The Slight Imperfections of the Uribe Era
The Colombian Government’s Concepts of “Justice” and “Peace” in Light of the Massacre at San José de Apartadó
By Laura del Castillo Matamoros
Narco News Editorial Columnist
March 23, 2005
A few days ago, President Uribe, during an interview with the station “W Radio,” speaking of the “Justice and Peace” proposal currently being discussed in Congress, made a truly delicious remark, one which will surely be recorded in some list of celebrated Colombian quotations:
“It’s impossible to find a perfect equation between justice and peace.”
Of course, Mr. President, you’re right. Obviously, in Colombia, and especially since you took power, “it’s impossible to find a perfect equation between justice and peace. We could have a discussion on what this phrase itself really means: for you, it is that one must sacrifice certain things (justice) to achieve others (peace). But let me dive a bit further into those deep, bottomless wells of Uribisa thought in order to understand these concepts a little better.
The best way would be to explain these concepts in light of a pleasant, current event, one of those that gets mentioned for a minute in the commercial media, just before moving on to the “entertainment” section of the broadcast (which lasts an hour). But before we get to that event we need to put it briefly in its historical context. So, let’s take a look, shall we?
A Pleasant Event
It seems that in this Latin American missing link, better known as Colombia, there is a famous gulf, best known as the Gulf of Urabá (spanning part of the department of Antioquia and part of the department of Chocó). Why is it famous? Above all, for its wealth of natural resources: gold, coal, wood, gas, bananas, etc. And it is all very much ours, very Colombian. (That must be why the state turns them over, almost for free, to foreign corporations, right?).
As you might imagine, kind readers, for many years the military and the paramilitaries (who carry out JUSTICE their own way) have had a strong presence in this region, and are in a struggle to the death against the guerrillas (who also have their own, very peculiar version of JUSTICE) over territory, and the properties of big landowners and corporations. Civil society, then, is just a uniform mass of people that, if it does not take align itself with one side in the conflict, is everybody’s enemy. And if, among these people (who, for demanding JUSTICE, are automatically accused of being “supporting subversion”) there are any human rights activists, peasant farmer leaders, trade unionists, etc., well, there death sentence is as good as signed.
Well, it happens that in the part of Urabá that covers the Antioquia department, there is a town called Apartadó. This town is famous for the very picturesque acts of barbarity that have taken place there, for many years now (especially in the surrounding rural areas), which the different armed actors have committed in a most elegant manner. As examples of this we have tortures, massacres, forced disappearances, bombings, assassinations, massive displacements, etc. And, ah, of course, I nearly forgot, this town is also very popular because it was one of the most important centers of operations for CONVIVIR (the vigilante groups formed by paramilitaries, which the godly soul who is our president, Uribe, legitimized and supported when he was governor of Antioquia in the mid-90s).
In 1997, after so many showings of sensitivity on the part of the armed actors towards the civilian population had led to the displacement of thirty-two rural families in the Apartadó area, of which eleven were still nearby without anywhere else to go, a “peace community” was formed in a small hamlet known as San José de Apartadó, where those eleven communities came together. At the time, they had the support of the Catholic Church and various international organizations. The idea was to group together in a humanitarian territory, where the residents would not allow the presence of any of the armed actors, and where no member of the community would need to be armed. In other words, to maintain themselves at the margin of the war, in order to be able to live in PEACE.
Of course, none of the parties in conflict were pleased with this initiative. So much so that, since the peace community was founded, more than 146 of its members have been assassinated, including several leaders. And despite the complaints, the state has never responded. There were no indications of a desire for JUSTICE, so to speak. It must be because it is “impossible to find a perfect equation between justice and peace.” Don’t you think so, Mr. President?”
Now we can move on with this pleasant event. Despite the serious situation it faces, the community still maintains its position of not allowing the conflict’s actors to enter. Nevertheless, on February 21, in order to teach a lesson to some potential guerrillas and, of course, to demonstrate that democratic (in)security reaches the remotest corners of the country (“la seguridad democratica” being Uribe’s name for his aggressive military strategy of ensuring military presence in every Colombian municipality), according to one hundred local witnesses (supported by the town’s former mayor Gloria Giraldo, by Jesuit priest and director of the Center for Popular Research and Education Javier Giraldo, by various Colombian non-governmental organizations, by the international groups that work in the area, and even a few members of the U.S. Congress), members of the honorable National Army entered the town and massacred five adults. Among them was community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra, known to activists and organizations around the world (including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights).
And loyal to the police traditions established during the violence under the right-wing regime of the early 1950’s, which consisted of “not leaving behind even the seed” (when murdering liberal peasants), these brave soldiers had no qualms about acting the same way with an 11-year-old child, the son of Luis Eduardo, and with two more of five and one years, the children of a peasant farmer couple that were among the murdered adults. The state in which the all bodies were found proved that they had been tortured, and later dismembered… but what can you do? It’s “impossible to find a perfect equation between justice and peace.”
Of course, when the denunciations came out, Vice President Francisco Santos immediately showed his face – which was quite worried and bereaved, seeing as how he had just then been in discussions with the U.S. Congress over an upcoming decision on Colombia’s human rights certification – to say that the government greatly regretted what had happened , but that this should not give way to a “defamation campaign against the government and the Colombian state.”
But most moving of all was to see Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe giving his deepest sympathies to the victims of the conflict, emphasizing that “the Colombian armed forces are calm today in the knowledge that it was not they who committed these attacks and these crimes, and is giving full cooperation to the justice department, in the effort to clarify these events.” But of course, Minister, the armed forces are calm. How could they not be, if although there is evidence that implicates the soldiers of the army’s 17th brigade in the massacre, nothing will be done about it? I imagine, Minister, that you must know as well that in this country, “it’s impossible to find a perfect equation between justice and peace.” Am I wrong?
And the armed forces, absolved of guilt and draped in a vail of innocence, declared with map in hand that their men were two hours from the town on the day that the events occurred, and the only armed men in the area belonged to a unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and as such, it was the FARC who carried out the massacre. The army’s position was supported by the Antioquia district attorney, Francisco Gálviz, who claimed that “the FARC use the peace community as a place to rest and relax.” And that’s not to mention the supposed former FARC member now living in the area who claimed to know that Luis Eduardo, the assassinated leader, had been part of the FARC and wanted to leave the community due to threats from the group against his life. Besides, says the army, it is very strange that the community has remained silent on the issue.
One can accuse the FARC of many things, save that they do not recognize or take responsibility for their own crimes. This time they denied it. The community members denied it, as did former mayor Cuartas, the priest Giraldo, and the international organizations that operate in the area. Luis Eduardo did not want to leave the community, nor did the FARC use the community as a rest area. What’s more, the community itself admits that the guerrillas have committed attacks against it. But they insist that this time, the guerrillas had nothing to do with it. As such, they say that the army’s supposed evidence is no more than a farce set up to confuse the investigations. Meanwhile, Gloria Cuartas and Javier Giraldo say that they have decided not to talk to any state agency, in an act of conscientious objection to the fact that in this country, witness testimony is, in the end, manipulated and distorted by the authorities themselves. The community members don’t want to talk either, for the same reason (they say they are only willing to testify before the Inter-American Court of Human rights) and, because, they too could be killed (by the same innocent young patriotic soldiers who killed Luis Eduardo and their other neighbors). This is not an unlikely scenario in a country where everything is done by the use of force, and where “it’s impossible to find a perfect equation between justice and peace.”
A Perfect Opportunity
But we must not be so pessimistic. There must be some benefit to be gained in all this. Of course… the benefit obtained by the government, which has taken advantage of the accusations against the FARC and decided that the armed forces will enter, by any means necessary, not just San José de Apartadó, but all the peace communities across the country. All of this because, according to President Uribe: “it is unacceptable that the army’s entrance into areas of the country be impeded, because it is like putting the state at the same level as the guerrillas and the paramilitaries” (Mr. President, no offence, but in Colombia the state is indeed at the same level as the guerrillas and the paramilitaries; it is even a bit lower). According to the defense minister, “there can be no peace communities without the presence of the armed forces.” (The presence of the armed forces guarantees peace, Mr. Minister? Strange, because reports from human rights organizations denouncing army abuses in different parts of the country are becoming more and more abundant.)
The strangest thing of all is how this has awakened the government’s defensive instincts. The president says that in “a country mistreated by guerillas and paramilitaries,” it is absolutely necessary that the army, the police, and the justice system be present. A question: where were the police and the army (during these two years that President Uribe has been in power) when the international organizations asked for government protection after proving that San José and other peace communities were being (and still are) bled dry by the paramilitaries. Where was the state? Was the government busy, at that moment, coming up with peace agreements to favor those same paramilitaries, perhaps?
But, despite everything, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó maintains its position: “We are not going to live together with our victimizers,” the residents say. And they have decided to abandon the land if necessary. But for the invincible national army, that’s no problem. Its planes, its tanks, its high-tech equipment, and its men convinced that they are Rambo incarnate, will all arrive to demonstrate, by force, that the Uribe government is simply omnipresent and disposed to carry out JUSTICE. And if to do that, an entire village must be eliminated, well, eliminated it shall be. At the end of the day, “it’s impossible to find a perfect equation between justice and peace.” Especially when, in the Uribe era, the word “justice,” seems more and more like other words – for example, “execute,” “private justice,” or “extrajudicial killing”; when PEACE is that which the government hopes to negotiate with the paramilitaries, but the word sounds more like “impunity,” “silence,” “repression,” “obedience,” or, crazy as it sounds, “war.”
But of course, the president still has people who understand him. In fact, on March 1, the U.S. State Department released a report saying that Colombia had made “significant progress” in human rights indicators. Of course, these same indicators don’t reflect the cases that are never reported, or filed away and lost if they are. But the most curious thing is that this report had been released just days after the massacre in San José. Remember, kind readers, that the Colombian government wants to obtain Washington’s certification on human rights at any cost.
But what a shame: the United Nations’ report was not so lax and the certification process is being held up. Even worse, the Organization of American States and a group of U.S. congressmen are demanding that the San José incident by cleared up. For some reason, the State Department seems to be the only office in Washington that understands such a simple concept as, “it’s impossible to find a perfect equation between justice and peace.”
But, Dr. Uribe, don’t be so surprised – at the end of the day, you know, better than anyone, that nothing is perfect.
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