Colombia’s History and Truth

Between the Magdalena River and the Caribbean coast there’s rich land with all the primordial beauty and quaint towns Colombia wishes it was known for. It’s a verdant place in the midst of a tamed jungle. The people in places like this often lead quiet lives in pace with their crops. It’s also where one of the worst episodes of the war that Colombia is known for took place. There is a town, one of a handful in the region, known as El Salado. There, over the course of five days in February of 2000, dozens of people were killed as messily and cruelly as the creativity of their attackers allowed. Those murders were made into a spectacle, a celebration for the people committing them, cheering and playing looted musical instruments every time they took a life. This massacre ended on the 21st of February. On the 22nd, El Salado became a ghost town. Four thousand people fled with what little they could carry, if anything at all. No one disputes these facts. No one disputes that the people of El Salado were left defenseless when the Colombian marines stationed in the region left on the 15th. They marched South, searching for cattle stolen from an influential businesswoman’s farm. When they returned, the paramilitary forces that besieged El Salado for nearly a week had left.

What is disputed is why this happened, who knew, who allowed or even helped it happen, and when Colombia would finally become aware of it. Another fact still in dispute is whether the Colombian marines really never came across the paramilitary soldiers as they leaving the region, or if did they simply allowed them to go past their lines unimpeded. The collusion between the Colombian government and the paramilitary groups that committed the El Salado massacre, and others, was little more than a persistent rumor in the year 2000. Today, the para-politica scandal is forcing Colombia to confront that reality. Colombian society, as a whole, has the unfortunate ability to be aware and yet not cognizant of such things. The war has simply gone on for too long.

Sometime after the El Salado massacre, a two-minute story in the nightly news described the event with apathy, never trying to convey the scale or the malice of what happened. After that news story ended, the event would become an indistinct part of Colombia’s mundane reality. Now, there is an anxiety to interpret the war, the body-count, the massacres, the coincidences and conspiracies. Colombia is trying to write its history, to find its truth.

Historical truth and factual truth are separate things, with the former trying to find a narrative thread in the mire of the latter. Factual truth, the whole and absolute truth, is rarely ever known. At best, we can hope for an undistorted reflection of it, though we remain aware that that reflection will always be incomplete. There is no dichotomy between them, but there is a presumption that historical truth pursues factual truth. In Colombia, with one of the longest internal conflicts in recorded history, the struggle over what the historical truth will finally say about the past decade is taking place in the halls of its legislature, in the media and in the dark rooms where criminals and powerful men meet. The “conflicto armado” has had pivotal moments like this, but no final resolution has ever been reached.

The combatants, motives and loyalties change from one decade to the next. Sixty years ago, it was fought between political parties. Thirty years ago, it was fought between the government and the guerrillas. Twenty years ago, it was fought by the drug cartels. Ten years ago, it was the paramilitaries, the guerrillas, the government, against damned near everyone else over control of the drug trade. No one in Colombia has gone untouched by this cycle, and everyone is just as likely to perpetuate it. Whether it’s out of greed, grief, vengeance or simple, undiluted desperation, we are all at risk of responding to one wound with another, making yesterday’s victims into tomorrow’s perpetrators. The chameleon will then change its color, and live on.

President Uribe

Colombian society isn’t so numb as to be unaware of this cycle, or so cynical as to not to try stopping it. In many ways, the greatest obstacle Colombian society faces in trying to stop that cycle is itself, but not out of apathy or sheer malice. The complexity and enormity of the problem, with its hidden nuances and its momentum confounds most people who study it. In the meantime, Colombia has become a nation driven by the views, ideology, money, and personal predilections of its ruling class. Ex-President Alvaro Uribe was the incarnation of that self-centered elite. During his tenure, the phrase “L’ etat c’est Uribe” rang true. His interests were the interests of the nation, his will was the will of the nation, and his authority was absolute.  He saw himself as the only possible answer, the only cure for the disease he saw afflicting Colombia. Perhaps that belief was sincere, as misguided as it might’ve been, and he sought to extend his power as means to an end rather than the end itself. Uribe manipulated and corrupted the legislature in order to stay in power after what was supposed to be his one and only term as Colombia’s president. By bribing congressmen with paramilitary money, he pushed through a constitutional amendment to legalize his own re-election. In the end, Ex-President Uribe was a victim of this war as well.

Alvaro Uribe’s father, Alberto Uribe, was killed by the FARC guerrilla in his farm in Antioquia. The details of his death have never been completely established, but this was part of his son´s public persona when he was first elected. He ran on a hard-line, conservative platform, which he went on to implement once his party seized control of the legislative branch. To his credit, Uribe managed to cripple the guerrilla through all-out warfare. Uribe doesn’t see the guerrillas as a political faction at all; they’re merely criminals, not a political entity worthy of negotiating with, or even acknowledging.

Regardless of the means he used to reach that end, Uribe brought the nation to what appeared to be another pivotal moment in the armed conflict – but it came at a price. Instead, that price would be paid mostly by people like the residents of El Salado. They’d have their lives, their lands, their dignity and their right to justice taken from them for the sake of an unequal peace. It wouldn’t be Uribe’s doing alone; congressmen, army officers, the AUC’s leaders and their immediate subordinates were intimately involved in this plan. They would help sketch out and execute a grand scheme that would legitimize the barbarity committed in places like El Salado and Trujillo, justifying them as a necessary evil. They would have pointed to the mass graves and cremation ovens the paramilitary groups used to get rid of their victims’ corpses and said, without a trace of irony, that all of it was “for the good of the nation”.

Law 975 of 2005

The tool Uribe, his allies and the paramilitary leaders would use was Law 975 of 2005. This bill was written by hijacking the issue of victims’ rights, as a cover for pardoning for some of the most vicious crimes in Colombian history.

Law 975 of 2005 was the end result of long-term efforts led by Uribe during his two-term presidency. In it, the Law specified how paramilitary members could choose to demobilize, confess to their crimes and redress their victims. By doing so, they would be given a five to eight year sentence, regardless of what they did, and their crimes would be redefined as “sedition”, a political crime. That distinction isn’t as inconsequential as may seem at first. Colombian Law has evolved to see sedition as a political crime, which can be forgiven, allowing the criminal to hold office after they serve their sentence.  If this Law had gone unopposed, the paramilitary leaders would have been able to spend five years in a country club as their sentence, and then be free to use the criminal empires they had carved out for themselves to get themselves elected. When it was finally completed and presented in Congress, it was called the Justice and Peace Law.

The timing of this Law is interesting in the context of the relationship between the national government and the paramilitary forces; Law 975 was presented for debate in Congress in 2003, shortly after Uribe’s election as Colombia’s 58th president. If there was a quid-pro-quo exchange taking place, trading something like Law 975 for the financial backing and the passivity of the paramilitary forces, then that’s precisely when it would occur. The paramilitary leaders, having kept their end of the bargain, would be impatient for Uribe and his political allies to deliver.

The Justice and Peace Law was conceived by bolting together several proposed bills that were languishing in congress on the subject of transitional justice and national reconciliation. It also copied foreign programs on the matter, such as from the South African experience. In every instance around the world, these projects created for Truth or Reconciliation Commissions. Those commissions are meant to be field surgeons, suturing the wounds internal wars had inflicted upon the societies that fought them, and they are usually given the unenviable task to write the final history, thus putting an end to the cycle of violence and retaliation.


In Colombia, that commission is called the Comisión Nacional de Reparacion y Reconciliacion (the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation), and it was framed the same way. It was, at least in theory, the institution that would finally heal Colombian society. However, the law that created the CNRR didn’t give it any legal authority, a defined structure or a budget. Those limitations meant that the CNRR would have to rely on the central government and its other institutions to implement any measures or programs it deemed necessary. The government, therefore, also didn’t have any obligation to listen to the Comisión, while the Comisión is entirely dependent upon the government in order to function.

The Uribe administration did have some uses in mind for the CNRR, even if it was never meant to accomplish its goals of national truth and reparation. As it happened, the CNRR was developed from that abstract and vague foundation into a government institution just as complex as any other. It became a “hybrid N.G.O.”, an organization that could  play both as a government outsider, and as part of the establishment, in the human rights’ field. It would also be an argument against international courts prosecuting the Colombian government for its neglect of the conflict’s victims and its collusion with the victimizers. Deflecting those prosecutions by making them redundant is a valuable function for the Colombian government, since the international courts tend to award damages to the victims that reach into the millions of dollars. The CNRR’s existence alone is an argument the Colombian government has been using in an attempt to dismiss those cases. In fact, the Comisión, as evidenced by its structure and function, was meant to have an international profile and be noticed by those international organizations.

The money the CNRR receives from international organizations, governmental or not, is never under the Comisión’s direct control. Instead, it’s funneled to the Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation — “Accion Social”. All foreign aid flowing into the Comisión gets rebranded to bear the Colombian presidential seal. In other words, foreign aid passed through Accion Social became an electioneering tool for the central government and their allies, following Colombia’s political patronage traditions.

Despite all of this, the Comisión’s members more or less believed in the Comisión’s stated purpose and truly wanted to help the Colombia’s victims. Whether aware or not of the limitations and outright contradictions in the Comisión’s creation and its structure, the Comisión’s staff were not career-minded bureaucrats. By and large, they truly wanted to pursue the truth, justice, national reconciliation and reparations for the victims. They saw the CNRR as a historic institution rather than as a decoy.

At first, they thought they were in a position with relative freedom to do so, and with the advantage of governmental support. With that support, the Comisión should have wielded an enormous amount of influence, even if it didn’t have any legally-granted authority. The government has used the Comisión for its own purposes and ignored its entreaties at every turn, unless it was in its immediate political interests to implement one of their suggestions. The Comisión was relegated to being an observer rather than a guiding entity throughout the peace process mapped out in the Justice and Peace Law.

Amongst the small-scale assistance program the CNRR’s regional offices deployed throughout the country, they also managed to pursue a national “administrative reparation” program, and little else. The CNRR’s successes were never as large-scale they had hoped for, or as grand as the tone of their press releases would make them seem. The Comisión still managed to play a role, though it wasn’t by influencing the Uribe administration or through its international advocacy efforts.

The role the national government had envisioned for the Comisión, which was to be no more than an appendix to the Justice and Peace Law, but the Comisión strove to do more than that, particularly on the subject of defining the historic narrative. When the process that Law had mapped out collapsed piece by piece, the Comisión’s role in that area gradually shrank as well. The event that triggered that deterioration was the Colombian Constitutional Court striking down a key provision; the paramilitary leaders would not be able to whitewash their drug trafficking crimes, or their crimes against humanity, as forgivable acts of rebellion.

The collapse of the Justice and Peace process

That was the start of the still-ongoing “para-politica” scandal. That scandal is the shadow cast by the confrontation between President Uribe and the AUC’s leadership going behind the scenes of Colombia’s political theater. Once the Court made its ruling, the paramilitary leaders found themselves cornered. They had already surrendered to the national authorities, imprisoned in comfort in a country club deep in their own territory with the promise that they would be redeemed citizens in the eyes of the nation. Now, that promise couldn’t be kept, and the path they were on led them somewhere uncertain. It’s hard to read the intentions individuals like Salvatore Mancuso or Jorge 40, both members of the AUC’s high command, from an outside perspective. Whether they tried to force President Uribe to use his influence to reinstate the provisions the court had knocked down, or if they sought redeem themselves by simply revealing what they knew is unclear. Regardless of their intentions, the government responded to their threats and revelations by its control on their fate.

On the eve of the first round of the first of the “free confessions”, which were part of the process set forth in Law 975, the government transferred them from their luxurious prison-club to a maximum security facility. All through that morning, the angry, fearful voices of the men ultimately responsible for the massacres in the towns of El Salado, Trujillo, and other untold horrors, was broadcast on national radio. They didn’t know where they were being taken, and they didn’t know what would happen to them whenever they got there. They were made to feel the kind of uncertainty they had made hundreds of their victims feel.

However, they weren’t sent to the Itagui maximum security prison, away from their leisurely lifestyle in the La Ceja social club, for justice. They were sent there as a gesture of Uribe’s power. The warlords still revealed their agreements and relationships with congressmen and members of Uribe’s cabinet. Every name they mentioned launched a new investigation against more and more of Colombia’s political sphere, emptying chairs in Colombia’s congress and in Uribe’s presidential palace.

Eventually, Uribe deported the AUC leaders, taking them off the playing board altogether, but not before the harm to his presidency and political hegemony had been done.

Unlike most of his peers amongst the AUC’s extradited officers, Salvatore Mancuso has expressed his desire to continue with the Justice and Peace process. He has gone so far as to present testimony while overseas, using the witness stand as a bully pulpit to make self-legitimizing statements. In the videotaped statements he’s sent back to Colombia, he claims to be nothing more than “a creature of the times he lives in”, by which he means that he is also “another victim” of the Colombian conflict, shaped by it, compelled by it to do what he did.

Very few, if any, of Salvatore Mancuso’s comrades ever deny committing the crimes attributed to them. What they seek, as they did with their purchase of the Justice and Peace Law, is to reframe those crimes. Rather than deny the truth, they attempt to redefine it. By doing so, they don’t just legitimize what they did, they also legitimize what they took, such as the lands they seize. After El Salado became a ghost town, for example, the farms and fields around the town were bought at minuscule prices for their worth. Elsewhere, there is talk of a system of vassalage, where farmers are brought in to work the land abandoned by the displaced and to pay tribute to the illegal group that claimed it. All of this is part of the historic truth, past the plain facts and the body count of the Colombian conflict.

Unintended consequences

The Justice and Peace Law had the unintended effect of revealing the underlying political atmosphere of the conflict, and that truth should go unnoticed. This should be part of the historic narrative that finally emerges from these days. Feeding that historic narrative is one of the Comisión’s greatest successes, though it too was also not the intention of the framers of the Justice and Peace Law. The CNRR played the role of the host institution for the Historic Memory Group (Grupo de Memoria Historica), which was tasked with investigating events such as the El Salado Massacre. What we know now about what happened there during those five days is due to their efforts. Otherwise, it would have been another half-known incident in a war that has spanned across generations, where the victims and the victimizers are indistinct and nearly interchangeable. The scholars of the Historic Memory Group strived to be as independent from the Comisión and the Uribe government as possible, and the Comisión was able to shelter them from outside influences due to its unclear place in the governmental chain of command. The Historic Memory Group’s reports on what they called the emblematic cases, such as the El Salado Massacre, are responsible for making the victims’ plight a social and political issue to be discussed and resolved, rather than allowed to fester as an unavoidable part of Colombia’s reality.

The creation, intent, and results of the Justice and Peace Law should all be part of Colombia’s historic narrative. Those elements and contexts are simply too illuminating for them to disappear under the roiling day-by-day of Colombia’s troubled history, or to be obscured underneath a lack of context. This was a vital episode in Colombia’s recent history. Already, as the political scandal moves on, as the new government tries to get past the legitimacy problems it inherited from Uribe, and as events keep on occurring, the historical truth of the what, the how and the why of the Justice and Peace Law is beginning to disappear from Colombia’s national consciousness.


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