To go forward, Colombia looks back
Colombia's independent Historic Memory Group hopes that airing the country's grisly past can help end the decades-old war.
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Victoriano González, a 65-year-old farmer, says he buried his son-in-law secretly in the graveyard, without reporting the death to authorities. In 2000, Udilde María Pastrana says she had her husband and her brother buried there as well.Skip to next paragraph
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She wants them to be registered as victims and wants to see if she can claim some of the $3.5 billion in reparation money the government has put aside in a special fund for victims in April.
Though controversial because victims will receive, at most, an average of $75 a month spread over the next 10 years, the incentive of reparation has lead many victims to shed their fear.
"We were too scared back then to say anything," says Ms. Pastrana. "Standing here, today, I'm still afraid, but not so much."
But despite the continued fear, Sánchez says, people are willing to talk. "They are establishing the memory; they are pushing the limits imposed by the continued violence," he says.
The Historical Memory Group's report relates the details of the 1990 Trujillo Massacre with surprising candor.
It tells of a pact between the local Army commander and two leading drug lords. Their goal? Break the back of rebels who were trying to extort money from drug runners. It recounts the testimony of eye-witnesses who saw an Army major wield a chainsaw against his victims, a method later to be reproduced throughout the country by paramilitary groups.
Orlando Vargas was a 26-year-old carpenter at the time, when he and two of his brothers were snatched from their workshop on one corner of Trujillo's main square along with two assistants. They were never seen again.
Yamileth Vargas, his oldest child, was only 4 at the time. She grew up without her father, but his memory was kept alive within the family. "My father was a daily topic of conversation for us," she says today. "We talked of him all the time, not just about his death but about his life."
Henry Loaiza Ceballos, a drug lord known as "The Scorpion," and Army major Alirio Urueña, oversaw the torture and killing of Vargas's father and the other carpenters at a ranch called Las Violetas, according to the report.
This was not news to Ms. Vargas, now a lawyer who handles victims' rights cases. But it was important to her that the official history reflect the truth because, she says, nearly 20 years later, no one has been convicted of the crimes.
That may change now. Following the presentation of the Historical Memory Group report, Colombia's attorney general ordered all related cases transferred to Bogotá, and warrants have been issued for 20 police and Army officers as well as the husband of the current mayor.
Vargas says that, for her, this is the first step toward closure. "The ultimate step will be when the criminals are convicted."
The Historic Memory Group's mandate does not give it the sweep of an official truth and reconciliation commission like those in more than 30 other countries, and it plans to study only a few emblematic cases of particularly heinous crimes.
Eventually, however, the reports it produces could serve as a basis for the work of a full-fledged truth commission, the creation of which is being currently discussed at the same time Congress debates a bill known as "The Victims Statute."
The bill, if approved, would provide for the restitution of stolen land and set up a national museum of violence and an armed conflict archive.
But many communities are not waiting for a commission to write their histories. In Guatapé, a small, brightly painted town in Antioquia province, victims are just now getting organized.
When they get enough money, says Sonia Díaz – whose father and brother disappeared in 2005 – the group wants to build a public monument with the names of all of the town's victims and they plan to write their stories in a "Book of Memory."
For now, all they have is a sheet of white plastic on a painted tree with the names of the dead interspersed among the leaves and the names of the disappeared near the trunk.
It is a modest first step to recreating a public record of their loved ones, so that the crimes committed against them will not be forgotten.