By Julián Ríos Monroy, EL ESPECTADOR, May 4, 2024


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Jesuit priest, who has been investigating the conflict from Cinep[1] for more than four decades, talks about the situation of violence in Colombia and the future of President Gustavo Petro’s “total peace”. “It hasn’t advanced one millimeter in breaking the relationship between the Armed Forces and the Clan del Golfo,” he maintains.

After an hour of conversation, Fr. Javier Giraldo allows himself to stretch his legs. He gets comfortable in his revolving chair, folds his hands, and resumes—with the lucidity that characterizes him—his analysis of the armed conflict, the inequality, and the possibilities for peace in this country.

His office is small and austere: two desks, a portable computer, a radio from the previous century with space for two cassettes, and, hanging on the wall, a physical map of Colombia in high relief, and a red poster of the priest Camilo Torres. Most of the room is occupied by a wooden library of 574 books in different sizes and colors but not different subjects: almost without exception, they portray or analyze the passage of the war over this territory.

At 80 years old, Giraldo doesn’t pull any punches or expect any censorship. He openly defends several of President Petro’s proposals, but he also criticizes some points of his management: “He hasn’t advanced so much as a millimeter in breaking the pact between the Armed Forces and the Clan del Golfo,” he maintains on a cloudy afternoon on the last Wednesday in April.

On that day, the Jesuit priest—who has dedicated more than four decades to the defense of human rights in this country—presented the 68th edition of the magazine Noche y Niebla (Night and Fog) from the Center for Investigation and Popular Education (CINEP in Spanish), where he works as a researcher. The report, says Giraldo, registered at least 1,277 victimizations, including the murder of 111 social leaders, as well as a 12% increase in murders of human rights defenders who are part of the LGBTIQ+ population.

In an interview with EL ESPECTADOR’s Colombia +20, the priest spoke about this investigation, the President’s commitment to “total peace”, and the future of the dialogs with groups like the ELN guerrillas, the dissidents of the FARC, and the Clan del Golfo (also known as the Gaitanista Army of Colombia).

How do you see the situation of violence in this country?

We don’t like insisting on the numbers all the time, but any way you look at it, the number of lives that have been destroyed in every one of the last few years is around half a thousand, which is a very high number. Between the date of signing the recent Peace Agreement, (November 2016) and the end of the Iván Duque administration (2022), there were nearly 1,000 social leaders murdered. That doesn’t just eliminate one person; it’s eliminating a social project; a vindication, a movement for their rights, and it’s the humblest group. Added to that is what we have called total anonymity: the victimizer has not yet been identified, so it all remains in absolute impunity.

It’s expected that the government will deploy more protective measures to avoid that but, above all, that it will implement structural solutions that would end the violence . . .

Everybody was expecting that we would really gain in tranquility, in peace. I believe that Petro made an analysis of how the peace processes were being prepared and developed. Many people, and I myself, had a deep-seated criticism of the way they had prepared those processes during the last 40 years, because they had signed peace agreements that didn’t provide one millimeter of peace, for three reasons: they didn’t touch on the roots of the violence in any way at all, the very people that were demobilized were the ones being murdered, and thus the violence is being recycled very rapidly. The Petro administration was very aware of that and began to see what the failings were and how to correct that model.

You have been working with ethnic and campesino organizations for 40 years. Some of them have found fault with what the President is doing. Are the victims disappointed with his administration?

You can see that the victims have different positions. You can see that there is a disappointment that originates with a feeling: ‘we expected more from an administration like this one’, but we are also aware that this administration has not been allowed to do what it wants to do. The élites and the political parties have blocked a quantity of things that the administration wants to do, so we understand that, because we don’t want to go back to administrations like those of Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos. So in that sense, it feels like a disappointment, but moderated, and saying ‘We support this, but we want more’.

You’ve said that the administration is committed to correcting the failed models of peace negotiations. Do you think that “total peace” is the way to go?

A principle that Petro has had, and that seems valid to me, is that in order to attack the violent groups, or make them change, you can’t use the same violence that they use. For him, it’s very clear that that’s not the way to obtain peace. Rather, what you obtain is more violence, and I agree with him on that.

So you don’t believe in the theory that you can only reach an agreement if you give a “carrot” (incentives) and also a stick (military pressure to weaken them) as former President Santos said recently.

What President Petro has done since he appointed the first Peace Commissioner, Danilo Rueda, was try to sit the groups down at tables to explain to them the reasons why they are fighting and what would be the possibility of stopping that violence, but being very aware that all of this is tied to social and economic power, and all of those groups have launched themselves onto the trail of drug trafficking. And also very aware that we can’t believe that peace will be achieved by ceasefires and turning over weapons if we don’t confront the real causes of all of this. The groups sat down at the table and there was a first euphoric moment that seemed as if it would produce results; however, there won’t be an overnight solution, and they began to see that a solution was not around the corner, and the first dialogs started breaking up.

Now, I think the Minister of Defense really is making efforts to block the routes being used in many parts of the country to take the drugs away to be sold, and to capture the armed groups’ leaders that have long and violent criminal histories, but not to the extent that’s necessary. That has another additional problem and it’s that we live in Urabá.

That’s an area that’s almost completely controlled by the Clan del Golfo . . .

Yes, the Clan del Golfo has taken ownership of that whole region. It’s been taking ownership for a long time, but it’s started to practically be the government in the region. When the Defense Minister visited the Community for the first time, they told him very clearly: “The Historic Pact Party doesn’t govern here; the Clan del Golfo governs here. The Army’s 17th Brigade, which has dominated this whole region for a very long time, brings a very long history of connivance, collaboration, and tolerance for all of paramilitarism and, specifically, for the Clan del Golfo. That connivance by the Armed Forces with the paramilitaries is of very long standing and consolidation, and there has not been one millimeter of progress in breaking that relationship. That has been seen very clearly in recent weeks with the persecution of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Now they openly call together many Community Boards and make it clear that their objective is to do away with that Community and their legal representative. The agreement between military and paramilitary is too strong and nothing has been done to break that.”

In the early days of his administration, Petro said he would negotiate with the Clan del Golfo, but later on, the process died down. What do you think about a dialog with that group?

Not long ago they sent out a communication saying they had changed their name. Now they say they’re called “the Gaitanista Army of Colombia”. It was a communication full of lies and overly aggressive statements. The very use that they make of the memory of Jorge Eliécer Gaitan is filthy, and worse yet, they say they have taken from him the phrase that is the moral restoration of this country. One can’t understand how a movement with so many crimes to their credit dares to say that. They are trying to show that they have never been in the service of the government or the Armed Forces. They’re saying that they have always been in the opposition, and defending the poor. So many lies all together is impressive.

Do you think the Clan has any desire for peace?

I don’t think so. Several times now they have tried to ask the government to attend to them, but it looks as if they won’t. Petro always has it in his mind to see how he can attract everybody that’s carrying weapons to talk with them, but I don’t think they have any desire for peace, because if anything is clear about the Clan del Golfo, it’s that their economic base is monstrous, and they are supported by the drug trafficking.

How do you see the job that Otty Patiño is doing as Peace Commissioner?

I haven’t heard good comments about the work he’s doing. For example, the mess with the ELN looks as if it’s going to be solved, but the tension and the misunderstandings there lasted a long time.

Speaking of the ELN, do you see any desire on the part of the guerrillas to reach an agreement before 2026 when Petro’s term ends?

When they were negotiating in Quito (during the administration of Juan Manuel Santos), I went there twice. There was one clear point, and it was that they were putting the participation of civil society as the first subject of negotiation, but also that the ELN has always said that they aren’t interested in negotiating and turning over their weapons for perks that benefit their members, but rather, that they want social change. I see social change as a long way off; so I think there will be a bottleneck there.

So the FARC dissidents will be the “short handle” of total peace?

You can notice in the position of the Segunda Marquetália of Iván Mordisco a very political speech about a social change and that isn’t seen as short range, so I don’t think there will be any agreement there either. And with the (Iván) Mordisco group, I see them as much more into the subject of drug trafficking.

I already asked you if the communities are disappointed with Petro. Now I ask you, how is the administration doing?

I’ve been dialoging with Petro himself and I’ve told him what I think about a lot of things. I see that the level of profound analysis of society that he makes is very lucid; for example, of the ecology of climate change—he’s very much admired about this in foreign countries—and the same in many aspects like distributing land to the campesinos, or his analysis of the stages of violence in Colombia. He really has a capacity for analysis, he has some principles and some sentiments that he is called to make a change, but he encounters obstacles everywhere.

[1] Cinep (Center for Investigation and Popular Education)

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