The testimonies of women and LGBTQI+ persons in Colombia have revealed the disproportionate violence they suffered during the country's armed conflict, warning of the cycles of violence that persist today as armed groups dispute control of illicit economies like drug trafficking.
The recently published Final Report by Colombia’s Truth Commission (Comisión de la Verdad) investigated the impact of the country's conflict on Colombian society. One chapter, titled "My Body is the Truth," shared the experiences of 10,864 women and 408 LGBTQI+ persons that were victims of the armed conflict, explaining why these events occurred and how these communities resisted. To date, more than 4.6 million women and more than 4,400 members of the LGBTQI+ community have been affected by the armed conflict, according to the victims registry.
One of the Truth Commission's main findings was that disputes between armed actors had a disproportionate impact on women. Controlling women's lives and bodies has been used as a way to appropriate territories, tear apart the social fabric, and control communities.
Similarly, the report concluded that the LGBTQI+ community suffered persecution and that the violence committed against them occurred because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Alejandra Miller Restrepo, the commissioner and director of this chapter, is a prominent leader of the feminist movement in Colombia and a member of the Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres (Pacific Route for Women). She is also an investigator and university professor, and a former government secretary in Cauca department. Miller spoke with InSight Crime about the report's findings.
InSight Crime (IC): Why is it important to have a chapter focused on understanding violence against women and the LGBTQI+ population?
Alejandra Miller (AM): It is important to explain what happened to women and the conditions of inequality that previously existed but were deepened by the armed conflict. Women make up half of the population of this country, but we have historically been at a disadvantage, particularly during the armed conflict. During times of war, gaps in equality, violence, and impunity for crimes against women are exacerbated. This has a profound effect on what women mean for the social fabric, for communities and society, and as subjects deserving of rights.
If society as a whole and its decision-makers understand what happened to women and LGBTQI+ people during the conflict, then we will be able to take measures to avoid repeating them, and move towards righting inequalities in the country.
IC: What role do women play within these communities, and how has this role been exploited by armed groups looking to position themselves?
AM: Women are a key pillar of the social fabric; we are the caretakers of life and territories. Targeting women is therefore effective in military terms. For example, when women are displaced from their homes, they tend to move with their dependents, including children or parents. Displaced men tend to move alone.
Threatening a woman is therefore more effective when it comes to clearing territories: When women are directly affected, the family nucleus, and the collective nucleus of the community, are also affected.
IC: InSight Crime identified paramilitary fronts that used sexual violence as a tool of war, including the Tayrona Resistance Bloc. Why did the paramilitaries use such systematic and marked violence?
AM: Sexual violence has always been used by soldiers in war. But we observed that paramilitaries in particular, and especially those fronts located in the Caribbean, Meta, and Putumayo, used sexual violence to threaten people and deprive them of their land. There was an intentionality behind sexual violence, linked to the control of territory for the benefit of economic and political interests.
Guerrillas [the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia - FARC and the National Liberation Army - ELN], also committed rape. However, they did not use it to practice control, but as just another practice. Those who exercised this type of crime were supposedly penalized, although, in reality, this did not happen.
We could not confirm whether public security forces used sexual violence as a strategy to control, although it must be made clear that this practice generated military gains and advantages.
IC: What was the end-goal of the violence against the LGBTQI+ population?
AM: We identified a pattern of persecution against LGBTQI+ persons simply for being LGBTQI+. They were persecuted for two related reasons: prejudice and social complicity. While acts of violence against women did undergo a process of normalization, though this happened less and less, violence against LGBTQI+ people relied on social complicity. In other words, armed actors, and especially the paramilitaries, won over communities with violence against the LGBTQI+ community through acts like so-called "social cleansing."
The most painful thing is that people applauded when LGTBQI+ persons were robbed of their lands, were silenced, or had their businesses destroyed because they were socially categorized as undesirables and people held prejudices against them.
IC: One of the Truth Commission's findings that could explain violence against women is the concept of 'warrior masculinities.' Can you tell us a little more about this concept and the implications it has had on the actions of these groups?
AM: We found that there was an ingrained culture within groups of fighters that perpetrated violence and which was exacerbated by training for war. The values that were exalted in these fighters were the ultimate expression of patriarchal authority and violence.
The men who join these groups enter structures where force, authoritarianism, and domination gives them power. If these men saw women as subjects of subordination before joining these groups, then once they had a weapon in their hands, they saw women as cockroaches. Young people who came out of these training schools left with the idea of dominating those who have the least power: women, children, and the LGBTQI+ community.
For example, in paramilitary schools, extreme cruelty had to be demonstrated, because this is what shapes the masculine character. In the case of the guerrillas, it was different. They were peasants and conservative, so their logic was that they, the armed men, were the ones who had the power to exercise that control over these women. For them, it was a moral logic.
Men are often placed in dominating roles over women and others. But when these masculinities are given value with war and enabled with weapons, this generates a more cruel, violent, and subordinating reaction.
IC: What may have been the motivations of women to join these groups that were dominated by men?
AM: It seemed important that we question representations of women in war, and show that women can also make the decision to go to war.
[In the case of those who joined the FARC guerrilla], we found that there were women who went to war voluntarily because they believed in the political cause and that the country could be changed with arms.
Others went to war due to poverty, because they didn't have anything to eat, they had no education nor opportunities, and the guerrilla was the closest option they had. Others went because they faced domestic or sexual violence and saw the guerrilla as a way to escape those situations, and even to get revenge on their abuser.
There were a wide range of reasons.
IC: The report mentions that violence persists in some territories. What are the consequences of this on women today?
AM: Consequences include sexual violence, because armed actors always believe they are the owners of women's bodies. We have also seen the continued recruitment of boys and girls, men and women. And murders continue for different reasons: In the Cauca department, there is a relation between the murder of girls and the fighting.
IC: What do you see for Colombia's future in terms of conflict, organized crime, and peacebuilding?
AM: I am really hopeful because we appear to be in a moment of political shift. The [Truth Commission's] report, which contains recommendations aimed at stopping the fighting and moving towards peacebuilding, has been well received.
One of the recommendation outlines the need to advance in negotiations and to participate in talks with all armed actors. Negotiations with some actors will be carried out in political terms, and with others it will be a question of [their] submission. We will have to find the strategies for each of them.
On the other hand, we point out persistent factors that could lead to the conflict's reactivation, such as drug trafficking. In fact, one of the striking findings is that the war on drugs did not work. So, we will have to move towards market regulation and legalization.
Several issues must be addressed. The conflict is intertwined with the interests of political and economic actors. On the one hand there is dialogue, and on the other hand, we have to get serious on impunity, corruption, and the other factors that contribute to the persistence of conflict.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.