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Colombia: The meaning of “Never Again”

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

3 June 2024

Gustavo Petro and Truth Commission President Francisco de Roux.

I recently read an article written by the former Colombian truth commissioner and academic at the Los Andes University, Alejandro Castillejo titled Teaching After Gaza?: Indifference Perpetuates Barbarism.(1)  As its title indicates, it deals with Gaza, but also goes over other conflicts, such as Ukraine and also the Colombian conflict itself.

In the text he puts forward a question “When we say Never Again, exactly what should never happen again?”  It is a good question and one that is not often asked and he talks of the continuities, as Gaza is ongoing and will continue after the genocide, it won’t end in some precise reference point.  I would like to deal with another aspect of that question.  Once upon a time the social organisations in Colombia, the NGOs, the left groups, both legal and illegal ones, reformists (some illegal) and revolutionaries (some of which are legal), were very clear about what they meant when they gave voice to the slogan Never Again.  It is a common phrase.  There are some reports from Colombian organisations that include it in their names.  I had the honour of contributing, through my field work to the first two reports on the 14th Zone.(2)  Outside of Colombia, there is more than one truth commission report that has that as its name, such as the REMHI Report of Guatemala,(3) or the report on the disappeared in Argentina.(4)  We were all clear, we did not want a repetition of the terrible night.  We spoke of the bloodbath and many were equally clear that they did not want a repeat of the circumstances that made it all possible, necessary and justifiable in the eyes of the state and bourgeoisie (a term disgracefully fallen into disuse in current times.)

Nowadays, it would seem that nobody is clear about it.  The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) understands Never Again to be never again the FARC and some “rotten apple” in the state’s military forces.  The Truth Commission hadn’t a clue as to what it understood to be Never Again, other than some generic, non-specific abhorrence of violence in and of itself, but not of the system and circumstances that gave rise to the bloodbath and less still to the rivers of blood that flow through the fields and furrows of the country.  The Commission absolved the state for the so-called False Positives for which the state acknowledges and accepts the figure of 6,402 victims.  It was a state crime, acts of state terrorism, crimes as appalling as they were evident.  As far as the Commission was concerned it was not a state policy to take youths to the countryside, dress them up as guerrillas and murder them to present them in dispatches as part of a media campaign that sought to show the state was winning the war.  So, if it was not a state policy, when we say Never Again, are we saying that the state not commit such a crime in the future? Or are we asking thousands of crazy soldiers not to think of putting boots on the wrong way round on the feet of young civilians that they just murdered and dressed up as a guerrillas?  In the first case, it would be something we could demand of the state, in the second case if they were really the demented actions of the soldiers, well even the state would be a victim in that case.

Even the paramilitaries sometimes say No More, rather than Never Again.  In zones where they displaced the entire population, they don’t have to continue killing anyone.  They can say No More. With groups such as the Unión Patriótica that they decimated, or groups such as A Luchar that they finished off, they can say No More.  There is no need to continue murdering as the dirty work has been done, or at least it got to a point in which it had achieved its aim.  If there is a need to repeat it, they will, which is why they say No More rather than Never Again.  This juxtaposition of No More and Never Again shows the banality of the slogan now.  Is it really Never Again or do they speak of “until the next time there is a need to”?

We can see just how empty the refrain of Never Again is by looking at some examples of violence in Colombia.  In the 90s, the levels of violence in the port of Buenaventura began, for various reasons, to dramatically rise.  The violence cannot be explained by reference to one single fact or motive.  However, there are contributing factors and whilst I don’t wish to reduce the explanation to something simple, we can point to the privatization of the port as a key factor in the rise in violence.

In 1991, following recommendations from the World Bank, Colombia in the context of the growing forward march of neoliberalism privatized the ports of the country.  In the case of Buenaventura this resulted in the loss of jobs in the port area, a reduction in salaries, both of which impacted the economies of the neighbourhoods where the workers spent their wages, generally increasing poverty in the city.  The port workers used to be able to apply for grants for their children to study, but with the privatisation that was gone, thus reducing not only the labour market but also the possibility of escaping poverty through studying.  Then came the plans to expand the port and the massacres such as Punta del Este, amongst others, to clear out those who lived where they were going to construct the new port zones.(5)  So when we say Never Again, it is clear that they don’t want the youths of the city to be killed, if they see another alternative, but does Never Again include the plans to privatise and expand the port?

Or we could look at the violence in the mining areas of the country, such as Southern Bolívar (gold) or Cesar and La Guajira (coal).  Once again, we see the hand of the grey men, the banal ones from the World Bank, the IMF or state bodies who like Eichmann never directly killed anyone but rather moved pieces of paper around knowing what the consequences were of those bureaucratic procedures in which they took part and knowing that the new realities they sought to impose required a high dosage of violence.

In the 1980s, the WB had been promoting the expansion of mining in Latin America, the abolition of restrictions on foreign investment, the exporting of capital etc.  in the case of Colombia, it didn’t need to do that much, the national bourgeoisie did the dirty work, without even a nod and a wink from the grey men at the WB.  A key figure in all of this was Ernesto Samper, the head honcho in the country between 1994 and 1998.  It is worth bearing in mind that this satrap likes to present himself as a human rights defender, when it was his government that legalised the paramilitaries and is now one of the fiercest defenders of the current government of Gustavo Petro.  Not only was he the president of the country from 1994 to 1998, he was the owner of various mining companies.  He tried to introduce a new mining code but it was overturned by the Constitutional Court.  In 1998, another satrap and mining businessman, Andrés Pastrana, took over as president and implemented a new mining code, which is currently in force.(6)

During this whole process, the massacres in Southern Bolivar and other mining regions of the country intensified, whilst the paramilitaries tried to take these zones for the multinationals.  In the case of Southern Bolivar they were very explicit about it.  After the murder of the leader Juan Camacho Herrera they played football with this head and placed it on a stake facing in the direction of the mines and declared that they had come to hand over the mineral resources to other people, who would, according to them, make a more rational use of them.  So, when we say Never Again, does it mean Never Again to the national and international plans to take control of mineral resources? Or do they just mean that they are not going to play football with the heads of those who oppose these plans?

Nowadays the discussion in Colombia centres round the question of violence as something alien to the economic projects and they talk about the individuals.  The slogan is to stop the war, but only a few say stop the plans of the WB, the IMF, the imperialist powers such as the USA and Europe.  When the president of the Truth Commission spoke to the UN he stated:

We have come to understand that the solution to the armed conflict is through respecting each person as an equal and we should respect each indigenous and afrocolombian child with the same commitment that we show to presidents, the wealthy, the powerful, and personalities, military generals.  That all personality cults end and we love and respect each other as people entitled to the same dignity.  And that in Colombia and the world over all of us contribute to promoting a new sense of ethics based on human dignity and that all the spiritual traditions lend their support to this.(7)
Pass the joint round, take out the guitar, sing Kumbaya and kiss each other. In his speeches and the Commission’s report, the economic model is not questioned, in fact through the terms of reference they restricted the researchers and even banned them from dealing with certain issues, such as the role of the banks, the institutions and even the role of the USA in the conflict, which was reduced to isolated comments lacking in depth.  So Never Again means never again showing disrespect to someone and that we not seek recourse in violence to solve differences.

But that violence is not fortuitous and the bullets, the machetes, the chainsaws [common weapons in massacres] are used when the first victim of the economic plans refuses to submit.  So, Never Again has become, accept the established order and its plans!  A Never Again to violence that says little about structural violence is an exhortation to surrender and is a Never Again until such time as it is necessary to resort to violence to impose the will the of the capitalist class.  Never Again for the moment, just like in Gaza.


(1)  Castillejo, A. (2024) Enseñar después de Gaza?: La indiferencia perpetua la barbarie. Revisa Raya Mayo 16, 2024.

(2)  Although the Never Again project changed since its foundation in 1995 in terms of participants and leadership, some of the reports are available on the site

(3)  See Guatemala Nunca Más

(4)  See Informe “Nunca Más”

(5)  See chapter Los Puertos: Importando el Terror, Ó Loingsigh, G. (2013) La Reconquista del Pacífico: Invasión, Inversión, Impunidad. PCN. Bogotá.ífico

(6)  Ó Loingsigh, G. (2003) La Estrategia Integral del Paramilitarismo en el Magdalena Medio. Organizaciones Sociales. España.

(7)  Speech by Francisco de Roux to the UN

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