Colombia’s transitional justice system opened its doors Thursday to the public in what officials hailed as a historic step toward healing more than five decades of armed conflict that killed tens and tens of thousands and displaced millions.
Both victims and offenders will now be able to approach the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in a sleek office building in Colombia’s capital where workers are building case files documenting abuses during Latin America’s longest conflict.
Those who fully confess their crimes will not serve any jail time, and instead will make restitution to victims with acts like public apologies and repairing damaged buildings. Those who do not cooperate could see prison sentences of up to 20 years.
“This is a historic day for the victims,” said Patricia Linares, president of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. “It’s the start of a judicial process that will heal wounds left from the armed conflict by recognising the truth.”
So far, nearly 4,700 ex-combatants with the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have committed to confessing serious crimes as have 1,800 members of the nation’s armed forces who fought in the bloody conflict involving leftist rebels, the state and paramilitary groups.
The conflict left a staggering toll whose full scope may never be known: More than 250,000 dead, at least 60,000 missing and countless others the victims of forced displacement, extortion and kidnappings.
“I lost my father, my brothers,” said Daniel Valbuena, 71, who showed up at the peace tribunal’s headquarters hoping to file a death certificate for his father, whose remains were never found. “My life has been tragic.”
Since a peace accord was signed in 2016, Colombia has slowly begun the process of allowing FARC rebels transition to civilian life while also providing a full accounting of the violence. The rebels have turned over their weapons and begun a political party, but many Colombians remain hesitant to turn a page and believe the special court will be too lenient.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said the justice component of the peace accord and its implementing legislation contain “a web of ambiguities and loopholes that risk letting war criminal escape justice.”
Offenders who fully confess their crimes will be subject to “effective restrictions of rights and freedoms” but no specific definitions outlining exactly what that entails have been shared. Concerns have also been raised about whether commanders whose underlings committed crimes they should have known about will be held accountable even if they didn’t have actual knowledge of an offense.
“The judges of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace now have the key responsibility of working within these narrow margins of interpretation in order to ensure that victims of the armed conflict receive at least a minimal degree of justice,” Mr Vivanco said.
The special jurisdiction will consist of three chambers where magistrates will examine case files gathered from years of investigations by various government agencies and humanitarian groups as well as victim accounts and compare them with testimony provided by offenders. A special investigative unit will get involved when there is a discrepancy to help determine the truth.
“This is not a tribunal of impunity,” said Xiomara Balanta, the judge overseeing the chamber in charge of amnesty and pardons.
Still, as former rebels enter the public sphere the deep suspicions many still harbour toward the peace process has been evident. Rodrigo Londono, the ex-FARC leader, was repeatedly attacked by angry mobs throwing rocks and eggs in his direction as he campaigned for president earlier this year.
Opinion polls say many Colombians want the rebels to go before the peace tribunal before participating in politics.
At the court’s welcome centre on Thursday, workers wearing white shirts and pins with the transitional justice system’s logo greeted a handful of offenders and victims who showed up to inquire and provide information on cases.
Luis Fernando Borges, who identified himself as a former FARC guerrilla, said he was committed to complying with the law, though he declined to share any information about what crimes he might have been involved in.
“That’s all in the paperwork we’ve done,” he said.
Shortly after Mr Borges left, Mr Valbuena arrived dressed in an ironed blue shirt and an elegant V-neck sweater, carrying a journal filled with notes. His father’s remains were never found, but the family has long believed him dead. Two brothers went missing and a third drowned in a river as the family was fleeing the violence.
All those crimes occurred even before the date most historians count as the official start to the nation’s armed conflict, making it unlikely that the family will ever find out exactly what happened to their loved ones, Mr Valbuena said. He said his own son later joined the guerrillas and remains jailed and has cancer.
Still, he said, the special jurisdiction’s existence has given him some peace.
“Look what president [Juan Manuel] Santos has achieved with just one signature,” Mr Valbuena said, scribbling in the air. “God bless justice!”