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Can a Truth Commission in Colombia Help Heal the Wounds of War's Atrocities?

Proponents hope a truth commission could offer closure to millions of Colombians affected by the conflict. Both sides are responsible for human-rights abuses, while distrust and resentment for past atrocities remain high.
Imagen por Sebastián López/EPA

For many Colombians, war is all they have known.

After more than fifty years of fighting — the war was declared in 1964 but is rooted in anti-liberal massacres known as La Violencia, which ignited in 1948 — nearly everyone in the country it seems knows someone who has been affected by the hemisphere's longest internal conflict.

For Sofia Gaviria, a Colombian senator, the war and the questions over how to end it hit particularly close to home.


In April 2002, her brother Guillermo Gaviria, then the governor of the Antioquia department, was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, during a peace march.

A year later, on May 5, 2003, Colombian forces attempted a rescue mission to free him, but Guillermo Gaviria and a former defense minister turned peace commissioner, Gilberto Echeverri, were executed by the FARC along with eight other hostages.

The FARC said in a communique the 10 victims were killed in crossfire, but survivors said the high-profile hostages were killed in cold blood by the rebels before fleeing, as Colombian troops attempted to storm a stronghold in jungles near the city of Medellin.

"Anything that helps to clarify the facts and seek truth must be an end in any peace process, to find the truth, and not be afraid of how tough it is," Sofia Gaviria told VICE News in a recent interview.

Gaviria referred to the early June announcement of a future truth commission, intended to unearth the details of crimes committed during the country's 51-year conflict.

The prospect of a truth commission such as those that took place in post-Apartheid South Africa, and neighbors such as Brazil and Argentina, offered a ray of hope amid a process that has been stuttering in recent weeks due to escalating violence and mistrust between the government and the FARC.

Peace negotiations are taking place in Havana, Cuba, with three of six points for the deal already agreed upon. If the parties can come to a peace agreement, both sides separately agreed to the formation of a truth commission that would seek a "broad understanding" of the conflict so that it is never repeated, negotiators said.


The newsweekly Semana said discussions on the potential truth commission lasted six months due to the "abysmal differences between the parties."

The commission would not hand down sentences, and the government would be required to ensure the safety of the commissioners and those who testify before them.

Gaviria said she supports the peace negotiations "totally," believing in a "negotiated exit" from the conflict.

She told VICE News that while she was heartened by the announcement of the truth commission, "I do not believe in relativism of truth, I believe there is only one truth, but several ways of accepting it or not."

"But the truth is that such a person was taken from home, abducted, killed, or displaced by a group that exists outside the law," she went on, referring to the FARC. "All victims want the truth."

Related: Colombian Military Chopper Destroyed, Killing 4, in Rising Rebel Attacks on Oil Targets

Soldiers stand next to the coffins of 11 soldiers who died in a FARC attack on April 15, 2015, in the Cauca department. (Photo by Christian Escobar Mora/EPA)

The armed conflict that is now described as low-intensity and asymmetrical continues to be the dominating feature of national life in Colombia. And Colombian citizens are divided over how to move forward.

Last December, thousands of Colombians marched in Bogota to protest the prospect of amnesty for the guerrillas, chanting "Peace without impunity!" A Gallup poll shows that Colombians have an overall favorable view of the peace process, but that support dropped from 69 percent to 52 percent between February and April.


The same poll shows that 56 percent of Colombians remain pessimistic, believing that a peace deal would not end the armed conflict, either way.

Guillermo Gaviria received posthumous plaudits for his pacifist stance toward Colombia's war during his time in office, but he is just one of some 220,000 people who have been killed in the war, 80 percent of whom have been civilians.

Colombia has the second highest displacement rate in the world after Syria, at 6.4 million.

"I'm thinking about all those whose children have been mutilated, whose daughter was raped, whose brother went missing, who haven't had any type of recognition for their loved ones," Sofia Gaviria said.

The FARC are accused of widespread human rights abuses and are classified as a terrorist organization by the US State Department. FARC rebels are involved in drug-trafficking to fund their insurgency.

The guerrilla has booted millions of civilians from their land, intentionally attacked the country's infrastructure and oil industry, and littered Colombia's landscape with mines.

'The pain won't go away, but it's pain without hate.'

Colombian armed forces are also accused of human rights abuses, but have received billions of dollars in US aid aimed at helping them eliminate the guerrillas. United States law prohibits the government from sending military aid to any government that commits known human-rights abuses, such as the extrajudicial killings of civilians.


Last week, Human Rights Watch published a damning report implicating top Colombian generals in the "widespread and systematic" extrajudicial killings of innocent civilians, a phenomenon known as "false positives."

At least 3,000 civilians were recruited or abducted by the armed forces before being killed and declared rebel combatants, in order to boost combat statistics against the FARC during the government of former President Alvaro Uribe.

A day later, on Thursday, an international report published by the US State Department suggested the practice — which was thought to have ended in 2008 — was still happening as recently as 2013.

While more than 800 low-level soldiers are doing time for the killings (some up to 53 years), no commanders have faced justice. The men mentioned in the report include the current commander of the armed forces and the current army chief.

Related: 'False Positives': How Colombia's Army Executed Civilians And Called Them Guerrillas

A Colombian community leader named Sixta Campo weeps as she recalls death threats from a paramilitary organization, November 2014. (Photo by Meredith Hoffman/VICE News)

Despite publicly rejecting the report, current President Juan Manuel Santos later met with Human Rights Watch observers and appeared to be "focused on the evidence, the cases, and the data," HRW Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco later told reporters.

His statements raised the possibility that Santos may seek to follow-up on some of the reports' claims.

The state has also been accused of using paramilitary groups to carry out some of the worst human rights abuses recorded on the continent, and of playing a central role in massacres committed in Colombia's war.


A report by the Latin America Working Group found out that of 1,982 massacres recorded in the war, paramilitaries working mostly for the right-wing were responsible for 1,166.

Only 343 were attributed to rebel groups, including the FARC and others, including the National Liberation Army, or ELN.

State forces stand directly accused of 158, though in reality they shoulder the blame for many of the slaughters led by paramilitaries, according to analysts in Colombia and international observers.

Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, said he is hopeful a truth commission will be able to de-shroud the mystery of the paramilitaries' involvement in the conflict. Former president Uribe has been repeatedly accused of ties to these groups, and several of his closest allies are in jail with espionage convictions.

"Hopefully it will be able to talk more about the people who supported the paramilitaries because it will have access to the military's files," Isacson told VICE News. "If it doesn't it's a waste of everyone's time and they shouldn't even bother."

The truth commission may be able to shed light on the conflicts countless atrocities, but will it be enough to dim the pain of the countless victims, including Senator Gaviria?

"My brother's loss is even bigger now," she said. "My mother still cries everyday and nobody can fix that. The pain won't go away, but it's pain without hate."

Related: Paramilitaries Likely to Continue Terrorizing Colombia Even After a Peace Deal

In photo above, relatives of former Colombian defense minister Gilberto Echeverri mourn at his funeral, May 7, 2003. Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter @joeparkdan.