Advancing Colombia’s human rights struggle

April 4, 2012

Iván Cepeda is known as one of the most important human rights defenders in Colombia. In 1994, when his father, Manuel Cepeda, leader of the Unión Patriótica (UP), was assassinated by paramilitaries with connections to the state, Iván decided to become an activist.

Since then, Cepeda has helped document approximately 40,000 cases of state crime committed since 1966, and has been able to expose links between ex-President Álvaro Uribe and armed paramilitary groups and the armed forces. In 2010, he successfully made the government acknowledge its role in the death of his father.

Cepeda is the spokesperson of the Movimiento de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado (Movement for the Victims of State Crimes, or MOVICE), co-founder of the Foundation Manuel Cepeda Vargas, and a representative to congress from Bogota. He participates in Polo Democrático, an opposition party formed as a coalition of progressive and left-wing parties.

Sarah Wolf and Diana Restrepo spoke to Cepeda about the roots of the "internal conflict" in Colombia and the current political situation in the country.

CAN YOU speak about the current situation of social movements and consciousness in Colombia? The student movements on the one hand, and the unions and indigenous movements on the other, have had certain successes since 2008. How has the economic crisis affected this picture?

WE CAN begin by saying that one key feature of social movements in Colombia has been their great capacity for resistance. Social movements have faced a very gruesome process of extermination.

The peasant movement, for instance, has suffered successive blows. A nearly uninterrupted campaign of violence has been carried out against the peasantry from the mid-1920s until today. One group, the National Association of Sharecroppers (Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos) was practically exterminated, because they promoted land occupations, struggles for land and defense of their territory.

We could say the same thing about indigenous people. Colombia is a country in which, today, at least 18 indigenous communities are on their way to disappearing. This is also happening due to the effects of (political) violence. The indigenous communities live on the most resource-rich land--for example, land that contains oil--and for this reason they've been subject to massacres.

Iván Cepeda
Iván Cepeda

The same thing has occurred to Afro-Colombians. And better known in the U.S. is the case of the murder of union leaders--which has occurred precisely in times of economic deregulation and privatization, or of free trade agreements, or other types of economic and financial shifts such as incursions by multinational corporations.

What's new in recent decades is that social movements have begun not only to stand up to attacks, not only to initiate local struggles, but to expand, little by little, the reach of their struggles and of their political victories.

For example, the "minga indigena" is a movement in the south of Colombia made up of indigenous people of different ethnic groups that has been able not only to preserve their land-grant territories ["resguardos"--constitutionally recognized territories in which indigenous people have judicial autonomy in certain matters] but to get ex-president Uribe to sit down and negotiate with them about the issue.

Another good example of this phenomenon is the most recent student mobilization, which is distinguished not only by its success in forcing the current government to withdraw the "education reform and privatization" law, but also by the fact that it has begun to meld its efforts with student movements from around the continent.

That is, these movements are starting, both intuitively and consciously, to establish regional and global connections that, at the right moment, can begin to produce simultaneous mobilizations with clear objectives and clear agendas, targeting not only local power structures but also big corporations and centers of global political power.

I don't think that this is an excessively utopian vision. Rather, it's a process that has begun to develop ever since the creation of world [social] forums that mobilized against the Davos meetings. We are in the presence of a process in which social movements are globalizing. Capital did it first, with financial transactions and so forth, and now, little by little, we're entering the era of the globalization of social movements, and I think that Colombian social movements are participating in this dynamic.

A couple of movements have placed a particularly important role in recent years. One is that of the victims, who have read the violence in Colombia as political, and who have refused to be satisfied by the reparations policy that both previous governments and the current ones have offered. They have been able to transform the movement for the right to justice into something more than the struggle of individuals into one that demands something that I would call "democracy," and they have linked the problem of crimes against humanity to the problems posed by the current economic and political model. They have made the problem of the land of the dispossessed as a key political question.

In this way, following the marches that took place on March 6, 2008, they have been able to turn the problem of state criminality into a key problem for Colombian society to face.

From this perspective, I think that they have broadened the spectrum of social mobilization, and they've allowed the problem of the armed conflict in Colombia to be seen from a point of view far more complex than that of narco-terrorism on the one hand and a besieged legitimate State on the other.

IN RELATION to that last point, elsewhere you have used a specific term to describe the role of the state in Colombia--the idea of the myth of the "victim state." Can you explain briefly what this means, and the role it plays in maintaining social order?

UNLIKE IN other cases of generalized violence, in Colombia we face a peculiar circumstance in which a state of violence coincides with a state that preserves the forms, procedures and institutions of a "state of law." During the entire period of the war that we're dealing with now in Colombia, the institutions of the liberal state, or whatever you want to call it, have contented to function.

Laws have been passed; for better or worse; judicial sentences have been handed down; the executive branch has been elected regularly. However truly democratic and legal these procedures have or haven't been, this is the reality.

And simultaneously, this has been the reality governing the armed conflict, and of certain forms of violence, that the state has developed in and outside of this conflict. Because the armed conflict has broadened the reach of the state, allowing it to do whatever it likes.

In other words, anything can be blamed on the internal conflict. For example, a union activist who carries out an action in his or her workplace or against a multinational corporation demanding workers' rights can be equated to a "terrorist in civilian clothing."

All types of struggles, political opinions and public actions are easily portrayed as occurring within the sphere of the conflict. And while the conflict is the source of many of the deaths, homicides and massacres, it isn't the only one. There are also powerful individuals who want to accumulate land, people who have regional or national power--or who act in the service of international powers--who want to remove all obstacles to preserving and developing their power.

For this reason, many people and organizations become targets of plans, actions and criminal conspiracies initiated by the state. Now, there are two forms in which this takes place. One includes those state institutions that act arbitrarily against human rights, but do so completely legally. This is possible because we have laws on the books that are arbitrary and violate human rights. In Colombia, we have lived under "states of emergency," in which the president can suspend certain rights and civil liberties, for years.

The 1991 constitution limited these, to the extent that the "state of emergency" [literally: "state of exception"] was converted into a "state of normality." That is, this practice had become so frequent that we might as well have been living under a dictatorship.

But afterwards, they created "security" laws, "security" statutes and "security" programs that created a breeding ground and space for human rights violations. They even created special courts. They began by allowing military courts to judge civilians, and when that didn't work, they appointed special judges, also under the guise of fighting drug trafficking, which is important.

By raising the specter of terrorism and drug trafficking, they could insist that judges remain anonymous. In other words, people could be judged by an unidentified judge who introduced unidentified witnesses who the accused lawyers could not even meet--that is, a system utterly abusive of peoples' rights. Perhaps the most important example [of this type of activity by the state] has been the legalized formation of paramilitary groups. From the 1960s on, the Colombian state has allowed for the creation of groups of armed civilians under the pretext of promoting "security."

Now, that's the first form of criminal activity by the state--in which one can identify the institutions that carry it out, in which we know who gives the orders that are in turn backed up by laws.

But there's another form, and this is the covert, illegal action of state agents--intelligence forces and other groups that act behind institutional facades and commit blatantly criminal acts. For example, the army has intelligence units whose only role is to act criminally, in a paramilitary fashion, even dressing as paramilitaries. On other occasions the army has used paramilitary forces or receive money from them. In this way they also accumulate wealth.

A clear example [of illegal state action] is that of the so-called false positives, a phenomenon that has a long history in Colombia but has increased significantly under Uribe. This term refers to "taking down"--to use military language--civilians, especially young men and women from poor and rural areas, in order to present them as terrorists killed in combat.

There are four or five ways in which this happens. One way is that the army recruits the young people directly and then disappears and kills them. But there have also been times when paramilitary groups would turn young people over to the military [to be killed], or the military would hand them over to paramilitaries--that is, it became a rather sophisticated operation.

What's necessary to emphasize is that in Colombia, it hasn't simply been a matter of the state repressing the opposition. What has happened is not repression or persecution, but rather a policy of extermination. It would be absurd to say that the Nazi or Stalinist state "repressed" dissidents. They didn't just repress them; they literally exterminated them. One thing is genocide, another is repressive policy.

In Colombia we've had the former, that is, certain state institutions within the three branches of government, and on both local and national levels, have permitted criminality to continue. This has occurred with different ends, in different contexts, and for different reasons throughout Colombian history.

WHAT INTEREST does the U.S. have in maintaining instability in Colombia, beginning with the weapon sales, for instance, but also beyond that?

WELL, I would say that it all depends on what type of instability you are referring to.

As we know, the pretext of a lack of security is the most efficient way to impose an authoritarian state of things. Now, it is the case that we may be entering a new stage.

Let's say that Colombia was very useful during all these years as a port of entry for the U.S. military, political and economical intervention in Latin America, especially beginning in the year 2000, when left-wing governments begun to emerge--in the Andean region at first and then in the south of the continent.

I believe that from that perspective, the model of the war on drugs, or of the war on terror, was very efficient, and allowed the U.S. to export a model that has already been brought to Mexico, to Pakistan and elsewhere. Colombia exports mercenaries, and more recently is exporting its methods for demobilizing armed groups--that is, an entire gamut of "security" methods.

Now, is there an interest in continuing this, or are we in a different period? This is a key debate nowadays. In this regard, we need to consider some of the recent International Monetary Fund recommendations. One of them that says, for instance, that "a secure state of law" will be necessary in order for transnational capital to invest in our nation.

What does that mean? It means that a process of accumulation has achieved its goals and ended. The last 20 years in Colombia were marked by continuous land seizures in which the richest, most strategic lands--those closest to the oil, gold, mining--were expropriated (from their traditional residents or owners). Thus, it is possible that the reproduction of capital now requires another model.

Here, it is no longer necessary to expropriate entire regions. Here, how did the model of accumulation function? What it was really about was the uprooting thousands, even millions of people from certain places in order to then implant in this places certain agro-industrial projects, mining and so forth.

And so it is possible that now we are in the phase where what is necessary is not violence on a massive scale, but rather a more selective violence, with a lower profile. And thus there is a need for a different model, for instance a mode of a less costly peace that would imply that the guerilla surrender and demobilize, in order to be able to administer that richness in a more tranquil manner, relatively speaking. It is possible that we are in a different situation--and I say this is possible because these are developing circumstances. We are in front of not a frozen photograph, but rather a very dynamic situation.

So it is possible that the model can change. Conditions can also change in the sense of what we are facing now--a recession that is affecting the entire system, the first real worldwide crisis, a long cycle that is just beginning. In these conditions, it might not be feasible to maintain a state of war in Colombia...perhaps.

Perhaps...because it's also true that historically, cycles of recession have ended in world wars.

WHAT DO you think about the emergence of a new wave of global revolutionary and social movements, starting with Greece and the Middle East, and now emerging in Europe, Chile and the U.S. with the Occupy Wall Street movement and its "99 percent" slogan?

THERE ARE various interesting features about these expressions of dissent. In the first place, we are perhaps for the first time in front of a planetary social movement, in which different forces, classes and social sectors begin to make contact. New communication systems capable of transmitting on-the-ground realities instantly open the possibility, for the first time, of civil disobedience, rebellion, protests acquiring a universal dimension.

Up until now, humanity has seen the obstacles posed by activity on the local level. In a single factory, when there is a strike and the workers decide to stop working, the factory's business is paralyzed. It may even go bankrupt. But we still don't know how we might mobilize people simultaneously around the globe as part of one big action. This would be quite an innovation.

For instance, the "indignados" in Spain proposed that on one particular day, no one perform bank transactions. Similarly, we can imagine refusing to perform all sorts of actions--paying taxes, shopping at certain supermarkets, or consuming certain products, as different campaigns have tried to do. Let's say--and I hope I don't get painted as a subversive or a terrorist here--that we stop consuming Coca Cola; maybe something would happen. Maybe the transnational capital, that itself acts internationally every day (since capitalism is simultaneously omnipresent in the entire planet), could be impacted. This would be significant.

The second interesting feature is the disappearance of the central role played by individual leaders. What we have seen as a defect might be a virtue in these movements. They no longer rely on a figurehead leader who says and thinks of everything, and is the one around which everything revolves. Here, everyone is a leader, and acts in a coordinated manner without the necessity of a head.

Now, is this a sustainable, defining feature of the movement? Is it simply the product of a spontaneous situation, or might it be that new systems of communication permit us to witness certain forms of representation and decision-making such as those we've been observing recently? It is possible that we are seeing the emergence of new forms of democracy.

WHAT IMPACT has the Occupy Wall Street movement had in Colombia?

WELL, I believe the students have been the ones most recently influenced by it. But I would say that others have been, as well. In general, all movements have already formed networks, and are coordinating efforts with their counterparts in other places. The interesting aspect of the students has been their quick reaction to this new context, although the government has also reacted rapidly.

The Santos government understood--Santos being a very pragmatic politician--that it was best not to confront the tsunami, but instead move with the wave. He, along with other establishment politicians, has understood this. They have begun to present themselves as "indignados" as well. It is very like the Colombian elite to adapt itself and rapidly fit in, so now we have some members of the Conservative and Liberal parties who begin to say, "We've been saying this forever! This is no longer tolerable! The climate crisis!"

With all of these problems, we need to "indignarnos" ["become indignant"]. Today, Santos is marching with the peasants. In other words, they are already attempting to assimilate, to co-opt. Some politicians already want their parties to look like NGOs or movements. They have already begun to take their shape, talk like them, mimic them.

I WOULD like to ask you a bit about your political development, and of course in particular about your father's assassination in 1994. If you can talk a little about that moment in history in the country and in your personal life?

MY FATHER was a political leader. In fact, I had the fortune that both my parents were political leaders and reporters. In my father's case, he lived through very crucial moments in the country's history, particularly the emergence of the Union Patriótica (UP).

The UP was a political movement that emerged in Colombia in the wake of peace negotiations between President Velisario Betancur and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which in 1985 resulted in a treaty and the creation of a FARC-based political movement.

The government promised that the movement would be given necessary the conditions and guarantees to operate peacefully, so it was a betrayal when, even before the movement was fully created, assassinations began. Between 1985-1994, they killed 2,225 people. According to accounts that have been made, my father was victim number 2,226. It was that killing that put an end to the parliamentary representation of the UP. My father was the last congressperson elected from that organization, and thus formed part of an interrupted chain that even until now has had an effect.

Many counts have been made of the victims of that political genocidal process. We concluded that direct victims come to about 5,000, and that my father's assassination had to do with a time where there was an opening of a peace dialogue. President Samper took office, and two days later, my father was killed. Thus, it was an assassination impeding that a developing peace process, my father being the figure who was essentially leading the possibility of a dialogue.

The genocide has a double connotation. First, as a crime against peace, because this meant that the negotiation process was frustrated for many years in Colombia. When people ask the guerilla today, "Why don't you guys go the political route, in a peaceful way?", the response is obvious: "What for, so that the same things can happen to us as it did to the UP?

Secondly, the killings of UP members were a crime against the political opposition. Even though the government has tried to claim that the assassinations were justifiable because they were "guerilla emissaries, false citizens, guerilla dressed as civilians," in reality, my father, like many of those leaders, were unarmed, were not shady, were not any type of frontmen. It was a crime against the opposition, against the political power.

For many years, I worked at shedding light on this individual incident, as well as the case of the UP, and at a more developed stage, on state crimes. That's the fundamental reason why we founded an organization after his name, as well as the Movement for the Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE). So far, we have been able to get the inter-American court to condemn the Colombian state, as well as my being elected to parliament. I wasn't elected as part of a particular political party--I am part of the Polo Democrático, which is a big coalition, but I don't represent any party within the Polo.

My candidacy comes from the social movement, from human rights organizations. Some voted for me--I obtained 5,000 votes in Bogotá-- as an homage to my father. But the majority of people who voted for me are not those types of voters, but do understand, from different perspectives, and from different levels of society, the importance of justice.

It's because of this that on August 9, 2011, we forced the Colombian government to recognize its responsibility of my father's death in front of the parliament, which is a step forward--out of the 5,000 that we need to take.

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