The Justice and Peace Law has Meant Five Years of Impunity
Thursday, July 29, 2010
(Translated by Kevin Funk, a CSN Volunteer Translator)
Five years since the ratification of the 2005 "Law 975" (known as the Justice and Peace Law), Colombia has still not achieved minimum standards of justice in addressing the multiple crimes committed by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which has left the door open to painful episodes of impunity. Likewise, the truth about the phenomenon of paramilitarism in the country continues to be fragmented and unsubstantial, and each day the uncertainty regarding the process of granting reparations to the victims of the AUC grows.
This was asserted by representatives of Antioquia human rights organizations and movements of paramilitary victims at the close of the forum "After Five Years of Law 975…Neither Peace nor Justice for the Victims." The well-attended forum took place in Medellín on Friday, July 23.
For those in attendance, the legal and political balance of this mechanism of transitional justice designed to reincorporate demobilized AUC members back into society is not at all encouraging.
The figures speak for themselves. The sentence issued on July 29 against Uber Enrique Banquez Martínez, known as 'Juancho Dique,' and Edgar Cobo Tellez, known as 'Diego Vecino,'—both members of the group Héroes de los Montes de María—is the only definite sentence to date that has been handed down under Law 975. One may recall that the ex-paramilitary leaders were found guilty of perpetrating the massacre of Mampujan, Bolívar, committed in the year 2000 during which 13 peasants were killed and an unknown number forcibly displaced.
The 'negative balance' of this Law does not end here. According to figures from the High Council for Reincorporation into Civilian Life, 3,861 former combatants from these groups have taken recourse under this law. Of these, some 2,872 were low-level members who demobilized collectively, about 25 were unit leaders, and around 964 were in custody at the time of demobilization. Nevertheless, only 2,161 ratified their petitions and, among those, some 670 are participating in hearings before the Justice and Peace prosecutors—in other words, less than 2% of the total AUC ex-combatants being tried by transitional justice. Thus far, there have been 1,790 hearings and approximately 641 are still in progress.
Moreover, an additional 19,000 AUC members have been given protection under the Principle of Opportunity, sanctioned by Law 1312 of 2009, which means that more than 60% of the total number demobilized could receive amnesty for their crimes, (some 31,700, according to official figures), provided that the Attorney General suspends, interrupts or withdraws criminal investigations, as the Principle of Opportunity stipulates.
For Soraya Gutiérrez, a lawyer and member of the José Alvear Legal Group, another series of difficulties that have been detrimental to the rights of victims to access justice has been apparent during this period. In particular, these challenges have been highlighted during voluntary court proceedings. As Gutiérrez states, "In the proceedings, it is very common for applicants to say their victims were members of guerrilla groups; very rarely are victims identified as civilians. If you add to this the difficulty that the victims have gaining access to these proceedings, and the fact that even when they do, they have limited possibilities to challenge what is being said, that which begins to takes shape is a plot to justify all of the crimes against humanity committed by the paramilitaries." According to Gutiérrez, this is taking place due to the lack of interest demonstrated by the Justice and Peace attorneys and the magistrates of "Control of Guarantees" in challenging or confirming the validity of statements made during proceedings:"It's true that resources are an issue and that there is a lack of understanding of the Law on the part of judicial operators. However, it is also true that it is the responsibility of the District Attorneys to challenge these versions, and they are not doing so. Thus, we are constructing the truth based on the versions of the victimizers."
Gutiérrez also points out that the lack of judicial representation of the victims constitutes yet another serious obstacle in their quest for justice. "Although the National Government assigned this job to the Public Defender's Office, this means that a city like Bogotá has 60 public defenders for 6,000 victims and Barranquilla has 28 public defenders for 12,000 victims. In the Cesar region, there are just four defenders to represent victims from four departments. How can it be claimed that the victims have effective representation?"
In terms of truth, one of the country's significant wagers with Law 975, non-governmental organizations have also expressed reservations regarding the progress to which the government has pointed. For Jairo Ramírez, a member of Movice, the extradition of 13 paramilitary bosses to the United States in May 2008 constituted the heaviest blow to the search for truth. "At the time, seven of the extradited leaders were acting as witnesses in trials having to do with 'parapolitics.' We thus lost an historic opportunity to learn the truth about the scale of paramilitary involvement. Moreover, given that in the last five years some 820 of those who demobilized have been assassinated, some under strange circumstances while in jail, we might conclude that we are facing a silencing of the truth."
Nevertheless, the Executive considers that, thanks to these voluntary court proceedings, further information has been made available regarding crimes involving 350 politicians (regional leaders, members of congress and public servants amongst others), as well as at least 220 members of the armed forces and around 5,000 individuals, which will help shed light on a number of different crimes.
Similarly, the National Government has pointed out that the recognition of thousands of criminal acts committed by former paramilitaries has resulted in more than 3,000 exhumations of mass graves, in which 908 bodies have already been identified and handed over to their respective families.
Although facts such as these were recognized by those attending the forum, for Liliana Uribe, a lawyer of the Corporación Jurídica Libertad, the results remain inadequate given the gravity of the crimes, including forced disappearances. In fact, she warned that the law provides no guarantee of preventing similar crimes from being repeated in the future:"The most recent figures from the National Commission of Disappeared Persons and Legal Medicine show that in the last three years, 38,025 people have been disappeared. According to the Colombian Office of the High Commission for Human Rights of the United Nations, 10,000 of these cases correspond to forced disappearances. This type of crime is becoming more prevalent. So, has this instrument succeeded in fomenting peace?" Uribe did not hesitate to classify the law as a political failure, as it has not fulfilled its mandate of guiding the country toward reconciliation and peace. "Proof of this is the persistence, in various regions of the country, of paramilitary activity being used as a strategy of social control and a means of intimidating social leaders. The government insists that these are groups of narcotraffickers - not counterinsurgents - but, didn't the AUC finance itself through narcotrafficking? So we really aren't seeing anything new here."
Although the Colombian Government emphasizes that, thanks to the application of the Justice and Peace Law, the victims of paramilitary violence have been made visible (281,661 such victims have already been registered before the Attorney General), human rights defenders state that, in spite of this, those affected by paramilitary actions continue to face threats and intimidation, a situation exacerbated by the fact that they cannot count on any type protection from the government. As Soraya Gutiérrez states, "In the last five years, 25 leaders have been killed, many of whom were linked to processes of reclaiming lands taken by the paramilitaries. This underlines the lack of protection offered to victims."
In light of all of these statements, it was not unsurprising to hear, throughout the forum, the idea that the Law constitutes a mechanism for impunity. The victims still have not know justice, the truth continues to be evaded, and, as expressed by one of the participants, "Let's not even bring up the topic of reparations."