On February 24, over 25 international civil society organizations, including WOLA—through the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz—published a statement commending the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) for its February 18 order on how it plans to investigate and prosecute the at least 6,402 extrajudicial executions it has identified in macro-case 03.
The original Spanish-language statement is here. The English-language version of the statement is below.
The undersigned international civil society organizations welcome the progress made by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP). On February 18, 2021, through Auto 033 of 2021, the JEP made public its prioritization strategy within Case 03, known as “false positive” extrajudicial executions. According to information gathered by the Chamber for the Acknowledgment of Truth and Responsibility (Sala de Reconocimiento de Verdad y Responsabilidad), “at least 6,402 people were illegitimately killed to be presented as combat casualties throughout the national territory between 2002 and 2008”.
The courageous and rigorous work of Colombian human rights and victims’ organizations has been key in clarifying the truth about these painful events, which the Colombian people continue to mourn and must be prosecuted. Seeking to reduce the JEP’s work as an attempt to “discredit” the leader of the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) political party, not only constitutes an affront, but it is also untrue and puts at serious risk, once again, the lives and work of human rights defenders, whose truth is key to definitively overcoming the conflict in Colombia.
We reject this new stigmatization and alert the state and the Government of Colombia about the serious security consequences it may have on the victims and defenders who have been denouncing these cases for years.
It is important that the JEP does not falter in its work, which, as stated by the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssel, “is taking important steps in the fight against impunity, which will help Colombia to address past serious violations of international law and prevent the recurrence of such violations”.
As international civil society organizations that have accompanied Colombian human rights organizations for many years, we reiterate our support for their legitimate work, which we consider essential for consolidating peace and strengthening the rule of law in Colombia.
All sectors and actors should refrain from issuing stigmatizing statements that put lives at risk and further polarize Colombia. We encourage all to contribute with determination from their different roles and mandates to the definitive overcoming of the conflict in Colombia.
Here is an English translation of the stirring end-of-year message published by the President of Colombia’s Commission for Clarification of the Truth, Father Francisco de Roux.
“From the encounter with thousands of survivors of Colombia’s armed conflict who carry the memory of the kidnapped and false positives; from the pain of the soldiers, police and former guerrillas without legs; from destroyed villages, displaced peasants, indigenous and Afro-descendant people dispossessed of their territories, abused women, children driven to kill, families searching for the disappeared, and thousands who fled into exile; and also from the pain left by COVID-19; we extend the most sincere embrace on behalf of the Truth Commission.
The tragedy of the conflict contains the truth of hatred, caused by power and greed, that broke us as a human community and calls us to change. We build Colombia together, from our cultural, ethnic, political, gender, and generational differences, or there will be no peaceful future for anyone.
We invite you to look directly at where we went wrong when we soaked the human and ecological wealth we have in blood and vengeance, when we made it natural to live among war, lies, corruption, injustice, and cocaine.
We urge, from the cries of victims on all sides, the ELN, the FARC dissidents and the Second Marquetalia of Ivan Marquez, Romaña and Jesus Santrich, to lay down their arms. Sixty years of war have made it clear that armed confrontation does not make social revolution, but causes suffering and terror for a people who cry ‘stop that war, stop it on all sides, stop it now.’
We ask the government not to stop extending a truly effective hand of peace to the insurgents, because we do not despair of the human being within them. We also ask it to go beyond the serious implementation of the PDET (Territorial Development Plans), to assume the totality of the peace and comprehensive rural reform, and to surround with political and ethical protection the mission of the institutions of the System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, and particularly the demanding task of the JEP.
We invite the institutions to put themselves at the service of the life and human greatness of each person, to the inclusion of all without borders.
We propose a dialogue to transform security. Not to reverse the steps taken by the Military Forces when they tried to change the objective of the war to that of an Army at the service of peace, despite the fact that there are still guerrilla and criminal groups. We invite to a security created by trust: when citizens believe in each other and trust in their institutions. The exaltation of weapons from all sides creates mistrust and provokes war, it does not give security.
We urge politicians on the campaign trail to move away from the marketing of votes and to have the audacity to listen in order to seek together the non-repetition of the tragedy, so as not to allow the intolerable to happen again.
In the new year, may lies and fears fall, and let us set in motion, from the truth, a future of hope, reconciliation and brotherhood in which we rescue the dignity we deserve as the people of Colombia.”
On September 21, WOLA and 43 other international civil society organizations published a statement condemning widespread instances of police brutality during the recent demonstrations in Bogotá. The demonstrations were prompted by the September 9 police killing of Javier Ordóñez, which State forces responded to with disproportionate use of force against civilians exercising their rights.
According to the statement, 13 deaths were recorded, more than 400 people were injured (72 instances from firearms), and three women were sexually assaulted.
The several recommendations for the international community proposed by the organizations include: rejecting violence during peaceful demonstrations, providing sufficient guarantees for political participation, accompanying the peace process and the implementation of the 2016 accord, monitoring cases of police abuse, and supporting processes that contribute to an active and informed civic culture.
It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials startpushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.
A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begged them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.
These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.
Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police wereignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.
You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).
Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.
With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.
As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.
They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.
There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.
Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”
These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.
Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.
In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.
When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.
Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”
Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.
This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.
Think about that. Already, manyColombiananalysts are soundingalarmsaboutmountingauthoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.
A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.
New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.
Former president and sitting senator Álvaro Uribe, currently under house arrest as he awaits trial for witness tampering charges, resigns his Senate seat. This shifts the prosecution of his case from the jurisdiction of Colombia’s Supreme Court to that of the Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía).
The Supreme Court orders former President Álvaro Uribe, the most powerful politician in 21st century Colombia, placed under house arrest pending trial for tampering with witnesses. Uribe allegedly urged his lawyers to convince imprisoned former paramilitary members to give false testimony against a political rival, Senator Iván Cepeda. Uribe is confined to his ranch in Córdoba department, where he publishes a tweet falsely blaming his detention on “testimonies against me purchased by the FARC, its new generation, and its allies.”
Washington, D.C.—In response to news that Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered that former president Álvaro Uribe be held under house arrest, in connection to allegations of witness tampering, WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli issued the following quote:
“Uribe has always been one degree of separation from crimes against humanity and unaccountable, authoritarian behavior. Despite massive circumstantial evidence, others have always taken the fall for the DAS intel scandal, the parapolitics scandal, links to paramilitaries on the U.S. terrorism list, false positive killings, paramilitary massacres, and violence against Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples. This case involves the ex-president’s lawyers making payoffs to ex-paramilitary witnesses, so they might alter their testimonies and falsely incriminate a political adversary. We hope that it begins the process of peeling off Álvaro Uribe’s Teflon vest so that all the victims of these crimes can finally have justice.”
“This sends a strong message that no one is above the rule of law in Colombia,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA. “These kinds of sensitive investigations, implicating some of Colombia’s most powerful political elites, are only advancing in the first place thanks to the courageous work of human rights defenders, journalists, justice officials, and other reformers who are fighting every day to uncover the truth of what happened during Colombia’s conflict. As the legal processes involving Uribe continue, it is critical that state officials respect and uphold the independence of Colombia’s courts and justice system.”
One of the FARC’s five senators, Griselda Lobo Silva alias Sandra Ramírez, is named the second vice-president of the Senate for the chamber’s 2020-21 term. Lobo was the partner of maximum FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, who died in 2008. Ex-president and then-senator Álvaro Uribe praises Lobo for her “coherence.” Two days later, the senator ignites controversy by denying that the FARC recruited minors.
For the international civil society organizations that subscribe to this statement, the critical remarks made about the commissioners of the CEV, and in particular its president, Father Francisco de Roux S.J., are unacceptable. The Commission’s work has been criticized by members of the government party and a former minister of defense and ambassador who, in opposition to the Peace Agreement, insist on disqualifying the judicious and responsible work that the Commission has carried out as one of the temporary and extrajudicial components of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-repetition (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No repetición, SIVJRNR).
Since its 2017 constitution, the CEV has been developing an independent, rigorous exercise to reveal the truth of the profound pain produced by the long armed conflict suffered by Colombia.
From the perspective of the conflict’s victims, the CEV is weaving pathways, building methodologies, creating spaces, generating dialogues, and receiving reports and testimonies from throughout the country and abroad in order to clarify the truth and thus contribute to the end of the armed conflict in Colombia.
We are convinced that only Truth is the guarantee for the noncontinuity and non-repetition of the armed conflict in Colombia. The peace commissioners have demonstrated their commitment to this purpose and, from diversity and difference, have assumed their work with depth and dedication. Their honor is and will be the guarantee that will preserve such Truth in favor of Colombia’s peace.
We encourage the Commission to continue its work and look forward to the fruits of its labor with hope. We encourage all citizens of the country and abroad, regardless of their ideologies, to join forces so as not to let this process be mistreated, ideologized, or politicized by the interests of a few who reject the transformational force of the truth.