From the mothers of Soacha to the parents of Ayotzinapa


Column published on November 11th, 2014 in Sin Embargo

I come from a country where, for many years, disappearances and massacres have been everyday occurrences. Colombia has the longest-running internal armed conflict in the Americas and, every week, we get our dosage of mass graves, extrajudicial executions, and state crimes. We have been anesthetized by so many violent headlines, and the media, with their gift for both cynicism and poetry, have come up with the catchiest euphemisms to refer to crime or the sorrow it brings. We now refer to “chop houses”, i.e., places along the shores of Port Buenaventura where they chop up people (carve them up in pieces), and “millionaire’s outing” the express kidnapping of a victim: at times someone steps from the street into a taxi, is assaulted, given a tour of ATMs, and then thrown in a ditch.

Following the forced disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa [Mexico], I, like many Colombians, was forced to recall our most macabre euphemism, the “False Positives.” In September 2008, 17 mothers from the municipality of Soacha, on the southern edge of the capital Bogotá, accepted delivery of their sons’ remains. All of them had disappeared during the first half of 2008, only to “reappear,” listed as “killed in combat”, not far from Ocaña municipality, some twelve hours distant, 732 km [455 miles] northeast of Bogotá. At the time, the government was receiving U.S. aid funds through Plan Colombia and had to show results. (Details regarding the aid and its effects are available at  “Falsos Positivos” en Colombia y el papel de asistencia militar de Estados Unidos, 2000-2010, prepared by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a joint Colombia-Europe-United States project). The bodies became part of the government’s “indicators of success” in its simultaneous fight “against guerrilla armies” and narcotics traffickers. As compensation, participating military figures received money and a congratulatory letter from their superiors. According to the army, the young men were guerrillas, guerrillas who wore new boots and poorly-fitted fatigues. The mothers rejected this version of events due to the obvious murder of one of their sons, Fair Leonardo Porras, a disabled 26-year-old, whose mental capacity of a 10-year-old made him an unlikely guerrilla. Then the brother of one of the disappeared young men tried to find out what happened and “died in a shoot-out.”

To this day, the mothers gather at the municipal plaza the last Friday of every month. They have received no conclusive answers or recognition, just death threats. The Attorney General said that the men were guerrillas. For his part, President Uribe, architect of the “Democratic Security” doctrine that General Naranjo came to hawk in Mexico, said that the men “weren’t just picking coffee, were they?”, i.e., they must have been up to something to be killed. The then Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, is now the sitting president.

The complaint of the mothers of Soacha uncovered a festering sewer: these murders were just the tip of the iceberg. Between 2002 and 2010, more than 4500 extrajudicial executions were reported. Yet the scandal led to hardly more than the administrative dismissal (no criminal punishment) of 27 military figures, including three generals and eleven coronels. In January 2010, 31 soldiers were released due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.  After their release, the soldiers heard mass, were given a week’s leave at the Artillery School, plus psychological support and aroma therapy. Paid for by Colombian taxpayers. Only 294 cases have reached trial and most are awaiting sentencing. The first sentence was handed down just a year ago in the case of Fair Leonardo Porras: his murder was deemed a crime against humanity, part of “a generalized or systematic attack with prior knowledge against the civilian population.” Another judgment came down this year against five military figures accused of the murder, who received a 53-year prison sentence. Nonetheless, 95% of these state crimes are pending sentencing and investigators have focused on lower-ranking military personnel.

The practice of state-sponsored terrorism has been relentless throughout Colombia’s history, perfected to such a degree that it is integrated into state policies. Its sophisticated doctrine has identified the “internal enemy,” but it turns out to be us, the Colombian people. In the beginning, the brutality of the state was directed against political opponents, but now the category has been widen to include us all. Yet the legitimacy of the Colombian state remains intact through the systematic cover-up of these crimes. Cover-ups run the gamut, from laws that facilitate the commission of crimes against humanity to administrative hurdles that make the rule of law unenforceable. Impunity is a state policy and systematic failure to investigate, sanction, and grant reparations leads to the continuity of a justice system that favors victimizers.

Under the auspices of Democratic Security doctrine (the same policies that Uribe’s followers came to sell to Mexico with the fairy tale that narcotics trafficking has disappeared and that peace and joy reign in Colombia), extrajudicial executions, i.e., state crimes, have risen by 67.71%. The figure is from a report, Soacha: la punta del iceberg, Falsos Positivos e impunidad, prepared by the Foundation for Education and Development (Fedes). It speaks of a policy based on giving the state’s repressive forces all the power to defeat organizations outside the law, while trampling on freedoms and fundamental rights. When [Mexican Attorney General Jesús] Murillo Karam said that if the Army had intervened [in the kidnapping and disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students], it would have done so on the side of the police force that was persecuting the students, he was repeating an idea that has been implemented in Colombia. The success of the Democratic Security doctrine is backed by violent and indiscriminate murder, and supporters point to deaths, detentions, and demobilization to demonstrate its effectiveness.

Investigations into the poorly dubbed “False Positives” never considered that public officials could have been the perpetrators of the crimes. The Attorney General’s office initially paid no attention to reports of forced disappearances and mothers were told that their sons had gone partying, in other words, that the women were being hysterical. Official inspection of the crime scene and later of the young men’s bodies did not follow international protocols and, like Ayotzinapa, there was an unjustifiable delay in launching the investigation. In an administrative measure, 27 military personnel were relieved of their duties, which is hardly an effective judicial action to establish penal responsibilities. Their removal comes after social protest, but it is hardly justice for the victims.

Conflict is part of Colombia’s national identity, which is why, for most Colombians, “eliminate the enemy” is synonymous for a call to strengthen institutions and guarantee security and social control. Accordingly, extrajudicial executions and human-rights violations become legitimized, especially when they happen to the poorest of the poor who live in rural settlements or on the outskirts of big cities, where money, “progress”, and the mass media are conspicuous for their absence. This state of affairs has spawned mechanisms that guarantee impunity. Procedures include denying, ignoring, or covering-up crimes, and blaming the victims, after which the mass media disseminate the government line, using expressions such as “False Positives” to give cold-blooded murders a technical veneer.

It’s obvious that our elected officials are and, for a long time, have been nothing but a piece of crap, and for them to say that our democracy is the oldest in the Americas is an immensely cruel joke perpetrated by silence and feigned consent. In Colombia, it’s not difficult to imagine a family dinner conversation where someone says “all those sons-of-a-bitch guerrillas should be killed,” as if they were Orcs, not really Colombians. That desire to “kill the guerrilla” justified the crimes at Soacha and the murder of thousands of people: 4,716 according to the UN. 4,716! And 3,796 cases documented by the Working Group on Extrajudicial Executions of the Joint Colombia-Europe-United States Project. Unfortunately, we Colombians haven’t memorized those numbers and we never (never!) said “we are all the young men of Soacha!” In Colombia, that was their problem, it was other people’s misfortune, civil society was disengaged. The young men of Soacha were never missed.

It’s true that our guerrilla is perverse, but it is also true that the guerrilla exists due to complex reasons for which the state, citizens, and all governments for the past fifty years share responsibility. Perhaps the worst harm the guerrillas did to Colombia was to provide the perfect excuse to stigmatize social protest completely. The guerrilla justified the creation of the “internal enemy,” which is us, the civilian population. In Colombia, people don’t march, they don’t protest out of fear of being called “guerrillas,” and governments, the state, the paramilitaries, the narcotics traffickers, and even the guerrilla itself take advantage of a population that demands no accountability of its “democracy” because it’s too afraid to complain.

For those of us Colombians who live in Mexico, or have close ties to Mexico for some reason (or maybe just speaking for myself), seeing Peña Nieto busy with businessmen or planning a trip to China, or hearing the [Mexican] Attorney General become exasperated at fielding questions that, given the nature of his post, he should answer, opens a dormant wound (that never heals), caused by impunity, injustice, and a feeling of helplessness. Other Colombians, those who came to Mexico to sell smoke and mirrors and claim that Democratic Security worked, would say that what happened to the students is collateral damage. But that “security” is built on the foundations of mass graves and crimes that remain unpunished, premised on the idea that whoever wears a uniform is justified in murdering, torturing, and disappearing.

In such a context, I feel profound respect for the Mexican people because they continue to march, to take to the streets, to demand. To demand that the 43 Ayotzinapa students return alive is not a naïve hope, it is an act of resistance. It’s a refusal to let an incompetent and indifferent state and government off the hook. Those who say that marches and citizen demands do little, also hope that people will be become tame and tired. They think that state crimes are just bothersome noise in daily life. Hopelessness and fatalism rear their head when it seems that justice, while it might be nice to have, is actually impossible to obtain. Such hopeless attitudes make taking action even more difficult, while favoring impunity and human-rights violations.

Marching is not useless or naïve. Marching reduces feelings of alienation, exclusion, disability. It questions the universality of governmental discourse, it unpacks mainstream ideological doctrines that justify and legitimize extrajudicial executions, and helps rebuild a feeling of justice. To protest is to participate in vindicating the victims, and perhaps it is the only way of demanding that rights be guaranteed and protected.

The case of the “False Positives” and the disappearances from Ayotzinapa happened in a context of a war against drugs that justifies random violence, a war that, far from being against drugs, targets the civilian population. Consequently, we find out more about the smoke from a door that burned for five minutes than about a group of persons who were incinerated for 15 hours (who may or may not be the 43 students). Colombianization is not about narcos, it is about people becoming indifferent. For this reason, we must continue marching until the students return. And if they never return, we must keep on marching forever.