The human toll of Colombia's conflict: 220,000 lives and counting

Colombia's National Center for Historical Memory released its report on a six-year study of the deaths resulting from five decades of internal conflict.

Colombia's half-century of conflict has claimed more than 220,000 lives, and while the country tries to negotiate an end to the war, the number of victims continues to climb.

Taking stock of the human costs of the internal war, the independent National Center for Historical Memory presented the findings of a six-year study to President Juan Manuel Santos yesterday in a ceremony witnessed by dozens of survivors of the atrocities that have marked the past 54 years.

"We have to recognize that we've hit bottom, and that the war has become dehumanized and it has dehumanized us," Mr. Santos said. The government is currently engaged in peace talks with the nation's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC,) in what is seen as the best chance yet to bring an end to its 49-year insurgency.  But the negotiations are taking place amid continued fighting, and 19 soldiers were killed last weekend in two separate clashes with the rebels.

The study found, however, that it has been civilians – not combatants – who have borne the brunt of the war, accounting for 4 out of 5 conflict-related deaths. The study also said that as many as 5.7 million Colombians were forcibly displaced and more than 25,000 people forcibly disappeared, although some estimates put the latter figure as high as 60,000.

The authors of the study recognize their figures are approximations.

"Despite their chilling magnitude, these figures are estimates that do not account for what really happened because part of the dynamic and the legacy of war is anonymity, invisibility, and the impossibility of recognizing all its victims," the study's coordinator, Marta Nubia Bello, wrote.

The investigators used 1958 as their starting point, the year that marked the end of a period of bipartisan fighting known as La Violencia (the Violence) and the rise of armed resistance movements that would evolve into guerrilla armies. And the study charted the intensity of the conflict, finding that the most brutal period was between 1982 and 2002, when leftist rebel groups strengthened, right-wing paramilitary militias were created and expanded, and the government struggled through repeated crises.

Guerrillas were responsible for the more than 27,000 kidnappings recorded since 1970, while paramilitary groups were blamed for nearly 60 percent of the massacres that took place in the country from 1980 to 2012, in which 11,751 people were killed. Government forces committed 8 percent of the massacres and 42 percent of forced disappearances.

Santos called the information on the involvement of the police and armed forces in such atrocities one of the "uncomfortable truths" in the report, adding that the crimes must be investigated and punished to offer truth and justice to the victims.

But just one day after addressing the victims, Santos today defended a government-sponsored law that, according to Human Rights Watch, could lead to impunity for thousands of crimes by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and government forces alike. The framework for peace, which aims to pave the way for a peace deal with the FARC, stipulates that, in a context of transitional justice, only those with "maximum responsibility" for atrocious crimes would be prosecuted.

The law has already passed in the Congress, but was challenged by human rights organizations before the Constitutional Court, which is hearing arguments today from the president, the attorney general, and rights groups.

"There is no better way to repair victims than peace," Santos said. But observers say Colombia must strike a balance between peace and justice: Too much justice may stifle any chance for peace and too little may spark new conflicts in the future.   

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