BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The testimony is burning. “They tied me to a tree,” said a Colombian guerrilla victim. “They put us in a cage,” said another. “I was kidnapped for four years.”
“Until then, I had not heard of ‘mass graves’,” said one army victim. “Finally, I understand that those responsible for the protection of civilians have killed thousands of Colombians.”
After decades of civil war, Colombia created a historic post-war tribunal designed to reveal the facts of a conflict that defined the nation for generations, turning into the longest war in the Americas.
Thousands of people have testified. Large-scale investigations are underway. The first indictments were released in January – and the first appeals are expected in April. The perpetrators will be punished, those who recognize their responsibility receiving less “restorative” penalties, such as house arrest or the fact of remaining free while performing arduous physical work. Those who refuse to do so will be tried and risk decades in prison.
The goal of the court, which began its work in 2018, is to give the country a common narrative on the conflict, one that will enable Colombians to move forward, together. The success of the court, called the Special jurisdiction for peace, could help change the course of a nation that has been at war for much of its history, with conflict unfolding almost immediately in the next.
Its failure could mean repeating this cycle.
“We have a window – a generational opportunity – to leave behind the senseless violence that we have lived our entire lives,” said Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who was kidnapped and held by guerrillas, sometimes in chains, for over six years. . “I wish we could open that window and let the light in.”
The most recent conflicts in Colombia date back to the 1960s, when a left-wing rebel group called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, launched an insurgency aimed at remaking a deeply unequal society.
The war turned into a complex battle between left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, the military, drug cartels, and the United States, which supplied and advised the military.
For years, daily life has been marked by bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. At least 220,000 people have died and more than five million have been displaced. The war ended in 2016, when the FARC and the government signed a peace agreement this included the creation of the post-war tribunal.
But if the tribunal’s purpose is to unearth buried truths, it’s clear that this research also unearths and exacerbates long-standing divisions – and the road to a common narrative, if any, will be lined with conflict.
Some see the court as their best chance of finding answers about lost loved ones and the country’s best hope for peace; others are irritated that the murderers and kidnappers are not sentenced to prison terms; still others simply reject the tribunal’s findings, claiming that the institution is biased in favor of the former guerrillas.
The Court’s most prominent critic is former President Álvaro Uribe, who presided over some of the final years of the war and remains the country’s most controversial and influential politician. A recent report by the tribunal implicated the military in more than 6,400 civilian deaths from 2002 to 2008, during his presidency.
Mr. Uribe replied to report calling it an “attack” with “one goal”, “discrediting me personally”.
The tribunal is held in an imposing black building on a main avenue in the Colombian capital, Bogotá. Some testimonies are public and have been broadcast on social networks or disseminated in public documents, offering a window into decades of suffering. To protect the safety of participants, much of it takes place behind closed doors.
So far, the court’s findings have been explosive, revealing a far higher death toll than previously confirmed and hard-hitting charges that many skeptics did not expect.
In January, the magistrates published their first indictment, accusing eight senior FARC leaders of orchestrating a decades-long kidnapping for ransom operation that claimed more than 20,000 lives, many of whom were civilians, some of whom were raped or murdered. The kidnappings were used to finance the insurgency, the court said, and constitute crimes against humanity.
Former FARC leaders accused indicated that they will admit their guilt. If they do, they will receive non-criminal penalties, which could include up to eight years for digging up old landmines or tracking down bodies. If they don’t admit their guilt, they will face a trial and the possibility of spending decades behind bars.
They have until the end of April to respond to court.
“We take collective responsibility,” Julián Gallo, one of the leaders charged, said in an interview.
“These are practices which, in one form or another, have delegitimized our fight,” he continued. “What we have asked for is forgiveness.”
Some see the accusations and the defendants’ response as signs that the court’s decisions will be taken seriously, allowing it to establish this common narrative.
The parents of Héctor Angulo, a steelworker and housewife, were kidnapped by the FARC on April 19, 2000. He sold his house and paid a ransom for their release, but the guerrillas never returned his parents. He spent two decades searching for their bodies, he said.
He is not sure whether he will ever be able to forgive, he said, “because the pain one feels for a family member is irreparable. But he supports the work of the tribunal, he added, because “that’s what we have”.
Ximena Ochoa opposes the court. Her mother was kidnapped by the rebels on December 16, 1990, detained for four terrible months, and released after her family paid a large ransom. She believes the court is a distraction designed to cover up unresolved FARC crimes. The guerrillas, for example, have not yet handed over much of their war chest.
The tribunal, she said, will allow former rebels to admit certain things, an effort to appease the international community by asserting that justice has been served in Colombia.
“This whole transitional justice business is a hoax,” she said. Regarding the FARC, she added: “They will never tell the whole truth.”
Two of the rebel leaders accused of crimes against humanity are senators, including Mr Gallo – the result of a provision in the peace agreement that transformed the FARC into a political party and gave it 10 seats in the legislature of 280 people.
Some victims are asking the indicted senators to resign. Others, including Ms Betancourt, believe they should be allowed to stay.
“It is very important that we tell Colombia that we are building a democracy mature enough to listen to the political voice of people who have committed crimes”, but then “we accepted and signed the peace agreement”, he said. she declared.
In February, magistrates turned their attention to the crimes of the military, issuing the scathing report which implicated those responsible in the intentional murder of at least 6,402 civilians while Mr. Uribe was in office.
The killings were part of a previously revealed strategy in which Colombian soldiers or their allies lured civilians out of their homes with the promise of employment, then killed them and attempted to pass their deaths off as a fighter. Many of the victims were poor, some were mentally handicapped.
The idea was to show that the government was winning the war.
In Colombia, the scandal is among the most discussed aspects of the conflict, and the victims have come to be known as “false positives”. A previous report from the country’s top prosecutor estimated the number of victims at 2,248.
The court’s new number is nearly three times as high, and implies that a significant percentage of those killed in action at that time were in fact civilian killings.
The Association of Retired Military Generals replied at the announcement of the court by qualifying the figures as “inflated” and by trying to “delegitimize the commendable work” of the army.
Magistrates are expected to start announcing indictments in the scandal later this year.
Mr Uribe, who has repeatedly said he did everything he can to stop the killings, is exempted from court as a former president.
During one of the public hearings, Jacqueline Castillo described how her brother Jaime, a civilian, disappeared one day in August 2008 and reappeared a few days later in a mass grave far from her home, identified by the military as a rebel killed in action. She went to the grave, she said, and watched the men pull her brother out of the earth.
Before, she had idolized the Colombian army.
“They were my heroes,” she said, pressing her palm to her heart. “Now they make me sad.”
Sofía Villamil contributed reporting.