Impunity and Forgiveness


IMG_8413I was frantically wiping dust off plastic chairs when Juana Alicia called me over to photograph “something historic”. I did not know that Uber Banquez, alias “Juancho Dique” was going to be in Mampujan until he stepped out of the penitentiary van, handcuffed and escorted by police. Tensions were high: for the first time the community was face to face with the man who had ordered their displacement, the kidnapping of two community members, and the massacre of twelve people in a nearby hamlet.

El Universal
El Universal

No one was aware that Juancho Dique would be part of the community’s court order follow-up hearing until the night before it was scheduled to start. The magistrate asked each organization and government department named in the order how they were complying with their responsibilities towards the community (health centre, school, potable water, individual compensation, etc.). Yet everyone remained focused on the man who had created the need for a hearing in the first place and was responsible to give up the wealth gained by his acts of violence to compensate the victims.

As the day drew to a close, Juancho Dique asked for forgiveness. He explained that he did not understand the impacts his orders had until he ate lunch with a Mampujan family who did not even have a bathroom. Many community members responded in kind, expressing their desire to move forward, as I wrote about previously. It was a beautiful moment and I believe that spirit of not allowing bitterness to rule their lives is part of what has allowed the community to flourish in spite of their past. A social healing process, however, including quilting and community organzing took place years before they were ready to meet their victimizers.

Getting ready for a meeting in Mampujan Viejo
Getting ready for a meeting in Mampujan Viejo

Yet, in the end, neither Juancho Dique nor Diego Vecino, his counterpart in terror, gave in their wealth. Six months later, I was eating dinner when I received the google alert telling me that Mampujan had received their reparations. In the following days, we went to battle as we were informed that, because the Reparations Fund was empty, the community would therefore receive reduced compensation.

We were only able to guarantee compensation for the original amount because of the leader´s personal connections with high ranking members of the Peace Mission of the Organization of the American States, the American Embassy and the magistrates themselves in charge of overseeing their case.

Africa Raiz LibreThe fallout, however, was a change in procedure: no other community named in the Justice and Peace Law would receive Mampujan’s treatment and would rather be lumped into the Victim´s Law administrative process. Reparations and transitional justice were, in the end, too expensive. Mampujan remains historic, as their process will never be replicated.

Over two years later, and eight years after their sentencing, the paramilitary leaders, including Juancho Dique, that massacred, displaced, and committed other atrocities against thousands of Colombia are about to leave. Although the original goal of the Justice and Peace law was a reduced sentence in exchange for demobilization, truth telling, and the turning in of resources obtained through criminal activity, the majority were never sentenced and will simply be released to take over physical leadership of the neo-paramilitary groups they control from jail.

I want to believe that I am capable of unconditional love; that I have the power to reach out and forgive, no matter how horrible the atrocity. But life is not that easy, is it? And when someone has deeply hurt those I love and are able to continue with impunity, I am forced to see my darker side. I was surprised by my instant anger when I read the news and saw Mampujan’s perpetrators named to be released. Every day this week I have forced myself to remember my mantra to follow the community’s lead, even when in situations of complete injustice, forgiveness seems impossible.

IMG_9145 If I feel this angry, and am not even a victim of conflict, how must those communities that have never been acknowledged or taken part in a trauma healing process be feeling? I recognize, even when I do not agree, that impunity is often part of transitional justice, but that impunity must be managed in a way that allows communities to move forward and guarantees non repetition, especially when demobilized fighters return home.

If we ever want this conflict to actually end, we have to be able to live together without hate and with justice: holistic restorative justice is needed for closure. Whether or not Juancho Dique’s apology was true, when he stood in front of us, he was just an ordinary person and we were the community together. And that is a start, but only a start.

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