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Video by Juan David Palacio Mesa

Marleny M. Bonnycastle, PhD
Member of the Pedagogy Community of Practice, Associate Professor University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada

Looking back to build the colombian future: there is a future if there is truth - a call for a great peace

I left Colombia 30 years ago because of the fears and distress I faced while working with communities in isolated Colombian regions, where individuals and families confront heavy blows and violence caused by the armed conflict every day. Fortunately, after many years of living in exile, two years ago, I was invited to become involved with the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition (CCTCNR). Specifically, I have been involved as a member of the Pedagogy Community of Practice (QLVSD – Spanish acronym) to ‘make known the Truth for the Non-Repetition’ and strengthen democracy according to the mandates of the CCTCNR. This community of practice developed pedagogical tools to work with institutions, communities, and different civil society groups in sharing the truth counted by many and recorded and interpreted in the commission’s final report.

The CCTCNR comprises 11 members, who, after 3.5 years of extensive research, released the report in June 2022 that covers the study of the armed conflict between 1985-2020. The final report includes ten thematic issues and more than 13 volumes documenting the work of 500 researchers, more than 30,000 diverse voices of victims and their families, witnesses, perpetrators, and civil society, and the review of 1500 civil society reports and data from 111 databases. There has been significant international support to address the armed conflict, including the United Nations, Pope Francisco, the European Union, its country members, and the US (CCTCNR, 2022, Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition, 2022).

The Colombian armed conflict started in the late 1940s after the dominant political power assassinated a popular leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. This event unleashed the polarization of Colombian society around the two dominant Colombian ideologies, the liberals, and the conservatives, that have since been the two major political parties the conservatives and the liberals. The assassination of Gaitan started a civil war. It led to the formation of revolutionary groups, recognized as guerrilla groups that have appeared since that time, such as the FARC, ELN, and M-19 (Bonnycastle, 2017). These groups have continued to appear with different purposes, such as guerrilla groups using different ideologies and strategies to control civilians in rural and isolated communities where the presence of the Government is minimal. Other groups, such as the paramilitaries that landowners of large latifundios created, used their militias and weapons to exercise justice and oppress civilians under the excuse of protecting their properties. In addition, the public security forces have also contributed to civilians’ human rights violations and suffering. The latest issue is a mixed confusion between ideological, economic, and private interests, terrorism, political corruption, illegal drug production, and market infiltration at various levels, including farmers, local and national Government, and private markets (UN, 2022)

Individuals, families, and civil society have encountered daily fear, lack of trust, weakening cultural and traditional values, and challenging social, political, and economic emergent issues caused by armed conflict violence. Their triggers include abductions, recruitment of children, and sexual and political crimes against women. The armed conflict, whether a result of the guerrillas, paramilitaries, or public security armies, has forced millions to be displaced and many to seek asylum elsewhere as refugees. Such outcomes have affected armed and unarmed Colombians alike (UNHRC, 2022).

The colonial history of Colombia has contributed to the dispossession of the culture, spirituality, language, territories, and forms of organization of Indigenous Peoples, Rrom, Black, Afro, Raizales, and Palenqueros. Colombia has a long history of enslavement and colonial treatment through policies, laws, systems, and forms of organization that have created a solid social and economic class division that excludes marginalized ethnic groups and low-income classes from political power and Government. Racism and hierarchies have contributed to elevated levels of human rights violations and the extermination of several Indigenous groups. The CCTCNR report recognizes that “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia” and their related forms of intolerance are causes that constitute obstacles to peaceful relations between peoples.

Promoting peace in Colombia has been on the agenda of several Colombian presidents with the cooperation of international organizations and diverse countries. However, these efforts have not been consistently developed and supported; therefore, peace is still a dream to be achieved by Colombians. These efforts include the disarmament and reintegration into society of the M-19 guerrilla movement, and the reform of the Colombian Constitution, and ample participation of different actors, sectors, regions, and communities. Other significant efforts are the ‘Victims and Transitional Justice’ law, the inclusion of gender, and the involvement of women as critical actors to re-structure sustainable peace (Sarmiento-Marulanda et al., 2021). In 2016 Colombia adopted the Final Peace Agreement between the Government and the armed group FARC to end the world’s longest civil war. This Peace Agreement created the Integral Peace System between the Government and the FARC, the Victim and disappeared people Search Unit, and the CCTCNR (UNHRC, 2022, Fishow, 2017). The impact of the armed conflict on human life and the poor is evident in the CCTCNR’s final report, which shows the atrocities that have affected the everyday lives of millions of Colombians. Between 1995 to 2018, there were 450,000 homicides. The para-militarism committed 4,237 homicides and the guerrilla groups committed 7,826 homicides of soldiers and police. There were also 50,770 abductions not including extortion and other terrorist attacks. The worse crimes were perpetrated by the public forces that committed 8,208 innocent youth, known as the ‘False Positives’ and 121,786 tortures (1985-2006). Additionally, the drug business has contributed to changing agricultural priorities and increasing violence in urban and rural areas. In 2020 about one million Colombians were forced to leave the country and live in exile (CCTCNR, 2022; DANE, 2022).

There is light and hope for change. The new Colombian leftist President, Gustavo Petro, and Vice-President, Afro-Colombian woman Francia Marquez, have strongly reaffirmed that peace would be a cornerstone of the Government and that it will be a prominent feature of their administration that started on August 7th, 2022 (Hege, 2022).

The GREAT PEACE requires a commitment from Colombians living in the country and those in exile, as well as from international organizations and other countries. The complexity and intricacy of multiple forces and factors exist, including enduring violence against communities, leaders, and former combatants in several departments, multiple origins of illegal armed groups, extreme poverty and insecurity, exclusion and marginalization of ethnic groups. With determination and good governance, it is possible to change the future of Colombia. It is a country with enormous resources that can be used to build the nation. Its human capital, cultural and ecological diversity, extensive natural resources, rivers, oceans, mountains, valleys, and geographical location generate the changes to achieve the dream of peace.

In a United Nations Report (2022), Jesuit Father Francisco José De Roux, President of the Truth Commission, stressed that Colombia’s security apparatus for decades functioned on the premise that security could be “guaranteed by weapons.” This premise has resulted in a system that protects structures and armed bureaucracy, not human beings. That must change. Urging the international community to give Colombia “nothing for war,” De Roux said that the country wishes to be a “global paradigm of reconciliation” after so much pain and suffering. In the same report, Jineth Casso Piamba, Nasa indigenous woman, community leader, and human rights defender, said negotiations on the peace agreement served as “an act of rebirth” that let people feel that wounds could be healed as “everyone sat calm around the fire listening to the wise words of their elders” (UN, 2022). She called for land‑reform policies and implementation of the accord’s provisions on gender and ethnicity. She stressed that the State must tackle gender inequality by supporting productive opportunities for women and economically empowering them through education.

President Petro and Vice-president Marquez have configured a new government cabinet, one that unites different political parties to work together for the GREAT PEACE mandate and that will fulfill significant items that were included in the 2016 peace agreement and were neglected by the Government in turn, and that has aggravated the conflict and violence in the last years. In addition, the GREAT PEACE will include new agreements with other insurgent groups and a commitment from Petro and Marquez to implement the CCTCNR recommendations. The Truth Commission has called for the liberation of the symbolic and cultural from the tramps of terror, hate, stigmatization, and untrust. Their appeal is to remove weapons from communities, protect human rights, and put in place institutions that promote the dignity of everyone, community, and ethnic nations. They urge collective democracy, commitment, and responsibility to social and institutional changes and reconciliation.

President Petro, Vice-President Francia Marquez and ministries have asked the legislature to consider several structural changes, including agrarian, health, fiscal, education, and political reforms, and other changes in systems such as education that are working with the system to issue the final report among teachers and students. Petro is leading regional dialogues, including government authorities and civil society, to develop the national plan to realize GREAT PEACE. The Pedagogy Community of Practice has been highly active in Colombia. It has generated a variety of community events, including diverse groups, and using the pedagogy tools that were developed to issue the report and initiate peace processes with women, men, LGBTQ+ groups, youth, children, Elders, and many more at local levels, schools, and universities. This community of practice has members from different professions and sectors, including teachers, social workers, artists, community animators, researchers, and journalists. They are among the thousands of people engaged in this process with the leadership of several organizations that have been part of the CCTCNR.

I would like to invite Colombian and global social workers to visit the website of the CCTCNR final report to learn and find possibilities to contribute to our social work knowledge and experiences to the Colombian GREAT PEACE. The following pictures show the archaeology of the exiled found on the report website (https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/colecciones-desde-el-exilio).


This site includes the stories behind the only objects that Colombians could bring with them whenever they were forced to leave the country. The archeology was the effort of more than 200 Colombians living in 24 countries who contributed with their stories of the armed conflict and their experiences living the memories, fears, truths, and reminiscences of the country we left behind.

Looking back to the past, many of us still ask ourselves, what should I do to contribute to eliminating violence instead of leaving behind all that belongs to us? Writing this report has helped my spiritual, cultural, and emotional return to Colombia. This was the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission that included the exiled voices. It has allowed me to become conscious of my trauma and the reactivation of my Colombian identity. Beyond that, my commitment is to contribute to the GREAT PEACE’s pedagogy and promote research and dissemination of the truth of many like me.

Bonnycastle, M. M. (2017). What they bring to the new land: Stories of Colombian refugee women in Canada. International Social Work, 60(3), 654-666. Themed Issue on Migration. CCTCNR. (2022). Hay future si hay verdad. Final report. Bogota: Colombia. comisiondelaverdad.co
Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition. (2022). There is future if there is truth: GREAT PEACE. Final report. Bogota: Colombia. idpc.net
DANE (retrieved September 25, 2022). información para todos. www.dane.gov.co
Firchow, P. (2017). Do Reparations Repair Relationships? Setting the Stage for Reconciliation in Colombia. The International Journal of Transitional Justice, 11(2), 315–338. doi.org
Hege, S. (2022). Colombia’s New Administration Raises Hopes for ‘Total Peace’: Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez will seek to lay the foundation for bringing the country’s decades-long armed conflict to a close. United States Institute of Peace. usip.org
Sarmiento-Marulanda, L. C., Aguilera-Char, A. A., González-Gil, C. y López-López, W. (2021). Psychosocial rehabilitation experiences of women victims of armed conflict in Montes de María, Colombia. Archives of Public Health = Archives Belges De Sante Publique, 79(1), 31. doi.org
UN. (2022). Peaceful Presidential Elections in Colombia, Truth Commission’s Compelling final report provide ‘Good Reasons for Optimism’, Special Representative Tells Security Council. UNHRC. (2022). Colombian Truth Commission’s final report. ohchr.org
UNHRC. (2022). Observations of the Colombian State on report A/HRC/49/19, 11 February 2022. ohchr.org
UNHRC. (2022). United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia - Report of the Secretary-General (S/2022/513) un.org