Government appoints son of paramilitary leader to head victims programmes

The Colombian government has provoked fresh controversy by appointing the son of one of the country’s most violent paramilitary commanders to oversee its programmes for conflict victims.

Jorge Rodrigo Tovar’s father, Rodrigo Tovar, a.k.a ‘Jorge 40’, led paramilitary units of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) which committed widespread massacres, murders and mass displacements during the 1990s and 2000s. In 2008, he was extradited on drugs trafficking charges to the United States, where he remains in prison today.

According to data compiled by the national Ombudsman, the Northern Bloc of the AUC, which was under Jorge 40’s command, committed 333 massacres between 1996 and 2005, leaving 1,573 people dead and a further 768 missing. The AUC formally demobilised in 2006 following an agreement with the Colombian government yet many of its members are believed to have formed paramilitary successor groups which remain active today.

This week, Colombia’s Interior Ministry appointed the younger Tovar to the position of victims’ coordinator, in which he will manage programmes designed to address the rights of millions of people affected by violence during the armed conflict. In 2017, he said his father was a ‘political prisoner’ in the US and claimed there was no proof against him.

The son of university lecturer Jorge Adolfo Freytter Romero, who was tortured and murdered by the AUC in 2001, said ‘this appointment makes reconciliation difficult, and is an insult to the victims.’ Regarding Jorge Rodrigo Tovar, Jorge Freytter said ‘his father has not told the truth about the massacres, murders and serious human rights violations when he was commander of the Northern Bloc, therefore we cannot accept his son as the representative of victims’. In January 2020, the murder of Jorge Adolfo Freytter Romero was declared a crime against humanity, in which members of the security forces participated.

The National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) said that Jorge Rodrigo Tovar lacked the necessary experience for the role, which includes administration of reparations for victims, as well as coordinating constitutional and legal issues. ‘It is not possible that those directing state institutions and who occupy public roles directly related with taking decisions to guarantee the rights of victims do not have the relevant experience to exercise their functions,’ said MOVICE.

Paramilitaries working alongside state forces were behind the vast majority of human rights violations committed during the armed conflict. A high number of politicians and military officials have been convicted over collusion with groups such as the AUC, which was Colombia’s largest paramilitary organisation at the time.