Survivors of the Colombian conflict must walk a difficult and dangerous road to uncover the truth

Survivors of the Colombian conflict must walk a difficult and dangerous road to uncover the truth

Teresita Gaviria is looking for her son Cristian Camilo, who disappeared in 1998, aged 15, after being detained by an armed group whilst on his way to Bogotá. In the picture, she shows a portrait of one of the hundreds of disappeared persons, like her son, that she and her association have been trying to find for years.

(Danilo Arias)

Seventy-three-year-old Teresita Gaviria is one of the most visible faces of the struggle to find the truth, to help heal the wounds and soothe the pain suffered by the victims of Colombia’s armed conflict. Awarded the National Peace Prize for her work, her story is not only an example of perseverance and courage but also of the life and death risks that are endured in the search for the facts behind the violence perpetrated and those historically responsible.

Over two decades ago – on 19 March 1999 – Teresita founded the Asociación Caminos de Esperanza Madres de la Candelaria (Paths of Hope Association Mothers of Candelaria) in response to the steep rise in forced disappearances during one of the most difficult stages in the war, which coincided with the deployment of paramilitary forces throughout the country. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer. And that’s why we felt the need to unite around a cause,” she explains. “Mine has been the search for my son Cristian Camilo Quiroz Gaviria, who disappeared when he was 15 years old. He left for Bogotá on 5 January 1998 and was captured by an armed group in Doradal. From what I have been able to ascertain over the years, he was recruited by the paramilitaries.”

Following the example of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, Teresita and a handful of women gathered in the atrium of the Candelaria Church, in the centre of Medellín, to call for their children to be returned to them. The message did not, however, resonate with all the people around them: “‘Crazy old women, witches…’. They called us all sorts of names,” says Teresita. “But our pain is fiercer than the insults. We organised with the aim of securing respect and recognition. We started out as five women, and now there are 896 of us.”

Being a social leader or human rights defender in Colombia is a high-risk occupation. They are assassinated for defending a forest, for opposing the construction of a port, for laying down arms or for seeking to shed light on a heinous crime. Last year, according to figures from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ), 310 social leaders and human rights defenders (Indigenous, Afro-descendants, peasants) and 64 former FARC combatants who signed the final peace agreement in 2016 were assassinated. Since it was signed, almost 1,000 leaders and 258 signatories to the agreement have been assassinated.

Four years into the implementation of the agreements, the spectre of failure and a possible return to one of the world’s oldest armed conflicts is threatening the fragile and colossal task of building peaceful coexistence in a country burdened by the wounds and the hate built up over more than 50 years of fratricidal confrontation.

The figures rarely reflect the tragedy and horror of the war in Colombia, however shocking they are: between 1958 and 2020, the National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH) has documented 357,304 acts of violence, leaving 266,988 people dead and 120,000 missing. According to the National Registry of the Victims Unit, in the last three decades (between 1985 and 2019), 8,553,416 people have been identified as having been affected by an armed conflict that is not yet over. These figures are the equivalent of the populations of entire cities or even countries, damaged and turned into victims. How can damage on such a scale be repaired?

It is not by chance that the text of Colombia’s final peace agreement is the longest in the world and ranks fourth in terms of the number of provisions (six general points and 578 provisions), according to the Kroc Institute of the University of Notre Dame in the United States, which monitors the implementation of peace deals, internationally, and has compared it with 34 other ongoing peace agreements around the world.

Truth – the first casualty of war

Since its very inception, the agreement has had many social and political opponents. It began its turbulent existence with a referendum against it. The current ruling party has tried to amend it and has even called for a referendum to dismantle the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition (SIVJRNR), on which the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition (CEV) and the Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons (UBPD) depend.

For former president and senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, “the body of regulations linked to the JEP has established total impunity for atrocities such as the kidnapping and rape of minors” and “the truth has become a pretext for denying or editing the facts in line with political interests”. As the leading advocate of the ‘No’ vote in the referendum and a fervent opponent of the Comprehensive Truth System, Uribe has expressed these views on various occasions and in a variety of settings.

The Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-Repetition is the fruit of point 5 – Agreement on the Victims of the Conflict – and its implementation constitutes one of the greatest institutional achievements of the final peace agreement to date. It is the backbone of the transitional justice model and is fundamental to reaching the minimum level of reconciliation required to end the use of political violence as a means of resolving social differences.

It is said that in all wars the truth is the first victim. It is also said that any effort to build historical memory is a minefield, a long battle, always unequal, between the victors and the vanquished. The Colombian peace process is unusual in that both sides recognise that neither is the victor. The resistance to the Comprehensive System of Truth is rooted in the fact that neither of the parties to the conflict is able to dominate the decisions regarding where the responsibilities lie or to control the narrative concerning the violence and the atrocities committed.

German society, seen as a benchmark on account of the exemplary efforts made to build historical memory of Nazism and its crimes against humanity, took a long time to judge its executioners itself. The defeated refused to see themselves as the aggressors. It was only in the 1960s, thanks to judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer and survivor Hermann Langbein, that the first proceedings against Auschwitz-Birkenau camp collaborators were initiated. Very few people in Germany and beyond knew what the word ‘Auschwitz’ meant before then.

Without victors, establishing the truth in Colombia is in the hands of the JEP judges, transitional justice system bodies such as the CEV, which is coming to the end of its three-year mandate and will deliver its final report at the end of this year, and state bodies such as the National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH), tasked since 2011 with helping to determine the causes of the armed conflict, establishing the truth and contributing to the non-repetition of the conflict in the future.

The role of the victims in uncovering the truth

The central role played by the victims is another of the key characteristics of Colombia’s final peace agreement, in part thanks to the lessons learned from the application of the Justice and Peace Law of 2005, which enabled the demobilisation of paramilitary groups but, according to CNMH reports, failed to give the victims “judicial guarantees or a prominent place in building the justice system”.

The association headed by Teresita Gaviria, which represents mothers who lost their sons during the conflict, has managed to recover the remains of 110 of the 1,176 disappeared persons in its database, despite the intimidation and attacks faced by its members. “The threats have been our greatest obstacle,” says Teresita. “I have suffered a great deal of persecution. I have been abducted, tied up, left to die. One day they threw me, tied up, into a pond. I wasn’t able to defend myself. Another day I received a box full of ashes with threats inside. On another occasion, two armed men told me they had been hired to silence the organisations in Medellín and the rest of the country.” It is due to this repeated intimidation that she has been protected by bodyguards since 2007.

“The fight has become head-on now. I recently received another letter, signed by the Águilas Negras [the notorious death squad, the Black Eagles], saying that they were paying 30 million pesos for Mrs. Teresita’s head. It is as if, through the act of delivering it to me, they think they can undermine the progress of our activities, to make us give up. They put every possible barrier in my way and I jump over everyone one of them. I keep up the fight because my pain knows no bounds.”

The peace process with the FARC filled the women with hope. “The only thing we have left is the JEP, in spite of all the attacks or attempts to reform it. It is through these institutions that our history is told. We were the first to talk about reconciliation in this country, in spite of the terrible pain we carry. Without the truth, we are lost, because that’s precisely what we’re looking for; it is the cornerstone of other processes,” says Teresita.

José Alexander Castro is a member of the Tejiendo Memoria (Weaving Memory) collective and has been calling, since 2006, for justice for a brother and an uncle of his, who were summarily executed by members of the army and passed off as ELN guerrillas. It is one of what are known as the ‘false positive’ cases in Colombia. He has been watched and followed on many occasions. “After burying my loved ones, soldiers in civilian dress started following me and I had to leave home for almost four months.”

Despite the risks, he says he will not stop seeking justice. “In Colombia, pursuing the truth, building memory and giving dignity to the lives, history and memories of our loved ones is a dangerous task, but we undertake it with responsibility and courage, with all our affection, in remembrance of them.”

Intimidating messages and pamphlets, surveillance, physical assault and murder attempts are the most visible risks faced by those who speak out about issues such as truth, memory and justice in Colombia today. In the context of the implementation of the peace agreements with the FARC, however, the risks are not only for those who defend the truth, but for the truth itself, the truth as a social rank disputed by the various actors who want to assert their vision and narrative of the war.

Risks and challenges of truth-seeking

“A key starting point for understanding the risks and challenges surrounding truth and memory in the country is the strong opposition to the peace process from the very outset. Issues such as the referendum reveal that we do not agree on the ways in which peace should be built. That’s the starting point for understanding the opposition to any initiative or any institution seeking to move the process forward,” warns Patricia Nieto, a journalist and director of the memory building project Hacemos Memoria (We Remember).

In addition to the political and ideological differences raised by the agreement and its implementation, another factor working against truth and memory is the ongoing confrontation. The country is struggling to piece together the memories and to understand what happened in a conflict that is not yet over. According to reports by the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), there are currently around 1,200 armed FARC dissidents, out of the 13,049 accredited former FARC combatants, operating in the south-west (especially Nariño and Cauca) and the east of the country. Then there are the criminal gangs, such as Los Urabeños, Los Rastrojos or the Águilas Negras, who are fighting over the territories left by the FARC and the drug trafficking trade. According to information published by the Armed Forces, these groups are present in 168 of the country’s 1,098 municipalities and in 27 of its 32 departments.

“The situation we have at the moment is paradoxical, because the theoretical framework of the peace process is very interesting. Despite its imperfections, it is a very good agreement, it has key substantive elements, such as giving the victims a central role and its concrete transition mechanisms. But the ongoing confrontation makes it very difficult to move forward with the transitional processes designed to foster reconciliation,” explains Adriana Arboleda, coordinator of the victims’ support programme at Corporación Jurídica Libertad (Liberty Law Corporation), an organisation that has been working to defend victims of state crimes in Medellín and Antioquia for decades.

A side effect of the armed groups’ influence is the fact that the victims, and those who can shed light on the truths behind the armed conflict, refrain from speaking out, as Marta Inés Villa, territorial coordinator of the Truth Commission in Antioquia, explains.

“In many parts of the country and in Antioquia, where the armed conflict is being recycled, people speak from a place of fear, because of the coercion used by the armed actors. Leaders are assassinated. Talking about violent events in which local people with a degree of power are implicated creates fear. The silence is a product of that fear, and this is what the Commission has come up against.”

In other instances, the silence is a reflection of the desire to protect other interests. “In areas such as the south-west and part of western Antioquia [considered a tourist area], although there isn’t a strong illegal presence, there has clearly been a lack of recognition about the existence of armed conflict in the past. The reluctance to recognise past events is driven by economic and tourist interests seeking to protect the image or reputation of a place,” says Villa.

She also highlights other barriers hindering the progress of the Commission and some of the obstacles and risks involved in establishing the truth, such as the difficulty the victims often have in identifying those responsible for certain incidents, given the complexity of the conflict, the reluctance of implicated third parties to admit responsibility, and the obstacles raised by state institutions in terms of access to information.

Ready for the truth?

In the context of a peace process that has met with resistance from the outset, combined with negative pressures such as political opposition, the silences, the risks involved in uncovering the truth and the difficulties in guaranteeing the security of those who participate in the process, it is legitimate to ask whether the country is in fact prepared to learn about and face up to the truth.

“No country that has been through what Colombia has been through is going to be prepared for the truth, which is why we need educational and social processes that allow us to approach these truths, so that we can discuss them and face up to them. We have to move away from absolutes and the idea that there is a single truth or a single memory. If we are not prepared, then we have to prepare the ground to be able to listen to each other,” says Arboleda.

Although the country is not ready, and perhaps no society ever is, what Colombia is going through in terms of truth and memory is not entirely new.

Many initiatives aimed at explaining the violence prior to the agreements with the FARC have been linked to moments of relative calm, which open the way for a coming together in the light of what happened, such as the classic (and pioneering) report on the period of La Violencia (The Violence), written by Eduardo Umaña and Orlando Fals Borda (1962), but most of them have emerged as a result of negotiations with armed groups.

Examples include the 1987 Commission for the Study of Violence, a product of the peace process with the FARC in La Uribe (Meta), which gave rise to the guerrilla group’s move towards politics, with the formation of the Patriotic Union; the 1991 Commission to Overcome Violence, the result of peace negotiations with the People’s Liberation Army (EPL) and the Quintín Lame Armed Movement; and the 1994 Commission for the Establishment, Reparation and Punishment of Serious Human Rights Violations.

More recent initiatives include reports such as ¡Basta Ya! Colombia (2013), produced by the CNMH, and the Historical Commission on the Armed Conflict and its Victims in Colombia (2012), formed by 12 academics who compiled their essays on the roots of the violence in the country and presented them three years later, within the framework of the peace negotiations with the FARC in Havana.

Despite the significant work done in the past, Germán Valencia, researcher at the Political Studies Institute of the University of Antioquia, warns that much of it has been an academic exercise and that it is only now, with the Truth Commission, that the victims and perpetrators are starting to be included in a key and decisive way, which could provide a different perspective on what happened.

“We are slightly more prepared for the truth in academic circles, but Colombian society is not, because we are only just starting to learn about the reports and there is tremendous fear of speaking out and discussing them, all the more so given that the conflicts dealt with in previous reports have been minor compared to the scale and complexity of the over-50-year-war with the FARC,” adds Valencia.

Regardless of whether this path is new, the involvement of civil society in the current processes, such as the Truth Commission, is a decisive step towards national reconciliation. Evidence of this are the 1,200 testimonies that the Truth Commission has collected, in Antioquia alone, from victims – and to a lesser extent from perpetrators – during the two years it has been in operation, and the more than 30 reports submitted to it by various social organisations, human rights groups, trade unions and universities that have dared to share their stories and memories as basic components in the truth-building process.

“The risk run by the peace process is that if the truth element is not met, the cycles of confrontation and hatred will be repeated. If there is no truth or justice, people may easily resort to revenge. Groups of victims and aggressors may fall back into hatred and confrontation. Truth and justice help to break these cycles by helping people to break free from them and to start thinking differently,” insists Nieto of Hacemos Memoria.

Meanwhile, thousands of victims, such as the Women Walking for Truth, who have recently secured decisions such as the JEP ruling on precautionary measures at sites such as La Escombrera or the Universal Cemetery in Medellín, where victims of enforced disappearances may lie, are still waiting for the truth as part of a process that will pave the way for overcoming the conflict and creating a lasting peace.

“If the truth is revealed, I know what happened, why it happened, and at least the justice system has someone to judge and I have someone to forgive and reconcile with. If there is justice and reconciliation, then there is a greater likelihood of reparation and we can all work together to ensure that what happened never happens again,” says a member of Women Walking for Truth who did not want her name revealed for security reasons.

This article has been translated from Spanish.