Former Colombian president backed murders of thousands of UP party members

Colombia’s former president Virgilio Barco Vargas personally approved an extermination campaign while in office against members and supporters of the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) political party, a startling investigation by journalist Alberto Donadio has revealed.

The UP was founded in 1985 under the terms of the recently-signed peace agreement between Barco’s predecessor, Belisario Betancur, and the FARC guerrilla movement. Following a number of modest UP gains in regional and municipal elections, state security forces and paramilitaries launched a violent campaign – often referred to in Colombia as a ‘political genocide’ – to eradicate the party, killing thousands of UP members, including presidential candidates.

Barco was elected in 1986, upon which, according to Donadio, he acted on the recommendations of advisors to target the UP. More than 400 people were killed in the first 14 months of Barco’s government, with the violence continuing for several years. According to the National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH), 3,122 UP members were killed, while close to another 3,000 suffered forced disappearances, forced displacement, torture and other human rights violations. CNMH records show that during a period of 18 years, not a single month passed without the murder of a UP member.

Donadio adds that, when Barco’s Peace Commissioner, Carlos Ossa Escobar, expressed alarm at the violence impacting the UP, military general Rafael Samudio Molino responded that ‘at this rate, we’ll never get rid of them.’ Having suffered years of intense violence, the UP was effectively wound up in 2002 after withdrawing its legal status as a political party. However, in 2013, it regained its political status and was able to again compete in elections.

The extermination of the UP is one of the macro cases under investigation by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice court created in the 2016 peace agreement to investigate and prosecute severe human rights violations committed during the conflict.