Santiago Jaramillo, Attorney, Victims of the Armed Conflict Project, Medellín, Colombia

Thousands of people in the city of Medellín, Colombia's second largest city and historically its most violent, have been affected by the country's armed conflict. Groups of autodefensas and guerrillas have fought each other for control of the city's territory and population, often in alliance with criminal gangs. The complex mix of political and criminal violence posed a substantial challenge to municipal authorities charged with overseeing the demobilization of paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) as part of a peace process with the Uribe government. The first demobilization of AUC members took place in Medellín in November 2003, and by May 2006, the city was home to 4,098 demobilized paramilitaries.

As part of its strategies to address the roots and consequences of violence, the Medellín Mayor's Office, through its Secretaría de Gobierno, established the Victims of the Armed Conflict Project in 2004. On July 10, 2006, Santiago Jaramillo, an attorney with the Project, joined the Latin American Program to discuss the city government's efforts to respond to the needs and support the rights of the victims of the armed conflict. The Project is one aspect of a broader effort to provide basic education, social services, and job training to former combatants through Medellin's Peace and Reconciliation Program.

The Victims of the Armed Conflict Project responds to the rights and needs of the victims of armed conflict through a variety of services, artistic and educational activities, assistance to the urban displaced, and reconstructing historical memory. The Project has assembled a data bank of victims' testimonies and constructed a model of intervention that involves psychosocial assistance, legal advice, and access to the support services of other public and/or private organizations in the areas of health, education, training, and micro-credit.

Jaramillo placed the work of the Project within the context of other development efforts in Medellín aimed not just at former combatants. These efforts include improving social services such as education, health and housing, and building and improving public works such as libraries, parks, and transportation services. He added that the programs in Medellín are unique in Colombia and that the Project has been able to accomplish a great deal with very limited resources—$250,000—for all their activities.

Jaramillo explained that the purpose of the Project is to dignify and rehabilitate the victims of the armed conflict and to contribute to a collective catharsis that advances social reconciliation in the city. Specific objectives include: aiding the victims in their emotional recovery; encouraging the victims to exercise their social, political, and legal rights; strengthening social support networks; contributing to the reconstruction of the historical memory of the armed conflict from the victims' perspective; raising awareness of the impact of the armed conflict on women and on children; and making the victims visible within society.

The reconstruction of historical memory involves creating a data bank of victims' testimonies and holding workshops in which victims record their own stories to be compiled and published as a series of books. Although Colombia's conflict is ongoing and truth commissions are usually established in post-conflict environments, Jaramillo discussed efforts to establish a truth commission or similar instrument in Medellín that would link its efforts to those of the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation. Attempts to reconstruct historical memory are difficult, Jaramillo noted, due to the victims' fear, which often prevents them from participating in the project.

Assistance to victims takes a variety of forms, including psychosocial assistance, legal counseling, educational workshops on constitutional rights, and efforts to link beneficiaries to public and private support services in the areas of health, education, training, and micro-credit. Special attention is also paid to cases of intra-urban displacement in order to reunite families, return people to their homes, and provide protection to those whose safety is threatened.

Asked about Medellin's success in improving citizen security overall, Jaramillo attributed the significant reduction in homicides in 2005 to several factors: not only the demobilization itself but also improvements in the police force and greater state involvement in the public space. State presence in all zones of the city has increased not only through an expanded police presence but also through the creation of local government committees and houses of justice (Casas de Justicia).

Prepared by Cynthia Arnson and Elizabeth Bryan, Latin American Program