On February 4, Colombia’s nationwide – and worldwide – public protests against the FARC guerrillas were wildly successful. Much of that success owed to organizers’ efforts to stay “on message” and avoid politicization, which they mostly did. This guaranteed the largest possible participation.
Now, victims of Colombia’s other armed groups want a day of their own. Led by the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, they are calling for a national and worldwide day to reject Colombia’s paramilitary groups and those who aided them. They are planning to convene on March 6th.
These victims too deserve a massive turnout. Even a quick look at today’s news from Colombia reminds us that paramilitary power and impunity are still at crisis levels.
- Yesterday, in the comfortable cell block housing a few dozen paramilitary leaders in the ItagÃ¼Ã prison outside MedellÃn, a surprise search yielded a 9mm pistol, a grenade, and US$6,000 in cash.
- In his “Justice and Peace” testimony yesterday, paramilitary leader “Diego Vecino” spoke – without naming names – of his deep and broad support for leading politicians in the Montes de MarÃa region of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
- The OAS secretary general, JosÃ© Miguel Insulza, recognized that new paramilitary groups – many of them resembling mafias more than pro-government militias – are forming throughout the country.
- Meanwhile, new testimonies are emerging about the Colombian military’s involvement in a recent rash of “extrajudicial executions” – civilians detained and killed, with their bodies later presented as those of guerrillas killed in combat. This week, a former paramilitary fighter gave evidence about cadavers presented as guerrillas in Antioquia in 2002.
The victims of paramilitaries and state actors did not have an opportunity to express themselves on February 4th, and they deserve a moment of their own with similarly broad participation. The conflict’s victims need to know that their fellow citizens stand with them, regardless of who victimized them. In exchange, the protest’s organizers must do their utmost to avoid seeing their own event become politicized – to devolve into an anti-government rally or something similarly divisive.
This would all seem to be uncontroversial – why shouldn’t the March 6 event receive levels of support similar to what Colombia saw on February 4th? Colombia’s mainstream media appears to be supportive; editorials in the El Espectador newspaper and Cambio newsweekly have already offered endorsements of the March 6 effort, reminding readers that “the country’s rejection of paramilitary violence is overdue.”
Yet the March 6 protest has become controversial, sadly, because of the virulent opposition it has inspired from the Colombian government. The Uribe administration, which enthusiastically joined the February 4 protests against the FARC, is rejecting the March 6 anti-paramilitary protests in the strongest possible terms.
“I personally will not participate, as I did enthusiastically in the march against the FARC,” was the response of JosÃ© Obdulio Gaviria, a presidential advisor considered to be President Uribe’s chief ideologist. “It will be difficult for Colombian society to participate in this type of event, when we just finished marching against the people who are convening it.”
Gaviria’s words are terribly unfortunate. Not only does a top Colombian government official reject the March 6 protests, he alleges that its organizers, the National Victims’ Movement, are indistinguishable from the FARC. This is the worst sort of slander, and the Colombian government must not let it stand.
Before the February 4 march, an editorial in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, excoriated doubters who worried that the anti-FARC protest would become politicized.
The positions of those who have sought to disqualify the march, calling it “Uribista,” are cynical and shameless. As though only the uribistas have the right to protest against the FARC’s kidnappings, or as though doing so were an act of pro-government politicking. This is a sectarian and frankly twisted way to politicize an initiative that originated cleanly and spontaneously from common citizens.
Similarly, the doubters – including the doubters in Colombia’s government – should not get a free pass this time.
To paraphrase El Tiempo: Those who seek to disqualify the March 6 protest, calling it “pro-FARC,” are also cynical and shameless. As though only the FARC has the right to protest against the paramilitaries’ thousands of unpunished, unclarified abuses, and the powerful people who helped them occur – or as though to do so were an anti-state act. This is a sectarian and frankly twisted way to politicize an initiative that originated cleanly and spontaneously from common citizens.
President Uribe must not let his top advisor’s dangerous and irresponsible words stand as the official de facto position of the Colombian government. Instead, the Colombian government should join in support of the March 6 event, in order to demonstrate to the world:
- That it cares just as deeply about the tens of thousands of Colombians who fell victim to the paramilitaries and to state security forces;
- That it supports efforts to end impunity for decades of horrific abuses, instead of seeking to deny them or sweep them under the rug; and
- That it believes all armed groups’ abuses – whether in support ofor against the state – must be rejected equally.
Colombians, no matter how they feel about President Uribe, should participate in the March 6 event, standing with the victims and with those who are trying to uncover the truth and win a measure of justice. Colombians should send a message to their government’s more ideologically inclined officials – a message that should be common sense: it should be possible to call publicly for justice without being tarred as a guerrilla supporter.