Kidnapped Truth and Other Victims of the Conflict

In the conflict resolution field, many talk about the idea that conditions need to be ripe for a conflict to be resolved.  This means not only conditions at the negotiating table, but within the society more broadly.  Part of this notion of “ripeness” comes from a society’s awareness of the high costs of conflict.  Since these costs may be paid disproportionately in different regions of a country or by different sectors of the society, creating empathy can be a challenge. This month, the impact of Colombia’s internal armed conflict became a bit clearer with the release of two multimedia projects that focus on Colombia’s victims– one by Semana magazine and another by the Center for Historical Memory.

Proyecto Víctimas

Semana‘s “Victims Project” is a journalistic effort to assemble documentation on the scope of the violence from Colombia’s internal armed conflict.  It includes data, interviews, maps, and multimedia on a range of topics related to victims. Semana reports that over 5.4 million victims from the period from 1985-March 31, 2013 have registered with the government’s Victims Unit.  The violations incurred include over 100,000 documented homicides, as well as cases of torture, sexual violence, forced displacement, massacres, false positives, and land-mine victims.  Between 1996 and 2012, 16,123 people were kidnapped in Colombia for extortion.  Last year alone, according to Semana, there were 200,000 new victims of the conflict, a reminder that the peace talks continue in the midst of intense violence.

Statistics are always a bit tricky and in the Colombian context there are often wide discrepancies between numbers, depending on the methodology used, the dates considered, and the sources of information.  The Semana statistic of 17,771 individuals forcibly disappeared in the period from 1990-2012, seems quite low compared to other figures I have seen.  (The coroner’s office has registered 60,000 cases; the UN registered 57,200 disappearances by 2011Colombia Reports put the figure at 7,500 disappeared only during 2012). With regard to internal displacement, Semana cites both the government figure of 4.7 million displaced since 1985, and the NGO (CODHES) number of 5.7 million.  This difference of a million people is because the government is reporting only those who register as displaced, as opposed to the broader number of total displaced.

Nonetheless, the overall picture that emerges is staggering and establishes the far-reaching impact of the Colombian conflict on many different sectors of Colombian society.  Among its findings we see the quantitative impact on the following sectors:

  • Afro-Colombians (479,795 victims; 1 of 5 displaced is of Afro descent;
  • Indigenous (2,628 killed since 1985; 115,000 (10% of the total population of indigenous) displaced; 34 of 87 indigenous groups at risk of extinction;
  • Women (2,683,335 victims, with close to half a million estimated to have suffered sexual violence);
  • Labor leaders (with 2,994 killed between 1978-2012);
  • Journalists (137 killed since 1977);
  • Human rights defenders (299 killed since 1985);
  • Local authorities (more than 3,000 mayors, council people (consejales), candidates and other local officials killed since 1986);
  • Children and youth (1.16 million victims were below the age of 12; 5,105 child soldiers demobilized between 1999-2012; 2,783 children were kidnapped; 1,011 children were victims of land mines).

Una verdad secuestrada

portada-verdad-descargarUna verdad secuestrada: Cuarenta años de estadísticas de secuestro. 1970-2010, released on Thursday, June 20, by the Center for Historical Memory, sheds light on one small segment of the universe of conflict violence—kidnap victims. This is perhaps the abuse that has had the most capacity to generate a public outcry in Colombia and has been at the root of much social protest in recent years.  Like the forced disappearances that were common in the Southern Cone dictatorships and continue in Colombia today, kidnapping ejects the victim from the world they know and forces them into a place where they are completely dependent on their captor. The practice has affected particular sectors and has changed over time.

Una verdad secuestrada documents 39,058 kidnappings in Colombia from 1970-2010.  (The shorter time period used by Semana yields a much lower number, but there is some overlap.)  For its study, the Historical Memory Center developed a sophisticated database and methodology for cross-checking 7 other databases, identifying dozens of variables and establishing a clear definition of the practice of kidnapping (a definition that has gone through repeated legal modifications over the years that are explained in the study).  Through charts, graphs, and maps, the study elucidates our understanding of the shifting patterns and regional inflections of the practice of kidnappings in Colombia in this 4o year period.  The magnitude of the practice is far beyond what anyone thought.  Here are some of the key findings on the scope of the kidnappings, the authors, and the trends:

  • Kidnappings occurred throughout the country, in 1,006 of 1,102 municipalities;
  • Forty percent of the kidnappings were concentrated in 4 departments, 38 municipalities, and 12 micro regions.

In the 9,082 cases where the author was confirmed and the 29,085 cases where the author was presumed, the study found:

  • FARC were responsible for most of the kidnappings where the author was confirmed (37%) and were presumed to be responsible in 33% of the kidnappings where the identity was not confirmed;
  • ELN were responsible for 30% of the confirmed kidnappings and 25% of the presumed kidnappings;
  • Criminal networks were found responsible for 20% of the confirmed kidnappings and 27% of the presumed kidnappings;
  • The trend for kidnapping has declined since 2002-2003, when criminal networks surpassed the FARC or ELN as the responsible party.

On the victims of kidnapping:

  • 78% of the victims have been men; 22% have been women;
  • 79% of the victims were between 18 and 65 years of age;
  • 97% of the kidnap victims were Colombians; 3 % were foreigners;
  • 51% of those kidnapped belonged to the Liberal Party and 30% to the Conservative Party;
  • Those most affected by kidnapping were public administrators and security forces (19.30%), the agriculture and livestock industry (19.14%), and commerce (18.92%), with variation by region and according to who was doing the kidnapping.

The modalities of kidnapping also varied:

  • 59% of the kidnappings lasted between 1 and 30 days;
  • 79% of the kidnappings were targeted at a particular person, as opposed to a check-point kidnapping, “pesca milagrosa,” or ambush;
  • 84% of the kidnappings were for economic motives; though the ELN was responsible for the most kidnappings for political reasons.

If we analyze the data in terms of what happened to the victims, we find:

  • 60% were freed after a ransom was paid;
  • 20% were rescued;
  • 8% died in captivity
  • 7% were freed without ransom being paid;
  • 2% managed to flee.

Justice for kidnappings has lagged pitifully. Of the 39,058 kidnappings reported, 28,477 were denounced. Half of those denounced were investigated.  Only 3, 144 of the cases resulted in convictions.

The Victims Project of Semana and this recent report by the Historical Memory Center (along with twenty-some earlier studies the HMC has issued in the past few years) give us a sense of the complexity of Colombia’s violence.  Variation by region, time, and sector are extreme.  The report helps us to better understand why particular groups have been in the front lines of the push for a political solution to the conflict.  The reports should help create greater sensibility to the plight of the victims and ripen support for an immediate end to the war.

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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