Return to Recent Articles menu

Colombia: Historic Memory, Massacres and the Military

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

12 November 2019

Initially it was reported that in an aerial bombardment that took place on August 30th seven children were massacred, the figure then went up to eight and then on November 11th Noticias Uno reported that according to people from the community in close proximity to the events it was 18 children, three of whom were finished off by the army.(1)  This massacre in a bombardment by the air force of the Colombian state shows the nature of the Colombian conflict and the question of historic memory and the coordinated and rigorous efforts of the armed forces to define their own version and impose it.  What are we going to remember?  What importance will be placed on each event?  Who are we going to blame and what exactly will we blame them for?

First, lets go over the events before we move on to the issue of the military and their propaganda machinery.  In August 2019 the bombed a hamlet killing 18 children whose ages ranged from 12 to 17.  The state's official armed forces presented the children as guerrillas fallen in combat and the Minister for Defence, Botero, helped cover it up.  The military command, the Minister Botero and President Duque took part in this macabre task of covering up the events.  The event is noteworthy in that in this instance all the elements of state terrorism can be seen, low ranking military officials murder the children and all the military and political echelons took it upon themselves to cover it up.  Later when it became public they tried to justify the bombardment accusing the children of being guerrillas.  The media for its part (that media that some believe is neutral in the conflict) came out to also justify it and besmirch the reputation of the children.  In just one act we have a microcosm of the conflict, they kill, they cover up, they justify, they twist the truth.  They say the children were guerrillas but the municipal ombudsman of Puerto Rico, Caquetá says they were there against their will and that he had reported it to the authorities.(2)  The state's duty is in any case to rescue them alive not to bomb them with indiscriminate weapons.  Now there is talk of reporting Duque to the International Criminal Court for a violation of International Humanitarian Law.  The NGOs that have adopted to the state's discourse regarding IHL forget that a child over the age of 15 may be looked upon as a combatant and a military target.  IHL is not that neat clean ethical reference point that they would have us believe, as it allows for the recruitment and killing of minors.  The British army recruits from 16 years onwards, but one can apply from the age of 15 years and 7 months, the US and German armies recruit from the age of 17.  However, at least two of the dead are under the age of 15 and the issue is not just whether IHL allows it or not, but rather that the state covered it up and the state treats everyone under the age of 18 as a minor, thus its duty was not to kill them and less still to finish them off as they did with the survivors.

A question arises as to how this event will be dealt with in the framework of historic memory promoted by the state and NGOs.  How will the Truth Commission deal with it?  There are thousands of cases like this one, the question is not an abstract one.  From this another question arises, who constructs historic memory and truth?  The historic memory of World War I was written by the Allies.  What would it be like if it had been written by the Germans? Or what would it look like if it had been written by the soldiers who took part in the war or the German sailors whose mutiny forced the Kaiser to surrender to the Allies?  Everyone writes history from their own perspective and current interests.  The NGOs that used to earn their bread denouncing the state now earn it by participating in the memory institutions etc.  that the state set up.  Thus, they also now write and try to define historic memory from their current perspectives and interests, which are no longer the same as of those of yesteryear.

The state's military forces understand this.  In August this year it became public that General Martínez wanted to coordinate the military's version in the Truth Commission(3) and received the support of the commission’s president.(4)  However, there are a number of books published by the military and written by Martínez that deal with the issue.  The books are rigorous in the academic sense.  They were not written by some fool like the president, but rather by serious people and deserve to be read in order to know how the enemy aims to define the historic memory of the people.  It is interesting that they were published in 2016 before the peace agreement with the FARC.  The military may be blood thirsty but they are strategic.  They value the importance of the battle field that is the dispute for the memory of the conflict and unlike the FARC guerrillas, the NGOs, the congressional bench of the POLO and the new FARC party, they prepared for it.

For some raised in the world of the NGOs and social democracy it may sound shocking to describe the armed forces of the state as the enemy.  But, how would you describe an army that murders civilians, tortures, disappears people, dresses up young civilian males in uniform to later murder them and present them as guerrillas fallen in combat in order to win a media war?  The army boasts about defending the homeland, but in reality what it defends is the Colombian oligarchy, the multinationals and the capitalist system.  Between a peasant that fought for his land and was murdered and the soldier who murdered him, the difference regarding how we present them is not academic nor is it semantic in nature but rather a question of economic models and needs in conflict.  On the one side the peasant, on the other an official hitman of the state defending the rate of profit of a few.  Thus, the state's forces are the enemy and we should say it frankly without any shame.  Many have adopted the discourse of Colombian social democracy and the right (very similar on many points) that the forces of the state are honourable.  Even in the debate on the bombardment, Roy Barreras from the right wing Party of Unity, clarified that when he called into question the bombardment he was not questioning the institution which is in his opinion an honourable one.  The state's forces are not honourable as Barreras claims, nor legitimate as the POLO says, nor institutions in which we can fully trust as the FARC party claims, but rather the enemy of the working class and peasantry.  And when they put forward their version of the conflict they are presenting the version of the enemy of those classes.  So, what is it that the military say about historic memory in their books?

One of the books is titled Memorias del camino a la victoria: Relatos de memoria de la Fuerza Tarea Conjunta Omega (Memories of the path to victory:  Tales of the memories of the Omega Joint Task Force).  The text of the book kicks off with the following epigraph, "In the memory of future generations the selflessness of many Colombians to build a country in peace must remain intact."(5)  It is clear from the title of the book that they are convinced they won, and not without reason, that they won the war and their struggle was a struggle for peace.

"To be a soldier in Colombia during a conflict that lasted half a century and see the white flag of peace flying high after a grand coordinated job is the satisfaction of having fulfilled our duty.  The flying of the flag is the highest point of the military victory and allows it to be the route for progress and stability of a country, it is the greatest tribute that can be made to a soldier of the homeland."(6)
The same text talks about memory and the intersection between individual and collective memory and analyses the Colombian model for memory.
"The model that places the victims at the centre of historic memory is a model for post-heroic memory, which pays no attention to the brave actions of the Military Forces of a people, but rather places the emphasis on the tragedies derived from the armed confrontations, i.e. the victims.  The model culminates in showing the tragedies of the victims in the armed conflict with the aim of dignifying them in the face of the unjust actions that befell them."(7)
They criticise the model and claim that there is a need to take into account the memory of the actor, such as themselves, and not just that of the victims, as in their opinion it is reductionist.  They are not proposing to broaden the question out to look at the economic model, the interests of or the nature of the state.  The text states that "It is indispensable that the Security Forces can also construct its own memory or counter-memory."(8)  The expression counter-memory says it all.  They propose another narrative with the aim of the military not only being absolved of any crime but they would prefer not to be even accused of their wrongdoing.
"In the case of Colombia, the work on history memory, particularly that of the CNMH (National Centre for Historic Memory) is not geared towards forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather promotes resentment and takes the victims along the road of retributive justice.  Thus, the CNMH does not investigate to forgive but rather to seek out the perpetrators and that they serve out their time with restorative justice.  This centre and its methodology do not acknowledge the civic virtue of forgiveness as they do not promote that possibility.  It may be that they are looking for culprits in the wrong place and above all coming down on the Security Forces that have always, as part of their mission, submitted to the constitutional order and in the majority of cases were just complying with political orders."(9)
The text goes on to criticise the methodology of the National Centre for Historic Memory and the victims as a source of information and restates the final aim of any historic memory investigation should be forgiveness, or to give it its real name, a pardon and impunity.  Memory is not neutral, it can't be.  In the conflict there were sides, the insurgencies, the social organisations, the official forces of the state and the unofficial forces of the same state i.e. the paramilitaries.  Whoever remembers, remembers from their own point of view, their experience and moreover their ideological position.

Even the newspaper El Espectador, very close to certain sectors of the oligarchy, which considers itself to be "progressive" though it is not, has acknowledged that memory is an area in dispute and points out that:

"Since February various presumed attempts, have been reported, to silence tales, voices, festivals, demonstrations, texts, arrangements and versions of artistic projects that have, coincidentally, spoken or tried to speak about what happened during the armed conflict, have criticised the current government or expressed clear political positions that were uncomfortable or "imprecise" for many.
The year began with the concern surrounding an overhaul of historic memory, due to acts that have not ceased: the resignations that the Ministry of Culture demanded from the directors of the National Archive and the National Library, the refusal to finance activities such as the Greek Literature Festival, the Festival of Manizales and a retrospective on Rubén Mendoza, a cinema director who in the last outing of the International Film Festival of Cartagena gave a speech that was critical of the current government's performance, amongst other things."(10)

This means that within the framework of the Havana Accord, the state and various bodies harass those who do not share or may represent a challenge to the official truth.  Of course it should be said, we are in Colombia, so officially there is no official truth, but there is one.  It is like the old saying we don't believe in witches but witches there be.  There is no official version, but there is.

There are those who believe that a truth commission is something different.  The historian Ugarriza believes that:

"A truth commission could be a space in which we can sort out differences, but the current system is a setting for confrontation between the parts in conflict.  Nobody in it is revealing the truth about what happened for the purposes of the report.  No one goes to the Truth Commission to contribute to knowledge of what happened.  They all go to position their own truth, to defend themselves and to point the finger, as this is the legacy that will be left to future generations and this will always be an area in dispute."(11)
No, by no means can you sort out differences.  Between the peasant who was murdered and the hitman soldier and the landlord who took his land there is nothing to sort out.  There are no mere differences of opinion.  There is no valid consensus on the issue to be had.  Neither is it true that everyone goes to position their truth, the army does go in that sense, but the NGOs do not attend with that purpose in mind.  They swallowed whole the tale of peace and transitional justice and they attend thinking that a truth which is favourable to their position will come out due to the presence of a few supposed left-wingers in the commission.

Everyone is outraged now about the bombardment, but in ten years’ time, the events will be relativised in the name of so called reconciliation.  Memory is an area in dispute as we are still in dispute for the land, for the working class and peasantry, for the victory over capitalism.  Whoever thinks that in a struggle against capitalism there can be an agreed truth or reconciliation is a fool, or someone who is in favour of capitalism.  The rest is hyperbole, deceit and a play on words.  The military have to be given their due, they know that they are still at war to save capitalism in Colombia.  It is a pity that many of those who one could have called brother or comrade before, have made their peace with the system and now from the discourse on memory, peace and reconciliation want to hand the victims in again and guarantee the victory of the enemy, an expression they once used to use in their NGOs.  Not anymore.  The enemy is referred to today as the legitimate institutions of the country.  But it is still the same enemy as yesterday and that enemy massacred the children in the bombardment, lets not forget that when the agreed upon truth is produced by the NGOs or that which the military wants to impose.


(1)See Los hallazgos de Noticias Uno en la zona del bombardeo donde murieron al menos 8 niños

(2) Semana (06/11/2019) "Lo que ocurrió en San Vicente del Caguán fue una masacre de niños": personero

(3) Martínez Espinel, N de J. et. al. (2016) Memorias del camino a la victoria: Relatos de memoria de la Fuerza Tarea Conjunta Omega: Planeta, Bogotá p.7

(4) Ibíd., Presentación general Javier Alberto Flórez Aristizábal, p.21

(5) Martínez Espinel, N de J. et. al. (2016) Memorias del camino a la victoria: Relatos de memoria de la Fuerza Tarea Conjunta Omega: Planeta, Bogotá p.7

(6) Ibíd., Presentación general Javier Alberto Flórez Aristizábal, p.21

(7) Arroyave Quintero, M. Memoria histórica reconciliación y perdón: Una crítica al ¡Basta Ya! desde la Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta Omega in Martínez Espinel, N de (2016) op. cit. p.103

(8) Ibíd.,

(9) Ibíd., p. 106

(10) El Espectador (10/11/2019) La memoria nacional: un terreno en disputa

(11) Ibíd.,

Return to top of page