Interview with Iván Cepeda: Social Movements Fight Against Impunity in Colombia

In 1994, Manuel Cepeda, a Senator of the Patriotic Union Party in Colombia, was executed by paramilitaries under the command of the state. Since then his son, Iván Cepeda, devotes himself to the fight against impunity by working with the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE). 

Iván Cepeda, one of the most talked about defenders of human rights in Colombia, became deputy for the Alternative Democratic Pole in 2010. Photo: Emma Gascó.In Colombia, impunity is being resolved largely by the actions of social movements”

Source: Los Movimientos Contraatacan

In 1994, Manuel Cepeda, a Senator of the Patriotic Union Party in Colombia, was executed by paramilitaries under the command of the state. Since then his son, Iván Cepeda, devotes himself to the fight against impunity by working with the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE). The lawsuit filed by the Foundation goes to the Inter-American justice system, has led the current Santos administration to admit the State’s responsibility in this crime. Since 2010 Cepeda has been a deputy in the Congress of the Republic for the Alternative Democratic Pole. 

Diagonal: What has the period of Alvaro Uribe meant for the history of Colombia?
Ivan Cepeda: In the coming years when we examine what we have experienced retrospectively, the Uribe regime, without a doubt, will occupy a major place in the universal history of crime and the arbitrary exercise of power. Not just for the number and the amount of crime that took place but also for the various forms of criminal activity. Some of these are quite basic such as being linked with paramilitaries; however some are not just temporary allies. Uribe laid the foundations of modern paramilitarism. The forming of paramilitary armies was encouraged in institutional and legal forms. 

The devastation of entire regions of the country was encouraged with massacres and displacement in order to make way for the business community and agribusiness and landownersto occupy the land. This was the basis of the criminality of their actions. But they would need to do a lot more in order to conceal everything that happened during these years as the events were beginning to emerge in the political agenda. During his eight years as president Uribe created devices designed to thwart criminal investigations, to coerce the judges, wipe defenders of human rights off the face of the earth, to intimidate political opponents and to deter critical journalists of any type of investigation. These crimes are linking together and gradually turning into chains. And it becomes very difficult to tell what came first and what came second

What was the role of the more independent judges in the fight against this criminal plan?

IC: It must be said that in Colombia, after years of evolution, an independent judiciary has risen, or rather a sector of the judicial power who are democratically-minded, who are very respectful of human rights and very respectful of the Constitution. Similar to the Italian judges of mani pulite. These judges of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court have been doing their jobs amid threats and immense difficulties.

What about the role of the human rights movements?

IC: The judges did not act alone. The driving force in this struggle is the victims’ organizations, of human rights and the trade union movement. Those, who despite multiple cycles of destruction, have managed to consolidate influential networks both outside and inside the country who in turn have also contributed substantially to this process. These processes have been producing results. Now we are in a situation in which each time the circle closes increasingly tighter around the former president, with his former ministers falling, their private secretaries falling, a cousin of the president has already been sentenced and his sons are in the process of being questioned … I think that if nothing else, soon we will be able to impose legal penalties against persons who belonged to the highest authorities of Government.

As expected, the organizations have worked patiently, gathering information, evidence, memory and creating legal paths, both in the national system as well as in the International Criminal Court. It has been a work of diffusion, an accompaniment to international observation and a work of demonstration… Perhaps the most important expression of this movement was the demonstration on March 6, 2008. Several of the activists who made these demonstrations possible, were killed. There has been a lot of resistance to paramilitary raids in certain areas of the country. They are establishing a critical position in order to face the violence exercised by the guerrillas, working for peace, achieving a status and put certain emblematic people in front of the eyes of the country including some women who have served a very important role in the country’s most violent areas. It is a work of reorganizing again and again, processes that have been subjected to extreme violence. This long and patient journey has allowed us to reach this point, an important point, but there is still a long way to go. In Colombia, impunity is largely resolved by the action of social movements.

Manuel Cepeda was Senator for the Patriotic Union Party.What is the most important thing that has been achieved?

IC: Currently there is a movement for justice in Colombia. They have brought to court more than 80 parliamentarians, have led tribunals to ministers, to generals, and I believe we can reach new levels soon, and that this will disable the mechanisms that have been put in place. The main Paramilitary politicians jailed in the Picota prison continue to operate, giving orders and ruling from there, because it hasn’t been deactivated at the highest level, due to the fact that the armed forces are still openly allied with them, supporting the framework of these types of structures. The problem is not only Uribe in his entirety; there is also a regime that has a softer side that practice the same type of policies using different methods. They want to sell 39 million hectares of land at a cheaper rate to the countries multinationals so that they are exploited through mining and energy projects. They are a government that favours privatization and the impoverishment of labour; it’s a government of politically correct language, but incorrect policy.

How is the Victim Law, which has recently come from the Government of Santos, framed in this context?

IC: It’s part of that movement. There would not be a Victim Law if the victims had not gone through this process of struggle, nor if they don’t speak now of restoring land. The politicians who were in this process realized that this law was necessary or that they would have to repent. Many of the current government figures, starting with the president himself, have been part of the same scheme however this law is not the complete solution. What is offered in the Law is a minimum level of support to communities and victims. “They have compensation and a bit of land, but give up the pursuit of justice”, which is the most important thing politically, because that’s what can weaken such powers. For example, for the person who obtains the land finds that on that land there is an oil palm project or mining status, they will have to allow for the project to remain on the land [in exchange for a rent or a share]. The movement is seemingly without fault; it is a purification and legalization of their transactions.

How do you explain the change of tune from Santos?

IC: There are many explanations. One of the most obvious is that Uribe and Santos respond differently to economic and social sectors. One is more aristocratic, the other is a figure related more to drug trafficking. Not to say that the former is not as criminal. I do not mean to say that one is cleaner than the other. They just have different social backgrounds. But I would say that this is a very limited explanation, they have their similarities. We are in a different phase in the capital. There was an accumulatory phase, which consisted of acquiring, seizing, and dispossessing millions of hectares of land, to produce huge population movements and sweep the surface to reach the stage where we are today, which is an intensive reproduction of the capital. Their objective now is to put the land to use, in the hands of large corporations, national companies, but especially multinationals, so that they exploit them, so that they dry them out, to extract all the mineral richness and oil, to plant pine and palm oil in the rich land … That’s what they want and that’s what they are doing.

But for this, they require another language. The IMF recommended that Colombia needed to enter a process of legal certainty for agricultural investment and business investment. Companies cannot come here and buy some land only to find the next day an unpleasant surprise that peasants were massacred on this land. It is necessary to have security with investment.

The second explanation is that we now have a very different international context called the multipolar world, with the emergence of other power centres in the world, with an eclipse over the American empire and the integration of Latin America… We don’t have to be a great economic observer to see that Europe is sinking and that the U.S. has many problems. This leads to Santos having a very different foreign policy given that international forums cannot be presented with blood stained hands and a 60-year war with a lot of displaced people. It is necessary to project a certain image and thus his foreign policy has a human rights component, which again, is part of his political correctness.

In this process, the State has acknowledged its part in the murder of your father, Senator of the Patriotic Union (UP), Manuel Cepeda.

IC: It has been a process in which the victims have taken on great responsibility, and have urged the operators of justice to act. We completed the majority of the work for the prosecution. We found the evidence. We announced that they were going to murder a key witness. We proved key events with the responsibility of the officers in the army and their action with paramilitaries. This was allowed after we arrived in the Inter-American Court. The Court issued a ruling that would not comply with the Uribe government, and had to abide by this government. And it was done correctly. We presented a full recognition, the state killed Manuel Cepeda, not only did they not protect him but they allied with the paramilitaries and murdered him after he did his best to fight impunity. They discredited his name, trampled on the dignity of his family and put an end to the political party to which he belonged. What is the significance of this? At the Congress of the Republic with the presence of high authorities, the presence of all the commissions and political parties, the government acknowledged on behalf of the State, their responsibility and closed the discussion. In Colombia, the opposition was massacred. It is an indisputable fact. And after recognizing the first of their crimes, they are going to have to recognize the other 5,000 or 10,000, and that means the truth will begin to take precedence. This is a fundamental dispute: have state crimes taken place with the state acting criminally or is it just the drug trafficking and the guerrillas in Colombia? It’s starting to shatter the myth of the Victim State, the democratic state in which there are types of people who behave like terrorists, who break the democratic state.