The Colombian government has, for the most part, ignored the frustrations of the country’s growing victims’ organizations. Now, these groups are speaking directly to the international community and transforming the global discussion about violence in Colombia.
This month, the Medellin-based victims group Madres de la Candelaria, wrote a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama asking for permission to attend paramilitary warlord Diego Fernando Murillo’s next hearing in Washington, D.C. They had previously been denied access on the grounds that they were not victims of drug trafficking. “Don Berna”, as Murillo is known, was the commander of the notorious Nutibara paramilitary bloc, which ruled Medellin’s underworld with an iron fist until it demobilized in 2006.
The Madres de la Candelaria take their name from the famous Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, an association of Argentine mothers whose children were victims of the “dirty war” launched by the dictatorship in the 1970s. Images of the vulnerable but persistence Plaza de Mayo mothers helped to bring international attention and support for the victims’ struggle in Argentina.
The Madres de la Candelaria notably adapted the Plaza de Mayo model to an entirely different context. The Argentine mothers were protesting clandestine political assassinations. In contrast, the Candelaria group demands the resolution of thousands of crimes that blur the lines between political, social and criminal violence. Indeed, the sheer complexity of urban violence in Colombia is one reason why the Colombian victims’ struggle for justice is arguably more difficult than the Madres de Mayo’s.
Take, for example, the case of Don Berna. Originally conceived as private anti-guerrilla armies, Colombia’s paramilitary groups have instead operated right-wing death squads. Don Berna, together with his fellow paramilitary commanders, launched a campaign of political violence against left-leaning academics, human rights defenders and community activists.
Nevertheless, he is, first and foremost, a drug trafficker. Don Berna began his career as a low-level soldier in the Medellin cartel. Much of the violence perpetrated under his command was part of the Nutibara bloc’s apolitical conquest of Medellin’s underworld. He was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges, not for any of the war crimes he committed in Colombia.
The multifaceted nature of Colombia’s paramilitary movement eludes many international observers. For years, critics have argued that such extraditions hamper local efforts to resolve paramilitary crimes. This debate is old and somewhat stagnant. The Colombian government maintains that extradition is a powerful tool against drug trafficking and that paramilitary crimes will be resolved.
Nevertheless, extradited warlord Salvatore Mancuso said this summer that, at this rate, it would take 200 years for him to complete the Justice and Peace process. Other paramilitaries have echoed his claims that the justice process is stalling because many powerful government and military officials want to conceal their own collaboration with paramilitary squads.
In a potential breakthrough this August, the Colombian Supreme Court acknowledged that the lack of coordination between Colombian and American authorities has hampered efforts to resolve paramilitary war crimes. Still, the hearings in Washington continue, with the warlords confessing only a small percentage of their crimes. Don Berna, citing the risk of violence against his family, has recently decided to stop cooperating with Colombian authorities.
Frustrated by this stagnation and neglect, Colombia’s victims’ have bypassed the government and is speaking directly with the international community. The Madres’ letter to Obama is almost unprecedented, and sheds light on some important issues.
First, victims’ organizations believe the new president to be more understanding of their concerns than George W. Bush. In a 2008 debate with his opponent John McCain, for example, Obama expressed reservations about the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, specifically related to the country’s high rate of violence against union leaders. The change of leadership in Washington is an opportunity for victims of violence to impact U.S. policy on Colombia.
Second, Colombia’s victims’ movement has clearly given up on the hope that their government will represent their concerns and interests in the international arena. The five year-old Justice and Peace process launched by the Uribe has not did not address their concerns, nor has the government pushed strongly for an effective war crimes process for the extradited paramilitaries in the United States.
Third, the victims’ movement seems to understand the importance of international attention. Although Colombia has over 125,000 officially registered victims of paramilitary crimes, few people abroad know about Colombian paramilitarism. The Madres’ letter is unlikely to change the U.S.’s policy of restricting victim access to Berna’s drug trafficking hearings, but it may be the beginning of a broader campaign for international attention.
So, how successful will this campaign be?
One obvious obstacle, which I alluded to earlier in this article, is that Colombia’s conflict blurs the lines between criminal, social and political violence. Indeed, it may be much easier to inspire international pressure against a military “dirty war” than to raise international awareness about a phenomenon as confusing as Colombian paramilitarism. The superficial, FARC– focused discourse about Colombia’s “drug war” and global perceptions of improving security in Colombia make it difficult to spread the word about paramilitary war crimes.
Further, when compared to the Argentine mothers’ movement, the Colombian victims’ movement lacks a unified message and strategy. The white scarves of the Madres de Mayo are an unforgettable image, but there is no equivalent image for Colombia’s victims’ movement. It remains, for the most part, a disperse network of local organizations.
Still, the Madres de la Candelaria’s letter to Obama is a step forward. Colombia’s decades-old conflict is consistently misunderstood by the international community and its victims have recently been badly represented by the Colombian government. Bypassing the Colombian authorities and is a long overdue shift in strategy and may begin to raise global awareness about the country’s war crimes victims.