As peace comes to Colombia, what happens to those who committed the gravest crimes of its civil war?

Colombia signed a peace treaty with its rebel movement this week and on Sunday the country votes to ratify the deal, which would end a 52-year civil war. 

The war’s legacy — it claimed almost eight million victims, and forcibly displaced another 6.9 million — will take time to unravel. And amid the hope and excitement of peace, there is concern that the agreement will provide amnesty to those for some of the crimes committed during the war. Among them are those who killed civilians, victims of a military scandal whose cases remain under investigation.

Between 2002 and 2008 the Colombian military operated a bounty system for the capture or “ in combat” of members of the guerrilla Armed Forces of Columbia — People’s Army, or FARC. The consequence was the systematic kidnapping and of innocent civilians by members of the military in exchange for bonuses, additional leave or promotions. Referred to as the “false positives,” more than 3,000 victims have been connected to 2,297 cases by the attorney general’s office.

The practice, which began in the 1980s, was institutionalized under the government of Álvaro Uribe in 2002 when there was pressure to demonstrate success in the unending war. It included incentives for Colombian citizens who provided the military with information that could lead to the capture of guerrillas.

AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
AP Photo/Fernando VergaraCuba's President Raul Castro, center, shakes hands with the top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, Rodrigo Londono, right, as Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, left, looks on, after they signed a peace agreement between the government and the FARC in Cartagena, Colombia, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.

As a result, thousands of innocent, poor and unemployed young men were lured to remote locations, often by members of their own community, where they were executed by soldiers. The soldiers would dress the victims in FARC uniforms and present them as guerrillas killed in combat.

To date, almost 7,800 members of the army have been linked to cases of extrajudicial killing. Only 610 have been .

Under the peace agreement, a for Peace will be responsible for the investigation and prosecution of more than 32,000 cases of atrocities committed by both sides. The will have exclusive jurisdiction over state agents charged with crimes. Those who immediately confess will avoid and receive alternative sanctions for a period of five to eight years. Those who deny charges against them face up to a maximum of 20 years. In comparison, officers and soldiers convicted in Colombia’s national courts have been sentenced to more than 35 years in prison for their involvement in the false-positive scandal.

Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, explains that “the provisions for penalty in the Special Tribunal are significantly out of line with the way international courts penalize crimes against humanity.”

For Patricia Puccetti and her the possibility that her case would be moved to the special jurisdiction is harrowing. Patricia’s only son was taken in August, 2008, at the age of 18. One month later she was called to identify his body, found in a pit with 30 others.

Melissa Tessler
Melissa TesslerPatricia Puccetti

“My son was not a military or a guerrilla. He was a humble young man who was killed by this state,” she says. She has spent the last eight years working to have her son’s case prosecuted.

As with many of these cases, stalling tactics by the defence and other procedural matters have delayed matters.

“Every day my lawyers put their lives at risk … years of struggle looking for justice, for nothing, I don’t understand” she says. Patricia’s case is one of 17 being fought by her team, all of which may end up in the Special Tribunal. They worry that the threat of state crimes will not be eliminated by the tribunal. 

While she accepts the need for peace between the FARC and the government of Colombia, for Patricia, and the sanctions provided under the Special Jurisdiction are not enough. “All I want is justice. The do not make sense to me because the life of a person is priceless.”

Polls suggest that the majority will vote to accept the peace deal. It will then be up to judges to decide whether cases like Patricia’s son’s will be subject to the new system and what sanctions will be applied to perpetrators of these crimes.

“There is no doubt that this new stage requires creativity, study and conscious, purposeful and profound reflection by the victims and various areas of society, about what to do and how to contribute collectively in the construction of truth and justice, beyond whether or not participating in the courts of special jurisdiction for peace,” says Romme “The challenges are great and the opportunities for discussion, so far, unfortunately few.”

About Melissa Tessler, Special to National Post