5,733 members of Patriotic Union party murdered or disappeared over 1984-2018

The horrifying scale of violence against the Patriotic Union (UP) political party has been revealed in an ongoing investigation by Colombia’s transitional justice court, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). On 3 March, the JEP released new findings via its official Twitter account which show that 5,733 UP members were murdered or disappeared between 1984 and 2018. Commonly referred to in Colombia as a ‘political genocide,’ the extermination of the UP is one of the most brutal atrocities of Colombia’s armed conflict.

In total, the JEP and the Truth Commission, both of which are components of the transitional justice system created in the 2016 peace agreement, identified close to 8,300 UP victims, with other abuses including torture, sexual abuse, forced displacement, threats and exile. The main perpetrators were state agents, particularly the army, and state-linked paramilitary groups.

The UP was launched in 1985 as the product of peace negotiations between the then-government of Belisario Betancur and the FARC-EP guerrilla organisation. The party was formed of former FARC combatants, Communist Party members and other sectors on the political left. After some electoral successes at local level, the party was subjected to intense violence in an attempt to wipe it out. This brutal strategy bore success when the UP lost its legal status in 2002 due to the majority of its members having been killed or driven into exile. It regained its status in 2013 and today sits in the Colombian congress.

The JEP was created to investigate and prosecute major human rights violations committed during the armed conflict, with the UP investigation, opened in February 2019, one of an initial seven ‘macro’ cases. Atrocities committed or backed by the state are also under the JEP spotlight elsewhere, such as in the army killings, known as ‘False Positives,’ of at least 6,402 civilians who were subsequently presented as guerrillas killed in combat between 2002 and 2008. The JEP has also found the FARC responsible for extensive kidnapping during the conflict, with several former FARC leaders admitting their role last year. Other cases include human rights violations committed against civilian populations in the regions of Urabá, northwest Colombia, and Nariño in the southwest.

Overseeing the UP investigation is JEP judge Gustavo Salazar, who has suggested the figure of deaths and disappearances could rise further. Among those killed were mayors, town councillors, grassroots party activists and presidential candidates Jaime Pardo Leal in 1987 and Bernardo Jaramillo in 1990.

Over 11-18 March, the JEP investigation into anti-UP violence will hear evidence from former general Miguel Maza Márquez, who in 2016 received a 30-year sentence for his role in the 1989 murder of Liberal Party presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán. Between 1985 and 1991, Maza Márquez directed the DAS state security agency which was responsible for protecting the UP, a period which saw intense violence against the party. He will face questioning over the role of military and paramilitary forces in the killings of UP members.

In January last year, journalist Alberto Donadio revealed that Colombia’s former president Virgilio Barco Vargas while in office (1986-1990) approved the extermination campaign against the UP after intelligence services recommended his government take action against the left-wing party. The army subsequently led operations to kill UP members.