“Chemotherapy?” Friday links
Jun 122008

Here is the introduction to an astoundingly good new report by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund on the “Justice and Peace” process, the “para-politics” scandal, and the paramilitaries’ victims’ efforts to learn the truth and achieve restitution. It is available as a PDF file, and an Executive Summary [PDF] features recommendations for U.S. policymakers. Congratulations to the LAWGEF for this achievement.

The Other Half of the Truth: Searching for Truth, Justice and Reparations for Colombia’s Victims of Paramilitary Violence

The only way to change the nation’s destiny is to help the victims tell their story.
– Colombian journalist Hollman Morris

On February 4, 2008, Colombians marched in the millions in a powerful rejection of violence by the FARC guerrillas. It was an inspirational, authentic cry by Colombians weary of horrific guerrilla tactics, and a show of solidarity for the suffering of the many Colombians held for years as captives of the FARC. While the march was a citizens’ effort, the government supported it enthusiastically, and President Álvaro Uribe offered “our voice of gratitude to all the Colombians who today expressed with dignity and strength a rejection of kidnapping and kidnappers.”

For many of the victims of paramilitary violence, the march’s enormous scale raised the question of why the same Colombian society that stood so united behind the victims of the FARC would fail to stand behind them. Why did so few seem to care about the families of the thousands of people who had been killed or disappeared by the paramilitaries, about the mass graves in the countryside, about the bodies that washed up on the banks of the rivers, or about the several million people forced to flee their homes, many by paramilitary violence? Why would the government lend support and credibility to this march, but remain mute about paramilitary crimes? Victims called for a second march a month later, to reject the violence by paramilitaries, as well as the actions of the soldiers and politicians who had supported them. As movement leader Iván Cepeda explained, victims wanted Colombian society to “offer a just homage to the displaced, the disappeared, the families of those assassinated or massacred… We don’t want just a moment of remembrance, we want solidarity.” Yet Colombian society was divided about participating, the government failed to support this march, and march organizers faced a wave of death threats and violence.

The tale of the two marches helps to explain why a process that demobilized thousands of paramilitaries, members of a murderous armed group, would be so controversial. The victims, after an astounding period of violence, expect and demand not only an end to violence, but some tangible measure of truth, justice and reparations. But the victims of paramilitary violence are still waiting for the acknowledgment they long for, from the government and Colombian society: to recognize what they suffered, to admit the role of government officials, politicians and members of Colombia’s armed forces in aiding and abetting paramilitary atrocities, and to say: “Never again.” There is a palpable fear that the demobilization is a sham—with groups that never really demobilized, others rearming, and paramilitary power maintaining a lockhold over national politics and local communities.

This report will examine the official framework for the paramilitary demobilization and the limited opportunities for truth, justice and reparations that it has offered to date. Then, it will highlight some of the often heroic efforts by diverse actors—human rights activists, journalists, members of the judiciary, and especially victims—to push the boundaries and wring, if not yet reparations and justice, at least a little more truth from this process.

For the limits to the truth offered by the official framework began to unravel as many different actors in Colombia tugged at truth as if at a tightly wound ball of yarn. One hundred and twenty-five thousand people, far more than expected, attempted to register as victims with government agencies. Victims groups, many vociferously denouncing the official process, began to carry out their own truth sessions, mock trials and alternative registries of stolen land. Human rights groups assailed the obstacles to achieving justice through the demobilization law, and redoubled their efforts to document new abuses by the military and the rearming of paramilitary groups. Journalists published investigative stories and thoughtful opinion columns that sparked public debate on a subject long shrouded in silence. Colombia’s highest courts pried open the door to more justice than contemplated by the executive by setting some minimum standards for application of the demobilization law and hauling the politicians behind the paramilitaries into court. By the end of 2007, Semana columnist María Teresa Ronderos could say, “Like rabbits out of a magician’s hat came the names of businessmen, military and other accomplices of the paramilitary barbarie…. The truth that emerged this year has been sufficiently enlightening… that this year can pass down in history as the one in which we began to discover the truth.”  

Download the entire report

23 Responses to ““The Other Half of the Truth””

  1. Jaime Bustos Says:

    This is the other side of the story that alienated FARC haters don’t want to see: The paramilitary holocaust, whose perpetrators are at ease, and whose architects rule the country tongue-in-cheek.

  2. danj Says:

    Am I the only one who can’t read the right inch or two of the blog, hidden by the “News Clips” and other boxes? It may just be the rendering in Firefox 3…

  3. Kyle Says:

    No danj, I cannot either, but I have a Mac and used Safari. I usually (a) go to the source or (b) if it’s small enough, copy and paste it into the comments box, if that works. Otherwise, I find a PC with Internet Explorer and it works for me. I don’t know if it’s my browser or the HTML for framing, the size of the page and location of tables. It just is. Good post as well, seems like a good read; I’m still on the article posted by Will on the last topic.

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    I thought we fixed that problem ages ago, which used to affect the Safari browser. I’m on Macs too and it looks fine now in Safari. If the new Firefox (or other browsers) are hiding text, please let us know.

  5. Aburrá reader Says:

    Yes, I also do have the “right inch” issue with the blog, and I am a Mac user (brand new iMac, under OS X 10.5.3, browsing with Safari 3.1.1). I have to copy and paste the text somewhere else to read it which is rather cumbersome. Fixing the problem would be very much appreciated.

  6. Paul Says:

    “As movement leader Iván Cepeda explained..”

    And his involvement might have something to do with the lower turnout. Ivan Cepeda is a communist and so was his father. In fact, his dad was an editor of the FARC sympathizing VOZ. I know I’m supposed to draw some kind of mental firewall between the average Colombian communist and the FARC, but I don’t buy it. And neither do alot of Colombians.
    At the very least, he’s no honest broker.

  7. LFM Says:

    Superb report, Adam. Thanks a lot for this. Recently I’ve been branded a conspiracy theorist and an ostrich who refuses to accept anything good from Uribe. Here are my two dimes on this:

    1. Once and for all: if you want, forget the Bush-Cheney allusions. I know Colombia well enough to realize that, when it comes to killing, we don’t need any external help. Most of the horrors in Colombia are Colombian-made. I just can’t help myself pointing the intellectual parallels between Uribe and Bush. But I never implied that Uribe was a creation of Bush.

    2. Uribe has done two good things: a. He has presided (not caused) a good economy and didn’t wreck it. By Latin American standards, that ain’t bad. He has planted some time-bombs of instability here and there, but they are not entirely his fault. It’s more a structural problem. b. He proved to the FARC very convincingly that their military growth was over. He could have built in these two accomplishments by embarking on a serious peace process with a “softened-up” FARC. Instead he has decided to go for total annihilation, a risky proposition that, even if successful, will saddle the country with lots of violence and unaddressed issues for years to come. In the process he completed the process of entrenching the power of the paramilitary apparatus which brings me to

    3. The report Adam just posted makes clear what many critics have been saying about the so-called dismantling of the paramilitary. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t mind the famous 8-year prison sentences of the paramilitary leaders. I know that with so much violence, we won’t be able to lock away everyone. I would have gladly accepted those 8 years in exchange for one thing, one and only one thing: a full account, with names, dates, places, etc. of how these paramilitary leaders collaborated with, that is, did the dirty job for, “clean” politicians, army officers, landowners, multinationals and so on. Instead we’re getting a repeat of the aftermath of “La Violencia”: the “pajaros” of then, ended up forgotten, often in jail, while their bosses were left to enjoy all the political and economic benefits of the killing.

    Uribe is now playing Jack Nicholson: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

  8. Paul Says:


    “He has presided (not caused) a good economy and didn’t wreck it. ”

    First, economic growth and stability are mutually reinforcing. The well documented decrease in violence under his watch has been integral to Colombia’s growth. For example, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say you can correlate the doubling of tourism into Colombia with the decrease in violence and kidnappings. Or does he not get any credit from you for that either?

    Second, according to a 2007 World Bank study, “Colombia had the largest overall improvement of any country in the hemisphere, and was the sixth best reformer globally. Colombia is now the 12th best place to “do business” out of the 31 countries in the hemisphere. It ranks 4th in the hemisphere in Protecting Investors. According to the report, Colombia, the region’s top reformer, made great strides in easing trade. The Government extended port operating hours and adopted more selective customs inspections, which reduced the time for port and terminal handling activities by ten days. Additionally, Colombia strengthened investor protections by increasing disclosure requirements for related-party transactions, and cut the average time burden of tax compliance by 41 percent.”

    I’m not going to act like a Clinton supporter and say Uribe caused the economic growth all by himself. But his policies did have an influence.

    “He could have built in these two accomplishments by embarking on a serious peace process with a “softened-up” FARC.”

    He did knock them back on their heels, fleeing into the jungle and into the loving arms of Hugo Chavez. I’m sorry if that’s not enough for you, but nobody’s perfect. In consolation, there are alot less Colombians tied to trees like animals than there would have been with a “peace” president.


  9. Maximón Says:

    The Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification’s report “Memory of Silence” found a similar trend of violence following an exhaustive investigation of the violence during their civil war. Public-urban perception throughout the 1980s was that the guerrillas were responsible for much of the violence and that paramilitary and government forces were justified in their repressive actions. The Commission found the opposite however, while clearly pointing out the actions of the guerrillas that were contrary to human rights as deplorable, they found that paramilitarism and government-supported actions made up the significant percentage of human rights violations. Guatemala at present has not cleaned itself of the demons of this period of its history – with former generals who are well known human rights violators continue to have significant political influence (Rios Montt being the most notorious).

    Guatemala’s striking example of failure following the “peace process” should provide warning to anyone who ignores “the other half of the truth” and the frightening connections paramilitaries forces have with powerful politicians. Guatemala is riddled with chaotic violence, uncontrollable access to small arms, and high levels of insecurity. Many of my urban Guatemalan friends say it is worse now than during the civil war. The formal and informal amnesty given to the human rights violators in Guatemala, those of the “other half of the truth”, has lead to the continued unholy alliance between politicians and men with guns without laws. Colombia and Colombians walk down a similar path when they ignore the truth. Even if they “beat” las FARC, without recognizing the need to bring to justice the perpetrators of violence and their supporters there will not be peace.

    The Memory of Silence document:

  10. LFM Says:

    OK Paul: I tried to do the honest thing which was to acknowledge that there are arguments both for and against a peace process and that no “silver bullet” argument will do the trick here. I then asked, in reciprocity, if the hawks could do the same. Now I realize it was too much to ask. I’m sorry. I should have never asked from you such an egregious thing as to step outside of your certainties. Won’t happen again…

    In the meantime, I keep arguing that, while pushing back at the FARC was a good thing, there can be too much of a good thing. We don’t have controlled experiments in society so you’ll never be able to prove that you’re right. There’s no such thing as an alternative universe where a peace process has been tried in Colombia in the 2000s and succeeded. But I still find merit in the argument that a combination of a political and a military strategy would work best. I’m not gonna hog the entire comment thread to repeat the many reasons I’ve given for that.

    True, murder rates have dropped but that doesn’t immediately mean that they will keep dropping. Civil wars wax and wane. Plus, the current policies are entrenching the huge politico-economic apparatus that was built on top of the paramilitary predations, extraditions and gun-burnings notwithstanding. By the way, Maximon’s comments are pertinent in this regard.

    As to the economics, I know better than to take the World Bank always at its word. Sometimes, including the paragraph you quote, the WB has a tendency for giving brownie points for countries that use its preferred means, rather than evaluating them for the results. That’s why we see all this talk of countries being “great reformers.” Reforms are means to an end. I wouldn’t give a country credit for doing reform A or B if at the end of the day it’s a disaster. I’m not saying that Colombia’s reforms are a disaster. Some are OK, some not. All I’m saying is that the WB is less than impressive in these things.

    Yes, tourism increased and that’s thanks to Uribe. Kudos. Not that that’s gonna bring into the First World, but OK, there you have it. But can we mention all the stuff that has put the wind behind the sails of Colombia’s economy in recent years, stuff that is not of Uribe’s making? Can we mention that the excellent prices of exports have done a lot to boost Colombia’s economy, probably more than any single decree? Can we mention that the housing sector came out of a particularly protracted cycle and that this usually makes for very fast growth rates? Can we mention that Uribe has gotten away with a fiscal deficit and a trade deficit that may complicate matters later?

    As it happens, I have good friends working in the economic area of the Uribe Administration. (One of them, in particular, a highly placed official, is a great guy and a great professional.) I’m happy for them that they don’t have to deal with the disaster of 99-00. But they all understand that we’ve been living life in the fast lane; that the government took an economic gamble that has been paying off so far but that it’s anybody’s guess how much longer we can sustain it.

  11. Kyle Says:

    I’m on Safari 3.1.1 as well and I have about an inch and a half on the right side covered… don’t know why though if it is working fine for you Adam… screen size and/or resolution settings, or something along those lines?

  12. Tambopaxi Says:

    The surprising and encouraging thing about the LAWGEF report is that the violence figures in general are going down and going down together. I infer from the figures that the para demob efforts, the war against the FARC and more effective work in the justice and media sectors (and dare I say it, the work of the GOC itself) are all beginning to take effect en coyuntura.

    LFM’s right in that anything could happen in 2008 and that numbers could go sour. I hope not, and I don’t think so, because the vast majority of Colombians want things to get better, and specifically, they want to see violence diminishing in their country.

    Assuming the violence problem goes down, I can only see an already strong economy getting stronger. As a people, Colombians are one of the most dynamic and entrepreneurial groups in all of LA. A Colombia really at peace would be one of the economic powerhouses in the region, perhaps on par with Brazil (I think the Colombians are just that good).

    I’ve got Safari 3.1.1 and Explorer browsers. No problem with the blog or comments section with Explorer, and no problems with the blog with Safari. The comments section under Safari does have the problem of the news links overlapping the comments such that you can only see a portion of the comments….

  13. Jaime Bustos Says:

    According to the graph, and contrary to the general belief : One can notice that:

    1- Paramilitary violence has been by far the most conspicuous element in Colombia’s dirty war.

    2- State violence is in an all time high.

    Bogotá’s had three terrorist episodes in the las week, something reminiscent of old Pablo’s days. I understand Colombians’ folkloric passion. What I can’t get is why most of Colombians turn their back on facts that show that their optimism is nothing but wishful thinking.

  14. Jacob Says:

    Even though President Uribe has had some economic and security successes, let’s face it people the FARC so far haven’t received any STRATEGIC blow lately, the death of Reyes, Rios, Caballero are huge blows to the morale, but does it change anything on the ground, look in 07 about 500 colombian security forces members and 800+ guerrilllas died in combat, apparently the FARC still manage to recruit among the rural poor on quite a large scale and their logistical apparatus seems intact, when you consider how much weaponry they got ( amazingly it seems they haven’t managed to acquire MANPADs yet), personnaly I see an only possible end of the war in a negociated settlement, that would be great, but then there is the drug problem that would have to be adressed too.

  15. Will Says:

    On this issue of negotiated solutions to the conflict, a short piece a couple of years ago by the Colombianist Juan Gabriel Tokatlian (you can see it here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-protest/contadora_3593.jsp). In this piece he argues that central to any successful peace process would be the participation of Colombia’s Latin American neighbors AND a genuine effort by the United States to contribute to a solution (a type of CONTADORA for Colombia). The agenda should be broadened, as Jacob argues, to include the drug issue as well as a broad political pact to provide real power sharing within Colombia’s political process. Tokatlian wrote this two years ago, yet the evidence from this blog suggests we are far removed from even contemplating such steps. However, political violence, clientelism, corruption, economic and social inequalities which remain substantial in Colombia despite its economic growth are not going to be addressed by killing every member of the FARC (i.e. the thousands of largely peasants and workers that have joined this organization). It might happen through a broad negotiated settlement in which the United States plays a central role in not only mediating but in specifically addressing the backwardness/irrationality of its policies (specifically the “drug war”).

    A few last points the FARC in the mid-1980s were made up of approximately 2200 men and women (http://www.cdi.org/terrorism/farc-pr.cfm) so Uribe’s successes still has not brought the FARC to the point it was at in the mid-1980s. Its expansion to its eventual peak in the Pastrana administration was spurred largely through the expansion of coca production in Colombia in the 1990s. However, it had maintained itself as an insurgent force for decades prior to that with substantially less numbers than it wields today. Finally, Adam reported on a recent report from CINEP (http://www.cipcol.org/?p=580) which contains a wealth of data, specifically showing that paramilitary violations of human rights have gone down to early 1990s levels and that the intensity of the armed conflict as well as the number of municipalities that saw combat or human rights violations returning to about the mid-1990s. Of course this is a positive for Colombia in that the violence has declined to an earlier level, but no one in the early to mid 1990s was referring to Colombia as “stabilized” or on its way to victory (except some people in the government, the then defense minister Rafael Pardo even predicted that “victory” was around the corner, hmmm that sounds pretty familiar).



  16. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Crossbrowser css issues detected:

    Opera 9.27 FreeBSD 6.3 right hand side div floats to bottom

    Safari 3.1.1 Windows XP blank screen

    Safari 3.0 / Windows XP news clips background black

  17. Chris Says:

    “Sometimes…the WB has a tendency for giving brownie points for countries that use its preferred means, rather than evaluating them for the results.”

    Some would say that a quasi-similar statement can be made about the numbers we get out of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (i.e. HRW has a tendency of specifically focusing on one-side of the story, implying that they have some kind of political agenda…for example, consistently deploring the Israeli state for its Human Rights abuses while ignoring abuses committed by other regional states/actors).

    Also, I have heard that many (not all) of the para victims were campesinos by day and guerrillas by night… in other words, they are not as innocent as they are being made out to be.

    I am not making a defense for anyone one way or another so please no pesonnal attacks or accusations against me… I am just laying out these points so that I can read the different perspectives from both sides.

  18. jcg Says:

    Read the report yesterday.

    While I wouldn’t say I agree with absolutely everything in it, since some individual statements are questionable, overall it’s a very valuable contribution to the debate, political and otherwise, by addressing the so-called “Other Half of the Truth” -paramilitary and/or state terror- and providing its thousands or even millions of victims, in an unusually detailed and comprehensive manner, with support and understanding they might otherwise rarely receive, and by carrying out a serious criticism of the Justice and Peace process that doesn’t resort, for the most part, to one-sided simplifications and allows room for further discussion.

    For that alone, I would congratulate the team behind this report. Hopefully this document can be used for the improvement of U.S. policy towards Colombia, generally speaking, one way or another, at the very least by reminding policy makers that these victims exist and that their plight cannot be ignored.

    LFM: I think you’ve made some good points, about the government’s erratic and opportunistic handling of the economy, which may or may not bring problems at a later date, and about some of the deficiencies in the management of the war, where the government has clearly lacked political and, I might even add, social flexibility. But even then, I’d argue that continued military pressure doesn’t necessarily mean that a negotiated solution is unlikely or indefinitely postponed.

    Rather, I think that a serious peace process, to use your term, can only be helped by weakening FARC even more, not less, regardless of everything else. In a way, you could say I support Gustavo Petro’s “democratic asphyxiation” theory, which as far as I’ve understood mandates the implementation of a real set of social and democratic reforms, of course, but also acknowledges that the war still has to be fought at the same time.

    On a different note, I believe Jaime’s completely right about two of the things that graph shows, at least as far as the last decade is concerned, but it’s also true that even the comparative increase in state violence is leagues behind paramilitary terror at its peak, and the overall picture, referencing what Tambopaxi said, shows a reduction of violence that can’t be ignored. Certainly not an elimination of it, because those increasing government abuses should be kept in check or, god forbid, urgently addressed and even reduced.

    But the general trend, in spite of that, is still going in much better direction than what past extrapolations predicted. Things may take a turn for the worse sooner or later, that’s a real danger, and one of the reasons why Uribe shouldn’t be reelected, no matter the cost (as long as it’s peaceful and not violent, to make things clear on that end).

    Finally, I must disagree with Chris about this:

    “Also, I have heard that many (not all) of the para victims were campesinos by day and guerrillas by night… in other words, they are not as innocent as they are being made out to be.”

    Perhaps, in an unknown percentage, that may be part of the truth…but what difference does that make?

    Real guilt does not eliminate the need for due process or, for that matter, the basic respect for another’s life and liberty. I see no justification for such barbaric acts, even in the event that some of the civilian victims are in fact guilty of guerrilla cooperation or outright subversion.

    Their rights do not suddenly cease to exist because of it. Combat is combat, that I can understand and you will not hear me complaining about those who actually fall within it fair and square and are not “false positives”, but abuse is abuse, and chopping up people with chainsaws is still an inexcusable horror.

  19. Chris Says:


    You’re absolutely right… killing an unarmed man because he’s a guerrilla is NOT okay. You detain him and put him through trial. Yes, they are human rights abuses.

  20. lfm Says:

    Hi jcg: So you agree with Petro, more power to you! Although I have my occasional differences with the way Petro handles himself, what you just described is more or less what I’ve been arguing for since long ago. There are two comments worth making, though:

    1. I’m not against fighting the FARC until we reach a cease-fire. Any serious peace process must start with the realities as they are right now and that includes fighting. But let’s be clear that at some point in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future we would need a cease-fire. I think we both agree on this. I just mention it so that people don’t characterize my position as saying that I just want to capitulate to the FARC.

    2. We’re stuck with the reforms. In fact, this is one of the biggest forgotten points of Caguan. The reform agenda never moved on. Pastrana recently made some thoughtful remarks in this respect. Any serious peace process will need to include reforms. The problem is that there are people (some of them represented in this blog) for whom this is anathema. And they are an important part of public opinion. I don’t think Petro has offered a successful strategy to overcome that roadblock. (No one has, to be fair.) But if the peace camp wants to be taken seriously it has to make this point clear. Then there’s the issue that making a bunch of reforms without talking to the FARC is unlikely to lead to peace. Which brings us back to square one: if you want to find a political settlement, you have to ultimately send feelers to the FARC, start talking (possibly in secret for a while), build confidence, set up an agenda, build the political coalition that can see such agenda through, get a cease-fire and take it from there. If people feel more comfortable calling that “asphyxiation” or “victory” or “annihilation” as opposed to what it is, a peace process, I’m not gonna argue about labels.

  21. Chris Says:


    So the AUC was going to assasinate Correa, but wait…no, they are actually FARC posing as AUC…

    Who do you believe?

  22. jcg Says:

    LFM: I’m not exactly an unconditional Petro fanboy either, but I find that he’s made some valid points that need to be discussed, more often than not, even if one may disagree about specific details, formal or substantial.

    As for your comments, I understand that a cease-fire is probably a necessity, sooner or later, but such an agreement would not last too long if there isn’t a solid base of political consensus backing the negotiations, together with robust international verification and specific compromises that both parties are willing to respect, without actions that may seek to exploit or simply sabotage it.

    Reads like a wish list, I guess, but past experiences, both with the guerrillas and paramilitaries, show that “good intentions” and peaceful declarations are not enough to make a cease-fire count for something: concrete mechanisms and actions are needed. And, going by those same experiences, even that may be hard to arrange in the first place, if there isn’t enough support for the process, which includes addressing some of the fears that make skeptics turn into enemies.

    Regarding the need for reforms…I certainly understand that there are reforms which may need to be negotiated, but there are others that the state has the obligation to implement, or at least try to, even before any talks. It’s not a matter of either zero reforms or reforming everything beforehand. I can also agree that there really isn’t a clear consensus about the matter either, and that those who work for peace should convince others about this need. Not exactly sure about how, of course, but the debate remains open.

    On the other hand, the Caguan’s reform agenda was a bit of a double-edged sword though. While it touched almost every important subject, it was far too massive and unwieldy, especially since apparently few people took it seriously and it was almost a sideshow in the end. Honestly, it even seemed to be a philosophical discussion at times, very disjointed from the surrounding realities. Marc Chernick’s “Acuerdo Posible” discusses this issue, among others, and IMO wisely suggests that it could be narrowed down to four or five main topics, for example, and that other changes could be explored.

    Finally, I agree that peace feelers should be sent out, but how successful they will be is hard to gauge, and it will depend on the circumstances and the expectations of both parties.

    Ironically enough, it seems that there are more questions than answers here….

  23. Chris Says:


    Here you can see that Uribe is reaching out to the FARC…

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