BOGOTA: Every time Maria Alejandra Mahecha sees the machete scar on her father’s face, she is reminded of a brutal attack 15 years ago and the visible wounds of Colombia’s war that he bears.
Mahecha says rebels from the Marxist FARC – known until recently as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – carried out the attack that forced her family to flee their home in the south where they owned a shop.
“It nearly cost my father’s life,” says 23-year-old Mahecha.
Colombia’s five-decade civil war pitted leftist rebels against government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups.
The conflict killed at least 200,000 people, drove 7.5 million from their homes, and saw at least another 60,000 listed as missing, according to government figures.
But following a 2016 peace accord between the government and FARC – now a political party known as the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force – Colombia is gearing up to investigate those responsible for atrocities.
A number of war tribunals and truth commissions are expected to begin work once a legal framework is finalised – and that could happen by September, a government official says.
Their task is to investigate those responsible for human rights atrocities committed during the war, including forced displacement, disappearances and massacres. Controversially, they have limited sentencing powers.
“The first step is understanding and accepting that this is transitional justice and not ordinary justice,” says Mahecha, who represents young people on one of the provincial war victim committees.
“That’s a necessary step that must be taken for any sort of justice to happen.”
If, and how, Colombia delivers justice and holds those responsible for war crimes is a key test for the nation, experts say, and a measure of its ability to move beyond decades of war.
Victims’ rights groups are among those who have said that delivering justice is essential for peace, reconciliation and a chance to break the cycle of violence.
“Justice for victims is knowing the truth,” says Mahecha. “We have to know what happened.”
Over the next decade, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) – the judicial body responsible for the process – will sift through tens of thousands of victim testimonies, and try former rebels, military and civilians accused of rights abuses.
The war’s length and the number of armed groups involved means uncovering the truth and apportioning blame is a colossal task, says Mirtha Linares, president of the JEP.
Prioritising cases will prove key to the JEP’s success, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Those cases are likely to include forced disappearances and displacement, as well as recruitment of children into armed groups.
Colombia’s high court is currently considering whether thousands of cases of sexual violence, including rape, which all factions committed, will be tried by the JEP or be dealt with by the criminal justice system.
In the coming months, the JEP’s judges – more than half of whom are women – will select the cases they consider to be most representative of atrocities committed. They will aim to deliver verdicts speedily.
“If we don’t achieve this, it not only would imply the failure of the JEP … but, beyond that, the failure of hope that these conflicts between human beings can be solved in a peaceful way and through negotiation,” says Linares.
The process could reveal uncomfortable truths, including the nexus between the political elite and armed groups, she says.
“(There is) a political class that has very serious stains of corruption, of commitments, including those with illegal armed groups like the paramilitaries and others,” Linares says.
Crime and punishment?
For Linares the JEP is about “restorative justice”. That means an emphasis on finding the truth and providing reparations for victims, including handing back stolen land and property.
But many Colombians do not agree with that approach. They fear those responsible will get lenient sentences for serious violations. Human Rights Watch has echoed those concerns.
Under the terms of the peace deal, rebel fighters who admit to war crimes will be sentenced to between five and eight years of “alternative punishment”.
Quite what that will mean in practice is unclear. Options could include community service, restricted freedom or house arrest.
Those who do not confess and are subsequently found guilty could face up to 20 years in jail.
About 1,750 state security forces and 3,500 demobilised rebel fighters, including former top FARC commanders, are expected to appear before the JEP.
Among them is former FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, who heads the group’s political party. The presidential candidate pledged earlier this month that he would tell the truth. The issue of justice continues to dominate heated debate ahead of presidential elections in May.
“I feel the pressure every day,” says Linares.
Although the terms of the peace deal are controversial, many victims, including Mahecha, say the JEP offers hope.
“You have to give and take … it would be naive to think that they (FARC) are going to pay years in jail,” says Mahecha.
For victims’ relatives, the JEP offers hope they can finally locate the bodies of their loved ones.
“It’s a chance to know what happened,” says Teresita Gaviria, whose teenage son disappeared two decades ago.
She heads a group of mothers called Madres De La Candelaria – a collective of 1,800 relatives of the missing.
“Justice is, at the very least, having the perpetrators recognizing and admitting to their crimes,” says Gaviria.
“Most of us know the names of the people who killed our sons and daughters. What we want to know now is where the bodies are buried.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation