Four years ago last week, Colombia's Justice and Peace Law came into effect. It is the framework for negotiating the transit to peace with the right-wing paramilitary groups, by offering them incentives to give up fighting and at the same time redressing the victims, ensuring justice and finding the truth. As former High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo put it once, “it is a modern legal instrument that will allow peace processes to develop in Colombia without forgetting justice.”
Up to now, 31,664 paramilitary fighters have demobilized and more than 18,000 weapons have been handed in to the government. In the 1,867 so-called “free version” hearings, rebels have implicated as alleged allies 140 members of the Armed Forces and 209 politicians, among them 120 mayors and 28 senators. As far as the crimes are concerned, paramilitaries have confessed to 6,549 homicides and 975 disappearances of members of the armed forces, and 621 bodies have been handed back to their relatives. Only one paramilitary, alias “El Loro” (The Parrot), has been convicted.
“The law is starting to bear fruit”, Eduardo Pizarro, Head of the National Commission for Redress and Reconciliation, told Verdad Abierta, a project by the think tank Ideas Para la Paz (Ideas for Peace) and Semana Magazine, aimed at revealing the truth and rebuilding historic memory in Colombia’s long armed conflict. “After four years of process there has been the first sentence, which is important because the judicial system has become operational”. Pizarro added that the stats “show that the judicial truth related to the free versions is working well”.
Ideas Para la Paz also explains some of the achievements of the law, which was passed in 2005 after lengthy congressional debate and criticism that it was not meeting international humanitarian standards. In one of its most recent papers, the think tank states that the law has “enabled criminal acts to be known and tackled that would have been impossible to reveal under other circumstances”. In other words, it is an additional mechanism to reduce impunity rates and it “is a window of opportunity, which, despite its weaknesses, had never been opened in Colombia’s history”.
The think tank illustrates an important issue, because the law marked a turning point in Colombian history. In the late 80s, some rebel groups like the M-19 (Movimiento 19 de abril) demobilized and completed peace processes with the government, but there was no legal and judicial structure to guide and organize such processes. They were based on forgiving and forgetting. This, however, changed 4 years ago.
As far as the weaknesses are concerned, Eduardo Cifuentes, former President of the Constitutional Court and former Ombudsman, told Verdad Abierta that the law “is really an instrument which has served the country and which could keep on serving as long as some negative aspects are corrected. The extradition to the United States of the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity cut short the process and the development of the Law. Second, the demobilization which did not imply in all cases dismantling the criminal structure. Third, the lack of economic and human resources at the Prosecutor’s Office. And fourth, the gray zone in which a large number of the paramilitary troops are now”.
Ideas Para la Paz goes even further: “the procedures seem to give more credibility to the versions by the victimizers than to the victims. This is caused by problems in the prosecutors’ and judges’ investigation scheme, in which the participation of the victims with the necessary safety conditions and judicial assessment is rather questionable”.
To moreover discuss the law’s achievements and challenges, SEMANA INTERNATIONAL spoke to Angelika Rettberg, chair at the Political Science department at Los Andes University in Bogotá, who leads a research programme about peace building and authored the book Reparation in Colombia: What do Victims Want? (Watch the videos on the left).