of experts from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (CIDH) in the case of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa in Mexico. There were others in charge of assisting in the work, including human rights defenders, trade association leaders, and indigenous people of wisdom.
Alfredo Molano, searching for the nucleus of the truth
Diana Britto, the voice for childhood in the Truth Commission
Alejandro Valencia, the Commissioner who talked with “the bad guys”
President Iván Duque will receive the Report in the first week in July, as he did not attend the delivery of the document because he is in Europe. Fr. Francisco de Roux, President of the Truth Commission, said that Duque responded to the invitation through the Secretariat of the President’s Office, writing that “I can’t be present on that day, but we expect to be with him on July 6.” “He reminded us that we are a governmental institution. We aren’t some human rights NGO, nor a public university. We are an agency of autonomous character, unique in the country, which does not depend on the President’s Office, or on courts, or on the Congress, and that we must behave like a governmental institution.”
Gustavo Petro, President-Elect, was present at the event. He wrote, “I now receive the recommendations of the Truth Commission, and I will carry them out to the last family in the last corner of Colombia,” in his Twitter account. At the event, in the presence of everyone there, he said, “I believe that this effort that’s being delivered to the country cannot be thought of as some kind of revenge, as an extension of weapons turned into words, ideas, conceptions, and interpretations of what happened.” And he observed, “I will read the recommendations made to the government and to society. These recommendations will be dynamic in the history of Colombia.”
How did the critics react to the Report? The former Uribist Representative in the Chamber, Gabriel Vallejo, was direct: “The Report of the ‘FARC Commission’ is a disgrace to this country. This Commission, paid by all the taxpayers of Colombia, had only one objective: to legitimize the terrorism of the FARC, and to make a ferocious attack on our institutions. I feel sorrow for our soldiers.” In the same way, his party, the Democratic Center, published a press release saying this: “As a party, we respect and defend the Victims Law, and therefore we don’t consider it appropriate to establish definitive or dogmatic truths about the conflict and its actors, as there are multiple versions in existence about the events that occurred within the framework of Colombia’s armed conflict, and those should be pondered and litigated in order to reach complete clarification of the events.” And, as covered by the EL ESPECTADOR’s political team, interpreting the party’s words, it’s that they believe that with this Report an interpretative truth can be reached, but it doesn’t necessary lead to a legal truth.
The Truth Commission’s Final Report, which has just begun to be published, brings with it a lot of information that depicts decades of conflict in Colombia; realities that cannot and should not be hidden, because they are part of our history, a history that we must understand so that we don’t repeat it. Guerrillas appear here as illegal armed protagonists, as Jhordan Rodríguez told it, recalling that it was those very guerrillas that exercised “power through the use of weapons, mostly in areas where there was very little government presence, causing the civilian population to be marginalized in their economic and political lives.”
They told of the false positives, which were not isolated cases, but rather a systematic practice by the government; they talked of impunity as a determining factor for perpetuating the war, of paramilitaries and how they were mixed in with the political class, and the illegal economy, the drug traffic. We must learn many of the truths about the war, and of the tragedy that the victims were made to suffer.
We are just seeing the first chapter of the ten that make up the complete document. We will see, for example, all of the findings about gender and the LGBTIQ+, ethnic peoples, exile, with their testimonies. This Report has no legal consequences, so it cannot serve as the basis for criminal charges before any legal authority.
What comes next is that the Commission has two more months to spread the word about the Report over the whole country; then there will be a Monitoring Committee that works to verify the accomplishment of the recommendations.
 In International Humanitarian Law, the principle of distinction requires the protection of civilians and civilian objects during armed conflict.