“I am guilty for that abominable policy of kidnapping. I participated in the conference where this policy was approved. I can’t do the Pilate thing: ‘Wash my hands,’” declared Rodrigo Granda Escobar, a former member of the disbanded guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC-EP), from the center stage of the Virgilio Barco Library auditorium in Bogotá on the morning of June 21, 2022. Granda Escobar was one of seven ex-combatants appearing at this acknowledgment of responsibility hearing convened by Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, or JEP).
The hearing concerned the judicial case on taking hostages, serious deprivation of liberty, and other concurrent crimes (known as Case 01). The seven ex-combatants—Granda Escobar, Rodrigo Londoño, Pablo Catatumbo, Pastor Lisandro Alape, Milton de Jesús Toncel, Jaime Alberto Parra and Julián Gallo—were all FARC-EP leaders and members of its last secretariat. In the presence of victims, JEP officials, representatives from civil society and international organizations, and members of the national and international press, they all acknowledged their command responsibility in the kidnapping crimes that were the policy of FARC-EP from 1993 to 2012.
This hearing marked the first time ever FARC-EP leaders publicly acknowledged their role in such systemic crimes and represents a decisive step in the country’s transitional justice process and in the affirmation of the victims’ dignity, both needed to mend Colombia’s social fabric torn apart by over 50 years of war.
With tears in her eyes, victim Diva Díaz recounted how her father was kidnapped and tricked into thinking that her children did not want his release, thus damaging family ties forever. Subsequently, two more members of her family were kidnapped.
In response to her heartbreaking story, Milton de Jesús Toncel professed, “I want to send your brother who is in Canada a plea of forgiveness as great as the distance that separates us. Tell him that today we are doing something here in Colombia that would have been utopian before. I apologize, and I admire you for your unfathomable resilience. Thank you for listening. I promise you that I will fulfill the commitment I have made to you and clarify what is possible so that you and your family can receive some peace of mind amid so much irreparable damage.”
This profound and restorative exchange during a judicial proceeding would not have been possible without an extensive process to prepare the victims and perpetrators.
The JEP opens Case 01 in July to investigate the FARC-EP’s infamous kidnapping policy and the associated crimes committed between 1993 and 2012.
The JEP begins receiving reports from civil society organizations, victim organizations, and Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office.
A Policy of Cruelty
The criminal policy of kidnapping was among the cruelest executed by armed groups in the country’s history, and is perhaps the most demonstrative of the degradation of war in Colombia. Men and women of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and political leanings were kidnapped and held incommunicado. Although many kidnapping victims were affiliated with the police or military, most were civilians.
While those kidnapped were deprived of their freedom and often subjected to torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment, their families for the most part lost their economic security, were stigmatized, and suffered irreparable damage to their life projects. Still today, thousands of Colombians do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones who were kidnapped and disappeared.
“We acknowledge the pain of those who were unable to raise their children, those who were unable to help their family, those who died in captivity, and those who are missing,” Pastor Alape announced in one of his speeches at the hearing. “We have a political responsibility to search for them and ease their pain.”
The JEP carried out an exhaustive investigation into the practice of kidnapping based on reports from Colombia’s Office of the Attorney General, reports submitted by victims’ organizations and civil society, and individual and collective testimonies.
The JEP received and reviewed 17 reports, 38 individual testimonies, and 8 collective testimonies in which 257 people participated. It identified a total of 21,396 victims, of which 2,456 were accredited in Case 01. Of the accredited victims, 1,028 made comments on the testimonies of the ex-combatants appearing before the JEP.
As a result of this verification process, the JEP found that the FARC-EP secretariat stood accused of giving orders to commit the crime against humanity of serious deprivation of liberty, the war crime of taking hostages, and the resulting murders and enforced disappearances. It also charged the leaders with command responsibility for other crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by their subordinates during the kidnappings, such as torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, sexual violence, forced displacement, and slavery. Moreover, it identified three motivating patterns in the FARC-EP’s kidnapping policy: to finance the guerilla organization, to exchange kidnapped victims for captured FARC-EP combatants, and to acquire territorial control.
Faced with these accusations, former members of the FARC-EP secretariat acknowledged their responsibility in writing on April 30, 2021, leading to the summons for the public acknowledgment hearing. The hearing reverberated across the country, making frontpage headlines of every major news outlet and capturing the attention of all Colombians. It also sets a precedent for subsequent acknowledgment hearings on other macrocases that the JEP will hold over the course of its mandate.
The JEP calls on over 300 former FARC-EP members to appear individually and collectively before the tribunal to speak about the kidnapping crimes.
The JEP calls on victims to bear witness to the proceedings and comment on the declarations made by the ex-combatants.
Victims Front and Center in a Restorative Justice Process
The final 2016 peace agreement between the FARC-EP and the Colombian government established a comprehensive system for justice, truth, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition. Among the institutions created within this system was the JEP, a tribunal of mixed design with both retributive and restorative justice approaches to pursuing accountability and redress for atrocities committed during the war in Colombia.
Exclude from Search
However, implementing restorative justice measures in the context of a special tribunal is not without its challenges. Chief among them is ensuring that any encounters between victims and those responsible are victim centered and conducted in a sincere and respectful manner, while meeting the requirements of the judicial procedures. Expert preparation for any interaction is vital, as is long-term psychosocial care.
To this end, ICTJ supported the preparation of the parties for their participation in the acknowledgment hearing, helping to design and operationalize a methodology for the preparation together with the JEP. This methodology sought to encourage parties’ participation in the hearings, manage their expectations, prevent victims’ retraumatization, mitigate any harm judicial actions might cause, empower victims as active subjects in the process, and provide psychosocial support.
In order to lay the strongest possible foundation for the encounter between victims and the former FARC-EP leaders, ICTJ facilitated three individual sessions with each of the 29 victims who offered their testimony at the hearing, four preparation workshops with former FARC-EP leaders, and three restorative justice meetings between victims and those responsible before the hearing.
In January, the JEP indicts members of the FARC-EP secretariat on war crimes and crimes against humanity determined in Case 01.
In April, members of FARC-EP secretariat accept the indictment and acknowledge responsibility for the crimes in writing.
The JEP calls on victims to make comments on the former FARC-EP leaders’ statements of acknowledgment during separate observation hearings.
The JEP and ICTJ conduct preparation sessions with the former FARC-EP leaders.
A Hearing Paves the Way for Reconciliation
As a result of the preparation process, the victims were clear and decisive about the violations they experienced, the impact they had on their families, and their demands for truth and redress from those responsible. In their statements, the victims shared many of the same demands, including for acknowledgment that the persecution their families suffered was unfounded and that it caused irreparable damage to the good name of their kidnapped loved ones.
One such victim was Edward Oswaldo Díaz. Pablo Catatumbo kidnapped his father, local councilman Oswaldo Díaz, and later murdered him. Addressing Edward, the ex-combatant said, “We damaged the dignity of that man and that family. . . . We acted with arrogance and without any rights.”
In their statements, the participating victims asked that all possible information be collected on the specific circumstances in which the crimes were committed and who was directly responsible. “I wish, for my brother and my cousin to be alive, even if my heart says they are not. I want you to confirm it looking me in the face, to do it in the first person and then in a more general way because I know that it was not you directly who executed the order,” Mr. Augusto Hinojosa told the attending ex-combatants.
For their part, the ex-combatants affirmed that these crimes occurred and took responsibility for them before the victims, members of the JEP, the other attendees, and the country as a whole, reiterating the seriousness of the crimes and recognizing the damage they caused to each individual victim who spoke and to all kidnapping victims. One by one, the men expressed their regret and showed understanding of the adverse physical, psychological, economic, and social impact they had on Colombian society, committing themselves to comply with the victims’ demands.
In their interventions, the former FARC-EP leaders sought to restore the good name of the kidnapping victims. In some cases, they were able to clarify the fate of the families’ loved ones, a common demand. “Orlando Alberto Toledo Lugo tried to escape, and the guard killed him. I have that certainty; it was in 2005,” Londoño told Toledo Lugo’s wife, Carmen Mirke, who participated in the hearing. With this statement, Mrs. Mirke could finally begin to process her husband’s death and file the paperwork for his death certificate.
However, in many cases, the ex-combatants were unable to provide families with the truth and a chance at closure. “Many of us were in different territories and we do not know the facts step by step,” explained Pastor Alape. “But we are in the process. Our commitment is not to hide the truth; it is to unveil the cloak of darkness of the conflict so that it does not repeat itself.”
The JEP and ICTJ conduct three preparation sessions with each of the 29 victims who would offer their testimony and their families.
The JEP and ICTJ conduct two preparation sessions with the former FARC-EP leaders.
Victims and the former FARC-EP leaders meet face to face in restorative justice meetings.
A Milestone for Transitional Justice in Colombia
For many of the victims, both the skeptics of and believers in transitional justice, the first acknowledgment hearing offered a ray of hope. One victim, Héctor Mahecha, told the former FARC-EP leaders that the hearing was the opportunity to make history. “You can go from being perpetrators to being the ones who make the victims feel truly compensated and repaired,” he said.
The hearing represents the materialization of the JEP’s restorative justice approach, evident not only in the moving public statements of acknowledgment and remorse but in the carefully designed preparation sessions. The earnest interactions between the victims and perpetrators themselves help to repair Colombia’s torn social fabric. The process also serves as an example to transitional justice tribunals around the world of how to strike a balance between judicial accountability procedures and the affirmation of victims’ dignity.
The path on which Colombia has embarked toward reconciliation is long and complex and requires the participation of as many members of society as possible. As Eibar Meléndez, a kidnapped union leader, said in his statement at the hearing, “I come today with the hope that all of us present here will put our hearts into this process to transform a state, which needs a country at peace.”
FEATURE PHOTO: Victim Diva Díaz and former FARC-EP leader Pastor Alape partake in a group hug. Many victims and ex-combatants had meaningful exchanges before, during, and after the hearing that gave them confidence in the transitional justice process and encouraged reconciliation. (Maria Margarita Rivera/ICTJ)
We work side by side with victims to obtain acknowledgment and redress for massive human rights violations, hold those responsible to account, reform and build democratic institutions, and prevent the recurrence of violence or repression.