35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Colombia Truth Commission Opens Doors, But Faces Significant Barriers to Access

Father Francisco DeRoux, President of the Colombia Truth Commission (Photo: Cristian Garavito)
Published: Nov 29, 2018
Briefing Book #649

Edited by Michael Evans

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Database of Declassified U.S. Records Provides Essential Evidence on Colombian Conflict

November 29, 2018 – The formal launch today in Colombia of the Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition (Truth Commission) is an important step forward in the country’s effort to consolidate peace, guarantee the rights of victims, and move forward after a long and brutal conflict that took hundreds of thousands of lives. To mark the occasion, the National Security Archive is posting 12 documents from a database of over 20,000 declassified records donated to the Truth Commission earlier this year as part of our commitment to supporting the Right to Truth and the rights of the victims of Colombia’s conflict.

Starting today, the 11-member Truth Commission has three years to complete a final report on more than 50 years of political violence and civil war. Among the chief goals of the Commission is to clarify grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and to delineate the collective responsibilities of the Colombian state, insurgent groups like the FARC, right-wing “paramilitary” groups, narcotraffickers, foreign governments, and third parties (“terceros”) such as multinational corporations.

Unlike the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a separate tribunal established to prosecute the conflict’s worst abuses, the Truth Commission’s investigations are extrajudicial in nature. More than just a cataloging of bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and military confrontations, the Commission’s mandate is to investigate the causes and consequences of the conflict, to grapple with its complexity, to shine a light on the less-understood aspects of the violence, and to produce a comprehensive narrative on the conflict with a focus on victims.

To do all of this in only three years would be challenging under the best of circumstances, but the Colombia Truth Commission is also dealing with efforts by the Colombian military to restrict access to needed records and an ugly smear campaign against Father Francisco DeRoux, the respected Colombian human rights advocate who serves as president of the Commission.

Earlier this year, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Truth Commission, the JEP and a third group set up to locate thousands of people who disappeared during the conflict would have access to all records needed to carry out their responsibilities under Colombia law. Despite the ruling, the Colombian armed forces have succeeded in placing key files off limits, including records of military intelligence agencies responsible for serious abuses and that are linked to illegal paramilitary groups and drug traffickers. More recently, Senator Álvaro Uribe, the former Colombian president, and others tried unsuccessfully to modify the JEP and create special courts for members of the Colombian military.

In another ominous sign, Gonzalo Sánchez, the longtime director of the National Center for Historical Memory and a good friend of the National Security Archive, this month resigned his post, saying that “the political atmosphere” had forced him to step aside. In an interview with Colombia’s El Espectador, Sánchez said he feared the “political instrumentalization” of the institution, a state organization which has been performing a truth-commission-like function since long before peace talks even began. “There are those who want to view the Center for Historical Memory as a counterweight to the Truth Commission,” he said.

Meanwhile, the records of insurgent groups like the FARC and the paramilitary AUC are in disarray, and most of them will probably never be recovered.

Political pressure, military stonewalling and other barriers to accessing Colombia’s own archives mean that U.S. declassified records will be a critical corroborating source on the conflict. The depth of its involvement with Colombia’s security forces has made the U.S. government one of the keenest observers of the conflict and the associated violence, producing an enormous amount of relevant primary-source data.

Colombia has been a major focus of U.S. intelligence reporting since the founding of the CIA in 1947, and the United States has been Colombia’s closest military and intelligence partner (by far) since the two countries fought side-by-side in the Korean War in the 1950s. The U.S. has sent billions of dollars in security assistance to Colombia and has been involved in multiple reorganizations of the Colombia’s military and intelligence forces. The sharing of sensitive intelligence information between the two countries has expanded dramatically since those early days and developed into a sophisticated network that includes specially-vetted police units and real-time information sharing on the most-sensitive Colombian military operations.

Over nearly three decades, the National Security Archive has provided tens of thousands of pages of declassified evidence to post-conflict truth commissions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, East Timor, Brazil and elsewhere. The Archive has also promoted “declassified diplomacy” under both Democratic and Republican presidents to expedite the release of important U.S. files for truth commissions, trials and other inquests. In the last two years alone, the Archive helped to shepherd the release of thousands of secret records on the dirty wars in Argentina and Chile.

The Archive’s Colombia project has unearthed important documents on the 1985 siege of the Palace of Justice, the so-called “Godfather” of Colombian Army intelligence, Colombia’s paramilitary “Emerald Czar,” the so-called “false positives” scandal in which Colombian Army officers murdered innocent Colombians and falsely presented them as insurgents killed during combat operations; and the links between prominent politicians and narcotraffickers. The Archive’s Chiquita Papers collection shows how the giant fruit multinational contributed to armed actors on all sides of the conflict.

But beyond headlines, other kinds of declassified documents can be important sources of data for truth commission investigators. As noted, earlier this year, the National Security Archive donated a database of more than 20,000 declassified U.S. records on Colombia’s conflict to the Colombia Truth Commission, including formerly secret documents from the U.S. State Department, CIA, DEA, the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies describing contacts with Colombian officials, insurgent attacks, paramilitary atrocities, and rampant corruption among Colombia’s military and political leadership. The vast majority of these the Archive obtained using the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

Examples include:

  • cables and intelligence reports on guerrilla kidnappings, paramilitary massacres and the role of narcotraffickers in compromising officials at all levels of government;
  • military order-of-battle reports and organizational charts describing the command relationships among the various armed actors;
  • intelligence reports describing the organization and activities of combat units on all sides;
  • U.S. military biographic sketches tracking the careers of key military, guerrilla and paramilitary officials;
  • diplomatic cables that shed light on key human rights cases, especially those with implications for U.S. security assistance;
  • DEA reports describing U.S. and Colombian efforts to combat drug trafficking and uncover corruption;
  • the “Los Pepes” affair, in which a joint U.S.-backed Colombian police unit worked with drug-trafficking paramilitaries in the hunt for fugitive narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar;
  • reports tracking the “end-use” of U.S. security assistance;
  • and documents related to the human-rights vetting of Colombian security aid recipients.

The following is a selection of documents from our Colombia documents database


The documents