Translated by Roxanne Krystalli. Spanish version available here.

Steps towards the construction of peace in Colombia?

The account of armed conflict that has affected Colombia for more than 50 years still has chapters that are unknown to Colombians and the world. However, the report “Enough Already! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity,” created by the National Center for Historical Memory [1], is a valuable step in the right direction and it serves a number of purposes: narrating the truth about the [most?] severe violations that have taken place; revealing the activities of all actors in the conflict, as well as their interests and links to national political and social elites; capturing the memory of the victims and the persistence of their suffering; highlighting judicial, administrative and governmental policies to begin to use judicial mechanism to create cracks in the wall of impunity; and recommending concrete measures to overcome these problems.

In this article I highlight three relevant aspects of the report. These aspects demonstrate the political and social need for Colombians to know what happened, and, above all,  to confront the challenges of the new peace. First, is the need to identify the use of violence by all armed actors in the conflict: security forces, paramilitaries and guerrillas. Clear and precise acknowledgment of their responsibility in the massive and systematic violations that have taken place is necessary; this task relates to the need to build truth about the conflict, its causes, consequences and impact. Second, is recognition that most of the victims of this armed conflict were civilians, whose rights continue to be violated. Third, there is a need for profound institutional changes that must be implemented by each of the actors in the armed conflict.

On the first point, relating to the diversity of the armed actors, various national and international human rights organizations have denounced the human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law by Colombian armed groups in the past decades.[2] Meanwhile, governmental data about the conflict has relied on statistics that serve the interest of the government, which has tried to hide, exaggerate or minimize the situation.[3] Given this crucial deficiency, the detailed report of the National Center of Historical Memory has been crucial. A public institution with a national mandate, the Center has importantly relied on statistics that track violations by each of the actors, including the type of violations committed by each of these actors, and the relationships between them.

The report concluded that certain actors committed particular violations more frequently than others and that these patterns became characteristic features of their activities in the conflict. In this regard, it is noteworthy that most of the targeted killings (38.4%) and massacres[4] (58.9%) were committed by paramilitary groups aligned with the government, while the guerrillas demonstrated high numbers of cases of kidnapping (90.6%) and damage to civilian properties (84.1%). Although the report notes the glaring weaknesses in the tracking of enforced disappearance, the authors assert that the largest number of violations was perpetrated by the state security forces (42.1%). The report also notes that Colombia remains the country with the highest number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the world[5] and the second highest country, behind Afghanistan, with regard to the number of landmine victims.

At times, the cold figures do not allow the readers to see the tragedy of the victims. The report, therefore, rigorously examines three case studies that demonstrate the human dimensions of the tragedy. These three cases provide a face and context for the data and are summarized below.

Between February16 and 21, 2000, the Northern Block of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, in partnership with the security forces in the town of Salado, Montes de María (Northern Colombia), conducted one of the largest and bloodiest massacres in the country’s history. In this case, 60 people were tortured, raped and beheaded to the rhythm of music and alcohol in the main square of the town as a way to weaken the guerilla’s civilian base and send them a message about the dominance of the paramilitary. The perpetrators destroyed homes and commercial sites alike. The entirety of the village was forcibly displaced. The surviving victims suffer depression, mental trauma, panic, and terror, among other serious impacts on their mental and physical health.

On February 23rd, 2002, Ingrid Betancourt, a Green Party candidate for the Presidency of the Republic, was kidnapped along with her adviser Clara Rojas, on their way to the Caguan area following a break in the peace process that then-President Andrés Pastrana had initiated with the FARC. Ingrid Betancourt was held hostage for more than six years, during which she was subjected to life in the jungle, disease, harsh punishments after their escape attempts, beatings and maltreatment. Her release was the product of a military intelligence operation known as Operation Jaque, an operation that itself has been questioned for its possible violation of international humanitarian law.

Under the “Democratic Security” policy of then-President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), members of the security forces extrajudicially executed socially marginalized youth. The youth were promised work, ostesibly legal or even illegal, if they moved to municipalities and departments away from their homes. In most cases, one or two days after having last been seen alive by their families, these youth were reported as “guerrillas killed in combat.” As of March 31, 2011, the Attorney General had identified more than 2,701 cases of such victims.

Regarding the second aspect discussed in this report, namely the acknowledgment of the victims, the investigation concluded that at least 220,000 people died between January 1, 1958 and December 31, 2012. Of these deaths, 81.5 % were civilians, and 18.5% were legal and illegal combatants. This helps clarify the discussion in Colombia by dispelling the myth that combatants and non-combatants were victims of the conflict in equal proportions, or that the armed conflict is an issue that does not significantly affect the civilian population. According to analyzed data, the reality is that one in three violent deaths in Colombia is the result of the internal armed conflict.

According to the report, the instrumentalization of civilians by armed groups has been part of a widely-deployed strategy whereby armed group attempts to consolidate and strengthen their power in a particular zone by targetting civilians, setting off cycles of retaliation between groups. Similarly, when civilians are seen as the source of decisive support in the final outcome of the conflict, perpetrators from all sides have demonstrated willingness to use violence to impact the outcome in their favor. The analysis points to other tactics used against the population: pursuit of military action regardless of its effects on civlians, the use of military action as a mechanism to maintain civilians’ loyalties, or imposition of force to coerce civilians to provide resources.

The report shows that the humanitarian crisis in Colombia is extremely serious in terms of both lethal and nonlethal violence. The report examines the widespread use of sexual violence against women and girls as a weapon of war, as well as the invisibility of this phenomenon. It also sheds light on the prevalence of an extractive economy that not only violates the legitimate rights of historic landowners, such as indigenous communities and Afro-Colombian peoples, but also “preys, destroys and builds without generating sustainable development.” It also refers to the attacks on political and social actors who are in opposition to government policies.

On this last point, the report analyzes—however briefly—violence against trade unionists and its impact on trade union rights and labor rights.[6] It must not be forgotten that Colombia is the country with the highest number of assassinations of trade unionists in the world, a fact that has been a critical point in delays and doubts about the signing of free trade agreements between Colombia and other countries. Signatories to agreements often continue to monitor the situation of trade unionists in Colombia.[7]

The last point I would like to highlight is regarding the report’s recommendations. It recommends implementing changes that are aimed at building a “new institutional architecture in and for peace.” For this, the participation of victims and various sectors of civil society in a bottom-up effort needs to be guaranteed, from the regional to the national level. Additionally, the report recommends creating a national dialogue on the rights to truth, justice, and reparation of the victims, and guarantees of non-repetition by each of the actors, legal and illegal. Here, perhaps, with regard to the right to redress, it would be key to note the importance of ensuring a process that involves victims from the start and aims at transformative reparations as has been proposed by several scholars.[8]

The biggest challenge will be bringing these recommendations closer to how policies are actually being implemented in Colombia. For example, the peace process that is currently taking place in Havana, Cuba is far from being a bottom-up process; by contrast, the participation of civil society has remained far from its scope and it is unclear that there are plans to change this in the future.[9]  Another complex example is the government’s interest in expanding the military criminal justice system, which has been heavily criticized by the UN[10] and human rights organizations[11] because it can encourage impunity for human rights violations committed by the security forces. Even more complicated is the necessary structural change of the extractive economic model, such that it enables recognition and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians, as opposed to the massive mining and natural resource exploitation that are major economic policies of the current government. Colombia needs more truth-telling like that contained in this report. It needs to say “Basta ya!” “Enough Already!” to violations in order to inaugurate the beginning of profound changes.


[1] Public institution of the national order within the Departament of Social Prosperity of the Government of Colombia.

[2] From 1997 to date, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia has created an annual report. You can view all of them at: Similarly, the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights publishes anual reports, reports by country and decisions, accesible at: National human rights organizations, such as the Colombian Commission of Jurists or CINEP, among others, have been following the situation for over 25 years and discussed it in numerous reports.

[3]  See: Correa y Malagón, “Imperceptiblemente nos encerraron. Exclusión del sindicalismo y lógicas de la violencia antisindical en Colombia 1979-2010” “We were Subtly Bound and Silenced: The exclusion of the Union Movement an the Logic of Anti-Union Violence in Colombia”, Comisión Colombiana de Juristas y Escuela Nacional Sindical. Bogotá, Colombia 2012. Capítulo VII.  Disponible en: UNDP Colombia completed a report on trade unionists. Chapter 4 (pages 50-54) discusses how the criteria of case selection varied depending on the different governmental entities. See: Additionally, see the op-ed by Daniel Coronel on the manipulation of the figures on kidnappings during the government of President Alvaro Uribe.

[4] The GMH defines massacres as “the murder of four or more people in a state of helplessness and in the same circumstances of manner, time and place, and is recognised by the public display of violence. It is perpetrated in the presence of others or made ​​visible to others as horror show. It is the product of brutal encounter between the absolute power of the perpetrator and the utter helplessness of the victim”. El GMH define masacre como “el homicidio intencional de cuatro o más personas en estado de indefensión y en iguales circunstancias de modo, tiempo y lugar, y que se distingue por la exposición pública de la violencia. Es perpetrada en presencia de otros o se visibiliza ante otros como espectáculo de horror. Es producto del encuentro brutal entre el poder absoluto del victimario y la impotencia total de la víctima”.

[5] This report was written before the Syrian crisis in 2013.

[6] Confederación Sindical Internacional. “Informe Países en situación de riesgo 2013” See English version:

[7] A Staff Report on behalf of U.S. Representatives George Miller and Jim McGovern to the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia. “The US Colombia Labor Action Plan:  Failing on the ground”. Available at: Similarly: Resolución del Parlamento Europeo sobre el Acuerdo Comercial entre la Unión Europea y Colombia y Perú. Versión en español: English version:

[8] See: Roddy Brett y Lina Malagón, “Overcoming the Original Sin of the “Original Condition:” How Reparations May Contribute to Emancipatory Peacebuilding”. Human Rights Review, July 2013.

[9] See: Roddy Brett, “Local Level Peacebuilding: The Case of Colombia”. Lessons Learned Paper, UNDP Colombia, Forthcoming, 2014.

[10] Comentarios de la Oficina del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos en Colombia, Disponible en:

[11] See:;

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