Executing justice: Which side are we on?
An interview with Colombian human rights activist Padre Javier Giraldo, S.J.

by Ruth Goring

The government of Colombia has long been engaged in a war with two Marxist insurgent groups, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Army of Liberation). The U.S. government currently bolsters the Colombian armed forces through Plan Colombia, but most Americans receive little news of the conflict and fail to realize that nearly all its casualties are civilians.

In 1988 Padre Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest, was instrumental in founding a human rights organization, originally Catholic and now ecumenical: the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace, generally shortened to Justicia y Paz). Over the years Padre Javier has helped compile Proyecto Nunca Más (the Never Again Project), a massive database of human rights violations in his country.

Last year 4,900 political homicides and 734 forced disappearances were recorded in Colombia, according to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights of Colombia. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and United Nations reporting agencies state that 70-80 percent of political murders in that country are the work of right-wing paramilitary forces supported by major economic interests. The government claims to oppose the paramilitaries as well as the guerrillas, yet according to many eyewitness reports the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC) works hand in hand with the army. A key theme of Padre Javier's work has been impunity--the Colombian government's failure to punish, or even properly investigate, crimes committed by paramilitaries, army personnel, and officials of the state.

PRISM: Tell us about the work you have done to bring to light human rights abuses in Colombia.

JG: I worked for some years with CINEP, the Center for Investigation and Popular Education, founded by Jesuits in the late 1960s. Its purpose is to promote education and justice among Colombia's people. However, it became increasingly evident that Colombia needed a small church-based organization that would confront issues of human rights very directly. Most of the Catholic bishops were very tied to the government; they didn't denounce any abuses except those committed by guerrillas.

Among progressive religious orders we began exploring how we might protect the human rights of victims of the Colombian state. The bishops were not interested in helping, but in early 1988 the superiors of 25 orders (which we call congregations) came together to found the Comisión de Justicia y Paz. Its goal was to provide humanitarian and legal support, especially in areas of intense conflict--Santander, Valle del Cauca, Magdalena Medio, Putumayo, and Urabá. We would gather facts about human rights abuses in a databank and would publicize situations of crisis. Some cases we would take to the courts. Our staff developed close relationships with some impoverished communities that were suffering in the midst of the armed conflict and that gained courage to declare themselves peace communities.

I served as the general secretary of Justicia y Paz until the end of 1998 and was often the spokesperson for victims in cases brought before Colombia's courts. In those eleven years I did not witness a single act of justice. Not one government or military official who committed crimes was sanctioned.

PRISM: How would you summarize your analysis of Colombia's crisis?

JG: In the late 1990s I wrote an article, "Lo que en Colombia se llama justicia" (What Is Called Justice in Colombia), published in our Justicia y Paz journal. It recounts 10 exemplary cases that reveal the mechanisms of impunity in our country--how testimony is manipulated, victims or their families are threatened and silenced, false testimony is presented, essential documents are "misplaced." Then I pose a global question. We turn to the state to sanction human rights violations, assign reparations, bring about justice--but the state itself has committed the crimes and is the criminal. How can we turn to the victimizer for justice? It's a terrible contradiction.

My conclusion was that the Colombian state is contradictory. It tries to fulfill two functions. On the one hand it's a violent, discriminatory institution that must favor a small wealthy minority. Even basic necessities are denied to the great majority of its people. By its very nature, at its core, it is not democratic. On the other hand, in public discourse it presents itself as a state based on law, one that respects and implements justice, human rights norms, democratic laws.

How do government functionaries manage this contradiction? They maintain a duality: the parastate, a structure that is illegal and clandestine, increasingly takes over the dirty work, the repression. It doesn't appear to be part of the state. For many years now Colombia's government has been creating and maintaining these structures. The legal, constitutional structure exists parallel to structures of a parastate and paramilitary.

This is how the government has avoided doing justice. According to the 1991 Colombian Constitution, the first task of the presidency, the executive branch, is to punish and "purify." But most of our presidents do not do it. Cases are turned over to the judicial branch, where nothing is done. The administrative and judicial functions are kept separate in practice, though constitutionally they should not be.

PRISM: Where does that leave the justice system?

JG: Increasingly, both in theory and in practice, justice--the justice system--is separated from the ethics of law. This is a fatal rupture. It is justified by legal positivism, the philosophy currently taught in the majority of law programs in our universities. Justice becomes mere technique. Procedural truth is all that matters, and this is a very limited and manipulable truth.

Proof here is based solely on testimony. Investigators and judges do not look for other kinds of proof, such as weapons or corpses. By seeking these kinds of evidence they would put themselves at personal risk. Only the testimony of victims and their families is sought, because it is subject to manipulation: first by intimidation and threats, second by the bribing of false witnesses who will contradict the statements of victims and relatives.

Everything is being narrowed to the point of absurdity. Human rights cases are handed over entirely to the justice system, and the justice system limits itself to manipulable means. This is the functioning of impunity. I've realized it's like schizophrenia in a human being. Schizophrenia involves an internal rupture, a partitioning, of the ego. The person now encloses an alien ego that is denied, refused recognition. In the political realm, this is the parastate.

Thus it is that for years Justicia y Paz has served as a mediator, taking many victimized persons before the courts, the People's Defender, the office of the attorney general--and not one process was ever brought to resolution. Impunity is the norm in Colombia. This has been corroborated in the Third Report on Colombia by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, which drew on reports from our national police, the High Council of Jurisprudence, and a number of NGOs. Their conclusion: nearly 100 percent of those committing the greatest crimes against humanity within Colombia remain in impunity, and of the cases that have been argued before the Commission itself, a full 100 percent remain unpunished.

One example: a case that was presented to the Commission beginning in 1992 is the Trujillo massacre, a horrendous crime involving more than 60 victims. As Justicia y Paz presented the evidence on their behalf, the government ran out of explanations. An amicable means of resolving the situation was proposed, and the government accepted it: the creation of an ad hoc commission bringing together government and NGO representatives to decide sanctions. Justicia y Paz agreed as well, on the condition that the commission be required to present its conclusions within three months.

The "mixed commission," which included members of seven government agencies and five NGOs, worked well and was able to present its findings in the three months. It ordered, in short, that justice be served. But since that time nothing has been done. Not one of the guilty has been sanctioned, even though many more victims have come to light in subsequent years.

PRISM: What would you say is at the root of Colombia's long-running civil war?

JG: Well, it has to do with injustice. The guerrillas have chosen armed struggle in their quest to help the poor of our country. They have committed many serious errors, even brutal acts, but their goal is justice. It's very different with the state, which represents the rich: Not only are its abuses more egregious, but their motivation is completely contrary to the gospel. I have never been a supporter of the guerrilla forces, but I do not have the same attitude toward them as toward the state and the paramilitaries.

FARC guerrillas killed some leaders of San José de Apartadó, which had taken a stand as a peace community, after the townspeople refused to sell them food. We attempted to dialogue with the FARC commanders then, to explain that the peace communities are seeking justice and should be respected. The discussions were heated, but gradually they came to understand and respect something of the peace community strategy.

PRISM: Please talk a bit about your faith, what lies behind your passion for justice.

JG: The basic question is: Which side are we on? Which side does the gospel take? It is on the side of the poor. You have to choose.

I was a novice when Camilo Torres died as a guerrilla fighter. Some years later I read some of his discourses, and they affected me profoundly. Camilo was a priest, chaplain of the National University and founder of that university's department of sociology. He later reflected that he had gone to the campus to convert atheists but had found that many "Christians" were not Christian in their behavior. Some non-Christians were more committed to justice for the poor.

"What is a Christian?" Camilo asked. He came to propose a reversal of the classic Christian pastoral progression, which was to begin with the sacraments--baptism, Eucharist--then to move on to catechesis, or instruction in doctrine, and finish with an optional advanced stage of social action and charity. This, he said, should be the other way round. A person's first contact with the gospel should be through commitment to the poor. This is key for beginning to be a Christian. The second stage would involve reflection on these experiences in light of the teachings of Christ. Only in the third stage would the convert enter into the sacraments, the celebration of our faith.

Camilo worked not only in the university but with campesinos to seek agrarian reform. He encountered continual threats and repression. He joined the guerrilla forces in October 1965 because military officers were threatening to kill him and he saw no other way out. His friends had told him he had three choices: go to prison, go into exile in another country, or join the guerrillas. At the age of 37, he died in combat in February 1966.

PRISM: His thinking sounds like an early version of liberation theology.

JG: The theology of liberation was articulated further by theologians who gathered in Medellín in 1968. Like Camilo's thought, liberation theology calls for a dialogue between social commitment and the gospel. When doing my graduate work, I became enthused about it and wrote my thesis on the theology of liberation. That was in 1975 at the Javeriana University.

Then, when I was studying further in France in the late 1970s, I began to work with human rights. That was when Julio César Turbay was president of Colombia and torture was rampant. In France I was part of a committee of Colombian solidarity. Upon my return in 1982 I helped to organize human rights groups: the International League for the Rights and Liberation of the Peoples, the Association of Families of the Disappeared (ASFADES), Justicia y Paz. And I participated in other groups.

Still, I struggled with the sense of living in contradiction, given the church's traditional concept of our faith and the negative history of Christianity: the Inquisition, the Crusades, social teachings opposing workers' movements, the conquest of the Americas. For some years now I have been thinking and writing a book that takes a hard look at Christian history and that long-held concept of faith. It will be completed in about a year, I hope.

My exploration has led to a firm conviction: The faith of the centuries does not correspond well to the faith of the earliest Christians. Christianity was adulterated by the Constantinian co-opting and the barbarian invasions. It was massified, and much of the essence was sacrificed--the values of the gospel. Christianity became information, doctrine, and norms of conduct. It drifted far away from the life of Jesus.

This is the axis along which the faith was distorted. Greek philosophy was picked up by the medieval scholastics, emphasizing knowledge (epistemology), access to reality (metaphysics), and only then what one should be and do (ethics). The church constructed its theology on these philosophical foundations.

True Christianity, I believe, is seen now in minority groups committed to justice and to following Jesus in opposition to the consumer capitalist culture. We gain access to the faith not through doctrine, information, or intellectual argument but through ethical options, countercultural values lived out in everyday life.

I had extended time to read and think about these things when I was in exile.

PRISM: How did your departure from Colombia come about, and why did you come back?

JG: There had been many conflicts. I had signed a number of documents denouncing the state's abuses. Six generals were very upset with me; we exchanged letters. And some paramilitaries sent me absolutely terrible messages. It accumulated over a period of years.

One day soldiers broke into the Justicia y Paz office, to "inspect" it, and false accusations were launched against us. They brought information technology experts to open the computer that held the Proyecto Nunca Más databank. Afterward I began to receive death threats.

In June 1998 five separate sources warned that there was a plan to assassinate me during a certain week. My Jesuit superior had been pressuring me to go into exile, and I had not wanted to, but now he ordered me to leave the country. I actually didn't leave until after the Justicia y Paz assembly in October--I stayed enclosed all those months. Stress was causing some physical symptoms, and I did need a rest. I went to San Francisco and later to The Hague. In both places I did a lot of theological reading.

My superiors were determined that I not return to Colombia. General Fernando Tapias himself, general commander of Colombia's armed forces, spoke with my superior and said I should stay away, since he "could not control" his subordinate generals who wanted to see me dead.

But I had become depressed in exile. The news from Colombia always pounded me hard. Other projects were offered to me, in West Timor and in Africa, but they were never concrete and I did not feel called to them. I told the provincial of my order that I needed to return, and I did return in mid-2000. My superior, still disagreeing with the decision, told me to stay closed in and keep my ministry very limited.

General Tapias sought me out at the end of 2000. He said many military officers under his command hated me and he could not control or take responsibility for them. He advised me to leave the country. But I told him firmly that I would not go. And since that moment I have been more confident. I have gradually returned to more public involvement, working with CINEP and the databank. I haven't received one death threat since my return.

PRISM: How can northern Christians committed to justice support and learn from their counterparts in Latin America?

JG: There are several kinds of involvement that can be helpful. First, accompaniment of human rights workers and peace communities. What Witness for Peace and others did in Central America in the 1980s showed the efficacy of North American visits to subvert misinformation. There's nothing like direct testimony. North Americans can come to Colombia, observe the situation, and return to give testimony of what is really happening. Organizations like Peace Brigades International and Fellowship of Reconciliation are doing very important work here.

Second, adoption of sister communities. Having their plight known overseas can form a protective barrier for communities that are trying to resist cooperation with the armed groups.

Third, response to information. Justicia y Paz sends out e-mail calls for action in the face of crises. The Internet allows a very rapid reaction; people overseas who read these reports can make timely calls to the appropriate authorities.

Finally, invitations to Colombian activists and representatives of the peace communities for speaking tours in the United States and Canada. These are very helpful for spreading the word and allowing North Americans access to political analysis from the inside.

Note: Ruth Goring spent the first three months of 2003 in Colombia, giving protective accompaniment to two Afro-Colombian communities as a Justicia y Paz volunteer and then spending time with Christian justice advocates in Bogotá. Having grown up in Colombia as the daughter of missionaries, she now works as an editor, writer, and campus minister in the Chicago area.

Notes about Trujillo.

Between 1986 and 1994, some 300 persons were victims of torture, forced disappearance, or extrajudicial execution in the towns of Trujillo, Bolívar, and Riofrío, Valle del Cauca state, toward the southwest of Colombia. Among them were peasant farmers, journalists, teachers, carpenters, drivers, businesspeople, and traveling salespersons. Many of them had been involved in processes of community organization launched by parish priest Tiberio Fernández or had been involved in the campesino marches of 1989 and 1990. Some of the victims, on the other hand, were drug addicts or small-scale drug pushers. Father Tiberio himself, along with his niece Alba Isabel Giraldo and architect Oscar Pulido, was "disappeared" on April 17, 1990.

Many of the executions were bloody and brutal. From a report on one of them: "Those detained were dismembered with the chainsaw and left to bleed to death. The heads and trunks of the victims were deposited in separate bags, and on the night of April 1 a blue Ford truck, vintage 1956, took the corpses to the Cauca River, where they were thrown."

Those implicated included men of the Third Army Brigade, commanded by Mayor Alirio Antonio Urueña; the National Police of Trujillo and Tulúa, commanded by Lieutenant José Fernando Berrío; Diego Montoya and Iván Urdinola, drug traffickers of the North Valle Cartel; and others. The victimizers had summarily accused many of the victims of having some link to armed insurgents. Some of the victims had been witnesses to earlier abuses; some had helped to pull corpses from the Cauca River. Sometimes the killers' motivation was "social cleansing": The victims were considered undesirables, best disposed of.

[Source: Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, "Trujillo: ĄDesafío de resistencia por la vida y contra la impunidad!" PowerPoint document, April, 2003. Translated by Ruth Goring. PRISM Magazine - Evangelicals for Social Action, July-August 2003]

DDHH en Colombia

small logo
This document has been published on 26agu03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.