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Stefan Oftering {*}

Is there a Real Willingness to Change?

In Colombia it must not be only about Continuity


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 9/2010, P. 469-473
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    After two terms in office, the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe retired and has left a mixed outcome. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos promises above all continuity in the discharge of his office. But a realignment would be needed in some areas in order to find a peaceful solution in the armed conflict and to improve the extremely critical situation of human rights.


In early August 2010, Alvaro Uribe Vélez has after eight years handed over the presidency to Juan Manuel Santos Alvaro. Many Colombians await continuity in governance. Santos, Uribe's former defense minister, has clearly won the elections by the end of June 2010 in the second round, albeit the voter turnout was very low. Santos had inter alia become "Crown Prince" because the liberation of the politician Ingrid Betancourt was in his jurisdiction. This liberation after eight years of captivity in the hands of the FARC guerrilla group was seen as one of the greatest successes of Uribe's so-called "policy of democratic security", which Santos intends to continue in any case.

Under the concept of "democratic security" Uribe had summarized his strategy to resolve the internal armed conflict of more than 40 years by a reinforcement of the military effort against the guerrillas and to ensure the presence of security forces throughout the territory. Soon after Uribe took office in 2002, this approach was evaluated by large parts of the population and international observers as a success, as the security situation in some parts of the country really improved and the presence of the guerrillas was pushed back. In addition to the liberation of the most prominent hostage of the FARC, the blow against its leadership by a rocket attack on a camp in Ecuador was of importance; in it the then commander of the guerrilla Raul Reyes was killed. The side effect of this success was a dispute with the Ecuadorian government on the legality of this attack, which is not settled to this day.

Like the less significant ELN, the FARC guerrilla group is admittedly weakened but not defeated. Both organizations are deeply involved in the drug trade and achieve significant turnovers from it, which keep them economically alive. They continue to control some peripheral regions of the South American country. Although their military actions have become fewer, they also in recent years repeatedly committed attacks against the civilian population. Especially the attacks on military posts in the middle of the civilian population should be mentioned, as they happened between 2006 to 2009 twice alone in the indigenous community of Toribio in the department of Cauca.

But disregard for the civilian population characterizes also the other warring parties. The extra-judicial executions are a major problem of the strategy of "democratic security", because a part of the successes of the security forces was faked at the expense of the civilian population. Since the end of 2008 several hundred cases of so-called "false reports of success" (falsos positivos) were uncovered by human rights activists and journalists. These are cases of deliberate killing of civilians by the military by pretending they were members of the guerrilla or of paramilitary groups. The results, which were demanded in the framework of "democratic security" in the fight against the guerrillas, were thus improved.

At the beginning of this scandal a network of people was exposed. In a suburb of Bogota they had enlisted young men with the promise that they would get better-paid work in the north of the country. Days after their mothers had reported the disappearance of the men, they learned that in the Norte de Santander Department their sons were presented as "guerrillas fallen in combat" by the military. The recruiter was obviously paid by soldiers who for the "successes" in the fight against the guerrillas received cash payments, special leave, and sooner opportunities of advancement. At that time Juan Manuel Santos was defense minister and therefore politically accountable. However, it did not cost him the office. He only resigned from the ministerial office when his candidacy for the presidency was clear.

Santos admittedly decreed the dismissal of 27 soldiers who were involved in the machinations. The basic problem, however, was not eliminated, because the order with which incentives for such killings were created is still in force.



And the cases of "falsos positivos" are only the tip of the iceberg. According to estimates of the national Human Rights Network CCEEU the military is responsible for nearly 3.000 extrajudicial killings, which according to the information of UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston must be classed as systematic, so he explained after a visit to Colombia in 2009.

However, the Santos Government starts with another structural blemish, because all efforts to find a negotiated solution in the armed conflict are pushed into the background by the priority that is given to a military solution. There were no negotiations between the government and the guerrillas in Uribe's tenure. This shows the lack of political will on both sides. In the run-up to the elections, the Bishops' Conference and other civilian members of the Reconciliation Commission have therefore worked out minimum requirements for a peaceful solution. Between October 2009 and March 2010 the initiative organized "round tables" with participation of over 15.000 people from more than 150 counties. The criteria worked out here constitute clear demands on the warring parties to refrain from violations of international humanitarian rights and to seek a negotiated solution.

For the church this list of criteria would be an important basis for future negotiation initiatives. In the recent past there have been a variety of positions, which showed the lack of a clear line. For a mediating role a certain degree of flexibility is certainly needed but also some clear principles,which are action-guiding and set clear conditions for the conflicting parties.

Unlike as towards the guerrillas, the Uribe government behaved towards the other major armed player. At the end of 2003, negotiations about a demobilization were conducted with the right-wing paramilitaries. They resulted in a process in which up to this day more than 34.000 fighters handed in their weapons. Although this figure is far higher than the estimates of the security forces, which at the beginning of the millennium still proceeded on the assumption of 14.000 to 17.000 armed men, the paramilitaries are active up to this day. In some regions they have even consolidated the control of territory, population and economic resources.

The basic problem in the "peace process" with the paramilitaries is that there was insufficient political will to abolish actually these structures. Here, too, the churchly negotiating committee consisting of three bishops has nsufficiently made clear what conditions it sets to the paramilitaries, and the principles on which reconciliation should be based.

The paramilitaries have their origin in private armies of landowners. But they were systematically promoted, armed and logistically supported by the government security forces. In the phase of their greatest expansion of power, in the late nineties of the last century, they were responsible for a series of massacres of civilians and massive expulsions.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has stated in several judgments that on those occasions a systematic operational cooperation took place. So much so that in some regions the paramilitary commanders have coordinated all their actions with the commandos of the military and police, as in the case of the village Mapiripán where the paramilitaries in July 1997 raged extremely brutally for five days. The government had to acknowledge the collaboration of the military before the Inter-American Court. In 2007 two high-ranking military men were then sentenced to prison. But a whole number of cases is documented in which units of the military were directly involved in operations of the paramilitaries. On those occasions only the badges on their uniforms were removed, and their faces were made unrecognisable.


The Legal Prosecution of the Crimes Remains Disappointing

From this structural support of paramilitary activity there resulted a goal conflict that is most strongly reflected in the Justice and Peace Law (Act 975 of 2005). The demobilization process got its legal framework through this law. The law makes a far-reaching offer of reduced penalties, with a maximum sentence of eight years, to those paramilitaries who are willing to testify about their crimes. After the first adoption of the law in the two chambers of parliament, the Constitutional Court had to make corrections to ensure conformity of the law with international law, because the penalty reduction should initially be applied also to crimes against humanity.

Moreover, the law does not provide that the paramilitaries are systematically called to account for their massive crimes. The establishment of a "Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation" foreseen by the law has no mandate to establish the truth, which would be comparable, for example, with the mandate of truth commissions in South Africa after the end of apartheid, or in Guatemala after the armed conflict. There is admittedly a "Sub-Commission for Historical Truth", but its mandate is limited to the analysis of documents. Hearings are not planned.

Five years after the law has come into force it has to be noted that the process has always been focused on the commanders of those paramilitaries with whom the "Ralito agreement" as a basis of negotiations between the government and paramilitaries had been concluded. Some of them were taken into custody.



In 2008, thirteen of them were surprisingly extradited to the U.S., where extradition requests existed because of their deep involvement in the drug trade. However, these people are accountable for thousands of murders, brutal massacres and probably tens of thousands of violent expulsions of civilians. Initially, government and judiciary have promised that the extradition does not mean that the commanders would thus be withdrawn from the prosecution for crimes against humanity by the judiciary. But it is still unclear how this is to come about, and how the legal problems connected with it can be solved.

The legal prosecution of the crimes is also lagging far behind expectations. Only ten percent of the demobilized fighters have fallen at all within the scope of the law, wheras the other 90 percent remained exempt from punishment due to other decrees and regulations. Of the remaining ten percent about 2.500 have testified or announced statements. In many cases, however, the hearings became platforms where they vindicated their actions and made very selective statements. To date, only one penal sentence was imposed on commanders of the paramilitaries.

On the other side are the victims of paramilitary activity, whose number amounts to millions when you consider that the paramilitaries are responsible for a very high number of the four million internally displaced people in Colombia. In the statements alone of the paramilitaries tens of thousands murders were confessed, so that a much higher dark figure of crimes can be assumed. The participation of victims in the processes in the context of "justice and peace", however, leaves much to be desired. On the one hand, they take a very high risk with their statements. To date, more than 15 victims were murdered. They had publicly demanded the investigation of the murders of their relatives and compensation. In January 2007 for instance Yolanda Izquierdo was shot by a killer in Montería, having a few hours previously called on the judiciary for protection. She had spoken in a public hearing about the killings and expulsions by the paramilitaries in San Onofre.

The networks of the paramilitaries reach deeply into the democratic institutions of the country. Through the statements of the detained commanders their links with members of Parliament became known. During an appearance before Congress, Salvatore Mancuso, a spokesman for the paramilitaries said that they control about a third of the deputies. He has probably not exaggerated with it. Since 2006, more than 30 deputies were arrested for their links to the paramilitaries, and more than 100 others are under investigation. In the years 2007 and 2008, the operativeness of the parliamentary chambers and committees was therefore severely questioned, because many representatives could not exercise their mandates due to investigation or detention.

Now, many observers had expected that a renewal and cleanup would occur with the parliamentary elections in March 2010. In its election analysis, the civil society election observation mission, in which apart from the national social care also many priests and Catholic lay people in the regions participated, has ascertained that the phenomenon persists. For in the case of 28 deputies who were prohibited from exercising their office because of the "parapolitics" scandal, their spouses or close family members joined the Parliament. The election results often showed the same abnormalities by which the first phase of the policy of the paramilitaries was shaped. There was often only one candidate in the constituencies, or the results showed very high and nontypical majorities.

The murders and threats against the victims, and the continuation of the "parapolitics" indicates the unbroken continuity of the paramilitary groups and their widely ramified networks of power. Although the number of disarmed people exceeds the official number of actual fighters by far, the paramilitary groups have not ceased to exist. Without a break, they continue with their criminal activities in many regions of the country.



Especially from the southwestern, southeastern and northwestern regions, representatives of the Church and human rights organizations have repeatedly reported that the same people exert further pressure on the civilian population, extort protection money, and organize the drug trade. Since late 2009, there has been an increase in the number of acts of violence in the region Córdoba, where alone in June and July 2010 two massacres were committed.

In the discussion with representatives of the local social care two aspects appear: there are internal disputes between paramilitaries about their shares in the lucrative drug trade and a struggle for control over the territory. Talking directly with internally displaced persons in this region they tell me that, if they organize in order to claim their rights, they receive threats. Demanding the return of the land that they had to leave was equal to a death sentence. So far the future government of Santos has no new concepts for this area, with which the legal position and the safety of victims would be strengthened.

The paramilitary successor organizations do also not stop at direct threats against church workers, as e.g. in the case of the social care of Tumaco in Nariño Department. It has repeatedly been receiving for two years threats from the so-called 'black eagles', who demand that they abandon their commitment for the victims of the conflict. In Tumaco the fear of these threats is particularly great, because already in 2001 the then director of social care, Yolanda Cerón, was murdered by paramilitaries. In other regions of the country the Church's position on the side of the victims is unfortunately often less clear and decisive. The initiatives of the national social care, such as the "National Peace Week", do not find everywhere the same echo, and the victims not always the same support.


The Land Issue: No Peace Without Justice

The experiences of the displaced people from Córdoba point to the key problem in the Colombian conflict: the overcoming of the deep social injustice is a necessary condition for a peaceful solution. This is most evident in connection with the land issue, because it is closely interrelated with the acts of violence. According to the Colombian Audit Court of 2006 approximately five and a half million hectares of land had been redistributed by force in connection with the internal displacement. The National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) assumes even ten million hectares.

In some regions you can exactly trace back how people were systematically expelled in order to gain control over land and to use it for agro-industrial major projects. The case of the municipality of Curvaradó on the Atrato river was documented by the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión de Justicia y Paz Intereclesial): After massive displacement of Afro-Colombian peasants the land was illegally used for an agro-industrial palm oil plantation and not returned. Only after several speakers of the municipality had been murdered and many international protests, a part of the land was returned to the farmers.

But there are still plantations on the land of the municipality, which are protected by the police and military, while the rightful owners live in deep poverty. A representative of the Intercongregational Commission summed the experience up: The expulsions are not the result of the conflict but in many cases the motive, in order to secure property and to gain control over the territory. In addition to the agricultural industry, Colombian organizations report on violent appropriation of land for economic purposes especially by the rapidly emerging mining sector.

As the National Indigenous Organisation impressively documented, more and more often indigenous communities are affected, which actually are under special legal protection. Also in this area the results of the Uribe government are extremely depressing. After the number of new displacements declined in the years 2005-2007, it rapidly rose again. Overall, the National Secretariat for Social Care and the non-governmental organization CODHES count more than four million displaced people since the late eighties. This is the second highest number of internally displaced persons worldwide, and this humanitarian catastrophe continues every day.

With this massive violent redistribution of land, the traditionally extremely high concentration of land in Colombia has further increased. The United Nations' indicators of income distribution continued deteriorating, and by comparison with other South American countries Colombia today comes close to the situation of Brazil. The exclusion of large parts of the population from social prosperity is the central obstacle to a peaceful solution.

More than half of the Colombians are considered to be poor, 20 percent extremely poor. The relatively solid economic growth of averaging around five percent even during the crisis years has largely bypassed this population group. As long as this structural injustice, the result of violence, continues, there will always be groups and people who are trying to overcome it with violent means, too. Such conditions have always been also the breeding ground for the recruitment of illegal armed groups of all shades and provenance.

The new government obviously thinks about the issue of a new "land law", by which also the return of the land to the victims shall be regulated. However, there are currently no concepts. There is no lack of laws in Colombia; what is missing is the real will to change.



If in agricultural policy also more continuity than innovation should be on the agenda, here, too, no decisive proposal can be expected, because the resistance from the traditional elites against a real redistribution will be powerful.

The church can here become a major player if she to a greater extent introduces her guidelines into the debate. What is missing to date is a strong statement that would give the many statements of the Bishops' Conference on justice issues, and particularly on the land issue emphasis. The in 2004 adopted declaration on the land issue and agricultural policy would also today be an excellent starting point for a national debate on these issues.

In addition to many elements of continuity between ex-President Uribe and his successor Santos also signals of change are visible. Uribe has often harshly attacked in public his political opponents as well as the democratic monitoring institutions which did not completely follow his line. He even accused magistrates in the Supreme Courts of proximity to the guerrillas. Santos has here already before his inauguration indicated that he would rather take the path of consensus, when he spoke of a "harmonization" of positions.

A greater willingness for dialogue can certainly help to overcome the polarization in the country. Also the chairman of the Colombian Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Ruben Salazar, relies on it. In long conversations with the candidate Santos he could experience this enhanced readiness to engage in dialogue. But the church on the spot is also further challenged to maintain, in the midst of armed conflict and social division, a minimum of social life, which opens a path towards justice and peace for the future. In future, she will surely need for it a clearer public position on the basis of largely supported principles and criteria.


    {*} Stefan Oftering (born in 1966) is Consultant for Human Rights in Colombia of the episcopal relief organization Misereor. He advises partner organizations of Misereor in their human rights work and information work within the system of the United Nations. He has been visiting the country for almost 20 years.


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