WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
4 Apr 2017 | Commentary

Who Has Answers for Victims of Paramilitarism in Colombia?

On February 4, 2001 Julio Henríquez Santamaría stood tall as he led a community meeting in Calabazo, a small municipality in the Magdalena department in northern Colombia. Mr. Henríquez had been organizing farmers to replace illegal crops like coca with cacao instead. His initiatives challenged the illegal activity of known paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo Serna, making Henríquez the target of threats and harassment. Halfway through the community meeting, Mr. Henríquez was abducted, thrown in the back of a pickup truck, and disappeared.

On March 3, Henríquez’s  two daughters, Bela and Nadiezhda, and wife, Zulma Henríquez, recounted in painful detail the family’s traumatic experience during Serna’s sentencing hearing for drug trafficking chargers at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The three became the first foreign victims to be heard in the U.S. Court system under the U.S. Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA).

According to Zulma, following the kidnapping and disappearance of her husband, she hurried back to Santa Marta with her children so that she could search for her husband. Community groups organized search groups to investigate the kidnapping, even though it was widely understood that Serna’s men were behind the kidnapping and disappearance. According to Nadiezhda, Henríquez’s  oldest daughter, “no one, nothing, nobody informed us — nobody gave us details on what they saw…There was fear and control. If Giraldo Serna didn’t authorize anyone to say where he was buried, no one was going to say it.”

Years later, during the Justice and Peace Process led by President Alvaro Uribe’s administration, Giraldo Serna’s lawyers provided coordinates that led to Henríquez’s decomposed body, which was later exhumed.  Given Colombia’s long and strained history with war, drugs, and paramilitaries, the family refused to turn the body over to the state, as many of the paramilitary leaders were the law and order force in many regions.

Giraldo Serna was one of the ruthless leaders known to give orders. Known as El Patron or El taladro (The Drill), he was responsible for leading drug operations, homicides, and also responsible for the rape of several girls under the age of 14.

In 2008, along with 13 other paramilitary leaders, Serna was suddenly extradited to the United States after President Uribe claimed that he had not cooperated with investigators and had continued to commit crimes from prison. His extradition meant a lost opportunity for truth, and justice for the Henríquez family.

In 2009, the Henríquez family filed to be recognized as victims under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004. Their pursuit to honor the memory of Julio Henriquez Santamaria finally put the family in front of their victimizer. Serna did not flinch, make any gestures, or react to the tragic recounting of the family’s suffering. When asked if he wished to state anything for the record, Serna simply shook his head and his lawyer explained he had written a letter asking for forgiveness.

After more than 5 hours, the judge finally sentenced Serna to sixteen and half years in federal prison on drug trafficking charges.

Truth and Justice for Victims of the Conflict

The extradition of Serna to the United States with other known paramilitary leaders meant that other families in Colombia were not able to learn the truth behind their family members’ disappearance or death. As the Center for Justice and Accountability noted, the Justice and Peace Law initially failed “to provide adequate incentives for truth telling and reparations.”

In 2006, the Colombian Constitutional Court strengthened the Justice and Peace Law, granting victims a central role, increasing the maximum punishment to eight years in prison, and demanding full and truthful confessions.

It is impossible to know how things would have been different if the leaders had not been extradited — whether more truth would have been divulged, whether greater or quicker justice would have been done, and whether the paramilitary groups would have been more successfully, or less successfully, dismantled.

As Colombia enters a new process of transitional justice following the signing of the peace accords, victims face a renewed opportunity to seek truth, justice, reparations and assurance of non-repetition. The approved law, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, will be the mechanism that establishes the parameters for judging those responsible for crimes against humanity and serious war crimes committed during the armed conflict.

WOLA has already expressed concerns over the reconciled text of the law that waters down the definition of command responsibility, likely prompting military officers to avoid punishment. A separate concern is that it will be much harder to prosecute civilians who aided illegal armed groups and participated in the armed conflict as their participation in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace is now voluntary.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court is once again tasked with giving the final say about the strength of the law, and if it falls inline with international standards. Successful implementation of this new transitional justice model will be a dignified opportunity for victims, like the Henríquez family, to be at the center of a process where their rights to learn the full truth of past events, receive reparations, and obtain guarantees of non-repetition will be truly satisfied.