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Latin America

On the cusp of peace, a look back at Colombia's half-century of war

The Colombian government signed an agreement on Monday with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The six-decade conflict left more than 8 million victims, among them 283,000 dead, 29,000 kidnapped and 7 million displaced.
26 Sep 2016 – 5:33 PM EDT

Pastora Mira García was born 60 years ago in San Carlos, a mountain village in Antioquia, Colombia. She has known war for nearly her entire life.

Mira García’s father was murdered when she was six. Her first husband was killed in 1974, and in the late 1990s she and her family fled to the city of Medellin to escape violence. After she returned to her village, the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) -- one of the country's deadliest paramilitary groups -- kidnapped and killed her daughter Sandra, whose remains she found six years later. In 2005 her youngest son, Jorge Aníbal, was killed. One of her nephews was also murdered, and her brother Antonio has been missing since February 2002.

Today she is a city councilwoman and a well-known leader of the victims of the armed conflict in San Carlos, where she runs the Reconciliation and Reparations Center, a meeting space for the community. After so many years of horror, Mira García is ready for peace. She believes that Colombia’s peace accord is "flawed" and will be difficult to implement, but she supports an end to the war.

"I can't say the agreement is perfect," Mira García said. "We won’t achieve that. But [it’s] a beginning; it's very valuable. Peace will come at a cost; it is a long and winding road, but it doesn't compare to the monster of war.”

Many Colombians acknowledge that the peace agreement, reached after four years of negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is a long awaited opportunity to end the conflict. But a lot of work remains in order to guarantee justice, reconciliation and demobilization of former guerrillas.


I can not say that the peace agreement is perfect. We won’t ever get that. But achieving that which has been called unachievable is a start, and it’s very valuable. Peace will be hard. It’s a long and winding road, but nothing compared to the monster of war.

On Monday, President Juan Manuel Santos and guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri signed the peace accord in Cartagena. On October 2, Colombians will decide whether to ratify the pact in a referendum.

"For a country that tried peace negotiations so many times, never amounting to anything, this is a historic event," said Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez, director of the National Center for Historical Memory, a public entity created in 2011 that seeks recognition and reparation for victims.

Several surveys suggest the country will approve the agreement. One poll published in early September by the newspaper El Tiempo indicates that 60 percent of Colombians who vote will support the agreement.

But a number of politicians and victims oppose the accord and say it grants guerrillas a political voice and impunity for committing crimes against humanity. The six-decade conflict left more than 8 million victims, among them more than 280,000 dead, 29,000 kidnapped and 7.4 million displaced.

"The agreement is unfair and prioritizes the victimizers," said Senator Sofia Gaviria, president of the congressional human rights commission. "They come out strengthened and we, the victims, haven't seen anything positive. The way it is laid out, nobody will go to jail. It's incredible."

Gaviria represents the Federation of FARC Victims, one of the largest organizations of people affected by Colombia's war. Her brother William, former governor of Antioquia, was kidnapped and murdered by guerrillas in 2003.

"The FARC were supremely favored," said retired general Jaime Ruiz Barrera, president of the Colombian Association of Retired Military Officers, about the peace process. "The government yielded much more than the FARC in this negotiation process; it adopted a very generous attitude, a weak stance that the guerrillas immediately seized upon."


Will victims get justice?

The peace accord calls for recognizing that crimes were committed by all sides, identifying the perpetrators and providing reparations for victims.

Between 1988 and 2012, Colombia suffered nearly 100 terrorist attacks by various armed groups, mainly the FARC, which left 223 people dead and more than 1,000 wounded.

The victims' registry recorded almost 10,000 cases of torture and 9,000 children recruited by the guerrilla groups or linked to the armed struggle. Another 16,463 were victims of sex crimes, 93 percent of whom were women.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced people of any country in the world: 6.9 million. Another 3.9 million sought refuge or asylum abroad between 1951 and 2014. But the exact number of Colombians who left the country because of the conflict has yet to be determined, said Paula Gaviria, the president's human rights advisor and former director of the government's Victims Unit.

One-fifth of all displaced Colombians came from Antioquia, the department most affected by the conflict and once the site of drug cartels, paramilitaries and guerrillas.

Paramilitaries were responsible for the most deaths in Colombia: 7,160 over 32 years. The year 2000 was the bloodiest, when nearly 3,000 civilians were killed by various armed groups, including the army and the police.

But the National Center for Historical Memory also documented 170 massacres committed by the army and the Colombian police between 1980 and 2012, which left 968 people dead.

A truth commission will reveal details of crimes committed during the war. It also calls for establishing a unit to search for missing persons and a Special Peace Jurisdiction, which will seek to bring to justice those who committed the worst crimes and the most serious human rights violations.


War in numbers

Colombia’s armed conflict has left an indelible mark of death and violence. The country registered more than 8 million victims during the years of fighting.


Explore the number of registered victims in various categories in each department in Colombia since the beginning of the conflict

  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • 42
  • Terrorism
  • Threats
  • Sexual crimes
  • Disappearances
  • Displaced persons
  • Homicides
  • Landmines
  • Kidnappings
  • Torture
  • Recruiment and involvement of minors
  • Forced abandonment or land dispossession
  • Property loss
  • No information

The peace deal also includes the clearing of landmines, distributing 3 million hectares of land to peasants and formalizing the ownership titles of another 7 million hectares in rural areas.

But many Colombians doubt whether plans on paper will be enough to repair the damage suffered by thousands of people and to punish those responsible. Others point out that the scope of the task is unprecedented.

"Given the enormous dimensions of this conflict, addressing cases one by one at the judicial level is an almost impossible task," said Sánchez, of the National Center for Historical Memory.


Years of terror

Between 1988 and 2012, Colombia suffered 95 terrorist attacks, which left 223 dead and 1,332 injured. The majority were perpetrated by the FARC. Antioquia was hit most: 17 times.

Number of attacks

Deaths

55

1

5

10

15

20

1

Antioquia

55

Bogotá

49

Meta

25

Caquetá

21

SOURCE: National Center for Historical Memory | UNIVISION

Years of terror

Between 1988 and 2012, Colombia suffered 95 terrorist attacks, which left 223 dead and 1,332 injured. The majority were perpetrated by the FARC. Antioquia was hit most: 17 times.

Number of attacks

Deaths

55

1

5

10

15

20

1

Antioquia

55

Bogotá

49

Meta

25

Caquetá

21

SOURCE: National Center for Historical Memory | UNIVISION

They were years of terror

Between 1988 and 2012, Colombia suffered 95 terrorist attacks, which left 223 dead and 1,332 injured. The majority were perpetrated by the FARC. Antioquia was hit most: 17 times.

Deads

Number of attacks

Antioquia

55

55

1

5

10

15

20

1

Bogotá

49

Meta

25

Caquetá

21

SOURCE: National Center for Historical Memory | UNIVISION

Years of terror

Between 1988 and 2012, Colombia suffered 95 terrorist attacks, which left 223 dead and 1,332 injured. The majority were perpetrated by the FARC. Antioquia was hit most: 17 times.

Number of attacks

Antioquia

55

1

5

10

15

20

Deaths

55

Bogotá

49

1

Meta

25

Caquetá

21

SOURCE: National Center for Historical Memory | UNIVISION

Opponents of the peace deal, particularly hardline ex-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez and his supporters, argue perpetrators of the worst crimes won't be punished.

In 2003, then President Uribe implemented the Law of Justice and Peace for the demobilization of the paramilitary groups of the United Self-Defense Forces, which ended up handing in their weapons three years later.

Senator Alfredo Rangel calls the current deal "an impunity agreement."

"The worst FARC criminals will not spend a single day in prison," he said. "On the contrary, they are going to be rewarded with free seats in Congress. That is immoral and unethical.”

Under the peace accord, crimes against humanity, genocide and serious war crimes cannot be pardoned, nor can perpetrators receive amnesty. However, guerrillas who cooperate with authorities and acknowledge their responsibility for the most serious crimes will only receive punishment for a maximum of eight years, but no jail time.

Those who are punished must also help with reparation efforts, including searching for mines and missing people.

Those who refuse to acknowledge responsibility and are found guilty will face up to 20 years in prison.


Responsible for the massacres

Paramilitaries were responsible for the most killings during Colombia’s war. Over 32 years, they left 7,160 dead. The year 2000 was the bloodiest, when nearly 3,000 civilians were killed by various armed groups, including the army and police.

Paramilitaries

Police force

FARC and other guerrilla groups

Other

Victims

1,500

1,000

500

0

1980

2012

SOURCE: National Center of Historical Memory | UNIVISION

Responsible for the massacres

Paramilitaries were responsible for the most killings during Colombia’s war. Over 32 years, they left 7,160 dead. The year 2000 was the bloodiest, when nearly 3,000 civilians were killed by various armed groups, including the army and police.

FARC and other guerrilla groups

Paramilitaries

Other

Police force

Victims

1,500

1,000

500

0

1980

2012

SOURCE: National Center of Historical Memory | UNIVISION

Responsible for the massacres

Paramilitaries were responsible for the most killings during Colombia’s war. Over 32 years, they left 7,160 dead. The year 2000 was the bloodiest, when nearly 3,000 civilians were killed by various armed groups, including the army and police.

Victims

1,500

Paramilitaries

Police force

FARC and other guerrilla groups

1,000

Other

500

0

1980

2012

SOURCE: National Center of Historical Memory | UNIVISION

Responsible for the massacres

Paramilitaries were responsible for the most killings during Colombia’s war. Over 32 years, they left 7,160 dead. The year 2000 was the bloodiest, when nearly 3,000 civilians were killed by various armed groups, including the army and police.

Victims

1,500

Paramilitaries

Police force

FARC and other guerrilla groups

1,000

Other

500

0

1980

2012

SOURCE: National Center of Historical Memory | UNIVISION

In December 2015, Human Rights Watch accused Colombia of allowing the authors of "atrocities by both sides of the conflict to evade any genuine punishment" and stated that the negotiations between the government and the rebels offered "empty promises.”

The Colombian president has admitted that leading guerrilla members will not receive the maximum penalties that many Colombians demand.

"We seek justice to the greatest possible extent that grants us peace (...) Will many people still be unhappy? Of course,” Juan Manuel Santos recently told a group of entrepreneurs in Bogota. “We either get perfect justice or we get peace. We won't be able to punish those responsible [for the worst crimes] with 60 years' imprisonment. That is true, but there will be punishment and justice and there won’t be impunity.”

Colombia’s Office of the Attorney General reported last year that it was investigating 38,000 violent events that occurred during the war and estimated that the agreement could provide amnesty to some 16,000 members of the FARC.

"Many people demand justice for all crimes,” said Paula Gaviria. “This is ideal under ordinary conditions, but in Colombia that is impossible given the magnitude of what happened. It is unrealistic to think that justice could investigate and prosecute each case. In addition, this is a peace process. It is a process that seeks coexistence and reconciliation.”

In early September, Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda, of the International Criminal Court (ICC), said the peace agreement with the FARC met international standards, as it “excludes amnesties and pardons for crimes against humanity and war crimes.”


The paramilitary justice model

Opponents of the peace accord argue that FARC rebels may avoid jail time altogether, unlike the paramilitaries.

In 2003, the government negotiated the disarmament of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary group, leading to fewer massacres.

Paramilitaries were able to confess their crimes in exchange for shorter sentences. But in 2008, Uribe authorized the extradition of 14 paramilitary leaders to the United States to be tried for drug trafficking. That happened after paramilitary chiefs implicated several senators, government officials and even relatives of Uribe himself.

"The paramilitaries committed the same atrocities as the FARC and some of them spent five, eight and ten years in prison, others were extradited," said Senator Sofia Gaviria. "The least that can be done is imposing the same on the perpetrators of the FARC."

But others say justice will be served by the special court established by the peace accord.

"The agreement is not perfect; it is not the ideal outcome," said Senator Ivan Cepeda Castro, a founder of the National Movement for the Victims of State Crimes and an advocate of the peace process. "But regular courts are more flawed. In Colombia there is a 98 percent impunity rate. This [special] court will make up for that problem. Every person responsible for crimes against humanity will have to appear before this court."


A meaningful treaty

Until 2002 the war in Colombia left more than 200,000 dead. That year, Alvaro Uribe became president. In 2003 Uribe negotiated the demobilization and disarmament of the paramilitary group the United Self-Defenders of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), which led to a decrease in the number of killings in the country.

Victims (in thousands).

20

Homicides

15

10

Disappearances

5

Kidnappings

0

1985

2016

After elected President, Uribe began negotiations with paramilitaries.

In 2002, peace negotiations, initiated by Pastrana in 1999, failed.

800

Displaced

people

600

400

200

0

1985

2016

2002

SOURCE: Register of Victims | UNIVISION

A meaningful treaty

Until 2002 the war in Colombia left more than 200,000 dead. That year, Alvaro Uribe became president. In 2003 Uribe negotiated the demobilization and disarmament of the paramilitary group the United Self-Defenders of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), which led to a decrease in the number of killings in the country.

Victims (in thousands).

20

Homicides

15

10

Disappearances

5

Kidnappings

0

1985

2016

In 2002, peace negotiations, initiated by Pastrana in 1999, failed.

After elected President, Uribe began negotiations with paramilitaries.

800

Displaced

people

600

400

200

0

1985

2016

2002

SOURCE: Register of Victims | UNIVISION

A meaningful treaty

Until 2002 the war in Colombia left more than 200,000 dead. That year, Alvaro Uribe became president. In 2003 Uribe negotiated the demobilization and disarmament of the paramilitary group the United Self-Defenders of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), which led to a decrease in the number of killings in the country.

Victims (in thousands).

In 2002, peace negotiations, initiated by Pastrana in 1999, failed. After elected President, Uribe began negotiations with paramilitaries.

20

800

Homicides

Displaced

people

600

15

400

10

Disappearances

200

5

Kidnappings

0

0

1985

2016

1985

2002

2016

2002

SOURCE: Register of Victims | UNIVISION

A meaningful treaty

Until 2002 the war in Colombia left more than 200,000 dead. That year, Alvaro Uribe became president. In 2003 Uribe negotiated the demobilization and disarmament of the paramilitary group the United Self-Defenders of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), which led to a decrease in the number of killings in the country.

Victims (in thousands).

In 2002, peace negotiations, initiated by Pastrana in 1999, failed. After elected President, Uribe began negotiations with paramilitaries.

20

800

Homicides

Displaced

people

600

15

400

10

Disappearances

200

5

Kidnappings

0

0

1985

2016

2002

1985

2016

2002

SOURCE: Register of Victims | UNIVISION

Others have taken issue with the accord for failing to hold the FARC accountable for drug trafficking. The guerrillas have agreed to cut ties with trafficking. But the document does not identify the rebel group as a drug trafficking organization.

The agreement doesn't require the FARC to return goods and assets obtained through drug trafficking, nor does it mention requiring guerrillas to identify drug trafficking routes or front men.

However, the government assumes full responsibility for identifying financing systems and tracking down goods and assets obtained from drug trafficking and organized crime.

"We have signed a counter-narcotic policy with the biggest cocaine cartel worldwide," said Senator Rangel. "It's immoral that the FARC are not required to hand over the proceeds of drug trafficking. It's hundreds of millions of dollars. On the contrary, the victims, with their taxes, will end up financing the FARC's political reintegration."

General Jaime Ruiz Barrera also worries about this part of the accord. “To whom are the FARC going to hand over their cocaine laboratories? Who is going to run them? The agreement is very confusing."

Retired General Rosso José Serrano, who was chief of the Colombian National Police between 1994 and 2000, admits that the accord could have been tougher on drug trafficking, but he thinks that peace will lead to a decline in the narcotics trade.

"I would like it to be more radical, but I think that what has been agreed upon is a very important step," said Serrano.

On Friday, the pact was unanimously approved by the rebels during the 10th National Guerrilla Conference, held in the municipality of San Vicente del Caguan. Seventeen years ago, then head of the FARC, Manuel Marulanda Velez, was scheduled to attend a peace talk in that very place, but he did not show up.

"Justice is not necessarily served behind bars"

Many victims understand that some of the worst offenders will not go to prison.

Esther Polo Zabala, 26, lives in Montería, in the department of Cordoba, in northern Colombia. The paramilitaries killed her father, Antonio Jose Polo Hernandez, in November 1989, as well as an uncle and a cousin, during a baptism.

"The victims understand that justice is not necessarily achieved behind bars,” she told Univision News. “Prisoners, inactive, do nothing. It is better for them to contribute so that society moves forward … to go out and search for missing people and remove mines."

She is currently studying law to defend those who suffered during the war. She and her mother also run two civil organizations in Cordoba that seek to lessen the war’s impact on women.


The victims have understood that justice is not necessarily achieved behind bars. Prisoners, inactive, do nothing. It is better for them to contribute so that society moves forward … to go out and search for missing people and remove mines.

Polo was one of the thousands of victims who delivered testimony during various forums held in Bogota at the request of peace negotiators in Cuba. Another group of 70 Colombians traveled to Havana to narrate the horrors they suffered during the war.

"The victims have given us a huge lesson on generosity," says Gonzalo Sanchez, director of the National Center for the Historical Memory. "In Havana, everyone expected the victims to seek retaliation, but they made a statement for the future. They postponed their demand for justice for the sake of negotiations. That is an act of supreme generosity.”

Angela Moreno Salazar lost four of her brothers at the hands of the paramilitaries and the FARC between 1991 and 2004. Still, she would rather the guerrillas be out on the streets than in jail. She runs an organization in San Carlos de Antioquia that advocates for the restitution of victims’ rights.


"It's obvious this agreement isn't perfect, but I'm convinced that a group of people in prison would keep committing crimes. It is better to have them resume their lives, reintegrate into society and become aware of the damage they caused," Moreno told Univision.

But Senator Rangel disagrees.

"There may be many victims who are willing to forgive their executioners and to support agreements … [that is] an individual choice,” he says. “But the government and its spokespeople are deceiving the public by saying that crimes against humanity will not go unpunished.”

Polo and Mira Garcia think the peace plan has good proposals, especially the initiatives to return land, consolidate rural reserves and create a truth commission.

"Peace is contagious when there is social equity," Mira Garcia said. "We have never been so close. I don't want the years to pass and our children to accuse us of being too scared to give them the opportunity to live in peace."

Web design: Sandra Merino
Graphics: Amaya Verde and Luis Melgar


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