International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

The Trial of Hebert Veloza Garcia, a test of Transitional Justice in Colombia


In 2005 the Colombian Congress led by then president Álvaro Uribe Vélez passed Law 975, the Justice and Peace Law. Law 975 offered paramilitary leaders and soldiers who were not included in previous attempts to demobilize extra-legal armed forces reduced sentences if they told the truth about their crimes, paid reparations to the victims, and promised not to return to a life of crime. Currently in Colombia under Law 975 paramilitary troops that opt to demobilize and qualify receive reduced prison sentences of 5-8 years. Article 29 of the law states that the severity of the prison sentence will be based off of the “gravity of the crime and the effective co-operation provided in the clarification of the same.” Previously laws to encourage the demobilization of extra-legal armed forces had not included amnesties for those whom had committed human rights abuses as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a part of the Organization of American States (OAS), does not recognize amnesty for those who commit crimes against humanity, war crimes, and/or human rights violations.

On October 30th, 2013 Hebert Veloza Garcia, a paramilitary commander of the AUC, was convicted of 85 crimes including cases of torture, forced disappearance, and 105 homicides. Under Law 975, in exchange for his truthful confession, he received a prison sentence of seven years and a fine of approximately 5.2 million dollars. Garcia is currently serving time in the United States on drug charges and will serve the seven years on his return. Veloza’s trial and subsequent sentencing was considered a victory for transitional justice in Colombia.

Sikkink argues that because people have such strong ideas about justice victims are always disappointed and disillusioned by the results of trials, but all I can see is a man who committed over 85 separate crimes including torture, forced disappearances, the forcible recruitment of children, and homicide only serving seven years in prison.

Veloza was found guilty of importing to and selling cocaine in the United States in excess of five kilograms. In the U.S. this carries a minimum sentence of ten years in prison to a maximum of life in prison. For ordering and taking part in massacres and acts of torture. Veloza received seven years in prison. The correct way in which to enact transitional justice is a topic few agree on, but can and should amnesty be a true part of transitional justice?

Comments on this post have suggested that the reason for this short sentence is that Colombia is seeking not punishment but the fixing of broken relationships and a restoration of harmony. This case and the comments on my original post bring up a very important debate in the field of transitional justice: restorative versus retributive justice. The South African Truth Commission is the most publicized example of a purely restorative mode of justice, and though it has many critics, it is considered a success story. But what readers need to understand is that the situation of the county needs to be taken into account when deciding the correct form of justice to implement. Colombia has been in a low-intensity civil war for the last 50 years and because of this, and other factors, the lines between illegal and legal armed actors and those in positions of political power have blurred on more than one occasion. The government does not have the infrastructure in place or the authority to carry out a process like the South African Truth Commission. There are arguments for both a retributive and a restorative form of justice for the country, but after so much time I feel that the country needs to focus more on retributive justice with features of restorative justice in order to reassert the government’s authority.



2 responses to “The Trial of Hebert Veloza Garcia, a test of Transitional Justice in Colombia

  1. coreyinjuno January 14, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    One important thing that needs to be examined here is what type of justice or main goal is being sought by Columbia’s Justice and Peace process? Is it mainly reparations for past crimes against human rights or something else as well? The director of ICTJ’s office in Columbia explained its purpose to be, “to provide an opportunity to better understand the paramilitary phenomenon that permeated several sectors of Colombian society in recent history, and to dismantle its military, political, and economic structure and to give justice to thousands of its victims.”
    This type of “restorative justice” is one that was sought by South Africa by using truth commissions. Now this type of justice doesn’t mean punishment is excluded, (as Garcia will spend the better part of his next 20 years in different jail cells), but for South Africa and Columbia, punishment isn’t the ultimate goal, but is part of the broader process of healing a repair. It seems that Columbia’s goal here is to fix broken relationships and heal old wounds, and having Garcia confess to all of his wrongdoings and bringing to light the pain suffered by many, will help with the healing process for many citizens.
    If Columbia’s main aim were only punish those who committed acts of violence against humanity, they would have let Garcia keep his initial sentencing, and never have offered him the option to confess for a shorter sentence. This shows that Columbia obviously is seeking more than to just implement punishment to help restore justice.

    • eaclark212 January 14, 2014 at 2:09 pm

      I think that while it is true that Colombia is attempting to do more than just implement punishment to restore justice, the situation is complex and must be handled differently. Colombia has a long history of paramilitary and guerrilla violence stretching back almost 60 years, and the past three demobilization processes have failed to keep paramilitary leaders from remobilizing. According to Salvatore Mancuso, a demobilized paramilitary leader, demobilized paramilitary troops return to or have never left the only life they know. Many argue that the Justice and Peace law has simply reengineered paramilitarism rather than demobilized it. According to Amnesty International 90% of those who are demobilized under Law 975 “escaped effective investigation,” and offered little information on the crimes they or their unit committed. I think you are right that punishment was not the main goal, but I wonder if, considering the situation in the country, it should have been more of a priority?

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