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Colombia: forgiveness as an insult

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

14 September 2020

From  a long time before the peace process with the FARC and the previous one with the paramilitaries, the word forgiveness /pardon(1) has been heard and the need to forgive and progress towards another type of relationship between victims and victimisers.  In the official discourse forgiveness seems the laudable, dignified and necessary act.  However, it is very ideologically laden, particularly in contexts of internal conflict where the victims have to forgive the state, under pressure from churches, politicians and NGOs.  Claudia López the Mayoress of Bogotá held an act of forgiveness and reconciliation for the 13 people murdered in the city.  In the context of the event we can see how reactionary the concept of forgiveness is.

The corpses were barely cold and they were demanding forgiveness, without offering anything in exchange.  In the event various Catholic priests and an evangelical pastor took part urging forgiveness and reconciliation.  But what is being forgiven? and who is reconciling with whom?

On the first question, not even Claudia López is sure.  Are they forgiving an excess use of force or a murder?  Are they forgiving something that got out of hand or something that is the natural result of state security policies?  These are not minor questions and the fact that none of the organisers can or are interested in answering them show that these questions are superfluous for them as the event was not about forgiveness but accepting what happened.  As no one in the institutions can clearly explain what happened, there can be no forgiveness and the priests who took part in the event know this well.

The most well known of them is Francisco de Roux, the president of the Truth Commission.  It is telling that a body set up in the context of the Peace Accord with the FARC is wheeled out for a quick and cheap pardon in the setting of social protests.  For priests, forgiveness in the confession box is awarded after five steps.

  • An examination of your conscience, which is a sincere look at the acts.
  • A heartfelt contrition which means feeling the pain for having offended or in the case empathy with the victim.
  • There should be an intention to not commit the sin (crime in this case) again.
  • A verbal confession which is presumed to be complete.
  • A good deed, which means seeking the best way to repair the harm.
It is obvious that the state functionaries and the police have not examined their conscience, nor do they feel any great pain and importantly, they haven't the slightest intention of not committing the crime again.  We know this as they have murdered so many demonstrators over the year and it is almost certain they will do so again, maybe even this month.  Neither have they made a complete confession on what happened.

When the Police detain a poor person for stealing a tin of tuna in a supermarket in Cali or someone else for a more serious crime, they usually bring them before the cameras and in an abuse of procedure declare them guilty.  Now, they come out with the tale that we have to wait for the justice system to swing into action before they can say whether they were murdered or not.  In 2005, the riot squad (ESMAD) beat young Nicolás Neira to death, 15 years on after arduous work, which forced him into exile, the youth's dad has not found justice. Neither has the state sought how to make repairs for the harm.

The priests ask the victims to be less demanding because they are in the confession box and the whole event is just an exercise in public relations that was done in order to calm things down in the neighbourhoods and also for electoral purposes.  If there was a real will to fix things they would acknowledge all the murders they have committed, including the murder of Dilan Cruz last year in the midst of the protests.  They would bring an end to the suffering of Nicolás Neira's dad and so many others.

Also, if she was sincere, López would ask to be forgiven for the violence of the Police in the evictions and the repression of the protests in the midst of the confinement.  But she is not thinking of doing that ever.

So, once again, what is being forgiven?

Now for the second question, who is reconciling with whom?  It is not clear.  It is presumed that the victim and the victimiser are the ones who should reconcile with each other, but the murderers of Javier Ordóñez were not there, nor were the murderers of the others.  So there is no one to reconcile with on a personal level, but López and de Roux were not seeking that type of reconciliation, but rather one between the state and the people.  Although, given the arrests after the event, it would seem they failed in their attempt, at least with a section of the population.

Claudia López's act of forgiveness / pardon is a mockery of the victims.  After the murder of their loved ones, López and other characters took advantage of the pain of the relatives offering lukewarm measures with no intention of putting an end to the police violence.  When they acknowledge what they did they can talk of forgiveness and reconciliation, when they repair the harm done they can do so but not before.  But even then no one is obliged to pardon the state's hitmen.  Never forgive, never forget!  but rather punish.


(1)The Spanish word for forgiveness and pardon is the same perdón  and frequently there is a play on both meaning, the victims forgive and the state pardons.

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