• Owen Schacht

Gustavo Petro’s Pursuit of ‘Paz Total’ in Colombia

Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez swam against the tide this past August, becoming Colombia’s first leftist president and vice president, respectively; now, they are continuing to push the envelope with the goal of “Total Peace”. The past six decades of Colombian history have witnessed a proliferation of violence and corruption resulting from the emergence and widespread use of cocaine and the narcotraffickers who control its production and distribution. The drug trade has plagued Colombia with murder, kidnapping, disappearances, torture, and terrorism with no extent of military resistance, extradition, or retributive justice halting the trafficking and its various concomitants. The conflict in the Andean country has amassed more than 8 million victims since 1964. A refreshed outlook on justice may lead Colombia to a more peaceful future, which is precisely Petro’s aim. Utilizing previous accords with guerilla and paramilitary groups while updating several legal processes, Colombia seeks to recompense the victims of the drug trade and restore a peaceful, prosperous Colombia.


Petro’s idea offers an unprecedented opportunity to start concluding Colombia’s more than a half-century of conflict. The new Colombian leaders devised a plan to pursue ‘Paz Total’, employing the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) –– the justice component of a peace deal signed in 2016 following negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government under the Juan Manuel Santos administration –– and expanding its reach. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was a guerrilla group that turned to the drug trade, kidnapping, extortion, and illegal gold mining to finance its operations. From 1964 until 2016, the group was an active militia; in 2016, following a landmark peace agreement to lay down their arms and participate in an Integrated System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-Repetition (SIVJRNR), they became an officially recognized political party. The JEP emphasizes a ‘transitional justice’ approach instead of the traditional punitive justice approach, which has failed to yield widespread peace. Transitional justice is used in instances of large-scale human rights violations and confronts its lasting legacy. The Nuremberg Trials of 1945, following the formal end of WWII, was the first implementation of transitional justice; alternatively, it has been observed through truth commissions in Argentina in 1983, Chile in 1990, and South Africa in 1995. This approach is manifested differently depending on the circumstances but always focuses chiefly on victims’ rights and their “dignity as citizens and human beings”.


According to the JEP’s literature, the justice branch of the SIVJRNR is broken into three judicial chambers and four sections of the Tribunal for Peace. Cooperating defendants have their cases move through all chambers while the Tribunal for Peace oversees the proceedings. First, a defendant will pass through the Chamber for Acknowledgement of Truth, Responsibility and Determination of Facts and Conduct to confess their crimes to the victims. Afterwards, the defendant moves to the Chamber for Amnesty or Pardon, where a group of judges decide which crimes may qualify for pardon and which will receive a criminal sentence. Lastly, a defendant will go through the Sentencing Chamber. However, if a defendant fails to admit to their crimes, the Investigation and Prosecution Unit will review and probe the case. The JEP utilizes three categories of sanctions: ‘special’, ‘alternative’, and ‘ordinary’. Special sanctions “will be imposed on those who, upon being found most responsible for the most serious and representative crimes,” fully acknowledge the truth and responsibility of their actions. They include 5 to 8 years of effective restrictions on liberty, with no prison time, or between 2 to 5 years for those who indirectly participated in the crime. This method of sanction is restorative, aiming to rectify the damages incurred by the victims. Alternative sanctions apply to criminals who acknowledge their truths only before sentencing and receive a deprivation of liberty for 5 to 8 years. Ordinary sanctions pertain to those who fail to acknowledge truth and responsibility and are subsequently found guilty; those individuals may receive a sentence of 15-20 years in prison. One key goal of this process is to achieve transparency about the truth of what countless people suffered from during the conflict for both the sake of the victims and history. However, the JEP has previously been exclusively available to former FARC combatants – Petro wants to change this.


Petro’s pursuit of ‘Paz Total’ builds upon the peace treaty with the FARC by enlarging its scope. He wants to incorporate all criminals and criminal organizations involved in the Colombian armed conflict to carry out demobilizations, disarmament, and transparency about the crimes committed. The conflict’s most egregious and representative crimes are being examined with the utmost urgency. Yet, all participants, from combatants to victims, may engage in what the JEP offers. In the immediate future, Colombian officials are reinitiating peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest guerrilla group in the country. Gradually, Petro hopes to incorporate all actors in this war, but currently, he has his sights set on the next biggest fish – the ELN. The pursuit of ‘Paz Total’ aspires to fight impunity, contribute towards giving reparations to victims, offer truth to the Colombian public, deal out justice, and achieve a long-lasting, stable peace.


“The war on drugs has failed,” said Petro in his first speech to the United Nations in September. The conventional approach to combat drug violence and abuse failed in Colombia, the United States, Mexico, and everywhere else governments attempted it. It is uncertain whether ‘Total Peace’ will be achieved, maintained, and never abused, but certainly, a new plan to combat drug violence and corruption is needed. Petro’s actions acknowledge that one peace treaty with only one of many militias is wholly insufficient to attain peace and that his pursuit of ‘Paz Total’ will not come to fruition overnight. His administration is beginning to implement its new strategy, and future administrations must continue the mission to sustain comprehensive peace. The coming months and years will either exemplify a new way to enforce justice or will demonstrate the need for further attempts to rectify the societal failure that is omnipresent brutality.


Image via Flickr.