BOGOTA, Colombia -- At least 220,000 people have been killed, more than 5,000 have disappeared and 4.7 million have been forced off their land during Colombia’s 54-year civil conflict. The chilling numbers, presented Wednesday by a government commission, are the most thorough accounting ever made of this nation’s ongoing struggles.
The report, which took six years to compile, comes as the country is in the midst of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s largest guerrilla group, even as it engages the rebels in pitched battles.
Among the study’s findings: Civilians accounted for 82 percent of all conflict-related deaths, and one out of every three violent deaths can be blamed on the conflict. Of the 1,982 massacres — defined as the killing of four or more people — from 1980 to 2012, right-wing paramilitary groups were responsible for 59 percent of them. Of the 27,023 kidnappings from 1970 to 2010, guerrillas were to blame 91 percent of the time.
While the nation’s armed combatants took the bulk of the blame, the armed forces were also put in the spotlight. The military and police were responsible for 8 percent of all massacres, 42 percent of all forced disappearances and 6.5 percent of all selective killings, according to the report.
“The numbers force us to revise the true cost of the armed conflict,” the report states. While many believed the conflict caused one out of every 10 violent deaths, the true figure is triple that amount.
“Likewise, it’s possible to refute claims that there’s symmetry between the number of civilian and combatant casualties,” the report said. “On the contrary, civilians are more affected. For every combatant killed, four civilians died.”
The non-lethal statistics are also sobering. The report said some 6,421 children and adolescents have been recruited by armed groups. In addition, 10,189 people were maimed by landmines from 1982 to 2012.
The study’s authors say the numbers are mere estimates. But it marks the first time that the government has tried to comprehensively quantify the human toll of the conflict.
At the official presentation of the study, President Juan Manuel Santos said the truth was vital for the nation’s efforts to find lasting peace.
“As Colombians, the time is here to build our memories on the truth,” he said. “That responsibility is not just mine, the governments, the victims or the victimizers. No. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”
Government and FARC negotiators have been meeting in Havana since November as they try to hammer out a peace deal. While both sides say progress is being made, fighting on the ground is raging. Last week, the FARC killed 19 soldiers in a single day — the most military casualties since the talks began. The government has also accused the group of infiltrating ongoing protests in the Catatumbo region, along the border with Venezuela.
The 434-page report, titled “Enough! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity,” was produced by the Historic Memory Group, a government truth commission.
The study traces Colombia’s violence back to the 1940s, when the rivalry between the Conservative and Liberal parties devolved into massacres and bloodshed. In 1958, the parties agreed to a power sharing system, but the marauding bands they had spawned were reluctant to put down their arms, and some evolved into outlaw guerrilla forces. The FARC — the hemisphere’s largest and oldest guerrilla group — got its start in 1964.
The report charts the evolution of guerrillas and their opposing paramilitary rivals from rural-based ideological groups to widespread conglomerations often tainted by the drug trade and working in conjunction with criminal gangs.
Despite the grim statistics, Colombia has made great strides in security. The nation has managed to decrease its homicide rate more than any other Latin American nation over the last decade, and the newfound peace is turning the nation into an investment and tourism haven.
But the long-running conflict has bred a culture of violence and impunity that needs to change to guarantee lasting peace, the study said. And the nation’s victims need to be guaranteed access to truth, justice and reparations.
“This conflict has generated dehumanization, failure to accept responsibility, denial and obscuring of the truth and left victims invisible or silenced,” the report found. “This requires recognition and responsibility to be the two foundations of all public policies designed to respond to the magnitude of what’s occurred during so many years of war.”