Justice edges onward in Colombia peace accord

The nationwide general strike in Colombia, which began as a protest against tax increases in April (discussed in this space on June 12), continues to besiege that South American country. Several gut issues, of immediate and long-term perspectives, have been raised in the general strike, described by the Guardian as a “generational outcry over the country’s deep-rooted inequalities.”

Among the issues raised is the current government’s stalled implementation of the peace agreement, signed in 2016, by the previous government with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The accord aims to end a civil war that lasted five decades and killed more than 260,000 people. The current president, Ivan Duque, had expressed scepticism over the peace agreement during his campaign in 2018.

I write this follow-up piece as there are important lessons in our parallel experiences with the Colombian people’s long struggle for peace and fundamental social, economic and political changes.

On July 30, Amnesty International (AI) published a report on three separate incidences of police retaliation by the Colombian police in the city of Cali and elsewhere: two raids on poor communities (favelas) and an attack on a protest caravan of indigenous people. The report said:

“The incidents documented were not isolated or sporadic, but rather reflect a pattern of violence on the part of the Colombian authorities, who have responded to the protests with stigmatization, criminalization, unlawful police repression and militarization.”

“Under the pretext of restoring order, terrible injuries were inflicted on people and dozens of young people lost their lives,” said the AI director for the Americas. “What happened in Cali shows the violent response of the authorities and the true objectives behind this repression: to instill fear, discourage peaceful protests and punish those demanding to live in a fairer country.”

Also a recent Human Rights Commission to Colombia, composed of delegates from 13 countries, reported that the country’s authorities were using “counterinsurgency tactics honed in fighting the country’s Leftist guerrilla groups” against the protesters.

Ahead of huge protest marches last July 20, the police launched a crackdown on the frontliners of the protest, who they labeled as “terrorists.” This police-security forces tagging sounds very familiar hereabouts.

However, on Aug. 1 (Sunday) came an announcement from the government’s prosecutory arm, which was welcomed as a big positive turn for justice by the relatives of the victims of extrajudicial killings.

The Office of the Attorney General announced it would charge in court Colombia’s former army chief, Gen. Mario Montoya, who the previous rightist president he had served under, Alvaro Uribe, had declared as a “hero of the homeland.”

Now retired, Gen. Montoya, 72, is being called to account for the extrajudicial killings of 104 civilians who were falsely tagged as “leftist guerrillas” under a scheme dubbed as “false positives.” The killings were carried out under Uribe’s presidency, from 2002-2008.

All the 104 victims – including five minors – came from poor families. Military operatives lured them with promised jobs into the hinterlands, where they were summarily killed. Their bodies were presented to the authorities as rebels killed in battles to boost the body count in the enhanced counterinsurgency campaign. Perpetrators were awarded with promotions in rank and other perks.

The announcement said Montoya disregarded the defense ministry’s order to prioritize captures in the counterinsurgency campaign. Instead, he “incentivized combat deaths” for which he will be charged with “multiple counts of aggravated homicide.” His lawyer, however, claimed that Montoya’s case is being investigated by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) and is therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Attorney General.

The JEP is the Colombian transitional-justice mechanism set up under the 2016 peace accord. It was established in March 2017 under President Juan Manuel Santos, who had signed the peace agreement with the FARC. The JEP is mandated to investigate and put on trial any member of the state security forces, the FARC or third parties who had participated in the 50-year long armed conflict and found to have committed criminal offenses, particularly violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Among the JEP objectives are: to satisfy the victims’ right to justice; offer truth to Colombian society; contribute to fighting impunity; “adopt decisions that grant full legal certainty to those who participated directly or indirectly in the armed conflict regarding acts committed in the context of the war” and contribute to achieving a stable and lasting peace.

Uribe reportedly tried to get the JEP “repealed” but international human rights and civil society formations vehemently objected, saying the ex-president wanted to guarantee his impunity. They pointed out that in several crimes studied by the JEP, he has been included among the main actors.

Montoya submitted himself to the JEP in 2018. Since then, according to the Guardian, more than 1,000 low- and mid-ranking soldiers have been convicted and jailed for their roles in the “false positives” killings. Some appeared before the JEP to testify and receive lighter sentences than they would have otherwise received under the ordinary justice system. But no general has yet been put on trial. In February, the JEP has reported that at least 6,402 people were killed as “false positives.”

In Montoya’s case, under the ordinary justice system, he could be sentenced to life imprisonment. However, under the JEP jurisdiction, if he fully cooperates and admits to the charges against him, he would receive a five- or eight-year sentence – to be served out of prison with community service, according to analysts.

Whatever happens to Montoya, relatives of the “false positives” victims are hoping that either the JEP or the Attorney General would next go after Uribe. “Montoya drew his power from having a direct line with Uribe,” noted Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch director for the Americas.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in The Philippine Star
August 7, 2021

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