Truth and Reconciliation in Colombia: The Work of the National Reconciliation Commission
On October 15, 2008, the Wilson Center's Latin American Program, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the United States' Institute for Peace sponsored a discussion of the work of the Historical Memory (MH) division of Colombia's National Committee of Reparation and Reconciliation (CNRR). Historical Memory is the investigative arm of the CNRR, charged with producing an account of the origins and evolution of Colombia's internal armed conflict, with special attention to the perspectives of victims. The team includes professionals from a variety of disciplines and is directed by historian Gonzalo Sánchez, a leading scholar of violence in Colombia. Historical Memory is constructing a narrative of the conflict that takes into account themes of gender, ethnicity, and political and social identities. In addition, it is investigating several "emblematic cases" of human rights abuse, including the Trujillo massacre involving over 300 victims between 1988 and 1994. The report on Trujillo is the first that MH has completed.
Gonzalo Sánchez described the numerous challenges of constructing truth and memory in the midst of armed conflict, in which the periods of conflict and post-conflict are super-imposed. Given the enormity of the scope of violence in Colombia over past decades as well as the lack of consensus over when the conflict actually began, MH is focusing on representative cases reflected patterns of violence in distinct regions, as well as the victimization of particular groups such as peasant, labor, and indigenous organizations. In addition, it is focusing on the social processes, such as the struggle for land, that underlie collective victimization. As a state institution, Sánchez noted, MH has had to engage in a continuous process of negotiation to build confidence and legitimacy with non-governmental organizations, social groups, and victims. This confidence has been won, he said, adding that truth and memory are a social and political obligation as well as a right. Sánchez said that four members of the armed forces had been arrested as a result of the Trujillo report, but that memory also is part of achieving justice for victims.
Principal researcher for the Trujillo report Álvaro Camacho called Trujillo "the reflection of a national tragedy": the case represents the confluence of many kinds of violence as well as the inauguration of a technology of terror, including the use of electric saws to dismember victims, a practice that later became more generalized. Between the years 1988 and 1994, 342 victims of homicide, torture, arbitrary detentions, and forced disappearance were reported in the areas surrounding Trujillo. The conflict culminated in March and April of 1990 with multiple disappearances and the murder of Father Tiberio Fernández Mafla, a Jesuit priest and prominent peasant leader. Camacho said that despite earlier efforts to seek justice in the case, it was left in "absolute impunity." Judges failed to act for fear of retaliation, and an army major was implicated in the murder of a key witness. Camacho described strong civil society organizations of victims, particularly of women, who had pressed for justice in the case. The impact of the Trujillo report has been strong: in addition, to those under arrest, scores of additional arrest warrants have been issued. Camacho expressed hope that some measure of justice would be achieved, and that the work of the commission had the support of Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos.
Verónica Gómez, principal Colombia researcher at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights of the Organization of American States, said that the Trujillo case was still pending before the Commission and therefore that she could not comment on the report. She did say, however, that an important part of the search for memory and reparations were the protagonists from civil society, and the MH had paid a great deal of attention to women and other vulnerable groups. Judicial truth is not enough, she said, and the CNRR has represented an important exercise in talking about the conflict. The most important thing was to turn an exercise devoted to memory and truth-telling into something that would prevent the repetition of similar acts in the future. She referred to ongoing murders of Colombians who speak out about human rights abuses and called for the elimination of risks to those who denounce violations.