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"We still don't know where our relatives are"

José Daniel Álvarez
14 December 2006

A terrible personal experience prompted you to become a human rights activist...

I consider myself a victim. Before I was a human rights activist, my father and my uncle disappeared along with 42 peasants from the Colombian village of Puerto Bello. That is how I got into human rights.

The US State Department human rights report notes evidence that even in 2005 "tacit non-aggression pacts between local military officers and paramilitary groups existed in several regions". From your experience, do you think there is collusion between the government and the paramilitaries?

Yes, there is certain collusion and as a result there have been many victims. It has even been proved that there is collusion between the paramilitary and the army in some regions. This has been proved in sentences and inquiries within the country and in several sentences from the Interamerican Court of Human Rights.

In the specific Puerto Bello case, it was very painful that a military captain told a commission the day after the disappearances in the village that "what had happened in Puerto Bello was in retaliation for a livestock theft (by a guerrilla group)" and he "couldn't understand how they had traded the livestock for people".

In your own view, are you content with the Interamerican Court of Human Rights sentence on the Puerto Bello events charging the Colombian state for not taking adequate measures to stop the facts and, consequently, pay a compensation?

As relatives, this has been a very important victory for us. For now it is a moral and symbolic matter because until today the sentence has not been fully applied. We hope that from 2007 - when the sentence is applied - the government complies with the court's rulings. The state has been required to compensate us for the psychical and material damages, locate and identify the disappeared and build a memorial in Puerto Bello. It is the least the state can do since, after sixteen years, the relatives still don't know the whereabouts their family members.

The Uribe government seems to have adopted a hard line approach to dealing with the violence in Colombia and has conducted a peace process that ended because of an unilateral decision from the AUC. How do you assess Uribe's performance?

I don't think that is actually accurate. The government's policy of "democratic security" has succeeded in militarising a number of regions and roads through the country. But outside of those zones, the country remains very dangerous.

In terms of the peace process, people never really felt there was such a process going on. All peace initiatives have been undermined by the vanity of politicians trying to make themselves the centre of attention. This last peace attempt is no exception. Recent legislation has granted paramilitaries and guerrillas a considerable measure of immunity and impunity, leaving victims with few recourses to justice and compensation.

What concerns me is that AUC are still very much intact and now the situation can get completely out of control.

Our efforts and denouncements of the paramilitaries are directed at getting the Colombian state to take responsibility for the lives, honour and property of decent citizens. There are international conventions and a body of international humanitarian law for the government to respect and implement. If that happens, things in this country would surely change a little, but nowadays, the situation in terms of human rights violations continues to be very difficult and bleak.

What can be done to improve the human rights situation in Colombia?

I believe that the state should seek a different way of moving towards a solution to the conflict, one that involves the greater participation of civil society and the international community. The civil society is often ignored because of the denial of the existence of internal dissent and the presenting of events as isolated terrorist actions.

Even though the EU and the US have included the FARC and other guerrilla groups in their lists of terrorist organisations, it seems that you share the view of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, that prefer not to speak of "terrorism" to refer to the situation in Colombia.

Undoubtedly, framing the violence as terrorist in nature has generated additional international attention to Colombia and its struggles, but in Colombia you can hardly speak of terrorism. There is an internal conflict that the government refuses to recognise. What it does, on the other hand, is speak of "terrorism" in Colombia.

This way of understanding the conflict makes things difficult as there will be no chances to enter into a serious dialogue or move forward a process that could change the country's internal situation. The situation in Colombia, not only recently but for a very long time, is an internal conflict.

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