If Colombia held a minute’s silence for every victim of its six-decade armed conflict, then no one would speak for the next seventeen years. This fact is mentioned in passing in the 895-page final report of Colombia’s Truth Commission, in a section about the near impossibility of memorialising the conflict. The report tries to leave nothing out. Its findings go beyond the historical and the political – counting the dead, apportioning blame, recommending the founding of a civilian police force and the decriminalisation of drugs – to the psychological and spiritual. Presenting the report on its release in June, the commission’s president, Francisco de Roux, a Jesuit priest and economist, said that the list of victims was ‘unending’ and the ‘accumulated pain unbearable’. Between 1985 and 2018, the worst years of the conflict, 450,664 people were killed, 90 per cent of them civilians. ‘Why did we watch the massacres on television, day after day, as if they were a cheap soap opera?’ he asked.
The Truth Commission was conceived in 2016, as part of a peace agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrillas. The deal was controversial – many Colombians see the FARC as terrorists – and in October that year a referendum to ratify it failed after 50.2 per cent voted ‘no’. The government pushed the agreement through by signing a revised deal and sending it to Congress for ratification in lieu of another referendum. Two years later the commission started gathering testimony. A new court, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, was set up to try perpetrators, and a government unit was created to search for disappeared persons or their remains.
The language of the report echoes the ‘never again’ memorialisation of the Holocaust, and the ‘nunca más’ reckoning after Argentina’s Dirty War. The Colombian version is ‘No Repetición’. The Truth Commission’s official title, literally translated, is the Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition. But the conflict is already repeating itself – or rather, it never stopped. The agreement with the FARC won President Santos the Nobel Peace Prize for 2016. But the National Liberation Army (ELN) didn’t sign, and a number of FARC splinter groups are still fighting, as is a paramilitary turned narco-trafficking organisation called Clan del Golfo. Between the signing of the peace deal and March this year, at least 1327 activists and signatories to the agreement were killed. The FARC claim that at least 169 demobilised guerrillas were assassinated over the same period.
This is the world’s longest lasting continuous conflict. Colombians fought one another throughout the Cold War, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, on through what the right wing, looking for a reason to go on fighting, call castrochavismo. Too many people made money from the conflict for peace efforts to stick. Those guerrillas who lost their enthusiasm for communism could get involved in the cocaine trade. When elements of the army lost interest in shooting leftists, North Americans paid them to spray toxic substances on coca plants – and anything else growing nearby. Whenever the Colombian government didn’t need paramilitary death squads to murder union leaders, it could use them to guard oil pipelines or kick Indigenous people off land valuable to mining concerns. The ideology mostly dropped away long ago, but the financial incentives remain.
Accompanying the final report is a seemingly endless series of documents, each hundreds of pages long, dedicated to particular themes: the voices of the victims (‘When the Birds Didn’t Sing’), historical clarification (‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’), life in exile (‘Colombia outside Colombia’), crimes against children (‘Not a Lesser Evil’), territorial disputes and environmental damage (‘Colombia Within’), the experiences of women and queer people (‘My Body Is My Truth’), war crimes (‘Even War Has Limits’), violence against Indigenous communities (‘Resisting Is Not Enduring’). There are also podcasts, videos, art exhibitions, investigations by the research group Forensic Architecture and a complete set of archives. It is overwhelming.
There have been many other Latin American truth commissions. The reports published in Guatemala, Argentina, Chile and El Salvador showed that the majority of dirty-war violence was perpetrated by the state: the military, paramilitary groups, the police. Only in Peru did the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path commit more atrocities. One of the FARC’s demands before the peace negotiations began was that the government take responsibility for the atrocities it committed and admit its connections with paramilitary killings. They got their wish. The commission estimates that paramilitaries – private armies in the pay of governments, local elites or drug traffickers – committed 45 per cent of the killings, guerrilla fighters 27 per cent, and army and police officials 12 per cent. The worst violence was experienced by people in the countryside – the campesinos – and by Black, Indigenous and other minority ethnic groups. Over the conflict as a whole, eight million people were forced off their land and an estimated eight million hectares were illegally seized. The commission interviewed more than 14,000 victims of the violence, as well as former fighters, politicians, paramilitary members and military leaders. It found that between 1985 and 2018, in addition to the 450,664 killed, 121,768 people disappeared. All these figures, the report warns, are probably underestimates.
The FARC’s signature crime was kidnapping. Between 1990 and 2018, 55,770 people were kidnapped on all sides, but most of them by the guerrilla forces. Some were held for days; others were led into the jungle by the FARC and kept there for more than a decade. The FARC and ELN used kidnappings for ransom to fund their activities or, less often, for ideological reasons – to punish bosses who would not negotiate with unions. There were stories of people in chains, forced to drink their own urine. The terror felt by family members of the kidnapped, and by those who feared that they might be kidnapped, prompted a long-lasting hatred for the FARC, and led to a mass exodus from the country in the 1990s (around one in ten Colombians now lives abroad). Some left because they worried that their children would be conscripted in one way or another: the commission estimates that up to 35,641 children and adolescents were forcibly recruited, the majority by the FARC.
The day the report was unveiled in Bogotá, Santos’s successor as president, Iván Duque, had arranged to be abroad. He put out a statement describing the findings as no more than an ‘interpretative truth’, and his party insisted that there were ‘multiple versions’ of events. But Duque was already on his way out. Nine days earlier, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, had won the presidential run-off against Rodolfo Hernández, a rabidly right-wing outsider businessman who is big on TikTok, where his bio is ‘viejito pero sabroso’ – roughly, ‘oldie but tasty’. His efforts to red-bait his opponent fell short. Petro, who was a member of the armed revolutionary group M-19 for twelve years as a young man and became mayor of Bogotá in 2012, won with 50.44 per cent of the vote. Now that Colombia has its first left-wing president, both the ELN and Clan del Golfo have indicated that they are willing to start talks. It is difficult to overstate what a turning point his election could be for Colombia, a longtime anti-communist ally of the US and a right-wing holdout even during the ‘Pink Wave’ governments of South America in the 1990s. Colombia has joined a new pink wave: left-wing governments have also been elected since 2018 in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Honduras and Chile.
Colombia, like Peru and Chile, experienced huge protests last year. They were triggered by Duque’s belt-tightening tax reforms and his government’s handling of the pandemic, and they ballooned – like other street protests in Latin America – after the demonstrators were treated with brutality by the police. The protesters had many demands, but a striking feature of the marches was anti-Uribismo. Álvaro Uribe, who was president between 2002 and 2010, became popular for beating guerrillas back from the cities, reducing violence and chaos for the people who lived in them. But he also presided over what the Truth Commission report calls ‘one of the worst barbarities of the armed conflicts: the extrajudicial executions of civilians presented as combat deaths’. The so-called ‘false positives’ scandal came to light in 2006, after the bodies of an estimated 6402 people were planted beside guns and ammunition and passed off as enemy combatants. The report argues that those responsible for the false positives – a chilling euphemism – are ‘far from just a few bad apples’. In fact, they were carrying out what it calls ‘government policy’. Uribe remains the éminence grise of Colombian politics. Santos was a protégé who went rogue, but Duque was always his puppet. During last year’s protests, Colombians – especially teenagers and young adults – held up signs reading ‘Colombia anti-Uribista’, ‘Cali anti-Uribista’ and ‘Baranquilla anti-Uribista’. Sometimes the protests looked more like a party – with the cumbia music blaring – until the police arrived. The report makes it clear just what a dramatic turn Petro’s election is by showing how anything even vaguely left-wing was demonised in Colombia for so long, and in its detailed discussion of Uribe’s continuing grasp on power and his ties with the paramilitaries.
Perhaps the oddest line in the report is the commission’s claim that it doesn’t want to create an ‘official truth’. I suppose by that it means an account that flattens out all the contradictions and accusations and counter-accusations. ‘This is not meant to be an academic exercise to fatten libraries,’ the report declares, ‘but rather a live exercise, a social, political and cultural process of democratic debate about the past and the transformation of the present, without trying to turn these texts into an “official truth”.’ But it does provide a narrative, and apportion blame – despite its claims to the contrary. This is its reason for existing. It does not depart substantially from the story documented by academics and historians, but it does depart substantially from the story the Colombian government has told about its own role, and especially its connections with paramilitary groups. It also departs substantially from the stories that Colombian conservatives, especially Uribe, have told about the FARC and leftists in general. Uribe says the FARC was the bad guy, and the Truth Commission says no: everyone committed crimes, but the government and paramilitaries were worse. The story told is complicated, because it was a complicated war, involving right-wing paramilitary groups, the army, leftist guerrillas and narco-traffickers – with the same people sometimes belonging to two or even three of these categories at once.
The historical section of the report begins in the early 20th century, when the US snapped off what became Panama for its canal-building convenience. The narrative then moves to the 1920s, when Colombian fears of communism first latched on to the idea of an ‘internal enemy’. The commission emphasises throughout that the presentation of political opponents as the internal enemy was often what gave licence to the killings. The assassination in 1948 of the Liberal presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, set off what is known in Colombia as La Violencia. This was a struggle for power – and, crucially, for land – between two of the oldest political parties in the Americas, the Conservatives and the Liberals. An estimated 300,000 people were killed between 1948 and the early 1960s, most of them in the countryside.
La Violencia ended in an uneasy truce in 1957, when the Liberals and Conservatives agreed to share power in a coalition known as the National Front, and together turned on communist-controlled rural enclaves. The US hyped up the communist threat and began sending forces to train the Colombians in counterinsurgency techniques. In 1964, after a massive military attack against the self-proclaimed republic of Marquetalia, south of Bogotá, Manuel Marulanda Veléz and other members of the Communist Party escaped into the mountains, where they formed the FARC. Two years later – led by Marulanda, whose nickname was Tirofijo, or ‘sureshot’ – they announced their intention to seize power from the capitalists. They were soon joined by other guerrilla organisations, including the ELN, which had Cuban backing, and M-19, which in 1974 raided a Bogotá museum and stole Simón Bolívar’s sword and spurs, smuggling them out under a poncho. The army responded according to the US counterinsurgency playbook, indiscriminately killing anyone suspected of sympathising with the guerrillas. Gabriel García Márquez, horrified by the violence, left for Mexico in a hurry in 1981, after hearing that the intelligence services were looking into his recent trip to Cuba and investigating his possible ties to M-19. He later tried unsuccessfully to use his status as a Nobel Prizewinner to facilitate negotiations between the government and the guerrilla groups – one of many failed attempts at peace. In 1985, negotiations were underway when fighters from M-19 seized the Palace of Justice and held the Supreme Court justices hostage. The army razed the building, killing more than a hundred people, among them eleven of the judges – and disappearing several M-19 members. Over the next few years, right-wing death squads hunted down hundreds of the group’s members. Who was to blame: the guerrillas who occupied the building, or the president who authorised the army to do absolutely anything to get it back and the military chiefs who gave the orders? Your answer revealed what side you were on in a conflict that had driven Colombians ever more immovably into their corners.
So far, so Cold War. But the X factor in Colombia was drugs. Around 1974, farmers along the Caribbean coast started getting rich by growing marijuana that was sent up to the US in small planes: this became known as the Bonanza Marimbera. The criminalisation of coca production by the Pinochet regime in Chile, along with other South American countries, pushed production into Colombia. By the early 1980s, the country was growing more coca and exporting more cocaine than anywhere else in the world. Wars are expensive, and everyone – guerrillas, corrupt politicians, paramilitary groups – took a piece of the drug-trafficking money. There was a lot of fuss made about the FARC’s move into drugs, but the commission shows that the government and paramilitaries profited as much or more. By the 1980s, the Medellín and Cali drug cartels controlled supply routes and politicians set up protection rackets – looking the other way or going after rival cartels for a fee. The FARC got involved in processing and distributing cocaine, but made much of its drug money in the same way as paramilitary groups like the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia), by ‘taxing’ the local drug trade. The commission could not be clearer on one point: without some degree of legalisation of drugs, there will be no peace in Colombia. But although more Latin American politicians now support legalisation, it seems unlikely without a major change in US policy.
There were attempts at peace over the years. But the guerrillas learned that if they came down from the mountains, gave up their arms and tried to participate in conventional politics – like Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, or FMLN in El Salvador – they would be massacred. The report calls what happened a ‘political genocide’. In the 1980s, part of the FARC demobilised and formed a political party called the Unión Patriótica. By 1990, more than 2500 politicians from the UP – including two presidential candidates – had been assassinated. The government blamed narco-traffickers, but there is plenty of evidence that they were killed by paramilitaries. The UP dissolved and many of its members took up arms again.
The US had backed anti-communist forces in Colombia, but the real money taps opened with the War on Drugs. In 2000 Bill Clinton signed Plan Colombia, which was originally intended to promote development as well as pumping up the military but mostly did the latter. Three years later, the US had spent $3 billion, three-quarters of it on military aid – putting Colombia third after Egypt and Israel as a recipient of US funding. By the time the plan wound down, fifteen years and $10 billion later, it was considered by many in the US to have been a success – though as the Truth Commission shows, Washington knew all along that the Colombian military was working with paramilitaries and involved in extrajudicial killings. The report includes declassified DEA and CIA documents which make clear that, as early as 1988, assassinations of ‘leftists and communists’ were a ‘joint effort’ between the intelligence chief of the Colombian Army Fourth Brigade and members of the Medellín cartel. Later documents show that the US knew oil companies were paying paramilitaries for protection, and, in at least one case, informing the Colombian military about potential targets. The US was pumping money to the Colombian military at a time when the civilian death toll was at its highest, and the documents show they knew what the money was being used for. In an irony the report doesn’t dwell on, some of it ended up in the hands of the very people the War on Drugs was supposed to target: the US was indirectly funding paramilitaries known to be big in the drug trade.
The knot of the conflict has been loosening for more than a decade. The paramilitaries were nominally disarmed – and thoroughly amnestied – between 2003 and 2006, in a process overseen by Uribe. Tirofijo, the FARC leader, died of heart failure in the jungle in 2008. Santos, who took over as president in 2010, was the first Colombian politician to make progress towards peace. He passed a victims’ law, which established a reparations programme, made some efforts towards land restitution and in August 2012 announced that exploratory talks with the FARC had begun. Four years later he presented his peace deal, with the Truth Commission as a central component.
Truth commissions are a genre, and a strange one. They are necessary and incomplete, cathartic and unsatisfying. Ideally, impossibly, they want to write a story based on interviews and facts that both sides can agree on. These commissions don’t have subpoena power or legal standing in the usual sense. There is no punishment. Truth is submitted in exchange for amnesty. Over the last few years, the Colombian commission – together with the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the new court tasked with investigations and prosecutions – has held a series of public meetings described as ‘encounters for truth’. In April, at a meeting held in Ocaña, a small city in the north, a general, ten military officials and a civilian admitted to organising the killings of at least 120 civilians as part of the ‘false positives’ scandal. One of the military officials called himself a ‘monster’. He cried. The other officials cried. The families of the victims up on stage with them cried. This was the first time that anyone had admitted responsibility for atrocities. Sentences are decided on the principle of restorative justice and may include house arrest – punishment that many see as too lenient. After all that has happened in Colombia, does getting people up on a stage with podiums and microphone headsets make sense? ‘We know that there are powerful people behind you,’ said the mother of a disappeared son found dead in Ocaña at 23. ‘We need names.’
Truth commissions tend to favour individual testimony, and individual redress, rather than dealing with larger issues. As Greg Grandin argued in the American Historical Review in 2005, this approach – with the notable exception of Guatemala – is directly at odds with the collective demands that led the left to take up arms in the first place. The Colombian report is different: it is both a full, if messy, historical account and a real attempt to reckon with the power differentials and societally destructive financial interests at the root of the conflict. Colombia still has some of the most unequal land ownership in Latin America – the very issue that helped trigger La Violencia. The convergence of the Truth Commission report with a leftward swing in the country’s politics, and those of the continent, creates an opening, not just to end the drug war in its current form, but to make more sweeping changes. Petro has promised agrarian reform through taxes on large landholders. Although he gave an optimistic speech at the presentation of the report, and supports its aims, he has reservations: that it is a settlement between armed forces, rather than a larger social agreement to address inequality and the distribution of land.
During their election campaigns, many of the leaders of the first Pink Wave – most notably Evo Morales in Bolivia – committed themselves to environmentalism, only to end up turning to extractive industries such as mining or oil, often in Indigenous areas, to fund their social welfare programmes. Petro claims to be different. His charismatic vice president, Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian activist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, is reason for hope. Latin American winners of the Goldman Prize have more often ended up murdered – like Berta Cáceres in Honduras, shot dead in her home in 2016 – than vice president. Colombians are sitting on riches: gold, coal, emeralds, hydrocarbons, minerals, and land that could be converted into productive, if environmentally damaging, palm oil plantations. The ELN, which is still fighting, is opposed to extraction by multinationals: it blows up oil pipelines, threatens foreign contractors, and generally terrorises people living in resource-rich areas. A lasting peace would probably have to involve not just agrarian reform but some protection against the most rapacious forms of extraction.
The members of the commission came from a wide variety of backgrounds: a feminist organiser, a human rights lawyer, an Indigenous rights activist, a journalist, a sociologist, a public health expert, a psychologist, an Afro-Colombian victim, a representative of victims’ rights groups, and so on. Scanning their names, I wondered why one – an anthropologist called Alejandro Castillejo-Cuéllar – sounded familiar. Then I remembered I had read an essay of his, published in the Radical History Review in 2005, criticising the South African Truth Commission’s selective use of testimony from interviewees because it was ‘a device to highlight and substantiate some of the commission’s main arguments regarding restoration and reconciliation’. He warned against using South Africa as a model, and you can see his influence in the sheer length and breadth of the report – the sense that everything belongs, and everything must be recounted.
Truth commission reports are nearly impossible to read. The only two I have ever attempted in their entirety – the Guatemalan and Colombian reports – are relentless in their chorus of pain. In 2004, the Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya published a novel, Insensetaz (published in English as Senselessness), about a man employed by the Guatemalan Catholic Church to edit the report of its Truth Commission. (In the late 1990s, Guatemala had two truth commissions, one run by the Church and one by the United Nations.) On his first day on the job, the man reads a testimony that includes the sentence: ‘I am not complete in the mind.’
It summed up in the most concise manner possible the mental state of tens of thousands of people who have suffered experiences similar to the ones recounted by this Cakchiquel man, and also summed up the mental state of thousands of soldiers and paramilitary men who had with relish cut to pieces their so-called compatriots, though I must admit that it’s not the same to be incomplete in the mind after watching your own children drawn and quartered as after drawing and quartering other peoples’ children.
I thought of this passage often while reading the Colombian report, which alternates flat analysis with short quotations from testimonies like the following, from a woman in Barrancabermeja. The city, the oil capital of Colombia, was under the control of paramilitaries who murdered young people when they broke an unspoken curfew. ‘It was in 2001 that they sent her son home in a pot and said to her: “Señora, keep this bone here for me because I need it to make a sancocho”’ – a Colombian stew. ‘The lady opened it and looked, and the first thing she saw was the head of her son in there.’ Did it help this woman to tell this story, to have it all written down? Pace Castillejo-Cuéllar, reconciliation is a clear goal of the commission. The testimony should obviously be included. But what shared narrative – never mind reconciliation – is really possible?
The army and its supporters in Colombia will not give up their own official truth so easily. One member of the commission, a retired military officer who resigned two months before the report was published, described the final result as ‘historicide’. He has already published eight volumes of his own, mostly about the crimes of the FARC – a shadow truth commission from someone with no interest in peace.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.