Francisco De Roux

Colombia: The journey to truth

From November Traces: the fear of questions, 
wounded young men, and forgiveness. A conversation with Fr. Francisco De Roux, a key figure in the peace process happening in a country devastated by a seemingly endless conflict.
Doris Soraida Barragan

How can I judge a girl who was, at age nine, recruited by the FARC [The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], taught to kill at age ten, and at 11 raped and forced to have an abortion? Who am I to judge? If I had been in her shoes, how would I have ended up?” Fr. Francisco De Roux, a Jesuit, since 2017 has been the head of the Truth Commission, the entity at the heart of the Colombian peace process. “It is not really the 'Truth Commission,'” he immediately insisted, “but the Commission for the Clarification of Truth. We are trying to reconstruct exactly what happened in this country.” He is referring to the more than 50 years of armed conflict involving guerrilla groups (including the FARC), paramilitaries, drug cartels, and the National Liberation Army, a war that has left in its wake 265,000 dead and eight million wounded and featured attacks, kidnappings, murders, forced displacements, mutilation, child recruitment, and expropriation of land.
Peace negotiations began in 2012, and there were years of intense bargaining up until June 23, 2016 when a peace treaty was signed in Havana. On October 2nd of that year, the treaty was submitted to a popular referendum, and the unsettling result was a “no” to peace. The day after the vote, De Roux wrote, “The result of the referendum may be what leads us to overcome the deepest of our problems–namely, ourselves. We are a people who exclude one another and are unable to grapple with deep issues together, even with the knowledge that our animosities and aggressions–expressed in politics, in the media, in academic and faith-based debates, and within families– have lethal consequences. [...] We have to accept with realism and humility that we must re-examine ourselves. [...] We are part of the problem, and precisely because we are part of the problem, part of the crisis, our responsibility to be part of the solution becomes more salient.”
Today, as the delicate peace process is threatened by a resurgence of violence and attacks in anticipation of regional elections, De Roux refuses be discouraged. He studied economics in Paris and London and has dedicated all of his energy to economic and social development projects in his country, “but I am convinced,” he says, “that Colombia’s problem is a spiritual one. It is a brokenness in the human person. If we do not work at that level, we will not be able to do anything.”

Bogotà. One of this year's peaceful protests

Fr. De Roux, how is it possible to face a situation as complex and painful as the one our people is experiencing?
I have always thought that the roots of the problems in Colombia–this goes for every country, but for us especially–go very deep. Drug trafficking, armed conflict, land disputes, the way we became the world’s biggest producer of cocaine... The list is very, very long. And each of these problems is a kilometer deep. We start to address one and, when we have gotten down 100 meters, we get overwhelmed and say, “No, forget about it. It’s too complicated.” With that attitude, nothing ever changes. In fact, if you do not address problems, things do not stay the same, they get worse. Of course, we may be afraid because interfering in the status quo is dangerous, but doing so is indispensable if we want to avoid repeating our errors. This is why I think one of the most urgent priorities for education is teaching that when there is a problem, you have to get to the bottom of it in order to face it.

What road you are following?
Helping the country to not be afraid of questions, and to name the problems. For example, we hold public meetings to go deeper, to bring all the questions forward. We hope to be able to provide some answers in December 2021, when we plan to present a report, but for now we want to ask questions, trying to help people not be afraid of them.

How can each of us contribute to the reconciliation process?
With that question you rightly underline the fact that peace is not a question of government, but of society. I think we have to start being honest with ourselves and to acknowledge our personal histories, with their successes and mistakes, light and darkness. This involves having the courage to be an open book: “This is what I am, with my virtues and my defects, my disappointments and failures. This is what I am, but I have had the courage to forgive myself.” Not having the courage to acknowledge the way we are leads to two significant limitations: if I do not acknowledge the truth about myself, I cannot do so in front of others and if I do not learn to have compassion toward me and to forgive me, it is impossible to do with others.

How does restoring the memory of all that happened help us to rebuild? Does uncovering what happened not, instead, stoke hatred and violence?
Our country has buried the memory of everything that has happened. As these things happened, the majority of the population looked the other way. There is a fear that the truth will end up polarizing us even more, feeding a desire for revenge. Of course, it is easy to find out what really happened and say, “Look how evil they are, they deserve to be hated and ostracized; they should not be part of us.” You can use truth to divide people. But if you understand it correctly, it is instead necessary to better understand who we are and to learn to have compassion on ourselves and others.

Is the journey to peace only possible by way of forgiveness? And what does it mean for all of us to forgive today? You, too, lost many friends and collaborators...
I am convinced that forgiveness is a gift from God. Neither asking forgiveness nor forgiving come naturally. They are both acts of grace. Over the years, I have had to bury many friends. I have learned that asking someone to forgive can sometimes evidence a lack of respect. We have to welcome victims in their pain, embrace them, really listen to them, put ourselves in their shoes and accompany them: if you offer them a great love, you might just see a decision to forgive emering in their hearts, but always and absolutely in their freedom. When it is true forgiveness, you ask nothing of the one who wronged you, just as God does with us: He offers us forgiveness as a total gift. In the Old Testament, the guilt of sin was something you had to pay for: nothing went unpunished. In the New Testament, however, when mercy appeared, forgiveness did away with punishment: God is absolutely free and forgives everything. The Lord asks just two things of you: that you repent and that you are open to mercy. And since God cannot forgive in the abstract, He forgives through us; He forgives by rebuilding us and the person who hurt us, rebuilding us as human beings.

What has been your experience?
Julián Bolívar, the boss of Bloque Central Bolívar, killed my friend Alma Rosa Jaramillo. He had his men kill her; they cut off her arms, legs, and head with a chainsaw. I publicly said to Bolívar: “I forgive you.” Forgiving is working for the transformation of Bolívar into the man God wants him to be, that he be redeemed, because what he has done has destroyed him as a human being. But that is already God’s business: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We fight so that those who wronged us may become different human beings. “Do good to those who hurt you and pray for those who persecute you”: that means placing yourself on the path of reconciliation. These things are very profound. You enter into Christian forgiveness: “Love your enemies.” It means reaching the point of doing what Jesus did: “I know your situation is very difficult, very risky. But I decided to give my life for you.” This is what we are talking about: my life for his. You cannot ask that from a politician, nor can you put it this way in a purely social environment, because it wouldn’t be understood. But that is the Christian witness of forgiveness. It reaches that point. This is what transitional justice aims for.

Can you explain to us this method of transitional justice, which is particular to the peace process?

Those in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) are asked to start from the truth. Truth is not limited to taking responsibility for our actions, but involves a full statement of the truth, such as, “I will tell you what I did. I will say in the case of Alma Rosa why we took her, how we kidnapped her, where we took her, how we stripped her and raped her, how we cut off the first arm and the second... and the reasons we did it. We knew that she was an attorney who was going to put us on trial that day, and she died in our hands in this way, and this is why we threw her in a swamp near Magdalena Medio. She did not sink, and so they found her...” That is the point of departure for the JEP: you must tell the truth and demonstrate in addition that you are prepared to make reparations and never do it again. If you do this, you are accepted by transitional justice; you are granted conditional freedom but must make reparations. But I am not the judge who tells you how to do this; instead, I call upon the family of Alma Rosa to tell you how to make reparations.

Could you give an example?
Let’s take the case of the 11 representatives from the Assembly of Valle di Cauca who were taken hostage for five years and killed the week before they were supposed to be released. There has already been a gesture in which the FARC asked forgiveness and the families for- gave them, but transitional justice is needed to bring about true reconciliation. The families have already decided what to ask: they want those responsible to be assigned a residence on a piece of land in the Valle of Cauca where, for eight years and under house arrest, they will with their own hands, buying the materials with their own resources, build a school for 2,500 students. They will be the builders and painters. This is one of the most beautiful things about JEP. I can also think of the relatives of the victims of “Operation Genesis” led by General Rito Alejo del Río, which involved a series of massacres and forced displacements. The families sent a letter to him with a proposal: “General, we invite you to come with us, to live with us and work with us.”

For a person to receive the embrace of mercy within his or her history is something unknown in this world. The most important work we need to do is help people encounter the faith once again. I believe that you as Communion and Liberation can offer a significant contribution because of your commitment to education. This task requires faith, a very profound understanding of faith. Faith is not a question of religion; it is a question of “who I am,” ultimately of what gives consistency to my person. Julián Carrón says we are losing the certainties each of us used to have. If a man has lost his certainties, how can he build? We need to think about this. We need to start all over again, to return to the work of recognizing the humanity of each person.

For about four years now, I have gone with a few friends from the Movement to do charitable work in a military rehabilitation center. We visit young soldiers who are seriously wounded and alone because their families are far away. Coming in contact with their stories is to be in contact with the country, and doing so helps us understand how it is our responsibility to accompany them so that they may recognize that, even in the condition facing them, they are loved and their life will go on. But we are the ones who are helped: we are rendered speechless in seeing the drama they have lived and are living and in seeing their strength.
That brings to mind what the pope did with us when he came here in 2017. There has been serious cultural trauma among us, which leads to polarization. The number of victims from every social class is so immense, and the pain is everywhere. This generates indignation, rage, and a desire for revenge that has spread through WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook, on TV, in the news- papers, in speeches from political leaders, and even in the words of priests at Mass. We have all been conditioned; we are immersed in a real trauma. The pope realized this and tried to free us from it, to help us go beyond it.

Some bishops, in their addresses to Francis, never used the word peace because they were incapable of doing so. He used it 60 times. Of the four days he was here, he used three to speak to us and dedicated one day to the victims, just to them, sending a message like the one you send when you do charitable work. He said, “My brother bishops, stop making nice speeches and handing down rules, thinking that offering rules will make the people better and deliver the country from this situation. Lay your hands on the bloodied body of your people: the victims. Go there, otherwise you will not understand.” This is what you do when you visit those soldiers.