(IPS) – The film “Impunity” has only just now arrived in Colombia, although the filming was completed a year ago and it was first shown to the public in Geneva in January. But the wait was apparently worth it because the documentary contributes key elements to the heated debate on the so-called “black hand” behind many of the atrocities committed in this South American country.
Impunity, directed by Colombian investigative journalist Hollman Morris and Colombian-Swiss filmmaker Juan José Lozano, takes a close look at how the paramilitary demobilisation process worked.
The documentary shows members of the far-right paramilitary militias talking in judicial hearings about what they claim to remember. As they make their confessions in one room, the relatives of victims watch them on screens in another room, and ask them questions by teleconference, seeking kernels of truth about their loved ones: “Where is he?”, “What did you do to him?”
“I can’t remember”, “We killed thousands”, the paramilitaries answer. “We killed that one for being a guerrilla,” or “we made a mistake” are other frequently repeated responses.
The confessions are what the Justice and Peace law, passed by the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) in 2005 to set the rules for the demobilisation process, calls justice.
Under the law, members of the paramilitary forces who took part in the demobilisation process and gave a full confession of their crimes would receive a maximum sentence of eight years.
The stated purpose of the law was to seek truth, justice and reparations, and to put a stop to the mass killings and the dispossession of small farmers from their land.
The paramilitary militias were supposedly organised 30 years ago to fight the leftwing guerrillas who emerged in 1964. But they ended up co-opting one-third of the national Congress during the 2002-2006 legislative period, and took over some six million hectares of land, displacing millions of peasant farmers from their homes and killing or forcibly disappearing tens of thousands of people.
The cameras capture the victims’ relatives as they sit, expressionless, listening to the paramilitary confessions. Most of them are women, and many are silently crying or sitting with their heads down as they relive the horror. They only occasionally exchange furtive glances after a cold, distant response from the war criminal who happens to be on the stand.
They emanate a profound loneliness and a terror that they have lived with for years, but which is still alive and very much present. In many parts of Colombia, the killers have taken over the State and are still in control. These women know this better than anyone.
When Impunity was shown Jun. 20 in a theatre with a capacity for 1,300 spectators, 2,000 people showed up, even though news of the showing was only spread by means of social networking sites.
The documentary coincided with the revival of a hot debate. The week before the documentary was shown, President Juan Manuel Santos resurrected the concept of the “black hand,” thus “redefining the political landscape,” according to analyst Álvaro Forero, writing in the Bogota daily El Espectador.
In Santos’ description, the “black hand” refers to “those who don’t want the victims to get reparations, only the victimisers,” and who “kill peasant activists who are trying to get their land back.”
While the leaders of the leftwing insurgent groups are hunted down by the military and pursued in court by name, no names are given for those represented by the old concept of the black hand.
The film Impunity shines a spotlight on mechanisms that help preserve that anonymity.
It shows how the press is warned to leave the hearings when the paramilitaries touch on powerful interests and give the names of military officers and members of the business community, and how, after these glimpses of the truth, Uribe unexpectedly gave the green light to the 2008 extradition to the United States of 14 imprisoned paramilitary leaders.
The last of the paramilitary chiefs to be extradited was Éver Velosa, alias “HH”, who was the one who spoke out the loudest.
The prosecutors urged him to give a more in-depth confession about the so-called “Group of Six” – perhaps the black hand itself: a group that acted as adviser to the late Carlos Castaño, who was the top commander of the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).
In response, Velosa said the condition for giving their names was “sufficient guarantees, not for me, but for other people.”
When the Impunity filmmaking team tried to interview him in a prison near the northwestern city of Medellín, they received an anonymous message that said: “Don’t come here. Be very careful with what you’re going to do here.” Around that time, the computer containing all of the information on the production of the documentary was stolen from the filmmakers.
Before he was extradited, Velosa complained in court that Colombia, which has been caught up in a civil war for three generations, only wants to know about the hundreds and thousands of crimes committed against ordinary Colombians, but not about the people behind the killing, the “intellectual authors” of the massacres. (See sidebar.)
The film asks what will happen now that hundreds of thousands of pages of confessions of crimes by paramilitaries have been stacked up on shelves.
“Atrocities cannot only be an issue for the victims. They have to do with all of us, and the way we deal with them does too,” Michael Reed, director of the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) Colombia Programme, told IPS.
The ICTJ helped finance Impunity. The filmmakers also received development aid funding from Canada, and financing from TV Suisse and Arte (Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne), a Franco-German TV network
“The attorney general’s office has to carry out an in-depth investigation into all of the implications, not just the material authors,” Reed said.
“Although some court cases resulted from the confessions, the only thing the paramilitaries have done is repeat things that had already been constantly denounced and reported by human rights groups and the victims themselves,” he said.
But one important thing, in terms of the intimidation constantly faced by prosecutors and judges, is that “the confessions have made it impossible to deny that the violations have taken place.”
The Justice and Peace process is moving forward in a highly fragmented manner, like snapshots here and there, and what was needed was, precisely, a film about it.
“What we in the ICTJ are calling for,” added Reed, is “a strategic focus where what is investigated is the criminal machinery, the crimes of the system – that is, when crimes are perpetrated as a result of policies or systematic practices.”
Above all, the investigations should cover “the people who are ultimately responsible,” he said.
According to analyst Forero, “By referring to the black hand, Santos…put a sudden halt to the social tolerance of the excesses of the ultraconservatives and declared the extreme right politically ‘illegal’.”