On murder and a birthday cake: Reflections on Colombia’s search for peace with justice

In human rights work, one’s first duty is to those who are harmed. But once in a while, one of the murderers says something that seizes attention as it reveals again the full banality of evil.

On July 19 in northern Colombia, the former professional solider Álex José Mercado asked forgiveness from a young woman for the murder of her father, saying: “The day that he was turned over to me (for killing), he had gone out to get a cake for your birthday.” In another moment, he said that he was not worthy to ask forgiveness from family members, but could only ask for pardon from God. “I lent myself to murder innocent people,” he said. He was 19 at the time at the time of his crimes.

This occurred during a hearing in Valledupar of Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (referred to in Spanish as JEP). It’s the transitional tribunal that was set up to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes committed during six decades of armed conflict between the FARC-EP guerrilla fighters and the Colombian state. This hearing focused on the  falsos positivos, the false positives, that occurred just in the northern departments of Cesar and Guajira. In the country as a whole, Colombia’s armed forces kidnapped more than 6,000 young men, murdered them, dressed them as guerrillas, and then tried to pass them off “successes” in its war on “terrorism.”

Others spoke for the victims: 

Left: Pedro Loperena, representing the Wiwa Indigenous people, said: “The economic aid policies of those who gave funds to the military forces must also be re-evaluated, because those resources were used to carry out these misdeeds.” Right: Daniela Rodríguez, spokesperson for the legal representatives of the victims and in the name of the Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), asked that the “centrality of the victims, their desires and expectations, be drives these proceedings.”

When he spoke about aid to the Colombian military, Loperena was polite and understated the problem:

This chart from U.S. civil society organizations shows more than two decades of U.S. aid to Colombia.

Over decades, the U.S. and Colombian governments have successively painted the war as: first, a war against communism; then, a war against drugs; and now, a war against terrorism. But the war in Colombia had its roots in the same struggle that has gone on in Latin America since the time of the European Conquest: the struggle by small farmers, Indigenous people and urban workers for land, social justice and basic human rights.

In the face of a peace process that has had limited support (and sometimes overt opposition) from the Colombian state, headed these past four years by Ivan Duque, that these tribunals continue to function is a triumph

One of the hardest parts of achieving a peace agreement between the Colombian state and the FARC guerrillas was to find language about how to manage crimes committed by state and non-state actors during the conflict. The two sides began negotiating in Havana in November 2012. The agreement on transitional justice and reparations was achieved in 2015 and the full peace accord signed in December 2016. The former adversaries agreed to a form of transitional justice, creating special tribunals to judge crimes committed by both members of the FARC and by state agents. 

It is not an amnesty, despite former president Álvaro Uribe’s characterization of the accord. In fact, that was what was avoided. Under international law that has come into force since the South African transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, a full amnesty would not be legal. 

In November 2019, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz (Ecumenical Table for Peace) presented its report, “Blood of Martyrs, Seeds of Liberation,” to the chair of Colombia’s Truth Commission, Fr. Francisco de Roux SJ. In presenting the report, Omar Fernández acknowledged that it was not possible to encompass all of the many Christian martyrs of this long war: the team focused on those whose pastoral work represented the Church of the Poor.

Another triumph in recent weeks is the publication June 28 of the report of Colombia’s Truth Commission. Speaking July 14 to the United Nations Security Council, commission president Fr. Francisco de Roux said  that Colombia has demonstrated that those wounded by war can come together to build peace, happiness and “produce a tomorrow where there is hope”.  Over the last four years, the Commission has heard from more than 30,000 individuals and bodies and reviewed over 1,000 reports from victimized communities. He urged  the international community to give Colombia “nothing for war.”

Top of the list of recent triumphs is, of course, is the election of a new president, Gustavo Petro, and vice-president, Francia Márquez. Like the truth commission, Petro has criticized the U.S.-led war on drugs. The truth commission has urged Petro to lead a global conversation on changing drug policies, with a focus on regulation over criminalization.

Petro and Márquez will take office on Aug. 7, and already there is talk of capital flight – in effect, a boycott of Colombia by rich investors, including Colombians who already have one foot in Miami. The road ahead – ending the alliances of military forces with paramilitary death squads and drug-traffickers, ending the practice of assassinating leaders of social movements (at least 145 in 2021), protecting rain forests and reducing the grotesque gaps between wealth and poverty – will be difficult as evidenced by this long (and nevertheless incomplete) list of U.S.-sponsored coups and invasions launched against left leaders in Latin America. 

People at greatest risk need ‘politics of friendship’

Away back in May of 2007, David and I were driving toward the Mexican border on Highway 77 near Victoria, Texas, when we noticed flowers and signs by the side of the road. We stopped and soon realized we were at a place where people were remembering a tragedy.

On May 14, 2003, 19 migrants died here after a driver abandoned a trailer truck that carried as many as 100 people.

We remembered them last week as news came that 53 migrants had died after the trailer in which they were being carried had been abandoned off Interstate 35 near San Antonio, Texas. 

That incident came only three days after 23 African men lost their lives in a desperate attempt to reach Europe by trying to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla from neighbouring Morocco.

Politicians have tried to excuse their culpability in all of these deaths by blaming them on “human smugglers,” but the true problem is migration policies that are inhumane – “criminal,” said an editorial in Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper.

Back in 2003, the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Migration, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski (now the archbishop of Miami) said the deaths in Victoria were the result of a “flawed and inhumane” border policy. 

“It is time for our elected officials to acknowledge that the border blockade strategy our nation has pursued since 1993 is a flawed and inhumane policy,” he said in a written statement issued a day after the tragedy. (His comments were published by National Catholic Reporter on May 30, 2003, but the article is no longer available on line.)

Politics of friendship

As I thought about the migrants who died last week, it seemed to me that many people in the wealthier countries of the global North lack empathy with people faced by extreme levels of violence and poverty in the global South. 

And then a line from José Cueti (psychologist, author and columnist at Mexico City’s La Jornada daily newspaper) caught my eye: 

“Lo real es que no existen las políticas de amistad hacia los más necesitados.”  Or, fairly literally: “What’s real is that politics of friendship towards those in greatest need do not exist.”

So then I found myself in a fairly deep dive into the thinking of Jacques Derrida on politiques de l’amitié. That led to Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli tutti, where he proposes “a better kind of politics.” The politics we need, he argues in chapter 5, “is a politics centred on human dignity and not subjected to finance because ‘the marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem.’” And finally I read a comment by the Argentinean-Mexican philosopher and historian Enrique Dussel where he proposes the concept of solidarity as a way to overcome contradictions and limitations that occur in some uses of friendship and fraternity (including not only the limited gender sense of the latter).

Empathy. Friendship. Fraternity. Solidarity. We don’t have enough of any of those, and we fail to allow those values to inform our politics, much less our refugee determination policies. Instead, greed limits our human response to the tragedies that lead people into the back of a trailer, or on to a rubber lifeboat in the Mediterranean, or over a wall between Melilla and Morocco.

Immigration policies that do not allow migrants to present a refugee claim are part of the problem, and I have frequently decried economic development practices that augment poverty, violence and desperation in countless countries around the world.

Consider the choices (or lack of them) that might have driven your ancestors to migrate.

A few words about a book that might help you understand better the limited choices facing huge numbers of people.

John Vaillant, The Jaguar’s Children. (Knopf Canada, 2015).

Most North American writers get Mexico wrong. Vaillant gets it mostly right. He even grasps México profundo—the people, places and stories that are distant from official Mexico. He gets inside the faith of the people—that practice of Christianity that is woven together with the spiritual traditions of Nahua, Zapotec, Maya and many other Indigenous peoples.

Here is a novel that speaks specifically of Indigenous Mexican’s profound relationship with corn and the threat they feel from industrial agriculture and its genetic modifications, terminator seeds and exclusion of all that is valuable in the shameless search for profit.

If you can’t afford to buy the book, or you’re too impatient to wait for a library copy, or you think that you don’t read novels: go and stand in a bookstore or a library and read chapter 24. Here, concisely, is all the horror of what is going on in Mexico and Central America these days: the free trade schemes that destroy traditional agriculture, decimate rural communities and drive hundreds of thousands of migrants into the cities and across the northern border.

In Colombia, those who believe in peace with justice rejoice

A Gustavo Petro campaign poster from 2010.

On a winter evening about 20 years ago – I am sorry that I cannot be more precise – Bill Fairbairn and I met in Toronto with a Colombian congressman and one of his aides. Bill worked for the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA), and I served on its board. And I can’t remember if this meeting was before or after mid-2001 when the work of ICCHRLA was folded (partially) into KAIROS. We were in what I think we used to call the Blue Room of Deer Park United Church in Toronto where the offices of ICCHRLA and later KAIROS were located.

I do remember the congressman, Gustavo Petro, and his earnest search for international allies in the struggle to end Colombia’s civil war and to obtain a measure of social justice to the oppressed majority.

Two decades later, Petro is weeks away from being sworn in as Colombia’s first president from a party of the left. His victory results from the mobilization of young and new voters from parts of Colombia that are always ignored, especially the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. 

Celebrating victory (left); voters from the margins propelled Petro to power.

A large measure of credit goes to his running mate, the environmental activist and lawyer Francia Márquez, 40. She will become the country’s first Afro-Colombian to hold executive office. This election was the first time voter turnout topped 60 per cent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

I met Petro again in August 2004 in Caracas, Venezuela. We were staying in the same hotel and both of us were observers of a referendum that opponents hoped would remove President Hugo Chávez from power. During Petro’s three campaigns to become president, along with his congressional and senate races, and the 2011 drive that made him mayor of Bogotá, right-wing politicians tagged him as castrochavista (as if that were a bad thing). They decried his youthful involvement in the M-19 guerrillas. They had made peace with the government in 1990. Petro, unlike many former fighters who laid down their weapons, survived the waves of selective assassinations that sought to eliminate them from political life.

Victory this past Sunday by Gustavo Petro, 62, in Colombia’s presidential election offers hope for reviving a peace process stalled these past four years by President Iván Duque, protegé of former president Álvaro Uribe – the fiercest guardian of the ways that things have always been done by those with power in Colombia.

Petro defeated Rodolfo Hernández, a millionaire conservative who was frequently compared to Donald Trump.

This election (like recent ones in Chile, Honduras and Peru) is also firm rejection of Canadian and U.S. foreign policy that for the past 20 years has paid lip service to the search for peace, but always protected the interests of those who control land and natural resources. Before Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his majority in Parliament in 2011, Canada negotiated a free trade agreement with Colombia that as a sop to the Liberal party contained a mechanism for a toothless human rights impact assessment. Colombia was also the key regional ally in setting up the “Lima Group,” the attempt by Washington and Ottawa to isolate Venezuela when most members of the Organization of American States refused to play along.

After the victories by Hugo Chávez in December 1998 in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva in Brazil in 2002, some of us starting talking about a “pink tide” sweeping across Latin America (forgetting perhaps that tides also recede). Now the tide is back, this time stronger than before. In Brazil, Lula is again leading the polls in anticipation of the election later this year.

The road ahead for Petro will be difficult, just as it has been for Pedro Castillo in Peru since his victory a year ago. The opposition will set traps and take advantage of every misstep. In this third attempt to win power, Petro proposed pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms. He would change how Colombia fights drug cartels and start new talks with remaining guerrilla fighters. But his coalition has only about 15 per cent of the seats in Congress, which will force him to make deals, limit some reforms or abandon others. Parts of the U.S. government (military and intelligence agencies) will not be friendly, and Canada (because of influence by resource-extraction companies) may not be either.