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Waiting for the disappeared

Colombian Truth Commission: Working Towards
Anti-disposability in the False Positive Cases

June 29, 2021 / By Sonia Garzon

To think about disposability, in the words of Cynthia Enloe, is to be nameless and to not have a voice or a story in somebody’s eyes [1]. When Enloe describes disposability in her lecture on Histories of Violence, she refers to a voluntary act committed by an agent who decides to become the disposer of somebody’s life and story.

It has been almost 10 years since the media began to realize that Colombia could have more cases of enforced disappearance than those perpetrated by the military dictatorships of Argentina and Chile combined [2]. In 2015, an article published by the BBC asserted that cases of forcibly disappeared persons in Colombia could range from 45.000 to 106.000, whereas an ethnographic research published in 2016 by Colombia’s Centre of Historical Memory (CMH) asserted that enforced disappearance took a toll of 60.603 lives [3].

Borrowing the words of Laurent Berlant [4], the doubts which the discrepancies between these numbers might suggest or the pretence that this horrendous practice is a thing of the past are no more than a cruel optimism. A focus on the so-called “false positive” cases exemplifies how enforced disappearance in the Colombian armed conflict became a system where the lives of innocent human beings were turned into disposable. However, there is some hope that the work that is being done in the Colombian Truth Commission opens a window of anti-disposability. Recently, in February 2021, a case opened by the Colombian Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) extended the already long murderous list of extrajudicial killings and disappearances. Before the still sceptical gaze of local public opinion, this transitional justice institution published the findings of 6.402 victims of the so-called false positive cases. Falsos positivos is the name given in Spanish to extrajudicial killings of civilians committed in Colombia by military actors, whose victims were then presented as members of the guerrilla killed in combat. Whereas there are some differences between the initial form of enforced disappearance and the false positives, between the victims’ personal stories and the motives behind those crimes, the latter proves to be so far one of the most atrocious ways of human disposability. In the false positive cases, members of the Colombian military looked at their fellow citizens as redundant, as subjects who did not deserve to be taken care of or to have a place in society. Instead of protecting the lives of those whom they were meant to defend, those militaries found in their vulnerability a reason to become the disposers of their lives.

From Political Enforced Disappearance to Eugenic Disposability

As the Centre of Historical Memory described in 2017, enforced disappearance was introduced by Colombian government in the 1970s as an anti-communist strategy included in its counterinsurgency doctrine waged in the context of the Cold war [5]. In this initial stage, the victims of enforced disappearance were primarily activists and members or sympathizers of left-wing movements [6]. However later on, this murderous crime was outsourced by state actors to paramilitary groups. The target of enforced disappearance was then extended beyond left-wing activists and political leaders to victimize social leaders, afro-Colombian and indigenous activists, peasants, town councillors and community actors whose vindications, such as a more equitable access to land, were seen as a menace against the politics of the national government in power [7]. Furthermore, it is today recognized that enforced disappearance was also committed by the guerrilla FARC [8].

Perpetrators of enforced disappearance

Perpetrators of enforced disappearance

© Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica

Paramilitary groups
State agents
Unidentified armed group
Post-demobilization group
Paramilitary groups – State agents

Unlike this form of enforced disappearance, the false positive operations were not committed on the grounds of ideological difference or political affiliations but on the basis of an almost eugenic and class-based discrimination. Cases of innocent young men, some of whom were disabled, who were killed by the Colombian army began to come to light in 2008 through the struggle of their mothers and relatives. The initial victims were the sons of families living in Soacha and other working-class and low-income areas located in the south of Bogota. And, as it is often the case with Soacha’s inhabitants, some of these families have also been victims of enforced displacement [9]. Another condition that those cases seem to have in common is that they were committed between 2002 and 2008, when the so-called Democratic Security policy was implemented by the then government of Alvaro Uribe [10]. Recognized in 2017 as a crime against humanity, the victims of this atrocity were young men who were lured or taken to another area of the country with the promise of getting a job. However, instead of a job, those youngsters were killed upon their arrival by the militaries and presented as members of the guerrilla who were supposedly killed in combat.

The Knows Known and the Knows We don’t Know Yet

Whether or not there were behind those crimes elite politicians who turned a blind eye is something that has not yet been revealed. But what has become certain is that underlying this atrocity was a murderous but legal politic of rewards put in place in 2005 by the government to boost the numbers of people killed in combat. Indeed, as it is now acknowledged, in its fight against leftist guerrillas, the Colombian army sparked “a body count syndrome” [11] through which members of the military were granted promotions, received money, or extra holidays as a reward for having killed guerrilla members.

Through narratives of the collective so-called “Mothers of Soacha,” we can learn that those young people were persons with a voice and a story of their own, that they had a recognized place in the minds of their relatives, friends and fellow neighbours [12]. The contrary is true for the military who performed those killings, and for those who decided to take their lives and turn themselves into disposers. They imagined that these young persons were deemed disposable or redundant people. In their minds of warriors, their lives were nameless and their bodies could be placed as objects to produce the fiction of a military victory. In the mid-2000s, at the time when these crimes were perpetrated, the Colombian army waged an advertising campaign with the slogan “in Colombia, heroes do exist ” [13]. In the domestic terrain, the campaign served to inflate a sense of national pride and positioned the military as the protector of civilians. But in parallel, the biopolitics behind the false positives fed perfectly into the bloody politic of boosting numbers, an aggressive policy of targets set to gain access to international military funding. The false positives’ murders were not against but, on the contrary, served the Colombian army to demonstrate progress against the guerrilla and to “justify US aid military package” [14].

The false positive scandal triggered by these allegations resulted in 2008 in 28 military officers being sacked, including 3 generals [15]. However, in their struggle to find justice, the false positive victims’ families have received threats and suffered harassment. From the responses of Uribe’s government denying the innocence of these victims [16], the gravity of such atrocity is still downplayed by asserting that, if it occurred, those cases were isolated events and not a systematic conduct [17].

Colombia: the ‘false positive’ number that sets off a political storm

Three of the JEP’s primary database sources – the Attorney General’s Office (yellow), the National Centre for Historic Memory (grey) and the coalition of human rights organisations (orange) – reflect similar extrajudicial executions patterns over time. A peak of “false positives” was reached in 2007. Between 2002 and 2008, the JEP has established that 6,402 people were unlawfully killed. © JEP / JusticeInfo.net

Working Anti-disposability at the Truth Commission

Two weeks ago, on 11 June 2021, a new window of opportunity was opened at the Truth Commission when former president Juan Manuel Santos gave his testimony during a public hearing [18]. Santos’s testimony needs to be viewed through a bifocal lens that encompasses war and peace. First, because from 2006 to 2009 when those crimes were committed Santos acted as defence minister; and second, because during its presidency Santos achieved to negotiate and sign a peace treaty with the FARC. Indeed, the creation of the Truth Commission is a direct result of this peace agreement. Defining his testimony as “his truth,” Santos used most of his speech to provide an account of the measures he undertook to address the false positive cases. The reiteration of the efforts he made during his time in office to enforce strict adherence to human rights was almost an anchor throughout his speech. Santos showed deep empathy with the families of the victims, he apologized and asserted that it should never have happened.

His apologies took the form of moral responsibility, starting with the acknowledgement that it proved difficult for him to recognize that these crimes were taking place within the military ranks under his authority. In his words, he was “wearing a blindfold of denial” and asserted that, as the initial information he received were rumours without evidence, he did not deem them credible. Presenting a well-crafted speech, he recognized that the false positives caused enormous damage to the families of the victims, but also to the legitimacy of the army. In so doing, Santos touched upon the intersection between institutional accountability and victims’ right to non-recurrence. Indeed, one of the things that cannot be neglected is that Santos pointed at one of the root causes of this crime. As he said, the “original sin” underlying the false positives was the “pressure to produce casualties” and all that has been woven around this military doctrine.
Some authors have described Santos’s testimony as disappointing. In their view, he failed to answer questions such as who gave the order or why Santos did not do enough to help the families of the victims to get access to justice. However, when it comes to the military, as Maria Emma Wills suggests, there is no need of an explicit order for this to happen [19]. This atrocious conduct stems from the normalization of a culture of impunity and from an institutional patriarchy that despises those human beings, women and men who do not fit into their class-biased heteronormative standards. Otherwise, how can we explain that the claims of the mothers and their families looking for their sons were ignored or seen as mere rumours.

Accountability regarding the false positives is still pending, but it is needed in order to deter this crime from happening again and guarantee non-recurrence. Yet, with Santos’s testimony, the Truth Commission opened a transformative opportunity that cannot be missed. Whether this space will be sufficiently open to the families so that they can give their testimony and participate in recovering the name and story of their sons and their right to have a place in the country’s historical memory is crucial. Indeed, it is through the voices of the victims’ mothers that we have learned that the false positives occurred by tapping into the victims’ vulnerabilities.
Unlike Uribe, Santos asserted that the false positives were systemic and not isolated crimes undertaken by some bad apples. Consequently, the question asked by the commissioner and chairman, Francisco de Roux, to Santos is: What can be done at the institutional level to secure non-repetition? Although handbooks and toolbox methodologies could convey good intentions, evidence of systematic injustice comes to light when looking at the narratives and experience of the mothers of the victims. What did allow somebody to become a disposer and think that the lives of the most vulnerable can be turned into disposable? The idea of achieving peace while counting bodies, is not just a derailment of the politics of boosting numbers. It is underpinned by systemic discriminations and social inability to engage with difference. Intersecting systems of class, gender, and race-based discrimination disciplines our idea of nation and allows us to think that peace can be achieved by eliminating those who dissent or represent dissonance. As demonstrated in these forms of atrocity, it has shaped our imaginary of what lives our society values as worthy to live and who deserves to be taken care of.

[1] http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/disposable-life-cynthia-enloe/
[2] https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2015/10/151019_colombia_desparecidos_cuantos_son_nc
[3] http://centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/micrositios/hasta-encontrarlos/
[4] https://www.dukeupress.edu/cruel-optimism
[5] https://centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/memoria-de-la-infamia-desaparicion-forzada-en-el-magdalena-medio/
[6] https://www.es.amnesty.org/en-que-estamos/noticias/noticia/articulo/colombia-ratifica-la-convencion-contra-las-desapariciones-forzadas/
[7] https://ebrary.net/99405/economics/violence_oblivion_case_colombia_s_disappeared
[8] https://www.rcnradio.com/judicial/jep-cito-cupula-de-las-farc-por-desapariciones-forzadas-en-caldas
[9] https://www.dw.com/es/colombia-juan-manuel-santos-dar%C3%A1-testimonio-sobre-falsos-positivos/a-57790447
[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdkv6DdJqLY&t=41s
[11] https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB266/index.htm
[12] https://pares.com.co/2021/03/04/la-memoria-de-las-victimas-de-falsos-positivos/
[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysX7Vl2pA8w
[14] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/08/colombia-false-positives-scandal-casualties-higher-thought-study
[15] http://www.radiosantafe.com/2008/10/29/purga-en-el-ejercito-por-desaparicion-de-jovenes-de-soacha/
[16] https://centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/memoria-de-la-infamia-desaparicion-forzada-en-el-magdalena-medio/
[17] https://books.google.fr/books?id=oKKLDwAAQBAJ
[18] https://comisiondelaverdad.co/actualidad/noticias/juan-manuel-santos-falsos-positivos-pido-perdon-mas-profundo-alma
[19] https://razonpublica.com/santos-dice-verdad-los-falsos-positivos-dijo-poco-dijo-mucho