The current Colombian administration denies the kidnapping, torture, and murder of thousands of citizens. In an interview this past Wednesday, 23 March, Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera spoke with certainty about what he called a definitive reduction of violence and delinquency. This so-called “certainty” is worrisome, as there is nothing certain about the topic since there are so many disappeared persons in Colombia.
If an individual is disappeared, the whereabouts and what may have occurred to the person is most likely unknown (or, at least, not included as a numerical statistic in a row or column not labeled ‘disappeared’). Nevertheless, if we are to look at our own history or the history of other countries hit with high levels of forced disappearances—like Chile and Argentina in the 20th century—then we can at least infer a significant number of such disappeared individuals were most likely subjected to crimes against humanity and human rights violations that, by any statistical measure, would be recognized as an increase in violence, not a reduction.
When journalists asked Mr. Rivera was point blank about the many critiques he has received regarding security in Colombia, he responded with the following statement:
“The statistics clearly show an improvement, a reduction in crime. But we are in an election year, we are in a time when citizens rightly claim the events that happen in certain places. I believe that a society that protests against crime is a society that has the basic element to be successful on offense. I would worry if people were indifferent. Before, there was no concept of security. Ten years ago, that didn’t exist.”
But the person being indifferent is Mr. Rivera. There are (at least) three things that are alarming with his statement. First, instead of directly addressing the critiques brought against him, Rivera passed the blame to it being an election year and that we should be happy people are even talking about security. This move directly avoids the legitimate concern regarding the statement that crime has “clearly” been reduced.
If anything, Mr. Rivera should unpack and elaborate on the claim. What kind of crime? How is he defining crime? Have all manifestations of crime been reduced? Have other forms of crime seen an increase? What periods is Mr. Rivera comparing to claim with such certainty that the statistics clearly illustrate a decrease in crime? And so on.
Second, to always compare current Colombia to a time in the country’s history when it was on the verge of potentially becoming a failed state is irresponsible. Why not compare today’s Colombia to the Colombia of 2007, 2008, 2009, or 2010, instead of the situation in the late 1990s and early 21st century when the country was on the verge of collapsing because of an internal armed conflict? The Colombia of the past four years is a better comparison when we are looking at today’s Colombia, even for the sole reason that during those years talk of “security” existed—as Mr. Rivera already claimed—and that this range of years is a better sample for comparison to 2011 when we are looking at reasonably immediate fluctuations in crime.
And, third, if we do compare security and crime to these more recent years, what will we find? Will we find statistics that clearly show an improvement in a reduction of crime and delinquency? No, we do not find clarity, especially if we zone in on recent statistics of those identified as disappeared.
Though it cannot be sure what happened to disappeared individuals (i.e., torture, murder, kidnapping, runaways), an April 2009 preliminary report by the Colombian Justice and Peace Unit of the Prosecutor General declared that almost 50,000 Colombians have been identified as disappeared/missing. This contradicts the previous government figure of only 10,584 missing persons. Other reports by groups such as Latin American Working Group (LAWG) claimed the figure is much higher than 50,000. The 2009 Prosecutor General’s 2009 finding is almost double the figure of disappeared persons in Argentina during its Dirty War. If the experiences from Argentina’s desaparecidos are any indication of what may have occurred to Colombia’s missing persons, we can be sure human rights violations on every level have occurred.
The term desaparecido, as Marguerite Feitlowitz suggested in her book A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, is “a way of denying the kidnap, torture, and murder of thousands of citizens.” As Primo Levi, in The Drowned and the Saved, pointed out after his experience at the hands of the Nazis, the three purposes of concentrationary systems are “slave work […] elimination of political adversaries and the extermination of the so-called inferior races.” Much of what Feitlowitz and Levi wrote rings true to what is going on in Colombia: forced disappearances are occurring for similar reasons as Levi suggested (human cleansing campaigns, elimination of those who threaten the attainment of self or group interests, etc.). Further, in line with Feitlowitz’s view about the term “disappeared” used by governments, the Santos administration uses the term (or does not even use it, for that matter) to deny the “kidnap, torture, and murder of thousands of citizens.”
Defense Minister Rivera cannot be as certain as he is that violence, delinquency, and crime have clearly improved. I repeat, he cannot claim this with certainty when in 2007 there were 4,323 disappeared, when in 2008 there were 15,696, and while in 2009 there was yet another increase to 18,236 disappeared. Assuming these statistics paint at least a partial truth, just in those three years—an increasing trend, mind you—there were 38,255 disappearances. If they are disappeared, and he recognizes there are disappeared persons in Colombia, then Mr. Rivera CANNOT be certain that such an improvement in the security of the country is happening.
But even the statistics from 2007 to 2009 do not yield clarity and certainty. The numeric value of 38,255 does not amount to a rise in disappearances, but the amount of reported complaints. After the paramilitaries demobilized, more people felt they could file a report on old cases. These old cases distort the numbers. However, though we cannot be certain, when Colombia Reports staff, for example, goes out to talk to people in the popular comunas of Medellin and other neighborhoods of the city, what the people report to us suggests at least two things: (1) People are still being disappeared and (2) some are still afraid to report complaints of disappearances.
One woman with whom Colombia Reports spoke, whose husband was disappeared just weeks before in September, told CR that on her block alone three people had disappeared within three weeks. Further, I spoke to another woman only a month ago—who was displaced in Medellin because of death threats—who alleged there was a mass grave in her comuna of about 15 persons of which the government is not aware. The reason for the government’s lack of knowledge? Though many of the friends and family members of the missing persons know exactly where their loved ones are buried and whose hands dug the graves, they do not speak up because they fear they too may become a disappeared—displaced, kidnapped, tortured, killed, and buried in a common mass grave.
What does this mean? It means Mr. Rivera’s claim of certainty is clearly ill-founded, as it is based on the following: (a) limited, distorted, and/or false evidence; (b) illogical reasoning; and/or (c) a desire to manipulate and mislead. You be the judge.
My tone is angry because a government that withholds information to manipulate its citizenry is a government that lies to its people, which is exactly what is going on here. For what reason is the government trying to manipulate us? I can only speculate, as Mr. Rivera already has (up-coming elections?). But it is obvious the lack of transparency and the picking and choosing of statistics to disseminate to the public is selective and calculated. We need to ask the right questions to unpack the layers a little more, and to potentially catch glimpse of a glimmer of truth.
I am looking at the statistics, Mr. Rivera, and the only way your statement may potentially make any sense is by neglecting to consider any disappeared persons in your assessment of reduction of crime in Colombia. It is obvious that if one does not know what happened to a disappeared person, that individual cannot be explicitly inserted into a statistic of, for example, homicide or kidnapping. However, to not even publicly consider the possibility that such large number of disappeared persons could very well be part of that statistic (as Colombian history clearly suggests this is a great possibility), then we are being mistreated with data forwarded to misinform and mislead the public.
This being an election year, a misinformed citizenry will most likely vote for individuals and policies that harm them, the city, and the state if such manipulation continues because things are not as peach-y-keen as you, Mr. Rivera, would like us to believe. Only by recognizing an ailment can we begin treatment. Pretending there isn’t a problem will not make the problem disappear.
For this reason, I claim that the administration the Defense Minister represents is denying the kidnapping, torture, and murder of thousands of citizens, in turn lying to us, trying to manipulate and sell us a portrait of “security” that does not exist and that every day looks more and more like a painting from the French Impressionist painters—where there is slight emphasis on the accurate depiction of light (truth/reality) in its changing qualities—than a piece of realism art whose effort is to depict objective reality, without embellishment or interpretation.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.