By Luis Carlos Palomino

From genocides and collective assassinations: The case of the UP

13th March, 2021

When one studies Colombian history, numerous episodes make one wonder, did this really happen? Such disbelief is often caused by how inexplicable it is to observe from a screen the viciousness with which Colombians have waged our conflicts. The difficulty in processing our own reality is related to two cognitive challenges. The first is giving meaning to such large and abstract numbers that come to us without any context about the conflict. For example, when we are told that more than 4 million displaced people or more than 300 social leaders are murdered every year. It is difficult to build a mental image that helps us not only to know about - but also to understand what is happening. 

The second challenge is being able to make emotional connections with episodes of violence. This is especially difficult, as the indifference of many Colombians towards the conflict has a negative impact on the lives of the victims, and how we reflect on our history. The conflict has developed mainly in rural areas and the urban peripheries, which implies that its effects are not directly experienced in the day-to-day life of urban Colombians, where most of the population lives. This makes it especially easy not to react to the tragedies that occur in other latitudes. If nothing changes

The genocide of the Patriotic Union (UP) is the best example of how these two challenges operate when it comes to understanding ourselves. The UP is a political party created as a result of the peace negotiations between the government of Belisario Betancour (1982-1986) and the FARC-EP. From the beginning of the UP as a political party in 1984 until 2002 (when it lost its legal status), 4,153 of its members were victims of direct violence, of which "3,122 were victims of selective assassination, 544 were victims of forced disappearance, 478 were victims of assassinations in massacres, 4 kidnapped and 3 more in other modalities of violence" (CNMH, 2018. pp. 108, translated from Spanish). In total, it is estimated that there are more than 6,000 victims when taking into account those who were forced to migrate and/or survived attempts on their lives.

Book "everything happened in front of our eyes". Available only in Spanish here.

The term genocide, in this case, has been the subject of much controversy. While it is common for most of the population to refer to this case as genocide, there is a debate as to whether this is the appropriate way to characterize it under international criminal law, since the definition of genocide under the Rome Statute only includes cases where the intent is to eliminate national, ethnic, racial or religious groups, but not political collectivities. However, there have been efforts to typify politically motivated genocide in Colombia in order to build collective cases in the search for justice. Regardless of its particular denomination, it is crucial to recognize it as a crime against humanity, which prevents these crimes from becoming time-barred.

It is painful to give a human face to those affected when the victims are so many. It is heartbreaking to try to empathize with their grief and distress, not only because in relation to the death of a loved one but also towards the ruthlessness of the political forces, which continued to consolidate their power in the State despite the facilitating role they played in this tragedy. However, actively exposing ourselves to this pain is not a mere masochistic act but rather a task for those of us who want to work for the construction of a peaceful country. Unearthing the truth about the culprits, their methods, and their accomplices is not only a responsibility we have to the victims and their families but to all those who are still suffering threats against their lives for merely having a specific political inclination. To be more concrete, confronting the tragedy of the genocide of the UP with courage and empathy is a fundamental step if we want to prevent the ongoing systematic murder of social leaders and former FARC guerrillas.

In this effort, the transitional justice system, especially the Special Justice for Peace (JEP), has recently played a key role in accounting for the true magnitude of this case. Within the ordinary justice system, the Prosecutor's Office reported only around 1,620 victims (FISCALIA, 2018), while the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH) and the NGO Corporación Reiniciar estimate in their own reports that this figure exceeds 6,000 people.

Through the information provided in these reports, the JEP has made progress in bringing to justice the state actors responsible for the systematic assassination of UP members. The latest developments increasingly strengthen the theory that the army, the police and the now-defunct Administrative Department of Security (DAS) worked in conjunction with third parties - civilians and paramilitaries - to carry out this genocide. State agencies provided information to criminal organizations to carry out the assassinations and disbanded the victims’ security schemes to facilitate the commission of the crimes.

It is important to emphasize how, for decades, the victims have argued that this systematic mechanism was being implemented, while the ordinary justice system and the mass media barely scratched the surface of these problems. However, these crimes have not fallen into impunity and oblivion thanks to the efforts of the victims themselves, not only at the national level but also at the international level and the cooperation of multilateral organizations.

This public-private criminal structure was used to attack members of the UP and all other political and social movements that sought an alternative to the traditional political forces in Colombia. And what is most worrisome is that this structure has not disappeared. The systematic assassination of social leaders and ex-combatants is a continuation of this strategy, where illegal private actors carry out the murders with the complacency (if not cooperation) of state agencies (SEMANA, 2020).

Understanding the persistence of these mechanisms and the impunity that (as for now) those who have exercised them have had, helps us to better comprehend many current positions of victims and social organizations. The facts revealed by the genocide of the UP also explain the concerns from social leaders regarding the Prosecutor's Office trying to centralize the official count of their lethal persecution and restrict the role that other actors can play in preventing impunity (EL ESPECTADOR, 2021). It is also much clearer why those who live with threats to their lives fear when the same government in charge of its security schemes uses euphemisms such as "collective killings" to refuse to admit the systematicity and magnitude of massacres.

However, the history of the UP is not limited to its genocide.  It is also the history of how its members have resisted and persevered in their quest to participate democratically in constructing a peaceful country. They, who today have recovered their legal status and continue to fight for their perspective in the democratic arena, show us that those committed to peace have the tools to build it, even when the governments in power are not on the same page.

Photo: Anadolu Agency

Here reads: 'I am a survivor of the Patriotic Union genocide'