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Witness Near Dawn
Colombia’s impunity law supports corruption and deceit
T he organizers of Colombia’s Second National Encounter of Victims of Crimes Against Humanity and Human Rights Violations predicted 500 delegates would participate. By the end of the third and last day of the conference, which took place in downtown Bogotá from June 21-23, 2005, delegates from Colombia’s ranks of victims and families of the murdered, disappeared, tortured, displaced, and arbitrarily detained, multiplied beyond 1,200.
The conference opened with a slow, ritual dance performed by about 20 members of the indigenous Kankuamo, who moved in a circle, the symbol of eternal unity, and faced forward and back in rhythmic turn. Human rights activists, lawyers, and congress people came to speak. Day two, the central day of the conference, was reserved for the testimonies of survivors and surviving family members. In San Jose de Apartado, an 11-year-old girl had her limbs torn from her torso and her father was skinned “like a cow.” Homes were burned to the ground in Arauca, and a woman found the body parts of a family member disfigured in a process she couldn’t name. In Colota, paramilitaries detained a busload of people. Captors raped the pregnant passenger, then disappeared the rest. In Caqueta, there were mass displacements, and blood from some of the worst massacres in Colombian history flowed into the earth at Toribio and Naya.
A ubiquitous theme united otherwise variable testimony in region after region. Members of the military confiscated food items, gasoline, even medicine, at make-shift checkpoints along narrow dirt roads leading into towns. As one campesina said, “Food is worth more than money and we cannot bring it to our communities because the military accuse us of supplying guerillas with it.” Such accusations carry with them threats of grave reprisal. Even after a militia demobilization officially launched in December 2002, when the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) announced its unilateral ceasefire, over 2,000 civilians have died by their hands. For security purposes, the organizers of the 2005 conference had to “clear” photographers in advance, and ruled that photos of the delegates be taken only of their backs.
The Second National Encounter took place against the simultaneous congressional passage of a law that stands to grant sweeping impunity to Colombia’s paramilitary death squads. Originally known as Alternatividad Penal (Alternative Sentence), the law was renamed “Justicia y Paz” (Justice and Peace). The passage was a landmark not only for Colombia’s legal system, but for its entire conflict-ridden history, as it serves to silence and dilute the words of victims, once on this occasion of momentous utterance, and then forever. With Colombia’s victims and their testimonies effectively now written out of the trial process altogether, Congressperson Gustavo Petro, one of the conference speakers, called the situation “absolutely urgent,” but added the oft-quoted refrain: “La noche es mas oscura cuando esta a punto de amanacer” (“The night is darkest before dawn”) . Despite the urgency, and despite the more- than-doubled turnout, one delegate, indigenous governor Enrique Guetio, revealed that news of the pending law never reached some communities in the countryside. Many victims hadn’t known about the impunity their violators are poised to receive until the law, which was ratified by Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe on June 22, 2005, was examined at the conference.
Violators will receive favors for cooperation. The law’s original name, Alternate Sentence, reflects the proposal to apply a sentence other than one set forth in the criminal code. Beginning with a recommended five to eight years incarceration time, the actual sentence would be reduced based on the beneficiaries’ “contribution to achieving national peace” and on their “collaboration with justice.” This arbitrary and subjective measure enables persons with the greatest culpability in crime, persons who can manipulate and control the appearance of contribution or collaboration because they hold the greatest volume of information, to enjoy the benefit of the least severe sentences. Time spent in the demilitarized zone of Santa Fe de Ralito of up to 18 months—in spite of whatever extremes of amenity and liberty were enjoyed in the zone—effectively serves as incarceration time. With other subjective measures such as parole reductions and work- study exchanges for served time, legal analysts calculate that paramilitary war criminals could conceivably serve zero days of incarceration.
The Justicia y Paz law supports corruption and rewards deceit. If, after a demobilized person receives benefits, authorities discover that the person was involved in other crimes omitted from their confession, a new procedure may then commence. If the person is sentenced in this new procedure for the newly revealed information, they will not be punished for the omissions, for example, by having all rights summarily rescinded. Instead, he or she can re-apply for the Alternate Sentence benefit, but in this second round, incarcerated time from the first sentence is allowable time served for the new sentence.
None of us will ever know who were the dominant authors of this law, nor what role the U.S. played in the circumstances surrounding the initial draft. After its existence was made public, criticisms of the bill by several U.S. Congress members prompted the Colombian government to write into it an article that would require demobilized persons who “deliberately” omit revealing their participation in crimes to forfeit all benefits. This effectively opens the case that a person’s omission could be seen as “involuntary,” and the burden of proof would be so elusive that the Colombian Commission of Jurists insists this technicality performs only a “cosmetic operation.”
In the same way that the mounting violations and their ghoulishness made it incumbent upon Colombia’s President Uribe to demonstrate satisfactory efforts to dismantle the paramilitary armies, the rate and ghoulishness also made it incumbent upon the U.S., which has given more than $3 billion in largely military aid to Colombia since 2000, to demand that Uribe’s plan look good in the eyes of the world. Two weeks after the law passed Colombia’s Congress in a landslide vote of 148 to 18, another demand was issued from Washington, this time from the Senate Appropriations Committee. After Europe and the United Nations denounced the Justicia y Paz law, the Appropriations Committee threatened to withhold the aid money that Uribe’s government needs to fulfill the disarmament. Most U.S. citizens do not know that their tax dollars will finance the impunity of persons responsible for war crimes. With $8,000 per illegal combatant, and up to 20,000 combatants, the process will require at least $160 million in additional aid. The Appropriations Committee has called for a complete disarmament, extraditions of key commanders, and an inter-agency group to ensure that the cease-fire had not been violated and that illegal activities have ceased. Uribe now is hedging on the demand for extraditions, and those monitoring Colombia’s human rights record know that past certifications to guarantee cessation of abuse, or even mere “improvement,” have done nothing to stem the bloodbath of torture and death.
Paramilitaries Have Political Status
C onference speaker Ivan Cepeda Castro’s father, Manuel Cepeda Vargas, the poet and “bohemian” senator from the Patriotic Union—an alternative political party founded by the guerilla FARC in 1985—was gunned down by paramilitaries and two army intelligence operatives. No arrests were made, despite the fact that former paramilitary leader Carlos Castano admitted directing the commando unit that fulfilled the execution in his openly published, widely-read autobiography. Cepeda initiated a discussion on the law with a rebuke to the U.S. demands. “We cannot leave out the responsibility of the state, and the responsibility of international financing. The victims are not victims of dark powers, but are victims of state powers.”
Piedad Cordoba, former paramilitary kidnap victim and current senator, warned: “We have seen only the tip of the iceberg of violations. The problem is not about finding the corpses. It is deeper and more serious than that. The paramilitaries are codified as a political status, yet how is that process made official?
“We are seeing a stronger paramilitary presence in Congress. It is estimated that 35 percent of Congress is elected by paramilitaries. I don’t know if it is 35 percent or 70 percent. The problem is that in Congress there is a paramilitary attitude which precludes anything else.
“We are not supposed to say we are from the left.” She paused, allowing the audience to mull over the significance of her words. “I don’t know what to say about what I am.”
Was her statement a reference to the strategy of the coalition of progressives to unseat Uribe and dismantle the paramilitary structure in Colombia, or again, was it a reference to something “deeper and more serious than that?” The “old” left, as some would distinguish it for the pages of history, is criticized for being rigidly universalist and class-reductionist. A bevy of “popular alliances,” “new social movements,” and “third ways” have attempted to elucidate the pluralities of struggle in the 21st century. Not to be outdone, the right too, has sought to fashion itself with a similar salute to non-elitist, democratic participation. Trade is called “free,” societies are called “ownership,” and security is for the “homeland,” implying that the vastness of the homeland and its even vaster interests, is an aggregate “common” for all.
One difference is stark. The agenda of the right is not derailed by any discourse of mystification these terms may by themselves suggest. It is a war on working people. Beginning in the late 1970s, the policy of dismantling national regulation of the economic order in favor of market governance was dressed up in terms like “reform” and “liberalization.” In countries surveyed by the United Nations, of the 373 national legislative changes to foreign investment practices during the years 1991-1994, only 5 were not in the direction of greater “liberalization.” Between 1988 and 1992, global sales of state-owned enterprises ballooned to $185 billion, but the figure did not include the $25 billion in privatizations in former communist East Germany, nor did it include an additional $106 billion in commitments to purchase state-owned assets. On July 18, 2004, Uribe’s finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla, announced that Colombia is preparing to sell off yet another $10 billion worth of stakes in state-owned companies within the next few years. He hails the privatization plan as “the most ambitious in Latin America.”
Senator Cordoba linked the larger economic agenda with the paramilitary atrocities: “The point of the paramilitaries is that they are getting the wealth out of the country. They control all the distribution centers, from selling cars to fruits.”
Those who support the Justicia y Paz law might argue that it is founded on more lofty principals. The path to peace, it could be argued, rests on a divine and unconditional forgiveness, one that sees punishment as ultimately futile. Even the vagaries of the reparations guarantee could be seen as an admission of another futility, that material redress can never return the whole of what was lost, and therefore, can never in any true sense heal. But the problem remains; the voices of the victims are not central, they are hidden on the periphery. The voices of the authors are hidden too.
Congressperson Petro outlined a history that led us to the present crisis. “In Colombia the death machine has historical roots...throughout the history of this country, the criminals have never been charged or sentenced. The 19th century was a century of impunity. Criminals killed the leaders of Simon Bolivar’s army, the young and promising Antonio Jose de Sucre among them. Jose Maria Cordoba was murdered. In the 20th century, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan and Quintin Lame were murdered. During the 1930s and 1940s, campesino leaders were killed by landowners. The elections of the 1970s were stolen. Thousands of Colombians were assassinated in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. We have this machine on top of us—the police, the soldier, the ignorant landowners, the neighborhood assassins. But it is no longer the work of the scary man, the psychopath. This machine reproduces from the highest levels of Colombian power. The death machine is in power making laws today. The deaths are directed by those in power, planned by those in power.”
Yet machines are equipped with motors and the switch for Colombia’s is in the United States.
I n the 1950s, when the newly-created World Bank was researching how to bring underdeveloped countries more tightly into a world economy dominated by large corporations, the U.S. sent renowned economist Albert O. Hirschman to oversee liberalization in Colombia, where he had lived for a number of years. Hardly a progressive, but something of a humanist, he intimated in his memoirs that he thought he would be entering negotiations equally with Colombians. He said that he “wanted to learn as much as possible about the Colombian economy…in hopes of contributing marginally to the improvement of policy making.” Later he lamented, “One aspect of the affair made me particularly uneasy. The task was supposedly crucial for Colombia’s development, yet no Colombian was to be found who had any inkling of how to go about it. That knowledge was held only by a few foreign experts.”
By the 1970s, the fault lines of the late-capitalist system in the U.S. were never more visible. In the wake of the decline of the profit rate, what was called the “Keynesian compromise” of capitalism, the element which respected the welfare state, deteriorated. The U.S. economy entered what was called a “structural crisis.” Neo-liberalism was introduced domestically, quickly ratified in the United Kingdom, and gradually exported to countries not in the center of power. Centrally powerful countries, with the U.S. at their helm, thus appropriate the natural resources of agriculture, mining, and energy of countries not in the center at downscale prices; exploit their cheap labor force; and drain interest flows from their towering debt. In addition, there is the slower appropriation of entire industries such as telecommunications, also at bargain prices. The wealth of the highest factions of the ruling class of powerful countries was re-established by these mechanisms in the wake of the “structural crisis” setback.
How was this re-establishment of wealth achieved at the greater expense of the world? The U.S. Journal of World Affairs states: “In reality, death squads are an extremely effective tool, however odious, in combating terrorism and revolutionary challenges.” What were these challenges and by what means were they so effectively combated? El Salvador and Argentina are lauded as case studies. Nearly half of the 40,000 victims in El Salvador were killed by death squads, and in Argentina, “Of the more than 15,000 victims...nearly all were leftists or relatives of left-wing activists.” U.S. psychological warfare chief general Robert McClure, speaking on tactical terror, said: “I fully recognize that our troops must adopt a tough, hard-boiled killer attitude if they are going to not only survive, but to win these battles.” He added, “I wonder, however, if that indoctrination, which, I repeat, is very necessary, needs to be widely publicized in the press and broadcast to our enemies.”
Reporting to Congress on the infamous Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, a country often compared to Colombia, a former CIA agent said: “There was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any one of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the [communist] Viet Cong, but they all died and the majority were either tortured to death or...thrown out of helicopters.”
In Iraq’s Shock and Awe operation, the U.S. detained a reported 12,800 people suspected of insurgency support. What has also been reported, and what now contributes to the claim that the U.S. government lied about its reasons for invading Iraq, is that soldiers rounded up women, children, and, for the crime of being a certain age, arrested civilian men right from their homes, and Bedouins as they tended their sheep.
To avoid the popular anti-war protests common in the 1960s, as well as to strategize military spending, by 1970, the Guam Message, which in another act of renaming changed to the Nixon Doctrine, was promoted by the White House as “a major shift in U.S. foreign policy.” In a report to Congress, Nixon elaborated this shift: “In cases involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested and as appropriate. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.” Like the renamed Nixon Doctrine intoned: Colombia’s power struggle is financed by the extraction of taxes from largely unknowing U.S. citizen’s wages, and is underwritten by training and indoctrination at U.S. military institutions like the now infamous School of the Americas, renamed the Institute for Hemispheric Cooperation.
As for the personnel for Colombia’s defense, paramilitary war criminals are the keepers of this flame. While the highest-level authors look on, these people, who have dumped living beings into wells stocked with alligators, who have dismembered and decapitated children with chainsaws, who have disemboweled young men on the hoods of trucks and tasted their livers to taunt the detainees who looked on, will be the same men who, after their “contribution to achieving national peace” and their “collaboration with justice,” determine the direction of law and operate in a mechanism so banal, they sell everything from cars to fruits.
At the close of the testimonies, Jesuit author Javier Giraldo said, “The ethical structure of the judicial system has collapsed to zero. We cannot look at a rotten tree and hope it will produce healthy fruit. If we cannot rebuild the judicial system, we must look outside the judicial system. To that end, I invite all of us here to believe in ourselves and to value the stories of the victims.”
One campesino victim grasped two pitchers of water from the speaker’s panel. He poured the water from one into the other slowly and dramatically until it reached the uppermost edge of the rim, and lifted it for all to view. “Our hearts are overflowing,” he said. Another victim threw a ball of string into the audience, and asked that the person who caught it give the name of a missing relative or relate their tale of abuse. That person was to throw it again and the next person to catch it also give a name. This was repeated until the whole audience was connected by a web of string.
Are those who do not understand history condemned to repeat it? Congressperson Petro reminded us: “In Argentina, Chile, Germany, Spain, Guatemala, and South Africa, there have been cases of death machines similar to what Colombia is facing. Truth and justice finally appeared once the leaders were removed from power. Here we have a different case because we are fighting now while they are still in power. There is no rupture. They are still in power and getting stronger. We denounce impunity. Impunity is a systematic and planned work to divide and hide the social process and the political left. It fragments the truth. It is hidden and lost until there are no longer guilty people. But this machinery will fall like a house of cards. It’s a kind of paper tiger. It is not as powerful as it thinks.”
While the Justicia y Paz law asks us to look forward instead of back, nothing comes to mind more than the dance of the Kankuamo.
“It’s never been this dark,” Petro ended with an acknowledging nod, “as the campesinos know. This is because it is also nearer the dawn.”
Patricia Dahl is a writer and coordinator of the Colombia Support Network’s New York City chapter. She was an international panelist at the II Encuentro Nacional de Victimas de Crimines de Lesa Humanidad y Violaciones a los Derechos Humanos. All photos are from www. archivolatino.com.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
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MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
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NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.