Colombia still has one of the highest rates of forced disappearances in Latin America and the situation continues to worsen, according to Washington based non-governmental organization the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).
After over 50 years of internal conflict the country has witnessed at least 61,604 forced disappearances, making it the country with the second highest incidence of such disappearances in the region, after Argentina.
The issue of forced disappearances remains one of the most pressing issues facing human rights in the country and Colombians are still being subjected to arbitrary arrests and abductions by state operatives, paramilitaries and guerrillas.
According to the director of COHA, Larry Birns, the situation in Colombia is distinct when compared to forced disappearances in other Latin American countries.
High incidences of forced disappearances in Chile and Argentina took place under a military junta, which made their occurrence specific to a particular context, whereas Colombia attempts to maintain the appearances of “a constitutional democratic framework.”
Birns, an expert on Latin America, said in an interview with Colombia Reports, “Colombia looks like a democracy, but it isn’t really one, it’s more of a hybrid.” Birns believes that Colombia’s situation is far from a real democracy and that no country that calls itself a democracy would stoop “to be defined in Colombia’s realities.”
Because of the unique nature of the situation in Colombia, Birns argues that it is essential to remain vigilant and continue to observe what is going on there, in the face of “a dramatically deteriorating” situation.
Despite the efforts of the Colombian judicial system and the international community, the numbers of forced disappearances continue to rise.
Birns says that the long history of forced displacement continues to be justified by what he calls “a de facto military regime.” According to the expert, the Colombian government has always justified their involvement in human rights abuses in terms of “the security situation requires us to do this.”
According to the COHA report, the democratically elected Colombian government has been participating for more than five decades, either actively or by means of calculated inaction in what can be defined as “state terrorism.”
The process of forced disappearances has evolved over decades of ongoing conflict in the country and has often been used as a method of controlling populations, suppressing political opposition and instilling fear among the local population, usually with total impunity.
According to the COHA report, justice for victims and their families is still a complex and often disappointing process. The Justice and Peace law in the country reduced the maximum sentence for demobilized paramilitaries who had committed forced disappearances from 25 – 60 years, to just eight years in prison. The families of victims are not seen as victims by the Colombian government and instances of cases of forced disappearances that have been brought to trial are relatively rare.
COHA believes that “disappearance crimes continue to be perpetrated with total impunity,” and that until there is greater transparency and an upheaval of the Colombian justice system, the situation will continue to worsen.