Colombia: Full Peace Requires Full Justice

by on Friday, 28 November 2008 Comments
For the last 30 years, most of the news about Colombia, the country where I come from, has been negative. Drug traffic, the guerrilla or paramilitary forces which took over the drug business after the big drug cartels’ dismantling have been the dominant news stories. My generation has witnessed a history of violence punctuated with slow and inefficient attempts at justice.

Three groups have been the main protagonists of a fifteen years long undeclared civil war:
1)The guerrilla organizations, FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces) and ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – Nacional Liberation Army). Both started their operations more than 30 years ago. They were clearly inspired by Marxist ideology. Later on, their ideals melted and mixed with drug trafficking and with a stubborn struggle for power through violence.

2)The action of the guerrillas and the weakness of the government have led some people to take justice into their own hands, giving room to the birth of the paramilitary. The paramilitary represents a group of armies united in the purpose of defeating the guerrilla; but, with time passing, they also took over the drug business and they became extremely violent, colluding with the government’s army in several occasions.

3)The third party is the government’s army which only gained control over most of the territory during the last years, when the US started to sponsor it.
None of these three groups can claim that their hands are clean.
Alvaro Uribe, the current Colombian president, was elected with near unanimity for the main purpose to put an end to the increasing power of the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. The government efforts to size down the guerrilla have been a decisive factor for recovering the country’s confidence. Uribe’s administration took bold steps to confront the guerrilla. Among them: the liberation of the high profile people kidnapped by the guerrilla, strikes in Ecuador’s territory, and the killing in combat of several FARC’s leaders.

Uribe also offered a peace treaty to the paramilitary and, thanks to the Opposition, he has opened a Truth Commission. All the horrors caused by the paramilitary have been unraveling in front of the public. Nevertheless, when it comes to forgiveness under the condition of cooperation with justice – a frequent mechanism in Truth Commissions -, not much has been offered to the victims by Uribe’s administration.
The country is acclaiming Uribe. Colombia seems to be on the path of progress. At last the main threats to economic development do not come from the drug war, and the global economic turmoil still blows softer in Colombian soil. Uribe holds two powerful cards: the bellicose conflict seems to have been resolved and the public wallet seems safe. His level of approval is high enough for making likely the passing of a constitutional reform in order to allow him to be reelected for a third term. Some people even joke about it: for instance, there is a Facebook group that rejects the reelection because they want Uribe to be king (“Uribe Rey: No a la Reelección”). In some polls his level of approval reaches 80%.
The support he gets from the public has two consequences: first, the radicalization of Uribe supporters, and second the increasing quality of the legal opposition. It was the opposition which pushed to have the paramilitary being tried, leading to the extradition of some chiefs; it was the opposition which got the US to push for more action in justice and human rights improvement; and it was also the opposition which first presented a project of reparations for the victims. But Uribe seldom recognizes the points of those who criticize his actions.

Most of the Colombians affected by the violence have received very little attention from the international media, apart for the big wigs such as Mrs. Betancourt. But, under the action of the opposition, a law was presented before the Congress in order to organize funding and terms of reparations for the victims. The law was expected to benefit more than 3 million people over the course of 10 years. However, in one of the last debates in Congress, the government ultimately changed completely its content. It discriminates among victims from the State army and the ones from the paramilitary. Furthermore, the law establishes a limit for the reparation an individual is allowed to receive. Finally, the Government changed the legal basis of the reparations from the basic principle of government’s responsibility towards its citizens to the one of national solidarity.
The original proposal offered resources for communities’ renewal: infrastructure projects and programs for the distribution of confiscated land among the refugees. But these projects were taken out of the proposal by the governmental coalition. Another controversial point resides in the fact that the victims have to subscribe to a database in the next two years, even though the conflict is not over yet. And last month, media revealed that in several units of the regular army, poor people recruited by officers had been disappearing without explanation. Some time after, their bodies would reappear and be presented as guerilla members shot in combat. As these dead people are not declared as “victims”, their families have no right to compensation either.
At the time of this article being written the debate is still going on. However, in the absence of international pressure over Uribe’s coalition, it is most likely that Uribe’s version of the project will pass.

Most of Colombian people -, including me! - would like to look ahead and close the book. We recognize that Uribe has changed the outlook of the war and that the government has taken back control of the country. But there is a pervasive feeling that justice is only for the rich and the powerful, which will continue to shape social interaction. As long as this is the case, we will still perceive the history of our country under the twin stars of injustice and violence.


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