he said, adding that he had to stop reading at 8:00 pm every night, “because if I didn’t, I couldn’t sleep.”
Three relatives of ‘desaparecidos’ (victims of forced disappearance), sitting next to this reporter, all nodded their heads silently.
The seminar was organised for people like them, so that “international experiences and those of Latin American victims’ organisations can inspire these women, people who have been orphaned, and the hundreds of relatives of victims of forced disappearance who have not had a chance to be heard in our country,” Dos Mundos director Fernando Jiovani Arias, a doctor and psychotherapist, told IPS.
Participating in the seminar were representatives of victims’ movements, forensic experts and human rights activists from Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uruguay.
Every 36 hours on average, someone is forcibly disappeared in Colombia, the seminar heard from Gustavo Gallón, head of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) human rights group, who described the situation as “appalling.”
In the first five years after rightwing President Álvaro Uribe took office in August 2002, 1,259 people have fallen victim to forced disappearance, according to the CCJ, which said three percent of the cases are blamed on the leftist guerrillas.
“Public functionaries are compromised in one way or another in around 97 percent of the disappearances — 28 percent as a result of direct perpetration by state agents, and 69 percent as a result of tolerance of, or support for, disappearances carried out by paramilitary groups,” said Gallón.
The number of cases directly attributed to the security forces rose fourfold in the past five years, to 235 cases a year, compared to 58 cases a year between July 1997 and June 2002, said the legal expert.
The government frequently attempts to discredit these figures, but “we have not received any objection” since mid-2007, said Gallón, who explained that the CCJ’s figures are the result of two decades of work gathering information from “20 newspapers and magazines, direct denunciations, statistics from the vice president’s office, and other sources.”
The CCJ sent the attorney general’s office a document referring to 452 cases of forced disappearance that occurred between December 2002 and November 2007, to inquire about the legal status of the cases.
The attorney general’s office responded that one of the cases had gone to trial, another was in the pre-trial examination phase and three were in the preliminary inquiry stage. “Some kind of investigation” is also being carried out in 51 other cases, 125 others are not being investigated, and with respect to the rest, the attorney general’s office “did not respond,” reported Gallón.
The practice of forced disappearance, which was used during the decade known as “La Violencia” in the 1940s and 1950s, reemerged in the mid-1970s, but estimates of the number of victims vary widely.
Although forced disappearance was classified in Colombia as a crime in 2000, the Human Rights Observatory of the Presidential Programme for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law did not include it in its 2007 report.
The National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, created under the law that governed the demobilisation of the ultra-right paramilitary militias, estimates that 20,000 people have been “disappeared” in Colombia, while the office of the inspector general (Procuraduría General de la Nación) puts the total at 11,000.
The Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (ASFADDES), meanwhile, has recorded 7,136 cases that occurred between 1977 and 2004. But a report by the human rights group warns that the figure is undoubtedly an underestimate, given the fear of local communities to report disappearances. In interviews and statements, members of the organisation talk about 15,000 victims.
In Gallón’s view, there is “a significant arsenal of judicial provisions that should be acknowledged and valued. Many functionaries, both civilians and members of the military and the police, have good will and good intentions, but nevertheless forced disappearance continues to be practiced.”
The problem, he said, is that “no action is taken against the perpetrators.”
“Public policies are very important, but what is especially needed, above and beyond documents, laws and legal mechanisms, is political will,” he said.
Participants in the seminar agreed that Colombia’s laws are excellent, but that they are not enforced.
However, “the judicial sector has, little by little, made an effort that I believe is unstoppable,” said Javier Hernández, representative in Colombia of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“Victims can no longer be swept under the rug in Colombia,” he remarked to IPS.
The victims “have taught me, have helped me,” said Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, who was invited to the seminar. “Justice is a kind of animal, a mastodon that takes a while to arrive, that needs a boost, and that fuel, that food, comes precisely from the victims,”
Garzón, famous for taking on high-profile cases involving crimes against humanity committed in Latin America, under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, defined forced disappearance as “the total humiliation of human beings to the very end.”
“In this context of human degradation, it is the victims who are most in need of protection,” but at the same time, “justice cannot be achieved without their support,” said Garzón.
He urged people to “kick up a row about what is happening, shock people about this problem, wherever it needs to be heard. The victims are an awkward presence because they demand justice and bring to light shortcomings in the system. If we are here, it is because the state has not functioned as it should, through its institutions.”
González said “the future is composed of the present and the past, and the future cannot be built on top of millions of corpses. The wound, first, must be cleaned and sutured.”
“We can’t look forward if we don’t have our backs covered,” said Garzón.