By Javier Patiño C.,, June 25, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

For three days, the country was witness to a moment that has been crucial since the creation of the JEP: the admission, by the former Secretariat of the FARC, that they used kidnapping as a systematic strategy of terror.

On the cold morning of Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in the auditorium of the Virgilio Barco Library in Bogotá, the former FARC Secretariat was ready to face, once and for all and for three days in a row, what they had denied for decades: the fact that they used kidnapping as a systematic strategy of cruelty and terror, resulting in irreparable pain to thousands of Colombian families.

Two doors separated the speakers and their victims. At one side a group of bodyguards from the National Protection Unit opened a pathway for seven of the men who for more than four decades had brought terror to several regions of the country. On the other side, men, women, and a few children lined up to be accredited for the event: the “Public Hearing for Admission of Responsibility before the JEP in Case 001”, dedicated to kidnapping.

In the Library hallways there were displayed the photos of nearly 400 victims, both soldiers and civilians, faces that memorialize this atrocious method of fighting a war.

The murmuring of nearly 200 people was interrupted at 8:30 in the morning, when a young man wearing a badge to identify him as a JEP official raised his voice to announce that people could enter the principal auditorium. One by one, they took their seats. The former members of the FARC came in through one of the entrances. Each took a seat at a long table. At one end, three victims, looking fearfully at the other end where their abusers were sitting. They were being helped by a group of psychologists who were concerned for their emotional state.

At exactly 9:00 a.m., behind a podium that had been placed there for this occasion, a young woman read the statement emphasizing the importance of the event for achieving reconciliation, and made way for the President of the JEP, Eduardo Cifuentes, who recalled the path that those who had submitted to JEP jurisdiction, along with their victims, had been following, in order to meet here finally in the auditorium of the public library.

“This is a step we take so that hundreds of the families who were kept guessing, besides feeling the pain of losing their loved ones and not knowing where and when they had been murdered in captivity. We are committed to carry out what was promised in the Peace Agreement,” he said.

After some steps were installed for access to the setting, four women in judicial robes made their entrance. The group was headed by Justice Julieta Lemaitre Ripoll, who moderated the special proceeding for three days.

In a few words, Justice Lemaitre emphasized the importance of the act of reconciliation, and stated that this was a scenario where the members of the last FARC Secretariat could admit their crimes of kidnapping for exchange, or for ransom, or for the control of territory.

Timochenko breaks the ice: “We are responsible”

The clock showed 9:20 in the morning. The first member of the Secretariat to speak was Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, who admitted the responsibility of his men in the armed conflict. “After I entered the Secretariat, we adopted the kidnapping policy; we committed acts that were contrary to human rights and International Humanitarian Law; we made decisions contrary to our armed struggle, in which we attacked the personal freedom of individuals, and we caused destruction and pain to hundreds of families. We are not proud of these acts; the cases of disappearance and sexual violence are inhumane acts, and we are responsible for them.”

After his statement, the microphone was turned over to Pablo Catatumbo. He admitted that these actions by this group, “will not totally alleviate the pain we have caused to the victims, but it can lead us to a place, in the long process of pardon and reconciliation, where we can reach a stable and lasting peace.

The victims’ turn

After that statement, it was time for the victims of kidnapping for exchange to speak. Three men, representing both the military and politicians, gave their testimony about what they had experienced in more than a decade of captivity.

The attention of everyone in the auditorium was interrupted by the deafening noise of huge metal chains thrown into the center of the proceedings. The sound resulted in consternation in the people in the auditorium. The chains were those of Retired Police Sergeant César Augusto Lasso—who in a trembling voice looked at each one of the former guerrillas to remind them of the 12 years that those links were his companions deep in the jungle.

“The chains of humiliation that were hung around our necks were our greatest humiliation. Mono Jojoy gave the order to place them there from 2002 till 2015, and they became our companions, marks that can never be erased,” he said.

At 10:20 in the morning, the voice of Orlando Beltrán, kidnapped when he was Huila’s Representative in the Chamber, was heard through the six speakers that had been placed around the auditorium. He said that, like other politicians, he had been kept kidnapped at the instructions of Mono Jojoy to pressure for an exchange of FARC members that were in prison. Except that his exchange never took place, and Beltrán stayed in the jungle for eight years.

In the fifteen minutes he had to speak, the former Representative equated the actions of the FARC with the actions of the military. “The FARC did the same thing that the government agencies did, with the forced disappearances, known as false positives, because in the end, the pain is the same.”

The rage and sadness of the spectators, most of whom were several officials of international organizations, was fostered by every one of the stories of captivity. Meanwhile, the expectations of  how the members of the FARC would respond, increased.

The hatred factory

Every word by those who had been kidnapped was like an arrow shot at each one of the former guerrillas. Remorseful, Pastor Alape, the former chief of the Magdalena Medio Bloc and feared in that part of the country, spoke to the victims: “I’m not here to be an actor in a media show, but rather, I’m here because I am convinced that peace is built from within the heart. Our organization became a factory of hatred, of pain; with the pain that we were causing, with the lack of control that we had over our units, these were actions by an organization that claimed to be fighting for humanism, and they overflowed to carry out painful actions of humiliation against our citizens.”

After a brief recess, a few minutes after 12:00 noon, the hearing re-opened with the testimony of Sigifredo López, the former Deputy from Valle Department. He reminded Timochenko and Pablo Catatumbo about the kidnapping and subsequent death in captivity of his companions in the Department Assembly. “My desire to see my children grow up was frustrated. The victims want justice; they need the members of the Secretariat to answer for these actions. One who commits an illegal act must be prosecuted.”

The testimony made a pair of young women cry. They were the daughters of Deputies Héctor Fabio Arizmendi and Nancianceno Orozco, murdered while in captivity. The words of López diverted the glances of the former members of the FARC Secretariat on several occasions. Pablo Catatumbo, who had planned and carried out the kidnapping of the Deputies, said: “We have said that it was mistaken and inhuman to adopt a position of resorting to the kidnapping of civilians who had been in politics or were government Representatives, in order to force an exchange for our prisoners.”

And he added: “I ask your pardon and that of your family, Sigifredo; we committed a grave error with you and your comrades.”

Minutes later, Rodrigo Londoño expressed his feeling of repentance.
“It’s very painful to hear these testimonies, and I wish the ground would swallow me up, because of the pain that we caused. We feel remorseful because these things should never have taken place.”

At 1:30 in the afternoon, the hearing was suspended so that everyone could eat lunch and, incidentally, recover their spirits, which by this time were more than exhausted.

The body of the Mayor

At 3:00 in the afternoon, the people attending the hearing for admissions stood up at the entrance of the four Justices of the JEP. Each of them carried books and notebooks to take notes of the details of the painful testimonies.

Facing those who had submitted to the jurisdiction of the JEP was Yanine Peña Bonilla, who has worked for the last eleven years to learn what happened to her brother, Mayor Luis Hernando Peña Bonilla who was kidnapped in the capture of Mitú, Vaupés, on November 1, 1998.

Speaking in a firm voice in the auditorium, she said, “I demand that you tell me the truth. We know that you executed him and that his body has not been turned over to us. We want to have peace and to bury his remains. Put an end to the pain being suffered by my family.”

Her brother’s executioners wrote notes and talked in low voices. Milton de Jesús Toncel, known within the illegal organization as Joaquín Gómez, chief of the Southern Bloc, asked to speak. He introduced himself and looked into Yanine’s eyes. Then he confessed, “It was by the order of the command staff that the Mayor was killed, and his remains were sent to the FARC’s Search Unit in the plains of Yarí, so that they could give them to his family.

The victims’ additional testimonies, plus the statements by the former members of the FARC Secretariat left the people tense and tired. At around 6:30, the Justices concluded the session.

The kidnappings for economic purposes

The next day, Wednesday, June 22, was for the list they called kidnappings for economic purposes, and the former guerrillas admitted their responsibility for using civilians as merchandise.

One by one the victims filed in to relate their experience with the atrocity of demanding money in exchange for a liberation that many times never took place.

With a choked voice, and with the help of several colored pages, Julián Gallo, known as Carlos Antonio Lozada, reflected on the acts against humanity that they had committed against defenseless civilians. “When we kidnapped them, we took away their privacy, they had to endure forced marches, the food was not healthy, the arrangements of their lives were coopted, and they received no human consideration,” he said.

They took away my family, but I forgive them

Toward the end of the afternoon, Diva Cristina Díaz, her emotions shattered, talked about her father’s case. His name was Juan Antonio Díaz Calderón, and at an advanced age, he was in captivity for 16 months. At the end of that time, he was released because, as his captors told him, his family had not shown any interest in him. “We didn’t give them as much as a peso because our father managed everything himself, and that made the guerrillas think that we had no interest in freeing him, a lie that had terrible consequences.”

As it happened, after he was freed on December 24, 1999, the FARC kidnapped two other members of the family and the family’s unity was broken. Less than a year later, Díaz Calderón was murdered by a hit man. “You guerrillas, you destroyed my family. I forgive you, but these actions should never have taken place,” stressed Diva Cristina.

Carranza’s killing

The former guerrillas experienced this narrative like a punch in the stomach. Weeping, Pastor Alape used the moment to admit responsibility for the kidnapping and disappearance of Ramiro Carranza, the son of the poet Eduardo Carranza, who was the chief of foreign affairs at the DAS[1] in 2000. They demanded 600 million pesos (roughly USD $600,000 at that time) for his release. Carranza’s son was killed in captivity.

“I want to bring you a case that has been a blow to me. It has made me reflect on how low we had sunk as an organization. He’s the son of the poet Carranza, it’s that we got involved with art, with culture. That’s why this is so hard.”

The proceeding ended at 7:00 in the evening, right after Rodrigo Londoño admitted that there had not been bad guerrillas, but rather bad commanders. Then he referred to the members of the FARC who had gone back to the fight. “I know that out there, there are some who may be listening to those of us who have opened these proceedings. If you are listening to these testimonies, I hope they will move you to come back and retake this path.”

The war for territory

The last day of the hearing took place on Thursday, June 23, and began an hour later than usual because of a prolonged rainstorm that affected traffic. It was the hearing related to the victims of territorial control. It lasted all day and was as sad as the others.

The seven men of the now-defunct FARC, accompanied by a large group of legal advisors, sat down and asked to speak in order to admit a new aspect of the kidnapping, the aspect that resulted in a number of disappearances. The former members of the Secretariat stated that the captives were not only tortured physically, but also psychologically, and not just the captives but also their families.

“It wasn’t the policy of the organization, but there were acts of sexual violence in the exercise of control over the territories, something that was unacceptable. We used disappearance of those we considered to be our enemies, so as to generate fear,” stated Rodrigo Granda.

The former members of the Secretariat admitted that many of the captives got sick in captivity and received no medical care.

“I can’t forget the faces of the kids who had to endure the pain of being separated from their families, or the faces of some of them who remain disappeared. For that, I beg forgiveness. I hope to help the Commission in its search for them, so they can return to their families,” said alias Mauricio Jaramillo or “El Medico”.

At the close of the three grueling sessions, Julieta Lemaire, the Justice who is coordinating the hearings, said that the country has been the witness of an effort at reconciliation and restorative justice that will serve as a framework for real peace for hundreds of families who suffered the scourge of kidnapping.

What comes next

After the hearing, the Justices who are studying Case 001 have three months to submit a resolution of conclusions to the Peace Tribunal. Those will define the sanctions to be imposed on those who have submitted to the Court’s jurisdiction.

While that stage is being carried out, the Branch will evaluate the admissions by the former Secretariat, as well as the proposals for the Court’s sanctions and the observations by the victims on these proposals, and their own observations on the Resolution of Conclusions.

The goal is that the former members of the FARC furnish the full truth, not just about their individual responsibility but also about what they know of the actions and the shaping of that criminal policy.

They have to admit the seriousness of the acts charged, which acts can not receive amnesty, and commit to helping ensure that acts like these are never repeated.

[1] DAS was Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security, closed down in 2012.

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