So far 2015 seems to be a promising year for the peace talks between the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). After a brief suspension in November 2014, negotiations got back on track and the FARC have since honored a unilateral ceasefire. In January, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called government negotiators to begin evaluating conditions for a possible historic bilateral ceasefire. And on February 20, the U.S. showed its strongest support yet for the ongoing dialogues with the appointment of special envoy Bernard Aronson.
Four days later, Communities Building Peace on the Ground (CONPAZ), a network of 117 Colombian communities in 11 provinces, hosted its first-ever national conference, “From Operation Genesis to Another Genesis”— a reference to the 1997 massacre carried out by the Colombian military against Afro-Colombian communities in Cacarica, Chocó, near the Panamanian border.
Nearly 5,000 people fled the violence and were only able to return to their land in 2000 by founding humanitarian zones — areas free of armed actors — with the accompaniment of Colombian and international organizations.
The 1,500 residents of humanitarian spaces that comprise the Communities of Self-determination, Life and Dignity (CAVIDA) in Cacarica have since formed connections with other Afro-Colombian, indigenous and small-scale farming communities around the country who are using similar strategies to nonviolently reclaim their territory and resist displacement and violence, with the goal of building a lasting peace grounded in their cultural and territorial rights. This network, CONPAZ, currently represents at least 30,000 individuals throughout Colombia.
“We are aware that there are negotiations taking place in Havana that seek to end the armed conflict. But the armed conflict is merely one expression of much deeper problems like injustice, inequality, greed and powerful interests that want to assert themselves over our land, bodies, and souls,” read CONPAZ representatives in an opening statement.
The organization submitted a proposal for a truth commission to the Colombian government in 2014, and has sent three representatives to participate in the victims’ roundtable in Havana.
Threatened for speaking out
Despite the apparent momentum of the peace process, recent months have seen an alarming spike in threats and attacks on Colombian human rights defenders. In 2014 alone, more than 600 human rights defenders were threatened or attacked, and 55 were assassinated. The overall number of threats represents a 71 percent increase from 2013. January 2015 saw another wave of threats, the vast majority of which were never prosecuted.
In more than half of the cases, the threats were attributed to Los Aguilas Negras and Los Rastrojos, descendants of paramilitary groups that have enjoyed cozy alliances with Colombia’s drug trade and political and economic elite as well as multinational corporations. These powerful sectors have a vested interest in preventing the truth from coming to light—even if it means silencing their former allies.
“If someone like Coronel Gónzalez del Río is ready to tell the truth, are there guarantees that he will be allowed to speak?” said Danilo Rueda, one of the directors for the Interchurch Justice and Peace Comission, in a panel discussion.
González del Río made headlines last year for his involvement in a major corruption scandal, and ultimately cooperated with the Colombian Attorney General’s office on charges of arms trafficking to neoparamilitary groups. He has since implicated his superior officers in extrajudicial killings.
“We’ve heard from you [CONPAZ] that much more important than jail time for perpetrators is the issue of truth. There are proposals for restorative justice models with dignified conditions, but will they be heard in Havana?”
No one-size-fits-all approach
Participants differentiated between perpetrators of human rights violations and called for a future truth commission to address the highest levels of responsibility.
“It’s not the same thing to kill from a desk — by issuing orders and writing checks in order to ‘clean’ territory to use it for cattle ranching, palm oil businesses and increase your already vast land holdings — as it is to be a soldier pulling a trigger,” said lawyer and advisor to the peace process Carlos A. Ruiz. “A transitional justice model must differentiate these types of responsibility in the conflict. Those most responsible are in the [presidential palace] Palacio de Nariño. They operate under the logic of suits-and-ties, not the logic of uniforms.”
“We need to name names like Álvaro Uribe Vélez,” he said, referring to the former Colombian president and current senator who is one of the most vocal critics of the peace process and has been implicated in numerous human rights scandals. Uribe and supporters from his right-wing Democratic Center party kicked off an international anti-peace process tour in Washington, D.C. on February 11-12, though the State Department’s announcement of the peace process envoy barely a week later suggests that Uribe’s insistence that the armed conflict can be won militarily is losing traction there.
An official story?
On February 10, Colombia’s National Historical Commission on the Conflict and its Victims released its official report on the causes of the conflict, but the 12 academics who participated were unable to reach consensus on root causes and instead published the 800-page document as a compilation of separate essays.
CONPAZ also challenges the idea that there can be one official version of Colombia’s conflict. Any reports, they say, must be informed and enriched by the experiences of the victims who have lived and embodied Colombia’s war.
In any case, organizations like CONPAZ insist that they will not be silenced.
“I want to congratulate all of you for being here today and say that we should not fear our adversaries. Our fearlessness is what has allowed us to get to where we are today, together. And the truth will set us free,” said a leader from Cacarica to the group.