Colombia’s Peace Court Weighs Truth, Justice and Mistrust

Jan 9, 2019
11:23 AM

Human rights activists arrive to deliver a report about violent acts during the conflict in the Uraba region, at the Special Peace Tribunal headquarters in Bogotá, Colombia, December 10, 2018. (AP Photo / Ivan Valencia)

By Christine Armario, Associated Press

BOGOTÁ, Colombia (AP) — Armando Acuña arrived at Colombia’s nascent peace tribunal to tell the story of his kidnapping, carrying the chain rebels used to hold him captive for nearly two years.

Former congresswoman Clara Rojas brought her written memoirs containing a tale of survival and childbirth in the jungle that, she admitted to judges, she hesitated to tell again, fearful of reopening old wounds.

Olga Esperanza Rojas brought an agonizing plea: An appeal to find her soldier husband who disappeared on his way to work at a military barracks over two decades ago.

“José!” she cried aloud at a recent hearing. “Where are you, José?!”

Olga Esperanza Rojas lights a candle in memory of her husband, Army Sgt. José Vicente Rojas, who disappeared over two decades ago after he was kidnaped by leftist rebels, during the catholic traditional night of candles celebration to honor Virgin Mary in Bogotá, Colombia, Friday, December 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Christine Armario)

One by one, many of the victims of Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict are providing brutal testimony to a new Special Peace Jurisdiction that is one of the most controversial aspects of the 2016 peace accord between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The court has opened a half-dozen cases against hundreds of leftist guerrilla and military officers in its the first year of operation, and its president, Patricia Linares, said the first verdicts should come this year.

The tribunal’s success may depend on whether it survives attempts by opponents of the peace process to undo the terms of the original agreement and on its ability to quickly deliver decisions that resonate with the public in Colombia, where the peace accord is still divisive, impunity is the norm and violence in the countryside by other armed groups is again raging.
Perhaps a deeper question is whether any court can deliver a semblance of justice after a half-century conflict whose full scope may be impossible to account for.

“I feel rage toward the guerrillas but I also feel rage toward the state,” said Acuña, a former small-town councilman targeted for his political activity in a rebel-dominated part of southern Colombia, as he testified. “They left great scars. Can money repair that?”

The over-300-page peace accord calls for a three-pronged system to document the conflict and deliver largely symbolic sanctions aimed at making reparations to victims.

An independent truth commission will explore why the conflict happened, what atrocities were committed and how future bloodshed can be avoided. A unit for the disappeared will gather information on nearly 83,000 missing people. And the Special Peace Tribunal will investigate, judge and hand out sentences for the most serious war crimes like kidnapping, civilian massacres and forced recruitment of minors.

Defendants who fully confess their crimes are likely to escape without any punishment beyond apologizing and making reparations to victims—an alternative sentence common in peace processes but nonetheless difficult to stomach for many Colombians, who overwhelmingly despise the rebels. Those who reject the findings against them can receive up to 20 years in jail.

Magistrates Nadiezhda Natazha Henríquez, left, and Julieta Lemaitre speak after receiving a report from Colombia’s attorney general regarding human rights violations committed during Colombia’s civil conflict, in Bogotá, Colombia, Tuesday, December 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Christine Armario)

In an interview with The Associated Press, Linares said that focusing less on punitive sanctions and more on finding the truth is the best solution for a country where the existing criminal justice system has failed to deliver any sort of conviction in the vast majority of war crimes.

“The regular justice system hasn’t shown results,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is get to the truth, to know what happened, why it happened.”

That is an approach Olga Esperanza Rojas said she is willing to put faith in after waiting almost all of her adult life for answers about her husband’s disappearance.

From what little she has gleaned from witnesses and rebels, she knows the 23-year-old soldier and father of two was detained by guerrillas on his way to work. But from there the trail goes cold. She’s spent years sharing her story in newspapers and on television, knocking on doors of public agencies, getting no answers.

Now the leader of a victim rights organization, she said she’s hoping that rebels will reveal the full truth, whatever it may be.

“They signed an agreement,” she said. “And as men who took up arms to kill, they should also be able to confront the truth.”

Critics are less optimistic guerrillas will admit to atrocities committed during the war between leftist rebels, the state and right-wing paramilitary groups, and say the judicial proceedings are structured hide a full public reckoning of their crimes. Unlike in a typical trial, former guerrilla leaders will be questioned behind closed doors, with their testimony made public only if it coincides with what prosecutors, victims and investigators find.

A clerk goes over court files at the headquarters of the Special Peace Jurisdiction in Bogotá, Colombia, Friday, December 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

On a recent radio talk show, one former rebel leader denied the guerrillas forcibly recruited members, further fanning doubts over their commitment to honesty.

“If this is the truth they intend to tell the JEP, they should end up with long jail sentences,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter, referring to the peace tribunal by its Spanish acronym.

The party of former President Álvaro Uribe, the peace deal’s chief critic, has vowed to push for reforms like creating a separate branch to try military officers, a move observers warn could sow further mistrust among rebels because they fear it would be more lenient on soldiers than on rebels?

“If they do push that ahead that’s potentially a real problem,” said David Cortright, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, which is charged with monitoring implementation of the accord.

Colombia’s new President Iván Duque campaigned on promises to roll back parts of the accord, and Cortright said he has seen “not a reversal but kind of a slowdown” in implementing some areas. The Duque administration has warned it doesn’t have enough money to fully implement the accord.

Acuña was a councilman in the city of Garzón in southern Colombia when guerrillas dressed as military officers stormed the government building where he was working and kidnapped him nearly a decade ago.

His voice sometimes shaking and his face grimacing in pain, he recalled how he was kept chained like a dog, fed a diet largely of rice and pasta and rarely spoken to.

During his testimony, he picked up the simple chain not much larger than a bicycle lock used to keep him captive and showed magistrates how it was wrapped around his neck.

“When someone puts you in chains,” he said, an untouched glass of water sitting on the table in front of him, “your soul hurts.”

But as much anger as he harbors toward his captors, he said he also blames the state for doing little if anything to support his family after his disappearance and then failing to make any inroads in prosecuting the case years after.

He said his testimony marked the first time he was able to share much of his story.

“I’m turning this in to you as a symbol,” he said of his chains, “of turning a page.”