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COLOMBIA
Searching for the key to peace?
Jenny Manrique
3/25/2011
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Colombian groups seek to bridge communication gaps and end conflict.

Going down in history as the president who brought peace to Colombia has been the dream of several of the country´s recent leaders, and President Juan Manuel Santos is no exception.

On Aug. 7, he took office claiming that the “keys to negotiation are not lost.”

“Santos wants Colombia to figure among the emerging international powers,” said lawmaker Iván Cepeda, son of murdered Patriotic Union party leader Manuel Cepeda, whose death in 1994 the Inter-American Court on Human Rights blamed the Colombian state. “For that to occur, Colombia can no longer be at war.”

Cepeda participated in the international forum “Making Peace in Colombia” in Buenos Aires in late February that brought together dozens of international and Colombian groups trying to help end the country´s five-decade armed conflict.

Even though Santos has flirted with the idea of peace, it has also been clear that it “won´t be at any price” and he has ruled out negotiations with any group that refuses to disarm, and disarmament before talks is the most complex element.
But Cepeda argues that mistrust has hindered the process.

“There has not been a peace process [in Colombia] where spokespeople of one of the parties have not been eliminated, and the most exemplary case is the genocide against the UP,” said Cepeda in reference to the Patriotic Union, or UP, the political force made up of demobilized members of the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which in 1984 intended to return to civilian life and were systematically killed by hired gunmen and paramilitaries.

“Colombia can´t have a dual agenda where peace is sought but the conflict is deepened,” said Cepeda, who is also a member of the Colombian Collective for Peace led by Piedad Córdoba, a former senator of the Liberal Party.

Guerrilla proposals
Last September, the state prosecutor´s office barred Córdoba from holding any public office for 18 years for “collaborating with the FARC”  — based on alleged information found on the computer of rebel leader Raúl Reyes, killed in the Colombian military operation into Ecuador in March 2008 —, a decision the former lawmaker asked the Administrative Court, a body aimed at protecting citizens from government actions, to overturn.

The well-known mediator for the release of more than 15 hostages held by the FARC attended the Buenos Aires forum, where she screened two videos featuring interviews with FARC and National Liberation Army, or ELN, members manifesting their willingness to dialogue.

One of them, current FARC commander Alfonso Cano, said that the negotiations toward peace have five points including the neoliberal economic model, land reform, international humanitarian law, prisoners of war and the creation of what he called a “system of democratic cohabitation,” which he described as “a system in which everyone can participate and end this historic practice of the Colombian oligarchy of using crime as a political weapon to silence adversaries.”

In another video, the ELN´s spokesman, who goes by the alias Gabino, listed eight points, which included the commitment with the respect to the international humanitarian law which includes not involving civilians in the conflict, the abandonment of tactics such as kidnapping, hostage-taking and the recruitment of minors and the recognition of the conflict as the first step to solve it.  The government does not consider it “armed conflict” but rather in its words, a “terrorist threat.”

“The continued disinformation and presentation of the [conflict] as a terrorist outbreak is closing the door to peace,” said Gabino.

“This is the first time that guerrillas are addressing to a civil society forum like the Colombians for Peace,” said an optimistic Córdoba, who works tirelessly to convince the public that a military response to the conflict is not the answer to advance peace talks. “If the anti-democratic media continues to be the soap box for enemies of peace in Colombia and continues to pursue and demonize those of us whom they consider as terrorists because we speak of peace, our path will be much longer.”

The former senator said she is worried and ashamed for being unable to stop “humanitarian degradation” such as common graves, crematoriums, 5 million internal refugees and “7,000 political prisoners in sub-human conditions, some terminally ill because as ex-combatants, their human rights are violated in prisons.”

The government has called these figures “inflated” and says the number of internally displaced victims is 3.7 million, and has refused to call “terrorists” political prisoners.

National consensus
“Even if there is an inarguable international consensus and enthusiasm for the new government, I think that the fundamental line is the same: silence the humanitarian gestures [unconditional releases by the guerrilla groups] and order the deaths of all the [FARC] commanders,” said Carlos Lozano, a spokesman for Colombia´s Communist Party and director of the newspaper Voz. He pointed to the operation ordered in mid-February by Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera, to close in on Cano, at a moment when the FARC was in the process of unconditionally freeing two hostages, police Maj. Guillermo Solórzano and army Cpl. Salín Sanmiguel.

He said the “supposed 80 percent” of Colombians that supported former President Álvaro Uribe, who governed from 2002 and 2010 and was best known for his hard-line and militarized response to fight leftist rebels, “need to be given a new tonic in favor of peace.”

While Uribe´s flagship Democratic Security Policy wiped out much of FARC´s leadership, it promoted the demobilization of paramilitaries who are now showing up in criminal bands.

On Feb. 24, upon presenting the agency´s 2010 annual report, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said massacres by these new criminal groups, in which the former paramilitaries are taking part, in Colombia last year increased by 40 percent with 179 murders. The victims were mainly social leaders, human rights activists, indigenous and Afro-Colombians.

According to the country´s Ombudsman´s Office, the number of threats against displaced citizens, labor leaders and teachers have also increased. Even though the government claims that unorganized criminal gangs are to blame, studies by the pro-peace organization Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris show that criminal bands such as the Comando al Sur are a highly organized union of demobilized paramilitary members.

“What we had were drug-trafficking bands posing as paramilitaries. They extradited their leaders, but they didn´t bring down the structure and the process was done behind victims´ backs,” said Sen. Gloria Ramírez, of the opposition Alternative Democratic Pole.

According to documents released by transparency activist site WikiLeaks and confessions by former paramilitary members, the supposed progress in paramilitary demobilization was staged by the Uribe government so the results of their operations would seemingly improve.

Those who were handing over weapons were not real members of organized armed groups, but gang members, unemployed and poor, recruited at the last minute with promises of receiving the benefits awarded to those who demobilized, some have alleged.

“The pressure on the military has not been insignificant,” said a former navy officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“We [the military] are not the worst enemies of peace because we are who battle and die. There is a mob-like economic power that has clearly been benefitting from the war,” he said, adding that he hopes that the military is not just a spectator to the talks, but that it is included in the negotiations.

“If the keys to peace are not lost, hopefully the Santos´ government will find them and open the door to dialogue.”
—Latinamerica Press.


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