The Colombian armed conflict is one of the longest lasting armed conflicts in the world. It began in approximately 1964 or 1966 and is rooted in a 10-year civil war between the Conservative and Liberal parties, with most fighting occurring in the countryside. The armed conflict also stemmed from United States intervention in the 1960’s during the Cold War, which helped the Colombian Government fight and repress emerging communist ideologies. In opposition to U.S. intervention, liberals and communist militants merged together to form one of the largest guerrilla groups in Colombia, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Other guerrilla groups also formed, including the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional or the National Liberation Army). Paramilitary Armed Forces also came together in opposition of both the guerrilla forces and the government, forming one of the more prominent organizations, the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia).

Each group has differing reasons for joining the conflict. The guerrillas claim to be fighting for the rights of poor Colombians, protecting them from the government’s abuse and violence while also providing social justice through communism. The paramilitary groups claim they are acting as a defense mechanism against the guerrilla groups, protecting citizens from the threats of the guerrillas. The Colombian government is fighting for order and stability while trying to keep their citizens safe and protect their rights and interests. This conflict has killed more than 300,000 civilians and up to 1 million people in total. The conflict has also displaced up to more than 5 million: the largest group of internally displaced people worldwide.

In 2005 under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Velez, the Colombian Congress passed Law 975, also known as the Justice and Peace Law. It was created specifically to facilitate the trials of paramilitary and guerrilla leaders. This law is significant since it offers the accused the option of being reincorporated into civilian life and reduced sentences - often only 5 to 8 years - in return for the absolute truth and confession of their crimes, offering reparations to victims, and the promise of not returning to illegal activity. Those qualifying for trials under Law 975 are leaders of paramilitary and guerrilla groups, who have committed crimes varying from homicide, rape, kidnappings, forced displacements, participating in the illegal drug trade, and corruption within government.

This law gained a high amount of criticism from citizens, human rights groups, and the United Nations.  Critics were upset by the time frame the investigations took as well as the actual court rulings. The trials were often too short, and did not allow enough time for possible convictions to emerge as the trial occurred. They also believed the law’s guidelines were too generous compared to the gravity of crimes most of the leaders on trial had committed. Colombian government officials confronted this criticism head on. They defended the Justice and Peace Law, saying it was necessary to “find a balance between the requirements of justice and peace,” and implying negotiations were a necessary and small price to pay to end armed conflicts in Colombia.

Debates between government officials and the law’s critics led to a revision of the law itself, changing it to a stricter mandate. The revisers in the Colombian Congress declared that the accused not only had to admit the full truth of their crimes, but they also needed to provide complete confessions including the location of victims’ bodies and provide identification of all disappeared victims. This allowed for not only a fair punishment to crimes committed but also helped provide closure victims and victims’ families.

Even though officials have tried to implement this law effectively, it has not adequately served victims’ rights to truth, justice, and redress. Since 2002, more than 30,000 fighters in the prominent paramilitary group AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) have demobilized. Of these 30,000, less than 10% have been tried under Law 975, while the other 90% qualified for lighter sentences due to their low rankings in the paramilitary group.  Today, victims still protest this law, as they do not think it is adequate to give these leaders lighter punishments simply because they have admitted to many, if not all, of their crimes. Some of the accused are responsible for up to 2,000 crimes.   


Written by Nicole Ransom
ART WORKS Projects Intern