‘What Person Deserves To Die In This Way?’

By bogotapost August 20, 2014

As conflict victims meet their aggressors in Havana, Cuba, The Bogota Post interviews a young victim from Arauca who lost her father to the FARC rebels in 2002

Bogota Post: What makes you a conflict victim? Explain what you went through?
Ximena Gutiérrez: I grew up in a place called Puerto Rondon [Arauca Dept.] and my father was the mayor. In 2002, I don’t remember the exact date, but a colleague of my father’s was kidnapped. Through word of mouth we heard that this man was taken, and that the person who was in charge of the FARC in that area had issued an order to kidnap him and kill him because he was a public official. For this reason my father was very worried. Obviously there are a lot of problems with public order in Arauca, particularly with the ELN and the FARC.
After that, my father began to receive death threats, and my family as well. They killed my father on November 25, 2002. This is how I’m a victim; there are many others who have similar stories.

What happened to your father exactly?
The forensic record said that my father was shot 21 or 22 times. And when I saw the body of my father I remember that I went to touch his right arm, it was bleeding and his arm was not really connected. When I was older, I read the forensic record. I read specifically the state he was in, that his arm had been [severed] and all the shots. What person deserves to die in this way?

How old were you at the time?
I’m currently 21 years old, and when this happened I was nine. After his death I was older, more like an adult, and I understood more about the conflict. What happened to my father resulted in my having to be headstrong. [His death] was so hard, as my father was very young; he was 25 when he was elected mayor, the youngest mayor in Colombia.

And what did you do after that? Your family had also received death threats. Did your family flee?
No we didn’t. When we lived on the farm, there had been attacks and robberies in the area and we continued to receive threats. Me and most of my family moved to Bogota about a year ago after we sold our farm. Now we all live here – my grandfather and my aunt on my father’s side and her husband, my cousins. My grandfather on my father’s side still lives in Arauca. He didn’t want to move; he’s set in his ways, he’s not going to change his lifestyle. He prefers the countryside, the village. He’s lived like that all his life and he’s not prepared to live in a city as big as Bogota.

Did you lose anything else when you lost your father? Your innocence, your childhood?
I come from a village that has these types of problems, military clashes that we lived through, the guerrillas coming in and setting off bombs. So all of us were victims and I think it changes your life as a child. You learn from an early age what war is, what death is; you know people who’ve been killed. So for me, to be honest, it didn’t come as a surprise when my father was taken, but it had a powerful effect on me. It affects my relationships with other people, how I am as a person. That’s what I lost.

I imagine all this has had an effect on you emotionally, that it’s hard to lead a happy life.
Yes, it’s very hard. Because in my case, it’s changed my relationship with my mother, and we’re not very close now. I am only close to my father’s side of the family now. This is one of the things I lost, it was very cruel.

Does losing your father still dominate your thoughts at this age, or have you been able to move on somewhat?
I’ve been able to move on a little, but it’s not easy. He’s always in my thoughts, but I can’t ask him for advice about my future. I want to find out what happened to him and why, one day. He was a politician … perhaps that’s not my path, to be a politician, but I want to tell his story. It’s something I want to do after I graduate. In Bogota, when you tell someone about the things that have happened in the Arauca Department, few people here know about it, and even fewer know about its cultural history.

Caught In The Crossfire

The suffering heaped upon the Colombian people by the FARC is well documented. So, too, are the horrors committed by the country’s right-wing paramilitary groups, collectively known as the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia, or AUC.The group, along with some factions within the Colombian army, committed some of the most brutal atrocities seen during Colombia’s 50-plus year armed conflict. The AUC was known for its use of extreme violence, including murdering real or perceived enemies by hacking them to pieces with chainsaws.

The paramilitaries were formed and consolidated into an organized force in 1997 from a smattering of local militias created by wealthy landowners to protect their interests against attacks and intimidation by the left-wing guerrillas. The group was also largely made up of armed gunmen on the payroll of local and regional drug lords.

The battles between the guerrillas and paramilitaries, and US-funded and trained army troops, ravaged much of the countryside and turned Colombia into a chamber of horrors for many years, a reputation which the country will not easily shake.

Like the FARC, the AUC used kidnapping, extortion, murder-for-hire and drug trafficking to increase and diversify its revenue streams. Various army officers and politicians have been accused (and later convicted of) using the AUC to carry out the murder of small farmers, labour union leaders and their families. Anyone even remotely suspected of having left-leaning political views or being a guerrilla sympathizer was considered a legitimate target.

AUC Demobilization: a Model for the FARC?

The AUC numbers vary greatly, but estimates made by various governmental and NGO groups put membership in the 20,000-30,000 range at its peak. Thousands of paramilitaries began to demobilize in 2003 after AUC and other right-wing militia leaders signed a peace deal with the government.

The deal promised to restrict prosecution against its members, but after more than three years of controversy over the level of impunity and harsh criticism from within and outside Colombia, the legal framework that upheld the deal was amended, and many of the group’s membership have been given lengthy jail terms, or have been extradited to the United States.

But many within the group’s former rank and file morphed into full-on drug cartels with no ideological leanings, most notably the Urabeños crime group, which is active in many parts of Colombia to this day.

Colombia’s experience with getting the paramilitaries to lay down their arms, however rocky and controversial, could prove to be a basis for the FARC beginning to demobilize in the event of a peace deal.

What do you think about the group of victims who have gone to Havana, Cuba, to speak to the FARC and government peace negotiators there?
I think it’s a great advance because they will deal with the small farmers and those who are most affected. I think that it will help resolve things, to help some of the victims find peace of mind, for the people who live in those areas most affected by the conflict. But on the other hand, support for the victims by the State has been very little, they have not recognized what we’ve been through.
Honestly, I think the state has been very hypocritical with us victims. When I was between 19 and 20 years old, I filed a lawsuit against the State, but they didn’t want to recognize the fact that I was legally an adult. They treated me like I deserved nothing and I would not get any compensation. In the end I received about 10 million pesos [$5,300 USD] from my father’s life insurance. But this will not meet the needs of any person. It will not meet my needs.

Are you angry for what happened to your father? Do you have any hard feelings for what the guerrillas did to him?
When I was young I remember I was walking along a path, and I passed by some small farmers, and they told me not to go in the direction I was heading, because obviously they had seen a group of armed men leading away two people whose hands were bound, two hostages, and one of them was my father. I continued down the same path, with the impulse to find them and confront them. Because it seems fair. If you kill, I also want to kill, and if you kill my family I want to kill you. Obviously this is not a good notion of justice and fairness, but it’s the first thought that came to mind. After all these years I do not feel any resentment, but I would like those kinds of people to pay for all the atrocities they committed. The way they killed my father was very cruel.

What is your opinion of the peace process in general?
I really do not know what to think, because the State will always propose things that suit it, and the victims have hardly been heard. I sent a request to the Victims’ Fund on June 14 this year and they have not responded.

Who did you try and speak to? Which group or government body?
The Victims’ Fund is a group that links you with the database of victims. I went to them because I have not been recognized as a victim. An application takes a long time, months and months. Unless you are the sons of Galan or Gaitan [two assassinated Colombian presidential candidates] – those two won a lawsuit against the State and received a large quantity of money. But we have no resources to pay for a good lawyer, who can ask for up to 15 million pesos, so what can we do?

So the government could be doing more for conflict victims?
I think at a minimum the State should recognize the murder of my father and give prestige to his name, that is the least they could do. I have had the support of my family, the family I’m living with here, both moral and economic. But I have not had any economic support for my studies, because I receive a million pesos [per month], but I have to pay rent, food, and with having to pay for university, it’s not enough. I want to acknowledge this because I want to be a professional woman. I have often not been able to study as I’m not getting compensation because they have not recognized me as a victim.

What is your greatest fear, for you and your family, and for Colombia?
The biggest fear is that I will have problems with my career, or the research project I want to do in Arauca, that could affect me because of being my father’s daughter, who many years ago was the mayor. I do not want to be affected in my professional work and I also don’t want the world to treat me as a victim. I do not want to always be the person who has a pained expression on their face; life goes on and I also have dreams and do not want to build those dreams on the events of my past.

Do you think the guerrillas will ever be punished for their crimes?
I have not really thought much about it and I don’t know what is the best way of measuring good and bad deeds. Life at some point will have to change, and even guerrillas are not alone in the world; they also have families, maybe they were forced into that life, but it does not justify the way these people have treated those who were kidnapped. That can’t be justified.

But do you think jail time for some members of the FARC would be a good first step?
Yes. It is fairer that they get many years in jail. There isn’t really any other way they can pay for the crimes they have committed that would be more fair.

Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about Colombia’s future?
I do not know, about the peace process, if the right terms are given … it is a confusing situation and obviously it affects people emotionally, so I’m not sure how to answer that.

Do you plan go back to Arauca one day?
I do not plan to live there, because I do not really like it. But I would like to conduct a research project and help revive the cultural and historical heritage there. I would like to talk to the people there, learn more about the “Llanero” culture and their connection to the land. I would like to do that very much.

What message do you have for the FARC and the government delegations in Cuba?
I would tell the FARC that the people who belong to their group are obviously victims and should be treated as such, because many of them have been forced into these groups from a very young age, and who can blame them for that? But even still, I’m not going to forgive them for what they’ve done, all the atrocities that have been committed against innocent people. To the victims there, I wish them a lot of strength, and a lot of serenity while they talk with the State and the FARC.

Mark Kennedy
 Sandra Liliana Neira contributed to the translation of this interview