–by Stewart Vriesinga
In twisted and perverse judicial manoeuvres the victims of paramilitary and military crimes are increasingly being denied justice, reparation and protection on the grounds that they are in fact perpetrators rather than victims of crimes.
Las Pavas is one of several recent examples of this phenomenon. It is not the paramilitaries who displaced the community, nor the palm-oil cultivators Daabon and Aportes San Isidro responsible for the environmental degradation and continued occupation of the land that are the subjects of judicial investigations; on the contrary, it is the dispossessed and displaced campesinos themselves who are under investigation for allegedly fabricating the story of their displacement, illegally invading and occupying land that is not theirs, while their leadership is also under investigation for allegedly being guerrilla insurgents.
Unlike victims, perpetrators of crimes in Colombia continue to enjoy impunity:
Despite the earlier “Law of Justice and Peace”, and its more recent replacement, the “Law of Victims”, impunity for the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, false positivesand forced displacement and the appropriation of lands of Colombian first nation, Afro and campesino communities continues unabated. President Santos is now proposing to expand the military courts ‘s jurisdiction to include human rights crimes committed by the military itself; in other words, putting the fox in charge of the hen-house. Human rights, victims of state crimes, displaced peoples, labour unions and other organizations have long demanded an end to impunity, reparation, and guarantees that these things will not be repeated in the future. So far they have not been successful. Perpetrators go unpunished, impunity continues and new extrajudicial killings, forced displacements and death threats continue.
When victims of crimes cannot be easily silenced through threats or extrajudicial killings they are simply redefined as criminals:
Attempts to silence victims seeking justice and restitution here in Colombia are generally dealt with primarily through intimidation, death threats threats and extrajudicial killings. Victims who dare name perpetrators are often assassinated, their families and loved ones threatened, while those responsible for these assassinations and threats enjoy the same impunity as the perpetrators of the original crimes. They may very well be in the employ of the intellectual authors of the original crimes!
But in some cases, like that of Las Pavas, the national and international profile of the victims is simply too high to kill them with impunity—the resulting scandal would be counterproductive to the interests of those wishing to silence them. It is in such cases, often based on the testimony of demobilized paramilitaries, that the victims are simply redefined and prosecuted as criminals. Redefining victims of paramilitary and military crimes and their advocates as criminals not only ensures that they will be denied justice, reparation and protection; it could also undermine their support base. Those who knowingly continue to advocate for these newly-criminalized victims would be seen as willing accomplices, and could therefore expect to be treated as such. Thus the guilty continue to enjoy impunity and the spoils of their criminal acts, while the real victims and those who advocate for them in their quest justice and reparation are criminalized.
Las Pavas is by no means the onlyexample of this. Recently here in Barrancabermeja two leaders of the Coca Cola bottlers’ union, SINALTRAINAL, William Mendoza and Juan Carlos Galvis—leaders who receive armed protection from the state because of paramilitary threats against them—are now also being investigated as perpetrators rather than victims of crimes. Here in the Magdalena Medio Teofilo Acuña,the president of FEDAGROMISBOL, and numerous leaders of the Campesino Association of the Cimitara Valley (ACVC) have been incarcerated for being or collaborating with the guerrilla. David Ravelo of the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS) was and continues to be incarcerated for that same reason. Although none of these false accusations has resulted in the disbanding of the organizations the incarcerated leaders belong to, they have required these organizations to find new leadership and dedicate precious time and resources to defendingtheir own falsely accused leaders—time and energy that would otherwise be dedicated to defending the human rights of others.
The Effect on Las Pavas:
Those of you who have been following and advocating for the community of Las Pavas will know that this community, which has been displaced from their land by both paramilitaries and the state security forces themselves, is still struggling to get formal recognition and tittles to their land. As the result of a Constitutional Court ruling, INCODER –the Colombian Institute for Rural Development—has been ordered to review the case of Las Pavas. So far that has not resulted in land tittles for the people of Las Pavas, who nevertheless, with the support of their allies and without state authorization, have returned to their land. The palm-oil producer, Aportes San Isidro, continues to occupy most of their territory.
These new allegations and investigations into the community of Las Pavas question whether or not the community ever lived on the land in the first place, thereby also calling into question whether they were ever forcefully displaced from that land by paramilitaries —remarkable allegations given that the state itself had recognized and assisted the community after it was displaced! The local prosecutor of the state of Bolívar, based in Cartegena—Miryam Martínez Palomino—accuses the community of having fabricated the whole story, and deceiving the national and international non-governmental organizations into supporting the community’s claims. These allegations imply that the community’s unsanctioned return to their land was a criminal illegal invasion and occupation of private property. Additional allegations allege that several of the leaders of the Las Pavas community are/have connections with the guerrillas—an equally preposterous allegation!
For the community of Las Pavas these allegations were both shocking and alarming. Their first response was to let their national and international allies know of this absurd development. They were relieved to know that, not only did none of their allies believe the allegations; all of them—including Christian Peacemaker Teams Colombia—publicly reiterated their intention to continue to stand with the community in their struggle for justice, land restitution and land tittles. Furthermore, none of Las Pavas’ allies withdrew their support as a result of the state prosecutors’ postulation that allies and advocates of Las Pavas had been deceived by the community, and, upon learning the truth, would presumably withdraw their support rather than be willing accomplices in fraud and illegal occupation of land.
Nevertheless, these developments have created a lot of stress, and do require the Las Pavas community members to reassert their status as victims of forced displacement. Without that recognition they are unlikely to get the land tittles and protection from future displacement that they seek. The community appealed to the Federal Prosecutor, Viviane Morales, who then paid a visit to the community. Many allies of the community as well as a lot of national media were also there to cover the event, not to mention hundreds of police and military personnel who provided the visiting officials with security. There she heard testimony from the people of Las Pavas themselves—something the state prosecutor from Cartegena never bothered to do. The community is hopeful that, after having launched her own investigation and hearing the testimonies of various community members, the national prosecutor will affirm the communities status as victims of forced displacement, rather than the criminal invaders and occupiers of private property that the local state prosecutor for the province of Bolívar alleges them to be.
The community remains cautiously hopeful. However, experience has taught them that they cannot sit on their laurels and wait for due process to bring them justice. They and their allies, joined by other organizations and victims, did a public action in the Plaza Simon BolívarinColombia’s capital—Bogotá. This mobilization was a major undertaking. It required transporting 80 members of the Las Pavas community, and a equal number of people from other supporting communities from the South of Bolivar, as well as members of supporting organizations, to Bogotá –a 24-hour trip for most of them. Once in Bogotá we all also had to be fed and housed the three days. All this required, not only a lot of time and effort, but a great deal of financial resources—financial resources that the community of Las Pavas does not have. Without the continued support of allies none of this would have been possible.
Even so, instead of continuing to dedicate their time and resources to furthering their goal of getting, land tittles and state protection, both the community and its allies must now dedicate precious time and energy and scarce financial resources into re-establishing that community status as victims of forced displacement, not the perpetrators of fraud and an illegal land invasion that the Bolívar’s state-prosecutor alleges them to be.
Conclusions and observations:
The balance of power in Colombia continues to favour those who profit from crime. Justice would eat into those profits, so rather than prosecute the perpetrators of forced displacement, extrajudicial killings, and other human rights abuses, the victims are being criminalized. The perpetrators enjoy impunity. Judicial investigations seeking to discredit and criminalize victims and their advocates are vigorously pursued, while the perpetrators of crimes against victims are seldom, if ever, brought to justice. It seems that judicial processes here in Colombia has been corrupted and commodified, and “justice”, far from being blind, serves only the highest bidders.
Consequently justice for the community of Las Pavas is far from assured, and the community is still very much in need of the support of its allies. Christian Peacemaker Teams in Colombia is one of several allies that remain committed to supporting the community of Las Pavas. We hope you are too!