If Colombia held a minute’s silence for every victim of its six-decade armed conflict, then no one would speak for the next seventeen years. This fact is mentioned in passing in the 895-page final report of Colombia’s Truth Commission, in a section about the near impossibility of memorialising the conflict. The report tries to leave nothing out. Its findings go beyond the historical and the political – counting the dead, apportioning blame, recommending the founding of a civilian police force and the decriminalisation of drugs – to the psychological and spiritual. Presenting the report on its release in June, the commission’s president, Francisco de Roux, a Jesuit priest and economist, said that the list of victims was ‘unending’ and the ‘accumulated pain unbearable’. Between 1985 and 2018, the worst years of the conflict, 450,664 people were killed, 90 per cent of them civilians. ‘Why did we watch the massacres on television, day after day, as if they were a cheap soap opera?’ he asked.
The Truth Commission was conceived in 2016, as part of a peace agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrillas. The deal was controversial – many Colombians see the FARC as terrorists – and in October that year a referendum to ratify it failed after 50.2 per cent voted ‘no’. The government pushed the agreement through by signing a revised deal and sending it to Congress for ratification in lieu of another referendum. Two years later the commission started gathering testimony. A new court, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, was set up to try perpetrators, and a government unit was created to search for disappeared persons or their remains.
The language of the report echoes the ‘never again’ memorialisation of the Holocaust, and the ‘nunca más’ reckoning after Argentina’s Dirty War. The Colombian version is ‘No Repetición’. The Truth Commission’s official title, literally translated, is the Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition. But the conflict is already repeating itself – or rather, it never stopped. The agreement with the FARC won President Santos the Nobel Peace Prize for 2016. But the National Liberation Army (ELN) didn’t sign, and a number of FARC splinter groups are still fighting, as is a paramilitary turned narco-trafficking organisation called Clan del Golfo. Between the signing of the peace deal and March this year, at least 1327 activists and signatories to the agreement were killed. The FARC claim that at least 169 demobilised guerrillas were assassinated over the same period.
This is the world’s longest lasting continuous conflict. Colombians fought one another throughout the Cold War, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, on through what the right wing, looking for a reason to go on fighting, call castrochavismo. Too many people made money from the conflict for peace efforts to stick. Those guerrillas who lost their enthusiasm for communism could get involved in the cocaine trade. When elements of the army lost interest in shooting leftists, North Americans paid them to spray toxic substances on coca plants – and anything else growing nearby. Whenever the Colombian government didn’t need paramilitary death squads to murder union leaders, it could use them to guard oil pipelines or kick Indigenous people off land valuable to mining concerns. The ideology mostly dropped away long ago, but the financial incentives remain.