This past September, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the top guerrilla commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) finally agreed to sign a peace deal within the next six months. The stakes of such a peace accord are nothing short of monumental: it would formally end the world’s longest-running civil war that began in 1948. Months later, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia stated their desire to form a political movement after the signing of a peace agreement in Colombia. But recent political developments in Colombia threaten the fulfillment of justice amidst the current peace negotiations.
The story begins just a year earlier in September 2014. Senator Ivan Cepeda of the leftist political party Polo Democrático initiated a debate before the Colombian Congress exposing former President Alvaro Uribe’s (2002-2010) close links to paramilitaries and drug traffickers. For over an hour, Cepeda publicly exposed Uribe’s documented ties to Colombia’s bloody underworld. As the director of Civil Aviation in the early 1980s, Uribe granted aviation licenses to members of Colombia’s infamous drug cartels, and as governor of the department of Antioquia from 1995-97, Uribe helped create what would become one of Colombia’s most vicious paramilitary organizations: CONVIVIR. Back in 1998, Human Rights Watch denounced CONVIVIR for threatening and murdering Colombian campesinos suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers. Paramilitaries massacred fifteen campesinos in what became known as “El Aro massacre” in October 1997 under the governorship of Uribe. During his two-term presidency from 2002-2010, Uribe’s far-right administration pitted itself squarely against the country’s vibrant social movements.
Cepeda’s denunciation before congress was historic and it did not come without consequences. Unsurprisingly, Cepeda immediately received death threats from the infamous paramilitary group Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) after his speech, only adding to the myriad of death threats that he and hundreds of other human rights activists in Colombia have received for decades.
Fast-forward a year. Just a few weeks after declaring this breakthrough peace deal, the Attorney General of Colombia Alejandro Ordóñez announced in late October that his office would be launching an investigation into Cepeda’s debate exposing former President Uribe. In particular, Attorney General Ordóñez accused Cepeda of fabricating testimonies against Uribe. Ordóñez claimed that Cepeda visited ex-paramilitaries currently serving jail time and pressured them to speak against Uribe in exchange for benefits. If found guilty of these charges, Cepeda could be stripped of his office.
The allegations against Cepeda are unquestionably ridiculous. Cepeda does not deny visiting the former paramilitaries in jail, but the specific accusations quite obviously show the Attorney General grasping for straws. For Ordóñez is a known ally of Uribe and a rightwing powerbroker who launched similar smear campaigns against other leftist Colombian politicians including the Afrocolombian Senator Piedad Cordoba and former mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro. Both Uribe and Ordóñez are equally vocal opponents of the current peace negotiations championed by Cepeda and current President Juan Manuel Santos.
So why does this matter? The Cepeda case matters profoundly because it offers a preview of what may potentially come—death threats, intimidation, or serious judicial charges—for those who dare question or challenge Colombia’s rightwing establishment.
No doubt, the stakes weigh heavily on Cepeda. In 1994, his father Manuel Cepeda Vargas was elected Senator of the leftwing political party Unión Patriótica (UP). Just as the FARC currently plans to trade in their arms for ballots, in 1985, FARC leaders formed the UP in the aftermath of the first peace talks in 1982. The UP’s mission was to build a socialist, electoral alternative to the Liberals and Conservatives who ruled over Colombia for generations. But little by little, the UP was literally shot down. From 1985 into the early 1990s, nearly 5,000 leaders, members, and supporters of the UP were killed or disappeared, amounting to what many have called a “political genocide.” Among those killed were two presidential candidates and hundreds of local politicians, unionists, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and farmers sympathetic to the UP.
Like his son Iván Cepeda, Manuel Cepeda Vargas found himself denouncing paramilitary impunity before Congress. In 1993, Cepeda Vargas spoke out against the existence of a rightwing program to wipe out the UP called “Plan Golpe de Gracia.” Senator Cepeda Vargas was himself on a list of people to be executed in this plan. Standing before Congress, Cepeda Vargas accused Generals Harold Bedoya (former student of the School of the Americas) and Rodolfo Herrera of supporting paramilitaries and promoting the “Plan Golpe de Gracia.” And like his son Iván Cepeda, Cepeda Vargas was accused of defamation. Then, the threats intensified: 15-20 calls daily to the house telling Cepeda Vargas that he would soon be dead. On August 9, 1994, six assassins in a car and on a motorcycle shot and murdered Cepeda Vargas in cold blood in Bogota.
The lesson is clear. Over the coming months, we can judge the government’s commitment to peace by how it treats dissidents like Iván Cepeda. For those committed to a truly just and bright future for Colombia, the Cepeda case and history of the UP loom darkly on the horizon.
Yesenia Barragan is a Doctoral Candidate in Latin American History at Columbia University and longtime Colombia solidarity activist.