Witness Near Dawn


organizers of Colombia’s Second National Encounter of Victims
of Crimes Against Humanity and Human Rights Violations predicted
500 delegates would participate. By the end of the third and last
day of the conference, which took place in downtown Bogotá
from June 21-23, 2005, delegates from Colombia’s ranks of victims
and families of the murdered, disappeared, tortured, displaced,
and arbitrarily detained, multiplied beyond 1,200. 

conference opened with a slow, ritual dance performed by about 20
members of the indigenous Kankuamo, who moved in a circle, the symbol
of eternal unity, and faced forward and back in rhythmic turn. Human
rights activists, lawyers, and congress people came to speak. Day
two, the central day of the conference, was reserved for the testimonies
of survivors and surviving family members. In San Jose de Apartado,
an 11-year-old girl had her limbs torn from her torso and her father
was skinned “like a cow.” Homes were burned to the ground
in Arauca, and a woman found the body parts of a family member disfigured
in a process she couldn’t name. In Colota, paramilitaries detained
a busload of people. Captors raped the pregnant passenger, then
disappeared the rest. In Caqueta, there were mass displacements,
and blood from some of the worst massacres in Colombian history
flowed into the earth at Toribio and Naya. 

ubiquitous theme united otherwise variable testimony in region after
region. Members of the military confiscated food items, gasoline,
even medicine, at make-shift checkpoints along narrow dirt roads
leading into towns. As one campesina said, “Food is worth more
than money and we cannot bring it to our communities because the
military accuse us of supplying guerillas with it.” Such accusations
carry with them threats of grave reprisal. Even after a militia
demobilization officially launched in December 2002, when the paramilitary
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) announced its unilateral
ceasefire, over 2,000 civilians have died by their hands. For security
purposes, the organizers of the 2005 conference had to “clear”
photographers in advance, and ruled that photos of the delegates
be taken only of their backs. 

Second National Encounter took place against the simultaneous congressional
passage of a law that stands to grant sweeping impunity to Colombia’s
paramilitary death squads. Originally known as Alternatividad Penal
(Alternative Sentence), the law was renamed “Justicia y Paz”
(Justice and Peace). The passage was a landmark not only for Colombia’s
legal system, but for its entire conflict-ridden history, as it
serves to silence and dilute the words of victims, once on this
occasion of momentous utterance, and then forever. With Colombia’s
victims and their testimonies effectively now written out of the
trial process altogether, Congressperson Gustavo Petro, one of the
conference speakers, called the situation “absolutely urgent,”
but added the oft-quoted refrain: “La noche es mas oscura cuando
esta a punto de amanacer”

(“The night is darkest
before dawn”)


Despite the urgency, and despite the
more- than-doubled turnout, one delegate, indigenous governor Enrique
Guetio, revealed that news of the pending law never reached some
communities in the countryside. Many victims hadn’t known about
the impunity their violators are poised to receive until the law,
which was ratified by Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe on
June 22, 2005, was examined at the conference. 

will receive favors for cooperation. The law’s original name,
Alternate Sentence, reflects the proposal to apply a sentence other
than one set forth in the criminal code. Beginning with a recommended
five to eight years incarceration time, the actual sentence would
be reduced based on the beneficiaries’ “contribution to
achieving national peace” and on their “collaboration
with justice.”

This arbitrary and subjective measure
enables persons with the greatest culpability in crime, persons
who can manipulate and control the appearance of contribution or
collaboration because they hold the greatest volume of information,
to enjoy the benefit of the least severe sentences. Time spent in
the demilitarized zone of Santa Fe de Ralito of up to 18 months—in
spite of whatever extremes of amenity and liberty were enjoyed in
the zone—effectively serves as incarceration time. With other
subjective measures such as parole reductions and work- study exchanges
for served time, legal analysts calculate that paramilitary war
criminals could conceivably serve zero days of incarceration.

victims are not allowed to be parties to the judicial proceedings.
This litigious innovation allows the victims to participate only
in the “incidence” of reparation after sentencing. Therefore,
the victims cannot request reparation for all the acts committed
against them, but only on the ones that have been sentenced without
their witness in the courtroom. Also, the bill does not establish
necessary criteria to determine a criminal’s insolvency. If
assets have been fraudulently passed over to a front person or to
third parties, the victims have no redress to obtain those assets,
even when those assets were originally their own property, as in
the case of lands belonging to displaced persons. The fund for reparations,
to be administered by the government’s Social Solidarity Network,
would be made up of illegally obtained assets that persons who benefit
from this bill choose to hand over, from national budget resources,
which are not fixed, and donations. Reparations then would be random
or arbitrary because they are contingent first on cases opened before
the “demobilization,” second on cases that determine the
guilty without the participation of the victim, and third on economic
resources, which the state is not required to guarantee. 

Justicia y Paz law supports corruption and rewards deceit. If, after
a demobilized person receives benefits, authorities discover that
the person was involved in other crimes omitted from their confession,
a new procedure may then commence. If the person is sentenced in
this new procedure for the newly revealed information, they will
not be punished for the omissions, for example, by having all rights
summarily rescinded. Instead, he or she can re-apply for the Alternate
Sentence benefit, but in this second round, incarcerated time from
the first sentence is allowable time served for the new sentence. 

of us will ever know who were the dominant authors of this law,
nor what role the U.S. played in the circumstances surrounding the
initial draft. After its existence was made public, criticisms of
the bill by several U.S. Congress members prompted the Colombian
government to write into it an article that would require demobilized
persons who “deliberately” omit revealing their participation
in crimes to forfeit all benefits. This effectively opens the case
that a person’s omission could be seen as “involuntary,”
and the burden of proof would be so elusive that the Colombian Commission
of Jurists insists this technicality performs only a “cosmetic

the same way that the mounting violations and their ghoulishness
made it incumbent upon Colombia’s President Uribe to demonstrate
satisfactory efforts to dismantle the paramilitary armies, the rate
and ghoulishness also made it incumbent upon the U.S., which has
given more than $3 billion in largely military aid to Colombia since
2000, to demand that Uribe’s plan look good in the eyes of
the world. Two weeks after the law passed Colombia’s Congress
in a landslide vote of 148 to 18, another demand was issued from
Washington, this time from the Senate Appropriations Committee.
After Europe and the United Nations denounced the Justicia y Paz
law, the Appropriations Committee threatened to withhold the aid
money that Uribe’s government needs to fulfill the disarmament.
Most U.S. citizens do not know that their tax dollars will finance
the impunity of persons responsible for war crimes. With $8,000
per illegal combatant, and up to 20,000 combatants, the process
will require at least $160 million in additional aid. The Appropriations
Committee has called for a complete disarmament, extraditions of
key commanders, and an inter-agency group to ensure that the cease-fire
had not been violated and that illegal activities have ceased. Uribe
now is hedging on the demand for extraditions, and those monitoring
Colombia’s human rights record know that past certifications
to guarantee cessation of abuse, or even mere “improvement,”
have done nothing to stem the bloodbath of torture and death.  

Paramilitaries Have Political Status 


speaker Ivan Cepeda Castro’s father, Manuel Cepeda Vargas,
the poet and “bohemian” senator from the Patriotic Union—an
alternative political party founded by the guerilla FARC in 1985—was
gunned down by paramilitaries and two army intelligence operatives.
No arrests were made, despite the fact that former paramilitary
leader Carlos Castano admitted directing the commando unit that
fulfilled the execution in his openly published, widely-read autobiography.
Cepeda initiated a discussion on the law with a rebuke to the U.S.
demands. “We cannot leave out the responsibility of the state,
and the responsibility of international financing. The victims are
not victims of dark powers, but are victims of state powers.” 

Cordoba, former paramilitary kidnap victim and current senator,
warned: “We have seen only the tip of the iceberg of violations.
The problem is not about finding the corpses. It is deeper and more
serious than that. The paramilitaries are codified as a political
status, yet how is that process made official? 

are seeing a stronger paramilitary presence in Congress. It is estimated
that 35 percent of Congress is elected by paramilitaries. I don’t
know if it is 35 percent or 70 percent. The problem is that in Congress
there is a paramilitary attitude which precludes anything else. 

are not supposed to say we are from the left.” She paused,
allowing the audience to mull over the significance of her words.
“I don’t know what to say about what I am.” 

her statement a reference to the strategy of the coalition of progressives
to unseat Uribe and dismantle the paramilitary structure in Colombia,
or again, was it a reference to something “deeper and more
serious than that?” The “old” left, as some would
distinguish it for the pages of history, is criticized for being
rigidly universalist and class-reductionist. A bevy of “popular
alliances,” “new social movements,” and “third
ways” have attempted to elucidate the pluralities of struggle
in the 21st century. Not to be outdone, the right too, has sought
to fashion itself with a similar salute to non-elitist, democratic
participation. Trade is called “free,” societies are called
“ownership,” and security is for the “homeland,”
implying that the vastness of the homeland and its even vaster interests,
is an aggregate “common” for all. 

difference is stark. The agenda of the right is not derailed by
any discourse of mystification these terms may by themselves suggest.
It is a war on working people. Beginning in the late 1970s, the
policy of dismantling national regulation of the economic order
in favor of market governance was dressed up in terms like “reform”
and “liberalization.” In countries surveyed by the United
Nations, of the 373 national legislative changes to foreign investment
practices during the years 1991-1994, only 5 were not in the direction
of greater “liberalization.” Between 1988 and 1992, global
sales of state-owned enterprises ballooned to $185 billion, but
the figure did not include the $25 billion in privatizations in
former communist East Germany, nor did it include an additional
$106 billion in commitments to purchase state-owned assets. On July
18, 2004, Uribe’s finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla, announced
that Colombia is preparing to sell off yet another $10 billion worth
of stakes in state-owned companies within the next few years. He
hails the privatization plan as “the most ambitious in Latin

Cordoba linked the larger economic agenda with the paramilitary
atrocities: “The point of the paramilitaries is that they are
getting the wealth out of the country. They control all the distribution
centers, from selling cars to fruits.” 

who support the Justicia y Paz law might argue that it is founded
on more lofty principals. The path to peace, it could be argued,
rests on a divine and unconditional forgiveness, one that sees punishment
as ultimately futile. Even the vagaries of the reparations guarantee
could be seen as an admission of another futility, that material
redress can never return the whole of what was lost, and therefore,
can never in any true sense heal. But the problem remains; the voices
of the victims are not central, they are hidden on the periphery.
The voices of the authors are hidden too. 

Petro outlined a history that led us to the present crisis. “In
Colombia the death machine has historical roots…throughout the
history of this country, the criminals have never been charged or
sentenced. The 19th century was a century of impunity. Criminals
killed the leaders of Simon Bolivar’s army, the young and promising
Antonio Jose de Sucre among them. Jose Maria Cordoba was murdered.
In the 20th century, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan and Quintin Lame were
murdered. During the 1930s and 1940s, campesino leaders were killed
by landowners. The elections of the 1970s were stolen. Thousands
of Colombians were assassinated in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
We have this machine on top of us—the police, the soldier,
the ignorant landowners, the neighborhood assassins. But it is no
longer the work of the scary man, the psychopath. This machine reproduces
from the highest levels of Colombian power. The death machine is
in power making laws today. The deaths are directed by those in
power, planned by those in power.”  

machines are equipped with motors and the switch for Colombia’s
is in the United States. 


the 1950s, when the newly-created World Bank was researching how
to bring underdeveloped countries more tightly into a world economy
dominated by large corporations, the U.S. sent renowned economist
Albert O. Hirschman to oversee liberalization in Colombia, where
he had lived for a number of years. Hardly a progressive, but something
of a humanist, he intimated in his memoirs that he thought he would
be entering negotiations equally with Colombians. He said that he
“wanted to learn as much as possible about the Colombian economy…in
hopes of contributing marginally to the improvement of policy making.”
Later he lamented, “One aspect of the affair made me particularly
uneasy. The task was supposedly crucial for Colombia’s development,
yet no Colombian was to be found who had any inkling of how to go
about it. That knowledge was held only by a few foreign experts.” 

the 1970s, the fault lines of the late-capitalist system in the
U.S. were never more visible. In the wake of the decline of the
profit rate, what was called the “Keynesian compromise”
of capitalism, the element which respected the welfare state, deteriorated.
The U.S. economy entered what was called a “structural crisis.”
Neo-liberalism was introduced domestically, quickly ratified in
the United Kingdom, and gradually exported to countries not in the
center of power. Centrally powerful countries, with the U.S. at
their helm, thus appropriate the natural resources of agriculture,
mining, and energy of countries not in the center at downscale prices;
exploit their cheap labor force; and drain interest flows from their
towering debt. In addition, there is the slower appropriation of
entire industries such as telecommunications, also at bargain prices.
The wealth of the highest factions of the ruling class of powerful
countries was re-established by these mechanisms in the wake of
the “structural crisis” setback. 

was this re-establishment of wealth achieved at the greater expense
of the world? The U.S.

Journal of World Affairs

states: “In
reality, death squads are an extremely effective tool, however odious,
in combating terrorism and revolutionary challenges.” What
were these challenges and by what means were they so effectively
combated? El Salvador and Argentina are lauded as case studies.
Nearly half of the 40,000 victims in El Salvador were killed by
death squads, and in Argentina, “Of the more than 15,000 victims…nearly
all were leftists or relatives of left-wing activists.” U.S.
psychological warfare chief general Robert McClure, speaking on
tactical terror, said: “I fully recognize that our troops must
adopt a tough, hard-boiled killer attitude if they are going to
not only survive, but to win these battles.” He added, “I
wonder, however, if that indoctrination, which, I repeat, is very
necessary, needs to be widely publicized in the press and broadcast
to our enemies.” 

to Congress on the infamous Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, a country
often compared to Colombia, a former CIA agent said: “There
was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any one
of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the [communist]
Viet Cong, but they all died and the majority were either tortured
to death or…thrown out of helicopters.” 

Iraq’s Shock and Awe operation, the U.S. detained a reported
12,800 people suspected of insurgency support. What has also been
reported, and what now contributes to the claim that the U.S. government
lied about its reasons for invading Iraq, is that soldiers rounded
up women, children, and, for the crime of being a certain age, arrested
civilian men right from their homes, and Bedouins as they tended
their sheep. 

avoid the popular anti-war protests common in the 1960s, as well
as to strategize military spending, by 1970, the Guam Message, which
in another act of renaming changed to the Nixon Doctrine, was promoted
by the White House as “a major shift in U.S. foreign policy.”
In a report to Congress, Nixon elaborated this shift: “In cases
involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and
economic assistance when requested and as appropriate. But we shall
look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility
of providing the manpower for its defense.” Like the renamed
Nixon Doctrine intoned: Colombia’s power struggle is financed
by the extraction of taxes from largely unknowing U.S. citizen’s
wages, and is underwritten by training and indoctrination at U.S.
military institutions like the now infamous School of the Americas,
renamed the Institute for Hemispheric Cooperation. 

for the personnel for Colombia’s defense, paramilitary war
criminals are the keepers of this flame. While the highest-level
authors look on, these people, who have dumped living beings into
wells stocked with alligators, who have dismembered and decapitated
children with chainsaws, who have disemboweled young men on the
hoods of trucks and tasted their livers to taunt the detainees who
looked on, will be the same men who, after their “contribution
to achieving national peace” and their “collaboration
with justice,” determine the direction of law and operate in
a mechanism so banal, they sell everything from cars to fruits. 

the close of the testimonies, Jesuit author Javier Giraldo said,
“The ethical structure of the judicial system has collapsed
to zero. We cannot look at a rotten tree and hope it will produce
healthy fruit. If we cannot rebuild the judicial system, we must
look outside the judicial system. To that end, I invite all of us
here to believe in ourselves and to value the stories of the victims.” 

campesino victim grasped two pitchers of water from the speaker’s
panel. He poured the water from one into the other slowly and dramatically
until it reached the uppermost edge of the rim, and lifted it for
all to view. “Our hearts are overflowing,” he said. Another
victim threw a ball of string into the audience, and asked that
the person who caught it give the name of a missing relative or
relate their tale of abuse. That person was to throw it again and
the next person to catch it also give a name. This was repeated
until the whole audience was connected by a web of string. 

those who do not understand history condemned to repeat it? Congressperson
Petro reminded us: “In Argentina, Chile, Germany, Spain, Guatemala,
and South Africa, there have been cases of death machines similar
to what Colombia is facing. Truth and justice finally appeared once
the leaders were removed from power. Here we have a different case
because we are fighting now while they are still in power. There
is no rupture. They are still in power and getting stronger. We
denounce impunity. Impunity is a systematic and planned work to
divide and hide the social process and the political left. It fragments
the truth. It is hidden and lost until there are no longer guilty
people. But this machinery will fall like a house of cards. It’s
a kind of paper tiger. It is not as powerful as it thinks.” 

the Justicia y Paz law asks us to look forward instead of back,
nothing comes to mind more than the dance of the Kankuamo. 

never been this dark,” Petro ended with an acknowledging nod,
“as the campesinos know. This is because it is also nearer
the dawn.” 

Patricia Dahl
is a writer and coordinator of the Colombia Support Network’s
New York City chapter. She was an international panelist at the

Encuentro Nacional de Victimas de Crimines de Lesa Humanidad y Violaciones
a los Derechos Humanos.

All photos are from www. archivolatino.com.