‘To Know the Truth:’ Colombians Seek Justice for Army’s Victims

Luz Marina Bernal’s son was among up to 10,000 civilians murdered by the Colombian army and presented as combat kills. She now hopes that a post-conflict justice system will bring those responsible to justice. But will President Ivan Duque allow that to happen?

By Sinikka Tarvainen  (dpa)

Luz Marina Bernal with the picture of her son. Photo: elpais.com

HAVANA TIMES – Luz Marina Bernal’s son has been dead for 11 years, but large pictures of the handsome Fair Leonardo still dominate her modest living room in Soacha, a sprawling low-income municipality near the Colombian capital.

The mother’s eyes fill with tears as she talks about Leonardo’s brutal execution by the army and her concern that the government will not allow the country’s post-conflict justice system to properly investigate the scandal involving up to 10,000 cases like his.

A prenatal brain injury had contributed to Leonardo being illiterate and left him with a disabled right arm and leg, but he was so generous and helpful that he was well-liked in the neighbourhood, Bernal recalls.

On January 8, 2008, at age 26, Leonardo went out to the street and never returned.

His family embarked on a desperate search which yielded no results until, eight months later, Bernal received a call from the forensic institute in Bogota.

“I told the doctor [there] that if she had something to tell me, she should come out with it once and for all.”

At the institute, the doctor showed her a horrifying picture of the body of her son, with his jaw and part of his cheek blown off.

The body riddled with bullet holes had been found in a mass grave at a cemetery in the town of Ocana, 640 kilometres north-east of Soacha.

The army had reported Leonardo as a drug trafficker and terrorist who had been killed in combat.

In reality, as Bernal was to find out, he had been lured away from home with promises of a well-paying job and shot dead to boost the statistics of the army’s combat kills in its conflict with leftist insurgents.

Extra-judicial executions by the army have been reported since the 1980s, but the numbers skyrocketed between 2002 and 2010, when between about 3,500 and 10,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed.

Their slain bodies were often dressed in guerrilla uniforms, an effort to inflate statistics allowing the killers to obtain financial bonuses, promotions and vacations offered by then president Alvaro Uribe’s government.

Hundreds of soldiers have been sentenced in the so-called “false positives” scandal.

But no commanders have been made accountable at the highest level, and the responsibility of the state for the killings is still to be established, said Laura Posada from the Colectivo Orlando Fals Borda (COFB), a Colombian human rights organization.

Six soldiers were handed more than 50 years for Leonardo’s death, but Bernal now wants to see their commanders and the government of the time to be brought to justice.

Judges of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), Colombia’s post-conflict justice system. Photo: AP

She is pinning her hopes on the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), Colombia’s post-conflict justice system, which was created after the previous government signed a peace deal with the country’s biggest guerrilla movement, FARC, in 2016.

The JEP, which has operated since January 2018, investigates aspects of the 52-year conflict such as extra-judicial and political killings, kidnappings and sexual violence.

Former guerrillas and soldiers who cooperate with the JEP can hope for milder sentences than the ordinary judiciary would hand them.

About 2,000 army members have already submitted to the JEP to disclose information about “false positives.” But the transitional justice system is now under attack from President Ivan Duque’s government, Posada said.

Not only are members of Duque’s conservative Democratic Centre party making statements critical of the JEP, the Colombian president has also presented objections to six of the 159 articles in the legislation regulating its work.

JEP President Patricia Linares has meanwhile been placed under investigation over alleged influence peddling.

Duque says he just wants the victims to get a fair deal and to “advance in the construction of peace.”

[pullquote]

Extra-judicial executions by the army have been reported since the 1980s, but the numbers skyrocketed between 2002 and 2010, when between about 3,500 and 10,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed.

Their slain bodies were often dressed in guerrilla uniforms, an effort to inflate statistics allowing the killers to obtain financial bonuses, promotions and vacations offered by then president Alvaro Uribe’s government.

[/pullquote]

But, his critics point out, the vast majority of the “false positives” were killed during the 2002-2010 presidency of his mentor, Uribe, who is now a senator.

“There are people – politicians, army members – who have no interest in talking about what can come out at the JEP,” Posada said.

Bernal accuses Uribe and Duque of trying to destroy “the dream of a country, the right of the victims to know the truth.”

Congress is expected to reject Duque’s objections to the legislation on the JEP, which would allow it to continue functioning as before.

But, Posada believes, the Democratic Centre party “will continue looking for ways to make the JEP fall.”

Such a development would deal a big blow to the peace process and encourage many of the 7,000 FARC members who handed over their weapons to join still existing, smaller armed groups, according to Posada and other analysts.

The United Nations has lent its support to the JEP, with Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the Security Council calling on Colombia to definitively ratify the legislation regulating it as soon as possible.

Bernal, meanwhile, says she does not mind if those responsible for the “false positives” get milder sentences. “I don’t need them to rot in prison. I want them to tell the truth.”



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