The vast territory of Colombia is divided by invisible yet very real borders, giving rise to parallel states where the State itself is barely present and has been replaced by the various armed actors engaged in the conflict. This perpetuates deep wounds, irreconcilable hatreds, absolute truths regarded as unquestionable articles of faith and, worst of all, the hijacking of people’s memory of the conflict. “If you don’t speak, don’t write and don’t tell people about it, you forget, and it gradually gets buried by fear. People who saw the dead body begin to forget and are afraid to speak, so for years we’ve had a pact of silence in which nobody talks about all that […] And since nobody talks about what happened, nothing has happened. Well then, if nothing has happened, let’s carry on living as if everything was normal”. Testimony of an inhabitant of Trujillo, Valle del Cauca, obtained from the report “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity”, from Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory.Through “Macondo“ I wanted to document the different truths that have been locked in a bitter struggle for more than sixty years and that constitute the basis of the Colombian civil conflict.
Colombia is not just one country but many, and they all share the same common denominator: the war. All the actors in the conflict have forced Colombian civil society to live completely blind to the various truths opposing each other in the war. This makes it impossible to overcome the monologue of fear and confrontation and to engage in a dialogue of understanding that can lead the country to forgiveness and reconciliation.
According to the National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH in Spanish), the Colombian civil conflict has accounted for approximately 220,000 people killed, 60,000 disappeared and more than 6,000,000 internally displaced. According to the CNMH report “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity”, of these deaths, 81.5% correspond to civilians and 18.5% to combatants; in other words, roughly eight out of every ten people killed have been civilians.
CHILDHOOD LOST IN WAR
According to the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF in Spanish), between 1999 and January 2015 it took care of 5,708 minors from guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and criminal gangs. According to ICBF data, the FARC-EP is the largest recruiter, with about 60% of the children concerned, followed by the AUC, with 20%, the ELN, with 15%, and Bacrim, with a little under 5%.
Civilians Become Targets
According to documents and reports from the CNMH and the “Verdad Abierta” (Open Truth) platform, “during the second half of the 1990s the FARC-EP declared that any kind of political or military representative of the State was a military target. Candidates in municipal and departmental elections and representatives of the civil authorities were threatened and persecuted. Similarly, urban areas, particularly mayors’ offices and police stations, were attacked with non-conventional weapons, such as gas cylinders or car bombs, which killed numerous civilians and destroyed infrastructure. After such attacks the police withdrew from many areas and the irregular guerrilla and paramilitary armies took advantage of the situation to make the civilian population more vulnerable”.
On May 2nd, 2002, according to the Routes of the Conflict project, “Guerrillas from the José Mar’a Córdoba Bloc of the FARC-EP clashed with paramilitaries from the Élmer Cárdenas Bloc between the municipal centers of Vig’a del Fuerte and Bojayá. The paramilitaries hid there behind the church and at about 11 a.m. the FARC-EP launched a gas cylinder packed with shrapnel at them. It landed on the church, where more than 300 people had taken refuge. The cylinder bomb broke through the roof of the church, struck the altar and exploded, causing complete devastation: the floor and even the walls were strewn with evidence of dismembered or totally shattered bodies. The confrontation had begun on April 20th and lasted until May 7th. 98 people died in the massacre, 79 as direct victims in the explosion of the cylinder bomb, 48 of them children, another 13 died in the events that occurred before and after the crime committed in Bellavista church, and 6 people exposed to the explosion of the cylinder died of cancer in the next 8 years”
An estimated 866 tonnes of cocaine were produced at clandestine labs across the country in 2016, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In 2015, the estimate was 649. Coca crops covered 146,000 hectares in 2016, up 52% from 96,000 in 2015. Higher yields from mature plants mean more cocaine can be produced per hectare planted. Growing coca is a family business. The whole family is involved in harvesting the leaves and scraping the bushes. Families generally carry out the entire process up to extracting the paste and in this way they make much more money than by just scraping the leaf. The substitution program is part of a peace deal with FARC-EPrebels, who renounced drug trafficking as part of their demobilization deal. During much of the group’s 53 years as an armed insurgency, it financed its fight through the drug trade. Former combatants have committed to work with the government to convince farmers to replace coca crops with another way to make a living.
Already 40% of the goal of forced eradication has been met, and 86,000 families -who account for as much as 76,000 hectares of coca -have signed on to crop substitution programs in exchange for subsidies of about $11,000 per farmer over the course of two years, according to the government.
But the deal on crop substitution with the FARC, announced before the final peace deal was finalized last year, also provided a perverse incentive for farmers to grow coca, knowing they would later be awarded subsidies. Cocaine production began increasing in 2013, rising steadily every year since. In 2014 the Colombian government ended aerial fumigations in over health concerns.
On July 17th, 2009 in the community of Guayacana, in Nariño, Mar’a Pascual was executed together with the rest of her family. She was 7 months pregnant. Neither her children nor her pregnancy aroused any feeling of pity in her murderers. The official version of what happened that morning is that a group of FARC-EP guerrillas entered her house and executed her along with her family for being “sapos” (informers); however, her neighbors maintain that this was not what happened. According to several members of the community a number of men in dark clothes entered the house with the support of the police and killed the whole family.
The CNMH’s “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! Colombia: Memories of war and dignity” report notes that “Selective killings, forced disappearances, kidnappings, and small-scale massacres have been the predominant forms of violence in the armed conflict”.
Life in this region is extremely difficult. The presence of the FARC-EP, and in the last few years that of the security forces and paramilitaries, put the civilian population under tremendous pressure from both groups. The risk of being considered a collaborator of one side or the other was a real threat, liable to force people to flee from the region to save their lives.
Benjam’n was detained at a military checkpoint on his way to Florencia for not having his military service record up to date. He was transferred to a military base the same day and forced to settle his debt to the State.
During guard duty on a bridge in the road between San Vicente del Cagúan and Florencia, by the community of Puerto Rico, Benjam’n was killed by the 15th Front of the FARC-EP during an ambush.
Benjam’n and his family lived in territory controlled by the FARC-EP, specifically in a village near La Unión Peneya controlled by the 15th Front of the Southern Bloc. Both he and his family had a close relationship of affinity and collaboration with the FARC-EP. This event left its mark on the family. Life in this region is extremely difficult.
A crime against humanity
In Colombia, as the CNMH reminds us, “Forced displacement ó a crime against humanity ó is a massive, systematic, long-term phenomenon linked to a great extent to control of strategic territories”. (12) “The armed actors attack the civilian population as part of their strategy of forcing them either to move or to remain loyal and serve as suppliers of resources. For the armed actors civilians are a source of political, economic, moral, and logistical support. Whether this support is willing or forced is of little importance”.
Colombia is the country with the second largest number of internally displaced persons in the world: 6.5 million. However, the victims suffer the total impunity that protects those responsible for this dramatic situation. There are very few investigations and convictions of the perpetrators considering the dimensions of the tragedy. According to Verdad Abierta, “The scars left by more than 50 years of armed conflict and fighting over land can be seen throughout the territory of Colombia: in 1,114 towns cases of forced displacement have been recorded. This means that in 99% of the country at least one person has been violently expelled, according to the consolidated data in the Single Register of Victims. It is a national tragedy, which affects the destinies of countless Colombians and will determine the course of the country in the next decades”.
Forced displacement, as Verdad Abierta points out, “Cannot be attributed just to the confrontation between the armed actors. There are very clear economic interests behind forced displacement. The impact of drug trafficking has been very important. As a result, the population has been expelled from the land, which became a strategic objective, promoting waves of migration of “emerging classes of doubtful origin” and of “peasants with no economic options”. Forced displacement was not declared a crime until the year 2000. This reflects how little importance was attached to this tragic phenomenon within public policy. For years forced displacement was treated as a marginal issue by the State and seen as a collateral effect of the conflict.”
Number of internally displaced persons in Colombia
Of the 1,982 massacres documented by the CNMH between 1980 and 2012, paramilitary groups perpetrated 1,166, or 58.9%. Guerrilla groups were responsible for 343 and the security forces for 158, amounting to 17.3% and 7.9% respectively. In addition, 295 massacres, equivalent to 14.8% of the total, were perpetrated by armed groups whose identity could not be determined. The remaining twenty massacres were joint actions by paramilitary groups and members of the security forces or actions carried out by other armed groups. This shows that out of every ten massacres, six were perpetrated by paramilitary groups, two by the guerrillas and one by members of the security forces. The armed actors exerted the greatest devastation in scorched-earth massacres. Mass killing was not enough. They attacked the physical and symbolic environment of the communities. They assaulted women, elderly people, children and community Readers. They destroyed homes, damaged and stole the victims’ material property and staged their violence with brutality and torture. It was a systematic exercise of terror designed to generate lasting expulsion.
From Marquetalia to victory
At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s there were outbreaks of Marxist armed insurrection all over the world, but especially in Latin America. Colombia was no exception to this global trend. In Colombia armed movements emerged, such as the FARC- EP in 1966, the National Liberation Army (ELN) in 1964, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) in 1966 and the M19 in 1974.
In May 1964 the Colombian army attacked the village of Marquetalia in the department of Tolima. According to the government, Marquetalia was a stronghold of armed communist peasants who had taken up arms against the State. The purpose of the Marquetalia operation was to re-establish state control of the territory, and they achieved it. The leader of the peasant resistance in Marquetalia was a guerrilla named Antonio Mar’n Marulanda, alias “Tirofijo”, who had fought with the liberals during the war. Marulanda and his men managed to escape from the army’s siege on Marquetalia. After Marquetalia, Marulanda and the communist leader Jacobo Arenas founded a guerrilla group called Southern Bloc, which in 1966 became the FARC-EP Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Contrary to Amanda’s assertion, there are statements from demobilized female guerrillas, as well as reports from organizations like SISMA, UN Women and Ruta Pac’fica, that testify to the existence of gender violence within the ranks of the FARC-EP. Even if that violence has not been perpetrated on a massive and systematic scale, as in the case of the paramilitaries, these reports and statements do not exonerate the FARC-EP of all responsibility.
Peace Talks in Havana
Between February and August 2012 the government and the guerrilla forces held an exploratory phase of peace talks in Havana (Cuba), leading to full-scale negotiations and then to a four-year peace process, culminating in final agreements in September and November 2016
Lights and shadows.
The role of the army and the police during the internal conflict in Colombia is full of highs and lows that tarnish the civilian population’s perception of the country’s oldest institution. An example, as Verdad Abierta points out, is the role of the military in the Mapiripán massacre, one of the most shameful episodes in the army’s history, for which the Colombian State was convicted in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The State defended itself, alleging that the soldiers had no control over the paramilitary troops. However, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded that state responsibility in the events that occurred in the Mapiripán massacre was clear and evident.
According to the Routes of the Conflict platform, “On July 12th, 1997 nearly 120 paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) arrived in San José del Guaviare from Urabá in Antioqu’a in two military planes. The ‘paras’ traveled by river and road up to the municipal center of Mapiripán, where they arrived on July 14th. On their way along several streets and in the town center they killed around fifty people”.
For a week the paramilitaries took their victims out of their houses at night and took them to the town’s slaughterhouse, where they tortured and murdered them by shooting them or slitting their throats. Several people were castrated and decapitated; the ‘paras’ even played football with the head of the town’s air transport agent and most of the bodies were dismembered and thrown into the River Guaviare river with rocks in their stomachs so that their families could never find them. The armed group left the town on Sunday July 20th and the security forces only appeared on Wednesday 23rd. The massacre was ordered by the Castaño clan, who had joined the Magdalena Medio and Llanos Orientales paramilitary groups that year to create the AUCU. The Mapiripán massacre was part of the self-defense forces’ expansion strategy to rest control from the guerrillas, especially in key areas for drug trafficking.
The killing led to the displacement of about 70% of the settlers. Members of the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Meta and Vichada, known as the ”Carranceros”, provided logistical support. In addition, paramilitaries of the Casanare, led by Héctor Buitrago, came to the town a few days before, pretending to be guerrillas and asking people for help in order to make a list of alleged collaborators of the subversives, who were later killed. The Colombian judicial authorities have documented the participation of several army officers and senior commanders of the armed forces.
Between 2002 and 2008 the execution of civilians by army brigades was normal practice throughout Colombia, according to the Human Rights Watch report “Command Responsibility for False Positive Killings”. “False positives were executed by soldiers and officers under pressure from their superiors to inflate combat kill statistics in the war against the guerrillas.” The country learned of the scandal of false positives in September 2008, when the killing by troops of young men and teenage boys in Soacha, a suburb of Bogotá, was reported in the national press. The outcry was such that the government had to take serious measures to curb such crimes, including the retirement of three army generals.
As Verdad Abierta points out, “Seven years after the existence of false positives became known and 27 officers were dismissed from the armed forces for allowing them to happen, only six colonels have been convicted and no general has been charged. In several cases families have had to persist for as long as five years for the prosecutors to open an investigation and for the trial not to be left in the hands of the military criminal courts. And ordinary justice is too slow. The families complain about delays in the investigations, the inability of the prosecutors to implicate military commanders, a disturbing series of threats against victims and witnesses, and, in some regions of the country, complicity of judicial officials with the members of the security forces indicted”.
According to the Human Rights Watch report “Command Responsibility for False Positive Killings”, “the national Public Prosecutor’s office is currently investigating more than 3,000 alleged cases of false positives attributed to military personnel”. It also concluyes that “there is substantial evidence that false positives were not the work of a few rotten apples but were committed by the great majority of brigades in various regions of Colombia over a number of years. The higher the number of killings and the more they appear to conform to a systematic pattern of attack, the less likely it is that superiors did not know about them”.
The pressure to stop looking for those responsible for false positives is very strong and is felt on many levels. A medical examiner who prefers to remain anonymous tells us in an interview for the Spanish magazine xlsemanal about the constant threats and obstacles to being able carrying out his work that he is subjected to when it comes to investigating false positives. “We find most obstacles in the case of false positives, and they arise when we have to exhume a communal grave in a cemetery supposedly containing the remains of ex-combatants, usually guerrillas killed in combat. In one of the latest exhumations we found several bodies. When we identified them, all of them were people recorded as having disappeared who had never been related in any way to the guerrillas. As things stand we have hardly been able to make any progress in the investigation and we have received several direct threats from the military”
The search for our missing family member.
There is no specific figure for the exact number of disappearances due to the conflict in Colombia. The National Registry of Disappeared Persons speaks of 106,000 cases, the Victims’ Unit claims 43,000, the Disappeared Persons Information System puts the number at 22,261 and the International Committee of the Red Cross referred in January 2016 to 79,000 disappearances, according to SIRDEC records (Information System Network for Missing Persons and Dead Bodies of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences).
Taking the CNMH research study “Until We Find Them: Dynamics and Dimensions of Forced Disappearances in Colombia” as a basis, “Between 1977 and 2015 60,630 cases of disappeared persons were recorded in the country. In 51.4% of cases, those responsible are unknown. Of the rest, 46.1% correspond to paramilitary groups, 19.9% to guerrillas, 8.8% to post-demobilization groups, 8% to State agents, and 15.9% to unidentified armed groups.”
In spite of the magnitude of the statistics on forced disappearance and its devastating impact on the country, it has been underreported in the media and is barely recognized by the competent authorities, due to the innate features of this violent method and the particular characteristics of the internal armed conflict. The concealment of the crime and the little public recognition of it are further explained by a number of aspects: 1) this crime may be mistaken for other methods of violence, such as kidnapping and homicide; 2) its social impact is minimal, compared to the spectacular coverage or high visibility which the media has given to other forms of violence (kidnappings, massacres, the murder of public figures and acts of war); 3) reporting the facts is difficult or impossible due to pressure from the armed agents, the participation of government agents in such crimes, and the belated legal recognition of it, which began with Law 589 of 2000.
Forced disappearance, which international law regards as a crime against humanity in certain circumstances, was the most frequent violent act at a time when concealment strategies predominated, although the perpetrators have not stopped using it as a mechanism of terror.
In addition to their uncertainty about the whereabouts of the victims, relatives of victims must fight to obtain the recognition of the facts, deal with discredit, threats and even face the indifference of authorities that regard the crime as a trivial matter.
Human rights organizations and the families of disappeared persons report that in a total of 5,016 cases, six out of every 10 victims belong to vulnerable sectors of the population, such as political activists and trades union members. This confirms that a systematic attack against political opposition was part of the armed actor’s strategies for concealing their acts. Forced disappearance spread throughout the territory of Colombia at different levels; at least one case was recorded in 787 municipalities of the country, which represent 68.79% of its territory. Among these, seven out of every ten cases took place in 140 municipalities.
Much of the text that accompanies the photographs are stories, data, information, descriptions and testimonies obtained from the institutions identified below. The fragments extracted or paraphrased from the research of these institutions appear with the name of the source underlined. The information or quotations not obtained from the sources mentioned below come from the experiences and interviews of Álvaro Ybarra Zavala in Colombia.
Centro Nacional de la Memoria Historia (CNMH)
Rutas del Conflicto
Human Rights Watch