Ex-FARC face victims in historic kidnapping hearing

Ex-FARC commanders Pastor Alape and Rodrigo Londoño during JEP hearing.

Seven ex-members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), including the guerilla’s top commander Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko,” faced victims of kidnapping and sexual violence. The hearings before magistrates of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace – JEP – marked a watershed moment in the tribunal’s Case 01 against the ex-guerrilla on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Case 01 is the first Act of the Tribunal toward ruling on practices and events involving Colombia’s half-century-long internal conflict, and was established under the terms of the 2016 Peace Accord.

“In my capacity as the last commander of FARC, we have come here to assume our individual and collective responsibility in the face of one of the most abominable crimes committed by our organization, as a result of a policy that led to crimes against humanity and war crimes,” remarked Londoño before magistrate Julieta Lemaitre. “We sentenced hundreds of human beings to live for years in conditions of indignity, suffering, and, much more seriously, the effects on their families,” acknowledged Londoño.

Six years after signing the Final Accord, the demobilized Secretariat responded to questions from relatives as to what happened to loved ones, where are the bodies of the disappeared, testimonies from former hostages themselves, and women who were raped while in captivity. The tribunal has documented 21,000 cases of kidnapping by ex-FARC and evidence in this historic trial. “I recognize that despite the Secretariat not having a policy toward sexual violence, in practice there were acts committed during kidnappings within our territorial control,” said Londoño.

Another former high-ranking FARC commander, Pastor Alape, also recognized that this policy, which in addition to having deprived persons of their freedom, was “accompanied by ill-treatment and degrading actions.” The case is also hearing testimonies of forced labor from former hostages and kidnappings for ransom that funded their war against the state. “How is it possible to claim before humanity, as a valid fact, the objectification of a person, turning them into merchandise to finance a project that claimed human dignity?” expressed Londoño.

The former Secretariat said before JEP that they have provided information on 600 cases that could help find families locate loved ones who died in captivity. The commanders also confirmed that they found potential hostages by searching the yellow pages of phone directories. “I demand that the remains be delivered. When are you going to give us the exact coordinates of the mass graves?” remarked Janeth Rosas, whose brother Oscar Donald, was executed by FARC.

The United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, as well as other international organizations, have highlighted the “immense value” of these face-to-face hearings. “The active participation of the victims, and will of ex-combatants to repair them and contribute to non-repetition, predict the reconciliation of the country,” said the UN Mission’s country representative Carlos Ruiz Massieu.

Londoño also asked forgiveness for kidnapping the country’s most vulnerable, among them subsistence farmers, agricultural workers, and local merchants. “In our blindness, we saw enemies where there were none.” Pastor Alape accepted that the guerrilla “subjected thousands of humble Colombian citizens to horrors, and same citizens for whom we rose up in arms.” The former commander of the Middle Magdalena Bloc remarked before the audience that “it hurts me deeply that as a revolutionary organization we caused so much pain.”

Another senior commander, Joaquín Gómez of the Southern Bloc also apologized to victims for kidnapping, and addressed the family of Lieutenant Colonel Elkin Hernández. “I acknowledge my responsibility for the kidnapping of Colonel Elkin and Yesid Duarte, who were dressed in civilian clothes. I am sorry that you, the relatives of the colonel have lost an exceptional person, as was Elkin. I say this because I knew him. Elkin’s thirteen years in captivity were illogical and unnecessary. We should not have uprooted anyone from their home.”

The tribunal also received testimonies from high-profile hostages, among them, Ingrid Betancourt and Sigifredo López. “Everything you say is a dagger to the heart,” remarked the 2002 presidential candidate of the Green Party. Betancourt was snatched by the guerrilla as she drove to the Demilitarized Zone of the Caguán as part of her campaign.

“I have always recognized that the treatment you gave Clara Rojas (VP running mate) and me was different. It is inaccurate to paint my kidnapping as something idyllic. it was not!” she said. “I do, however, recognize that you gave us a space with a room, a closed space and that you – commander Joaquín Gómez – told your subordinates that they could not enter. I always appreciated that.”

Betancourt was held hostage by FARC for more than six years until the former right-wing President Álvaro Uribe masterminded her liberation in 2008.

The former Valle Deputy, Sigifredo López, addressed the tribunal in an emotionally-charged speech. In April 2002, FARC stormed the Departmental Assembly in Cali, Valle de Cauca, taking 12 of its representatives. López is the only survivor. “It is not enough just to apologize. You, in the name of freedom, kidnapped. And in the name of life, murdered!” he said angrily. The retired politician insisted that ex-FARC will never achieve “social forgiveness” in Colombia, and that despite the Secretariat’s pleas for forgiveness, there is an “immense debt” to truth and victims. “You screwed up my life” he clamored, waving the same chains that bound him to a tree during his three years in captivity.