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“Sowing peace”: unprecedented sentences for war criminals in Colombia

Sitting on a small bench, former Colombian general Henry Torres takes a moment of respite from his work. Planting trees is now part of his sentence for the 303 murders committed under his command.

“We are not only restoring an ecosystem, we are also trying to minimize the harm that we have caused,” explains to AFP the 61-year-old former commander, responsible for hundreds of executions which the army used to inflate the results of the armed conflict.

Discharged from the armed forces for these crimes, he wears work clothes like any employee at the nursery where he works, near the capital Bogota.

Colombia is testing a unique restorative justice program, called “sowing peace”, which provides alternative sanctions to prison for those primarily responsible for war crimes.

“Sowing peace”: unprecedented sentences for war criminals in Colombia

A former soldier plants trees in Usme, south of Bogota, on April 16, 2024 in Colombia © AFP – Raul ARBOLEDA

Resulting from the historic 2016 peace agreement with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the initiative, in which 46 former soldiers participate, arouses the distrust of certain victims.

“Planting trees… it's absolutely insufficient, a kind of mockery,” says Margarita Arteaga, whose brother was killed in 2007 by men in uniform which presented him as a criminal shot dead during an alleged exchange of gunfire.

Between 2002 and 2008, some 6,400 people were executed by soldiers by presenting them as criminals or rebels, according to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), established to judge the worst crimes of the conflict.

“Sowing peace”: unprecedented sentences for war criminals in Colombia

Former major Gustavo Soto plants a tree in Usme, south of Bogota, on April 16, 2024 in Colombia © AFP – Raul ARBOLEDA

“We are trying to reconcile our society after a very serious war. It is very new and very complex,” notes its president Roberto Vidal.

Under the sun, a dozen men clear a plot of land with machetes, before replanting it.

Among them, former major Gustavo Soto, confronted in 2023 with the families of 85 civilians killed under his command in the department of Casanare (center-east). “It was quite difficult,” he recalls.

– combat losses –

In the early 2000s, he participated in the counter-insurgency fight of right-wing government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010).

“Unfortunately, what they asked for were results in terms of combat losses (…) this is how we were evaluated by the higher command,” says the 52-year-old man, while trying to to uproot a thorny broom.

“Sowing peace”: unprecedented sentences for war criminals in Colombia

A stone painted by a victim of the Colombian armed conflict, in Usme, south of Bogota, April 16, 2024 © AFP – Raul ARBOLEDA

The two former soldiers, Torres and Soto, were imprisoned for the murders for which they were found responsible. The JEP then granted them freedom in exchange for their testimony and participation in such initiatives.

Every day, they work for five hours, under the supervision of the JEP, a time which will be deducted from the maximum sentence of eight years of imprisonment that the court will impose on them.

But for Margarita Arteaga, the soldiers “made the deal of their lives” by taking advantage of this agreement. Her brother, an artisan and punk fan, was 31 in February 2007 when he arrived in the oil town of Casanare to try his luck selling jewelry.

A month later, soldiers kidnapped him from a bar and executed him in a rural area. He asked to be shot head-on, survived and was finished off on the ground, his sister learned from the killer during a JEP hearing in 2023.

“Sowing peace”: unprecedented sentences for war criminals in Colombia

Margarita Arteaga shows a photo of her brother Kemel Arteaga, during an interview with AFP in Bogota, April 19, 2024 in Colombia © AFP – Raul ARBOLEDA

“I can understand the symbolism of the trees, but that does not constitute reparation,” said the spokesperson for the Casanare Victims' Association for Peace.

It particularly calls into question the fact that the culprits did not recognize the acts of torture inflicted on their victims.

Two other restorative justice initiatives are underway. In one, participants rebuild an indigenous civic center. In the other, they participate in operations to raise awareness of the dangers of land mines.

But for Margarita Arteaga, we must go further, such as organizing visits to the barracks “to tell the soldiers in training what they have done and what is not should not happen”.

All rights of reproduction and representation reserved. © (2024) Agence France-Presse

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116