A former paramilitary chief has participated in a public act of reconciliation to express remorse and ask forgiveness of a senior FARC member and civilians whose relatives were murdered or disappeared during the armed conflict. The meeting focused on human rights abuses committed in northeast Colombia.
In a meeting held in the city of Cúcuta, Jorge Iván Laverde, who previously led the Fronteras paramilitary group, formally apologised to the former commander of the FARC’s 33rd front, Ruben Zamora, over the murder of 14 of his family members. The meeting ended in emotional scenes as the two men embraced.
The meeting was also attended by victims, as well as social and human rights organisations. People in attendance were given the opportunity to directly address Laverde over the disappearance or deaths of loved ones.
Glady Vargas’ 17-year-old son was killed by paramilitaries. ‘I want to ask you: why didn’t you investigate people before killing them? So many innocent people died, like the five boys who were taken away from La Parada. I told you that my son was not a guerrilla, that he was polishing cars in a workshop but you took him from there. So what evidence was there to accuse him?’, she said to Laverde.
Several victims were buried in unmarked graves, then later incinerated in furnaces. According to Laverde, this was to remove physical evidence of crimes. ‘In a city where 10, 15, 20 and up to 40 people were executed in a single day, that brought problems for the commanders of the legally constituted entities. The police told us: “disappear them, do not leave us all those dead”,’ he said.
Community members said that there were still unmarked graves in the region. ‘We know that there are many mass graves. We have gone to the Government to tell them that we know where they are. We want you to please take those bodies out, but we don’t know who else to go to anymore’, said Ashcaira Arabadora, a Barí indigenous community leader. Other community leaders said that landmines were still planted in their territories.
Elizabeth Pabón of the Catatumbo Peasant Farmers Association (ASCAMCAT), which has worked closely with JFC, asked why paramilitary violence had been so intense in the Catatumbo region. Laverde said that state security forces, politicians and business interests had backed paramilitaries. ‘When the AUC [the largest paramilitary group during the conflict] gained ground, others followed it buying land or doing business’, he said.
As a core component of the peace process, reconciliation aims to establish the truth about what happened during the conflict and to ensure similar atrocities are never repeated. ‘If together we are unable to contribute to the truth, it will be built, as the victims deserve’, said Colombian Saúl Franco, head of the Truth Commission which oversaw the meeting.