Breaking The Silence | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: Hello, ambulantes. Before we begin, I want to talk to you about something very important, perhaps in a tone you don’t often hear from me.
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Thank you. Here’s the episode.
This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
This story begins on October 15, 2001. It was Monday and a public holiday, and that afternoon Victoria Ríos, 13, was alone at home in Palmira, Colombia, when the phone rang. When she answered, she heard her cousin, the oldest daughter of her uncle Oswaldo Díaz. This is Victoria:
[Victoria Ríos]: She was desperate, screaming, crying. Something terrible. I couldn’t understand her very well. But she said to me, “I need you to call my grandmother or call someone, call my aunt. I’m calling everyone and no one picks up.”
[Daniel]: Victoria didn’t understand what the urgency was, what had happened. She told her she could run over to one of their aunts who lived nearby, but that first she needed more information.
[Victoria]: Then she tells me, “My father was kidnapped. I just got a call to notify me that he was kidnapped.” And I said, “But who called you?” “No, no, I don’t know. Go get my aunt. I need someone to answer me.”
[Daniel]: She hung up the phone and ran over there. But when she arrived, there was no one. So she returned home, scared, not really knowing what to do.
At the time, Zamira Díaz, her mother, was visiting her grandmother. It was a little after 3 in the afternoon when they received the call from Oswaldo’s daughter. This is Zamira:
[Zamira Díaz]: I don’t remember who answered, but it was horrible, horrible. It was chaotic. “The FARC took my father away.”
[Daniel]: The FARC, the guerrilla. Little by little, the rest of the family found out. Although she was only a child, Victoria understood what was happening. What it meant.
[Victoria]: I knew exactly what a kidnapping was. We were living historically at a time when it was impossible not to know. I mean, it was impossible not to be aware of the armed conflict; it was impossible not to see it on the news and not to talk about it.
[Daniel]: Colombia had been immersed for several decades in a very complex armed conflict, which involved several guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, drug traffickers, state forces… All responsible for violence and different crimes. For years, the newscasts had constantly been about combats, occupied towns, forced disappearances, massacres and kidnappings.
It seemed that almost no one was safe from the kidnappings—police, military, ranchers, businessmen, random people captured on the roads and, of course, politicians like Victoria’s uncle, who had been a councilor in her city.
When Victoria arrived at her grandmother’s, she remembers seeing the desperation of her relatives, especially one of them:
[Victoria]: My aunt Eibar on her knees on the floor, arguing with my grandmother because my grandmother was very calm. She sort of told us to calm down, that they weren’t going to do anything to him. But my aunt was, I mean, my God, she was fired up. So she said that she would go herself, that she would go and look for them…
Well, that was awful. And of course, a long night from there on.
[Daniel]: One that would bring them face to face with the people who caused them so much pain.
After the break, our senior producer David Trujillo will tells us more.
[Daniel]: We are back with Radio Ambulante. This is David:
[David Trujillo]: On the weekend of the kidnapping, Oswaldo, who was 42 years old, had gone with his son, his partner, and her son to La Quisquina, a rural area about 14 kilometers from Palmira. He had bought a small farm there about two or three years earlier, and since then the whole family, including Zamira and Victoria, went often. Or at least during the first years, because over time they began to realize that the FARC was making itself known in La Quisquina. There were rumors that led the family to take certain precautions: It was best not to say they were at Councilman Díaz’s house, it was best not to talk so much with the man who sold the milk, it was best to avoid the questions from the lady who ran the store. The situation in Quisquina became so tense that at one point the family decided to stop going to the farm. Only Oswaldo, who knew the area well and had campaigned with the people there, continued going, even when his position put him at risk.
When the kidnapping occurred, he was no longer a councilor, but he had been councilor twice and he was well known in Palmira and its surroundings. In addition, he continued his political career. Now he wanted to be mayor. During one of his campaigns, posters with his photo were up all over the city.
[Victoria]: I do remember that, like the typical photo of a politician looking out at the horizon, wearing a red shirt and so on, because he had always been a member of the Liberal Party. I remember a slogan. It said, “Better Díaz [days] are coming.” That one kind of stuck in my head.
[David]: The first moments after Oswaldo’s kidnapping were very confusing. The family had no clues, no information, nothing… and the anguish increased by the hour.
Victoria’s father, who had been a soldier, was asked by the family, out of desperation, to go to a nearby battalion and seek help to find him.
[Victoria]: My grandmother was yelling and crying, begging him to find him. Well, my father moved heaven and earth, trying to do whatever he could, because my father is a non-commissioned officer, and since he was retired, it wasn’t like he could do much.
[David]: A few hours later, one of Oswaldo’s sisters spoke with his son, and with his story and what some people in the area later said, they were able to piece together what had happened.
Around noon that Monday, October 15, Oswaldo had asked his partner’s son to go buy something for lunch. This is Zamira again:
[Zamira]: So the boy took the car out and left the garage door open, because he would be back soon—he wasn’t going to take long.
[David]: But that made it easier for four men to enter in a truck. Two got out, armed, and went to the rear of the property. There was Oswaldo’s son, 14 years old, with some friends at the pool. Oswaldo was in the open kitchen, a few meters away.
[Zamira]: He had his back turned, making lunch for them. So he didn’t realize they were coming.
[David]: That the armed men were coming. One of them went for Oswaldo. At the same time, the other one took the kids out of the pool, made them go up to the house and put them in the living room, but he did not close the door properly, and Oswaldo’s son was able to witness the exact moment when they took him away.
[Zamira]: Like this, each one holding one of the father’s arms. The father was wearing blue shorts and a red shirt, and he was wearing flip-flops.
[David]: They loaded him into the truck and drove off. The whole thing lasted a few minutes.
Later, Oswaldo’s son, Edward, gave the same testimony to the authorities. Thanks to his description, they were able to put together a police sketch of the man who had forced them into the room. We tried to talk to Edward, but he preferred not to.
Later they would find the truck abandoned on the road to La Nevera, a higher and cooler area.
[Zamira]: Since the road goes uphill from there, and since they had those cars with special tires, we imagine they switched cars and took him up.
[David]: That same day, the family reported the kidnapping to the Police and other agencies, and they were told that if they received calls from the kidnappers to set the conditions for his release, they should not negotiate or hand over money. That everything should be left in the hands of the authorities.
So it was. About three days later, they received a call from the FARC. They were told that Oswaldo was held by one of the groups of the Sixth Front of the Western Bloc. In principle, it was a political kidnapping. They didn’t explain much more. A few days later, Oswaldo’s family received a cassette tape.
[Zamira]: In it, my brother asked the existing Council to please carry out some public works, a bridge up there, I don’t know what…
[David]: Zamira took the petition to the Council, but they did nothing. Then a letter arrived from Oswaldo to his mother… well, a photocopy of a letter… well, a photocopy of parts of a letter.
[Zamira]: They are so heartless. It’s “Dear Mom” here and his signature here. The context was removed. They sent the two small pieces. No… that’s just awful.
[David]: Just a “Dear Mom” and a signature. Without any of the content. Oswaldo’s mother kept both proofs of survival. They were incomplete, but they were the only link she could have with her son at that moment, at least until he was set free.
As the days went by, Oswaldo’s political kidnapping turned into extortion. And it happened quickly. Now the calls, which used to be at least once a week, were calls directly asking for money—200 million pesos, which was more than 87 thousand dollars at the time.
The FARC and other guerrillas had turned this into a very lucrative business, and just a year earlier, in 2000, they had kidnapped more than 3,700 people, most of the time for extortion purposes. Although the FARC had originated in the 1960s as a Marxist-Leninist armed group that sought to protect peasant communities, two decades later it had become a violent guerrilla that used armed struggle to take power. Their sources of money changed over time, and by then, the FARC, which a few years back had broken off relations with the Colombian Communist Party, financed itself, in addition to kidnappings, by extortion and drug trafficking.
This way, the organization made a lot of money, although clearly not everyone could pay what they were asking. $87,000, for example, was too much for the Díaz family, who had not been a wealthy family.
And even if they wanted to sell Oswaldo’s assets to try to make the payments, the law at that time required freezing all the properties of people reported as kidnapped. So Oswaldo’s mother tried to offer them something else:
[Zamira]: “I have my little house. If you want, I’ll sell it and with that… whatever they give me for it, I’ll send to you.” “What are we going to do with that? It’s not even worth the food that so-and-so eats”, because they used extremely vulgar language.
[Victoria]: They were terrible. People who used very violent language—very hostile words. And it didn’t matter that children, or teens, or women, answered the calls. No, they didn’t care at all. They would start swearing from the moment you picked up the phone. They kind of gave me orders, like, “Put on your grandmother the phone” or “Put on Mrs. So-and-so or Mr. So-and-so.”
[David]: Victoria did what they asked. She handed the phone to an adult, but she watched and tried to listen to what they were saying.
[Victoria]: Seeing my grandmother, for example, or my aunt, very shaken by this issue, obviously crying, because there was no way to reconcile anything, you know? In other words, these were calls in which they treated you like a dirty rag they might use to wipe their feet. So it was… it was difficult.
[David]: The communications became very violent, to the point they were told, “Pay up, or else you are going to pick up the body at Las Aguilas Bridge.” And to the calls were added written papers threatening to kidnap other siblings. They also began to notice suspicious men watching their movements. But her mother didn’t talk to Victoria about it.
[Victoria]: I can imagine the pain she was feeling. At the very least… she didn’t have the energy to explain to her 12-year-old daughter what was happening. And it was kind of, whatever you could understand from the atmosphere. It was the fear of losing them all, you know? Such a sense of despair, so it was like seeing that everything was falling apart.
[David]: The risk was so high and so real that one of the brothers even requested asylum outside the country.
A few months later, they received a call, perhaps the worst one they had been fearing. It was the Police telling them that a body had been found on Las Águilas Bridge. It could be Oswaldo, so they needed someone from the family to go and identify him.
[Zamira]: I can’t do it, because I… in that sense, I am… No, no, no, I can’t do it. I was sick. They did all the tests and no, it was not him.
[David]: No one was ever able to identify that body. He became just another victim of the many that began to appear in the area, when the violence escalated so much that almost no one could move around peacefully anymore. For all their anguish at not knowing anything about their loved one, the family felt relieved that it was not Oswaldo. They had the hope that he might still be alive. They had that, at least.
But less than a year after the kidnapping, the family stopped receiving calls. They tried to look for him as best they could, even going out to the area, but it was all futile. They couldn’t find out anything. Then, a supposed guerrilla member offered them information in exchange for medical care for his wife.
[Zamira]: We helped him because my sister was an auditor in the hospital at the time. And he summoned us, we gave him money, I don’t know what, and two days later he was killed.
[David]: And he hadn’t had time to tell them anything.
Their desperation was so great that they even paid for rune readings, and card readings, regressions, conversations with angels…
[Zamira]: Look, you resort to everything, to card readers, water readers, to everything, you put your faith in everything, for God’s sake, in everything.
[David]: But none of that helped.
The family’s despair was getting mixed with hatred. A hatred they had always felt for the FARC and that only increased with the kidnapping. More than a political actor, they were seen as criminals, thugs.
[Victoria]: It was like, ah, seeing them as terrorists. The bad guys were, of course, the FARC. The good guys, then, were the army, of course, who were the ones fighting the bad guys, the guys who were doing evil things— kidnapping, planting illicit crops, and so on.
Also, I am the daughter of a military man, so you can imagine what my father thinks about guerrillas. My God.
[David]: Basically, that they had to finish them off. With weapons.
And Victoria shared that idea.
[Victoria]: Of course I hated them. It was pure and simple hatred.
[David]: In 2002, presidential elections were held. Victoria was not old enough to vote, but her parents and her uncles and aunts did know who their favorite candidate for president was.
[Álvaro Uribe]: Compatriots, join me. I will not fail you. Colombia needs a government with a firm hand against corruption and politicking, a firm hand against violence.
[David]: Álvaro Uribe Vélez.
He ended up winning the elections by a large majority, and that promise of a firm hand against violence was materialized in a government policy that became known as Democratic Security. Its objective was to strengthen State security agencies to combat illegal armed groups and defeat them militarily.
That was exactly what Oswaldo’s family wanted: for the FARC to pay in the worst possible way.
[Zamira]: A lot of hatred… a lot, a lot, a lot. So, we said, “Yes, I hope they put an end to these people.” When there were combats and they were killed and all, we said, “Good!”
[David]: In September, the family finally received information about Oswaldo. Almost a year had passed since the kidnapping, and the family learned that a local news program had published a video of alias Pablo Catatumbo, the commander at that time of the FARC’s Sixth Front of the Western Bloc. He was wearing large glasses, a camouflage uniform, and in the middle of what seemed to be a mountainous forest, he was talking about Oswaldo.
[Pablo Catatumbo]: Let’s see, the first thing is that we have not kidnapped Mr. Oswaldo Díaz—we have detained him. Councilor Oswaldo Díaz, during all this time, has been accumulating a large number of crimes of corruption. In this case we have detained the man and we have made a demand: he must return 200 million pesos, not for the FARC, but in the form of medicines, in the form of aid to community boards.
[David]: The family was outraged that they used that euphemism.
[Victoria]: That they have him detained, not kidnapped.
[David]: They were also bothered by the thing about corruption. Victoria does remember that her uncle had been jailed together with the mayor a few years earlier for the alleged mishandling of a public contract, but she also remembers that he was acquitted and no further investigations were opened.
But that didn’t seem to matter to the FARC. Although in the initial phone calls they talked about the public works that Catatumbo mentions in the video, and they did send the tape asking the Council for them, the topic soon vanished completely and all they wanted was money. In that video, Catatumbo repeated the same message they had been hearing for a year.
[Catatumbo]: Be aware and hand over that money to the community, and save a life.
[David]: “Save Oswaldo’s life.”
That was the last information the FARC gave them.
The stress caused by the kidnapping was so great that several family members began to get sick. There were depressions but also physical consequences: one sister’s arthritis worsened, the other practically stopped eating. Zamira’s diabetes, hypertension and even facial paralysis had complications.
[Zamira]: You kind of wonder, “If I haven’t led a bad life, why do I deserve this suffering, this punishment?” I don’t know… such tremendous suffering…
[Victoria]: I think that broke people apart. It changed all of our lives. Many times I saw my grandmother, for example, cry herself to sleep, listening to that cassette tape on loop over and over again, a message that doesn’t last more than two minutes. Sometimes you catch her talking to herself, and she’s talking to him. She tells him something like, “Son, this or that;” she talks to him.
[David]: And so the years went by. From 2002 to 2006, during the first period of the Uribe government, the fighting between the military and the FARC intensified. For Oswaldo’s family, this was progress toward ending the conflict. They were convinced that the only way to achieve the freedom of the kidnapped persons, even if it put Oswaldo’s safety at risk, was through military attacks.
[Victoria]: That was also what Uribe’s government promised. In other words, they promise to rescue him, he is going to come home; the promise was that they would deliver him to us.
[David]: The one who insisted the most on that promise was Zamira. She became very active. She went to marches, she was in contact with the authorities in case they had new information about her brother, she gave interviews to the media, she signed up for victims’ groups and participated in every meeting they organized.
In 2006, Uribe’s popularity was very high, and after a constitutional reform, he was re-elected. He won in a landslide with more than 60% of the votes. Around that time, Victoria began to study Communications, and despite the pain of not knowing anything about her uncle and still harboring resentment towards the FARC, she began, little by little, to be critical of the Uribe government and its Democratic Security policy.
[Victoria]: My professional career gave me a different perspective on the armed conflict.
[David]: One of the things that worried her most was the lack of protection for human rights. One of the clearest examples was the false positives. In 2008 it was learned that, in order to meet the goals and for the numbers to confirm that the Government was winning the war, the Army was systematically murdering civilians and passing them off as guerrillas killed in combat. This was one of the cases that most weakened the image of the Government and its pet policy to end violence.
Many sectors of the opposition and human rights defenders insisted that it was necessary to look for other solutions to that war, beyond combat. And this idea also caught Victoria’s attention.
[Victoria]: And then, suddenly, my perspective of the armed conflict properly speaking, coming from the depths of my own home, that is, from what I had experienced, my grandmother’s pain, made me view it all in a different way. Not everything was what was happening in my house, in my little town, in Palmira. In other words, Colombia was not just Palmira, no. Colombia was many Colombias, many, many cities, many environments, many contexts.
[David]: She expanded her vision of the conflict, and gradually, there was a change in the way she saw it. She was seeing it not in relation to the higher authorities…
[Victoria]: I refer to understanding the common guerrilla soldier. Those children who are being recruited are 14 years old; they have no idea what they are carrying on their shoulders, which is a rifle. They have no idea of anything about life; they don’t know what happens in the city. The peasant whose children are killed ends up being recruited, but the conflict is so dense, so many things are happening, that… well, it made me understand that they were also victims of a conflict that was bigger than them, that really had nothing to do with them.
[David]: Nine years passed, and Oswaldo’s family was still waiting for him. The promise the Uribe government had made to them was not fulfilled. In 2010, a new president arrived, Juan Manuel Santos, who had been Uribe’s Defense Minister. Two years later, he made an announcement that promised to radically change the way the armed conflict was handled:
[Juan Manuel Santos]: Today I want to announce that these exploratory meetings have culminated in the signing of a framework agreement between the National Government and the FARC.
[David]: For six months, and with the utmost discretion, the Government had been meeting with the FARC to discuss the possibility of a peace agreement.
From the beginning, the Government knew that it would be a very difficult process, with strong opposition. But they saw it as an enormous achievement that two enemies who had been at war for over 50 years could just sit down and talk. Furthermore, three peace agreements had been attempted with the FARC since 1982, but none had prospered. But with these negotiations, it was made clear that things would be different: No national territory would be cleared for the negotiations; instead, meetings would take place outside the country, first in Oslo, Norway, and then in Havana. There would also be an organized agenda with six very, very specific points aimed at achieving peace and proposing clear solutions for each one. The agreement was that the negotiators would not move on to the next point until the previous one had been accepted. All this without a ceasefire.
They would begin by discussing comprehensive agrarian reform, which the FARC had been calling for almost from their inception. Then they would propose their political participation. Next would come the negotiation on laying down weapons and solving the issue of drug trafficking, one of the biggest drivers of the conflict. From there they would move on to the conversation about the victims and how justice would be dealt for the crimes committed during so many years and on all sides. Finally, they would decide how to validate the final agreement, its verification and its implementation.
The news of the dialogues, as expected, was not well received by the entire population. What’s more, you could say that it caused a rupture in Colombian society. In many ways, it was about defining the country’s future. For some years now, the FARC had been viewed as the great public enemy, no longer the peasant organization and defender of agrarian rights that it had been at first.
Then polarization began to happen—the constant fights on social media about what was best for the country, the opposition ideas that this was a way of handing power over to the FARC and that it made a mockery of the Military Forces and the victims. The Uribismo faction, which continued to be an important electoral force and had a large representation in Congress, was one of the political sectors that rejected the dialogues from the beginning. Their fundamental criticism was that nothing could be agreed upon with criminals of that ilk—they simply had to be killed. This despite the fact that attempts had been made during the Uribe government to negotiate peace with the FARC and there had even even exploratory talks with the ELN, another guerrilla group.
The position of not negotiating was shared by Victoria’s family from the beginning, when they found out about the dialogues. For them it was clear:
[Victoria]: The peace process should be: send those people to prison and have them say where the kidnapped people are, and hand over their weapons, and that’s it. There was no room for ambiguities. Either they are good or they are bad; there is no way for us to coexist or to reach an agreement or to seek… What do you mean—we are going to negotiate what, with those people? I mean, there’s no reason to negotiate anything. That was pretty much the reasoning.
[Zamira]: No, I didn’t believe in that. I thought that was pandering to the guerrillas, and I didn’t believe in that.
[David]: For Zamira, it meant the submission of the State to criminals who were going to benefit. It didn’t make any sense.
In October 2013, when negotiators had agreed on the first point of the dialogue agenda and were just days away from agreeing on the second, Zamira received a call. It was a journalist from a radio station who had interviewed her before and who was in Havana. He told her that in a few hours he would be meeting with alias Pablo Catatumbo, now head of the Western Bloc and commander of the band that had kidnapped his brother. He asked whether she wanted to ask him a question.
Zamira couldn’t miss this small door the journalist was opening for her.
[Zamira]: I told him, “Well, if you have the opportunity to talk to him, ask him about Oswaldo Díaz Cifuentes.”
[Daniel]: For the first time in 12 years, one of the leaders of the FARC could tell them something about their brother’s whereabouts.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. David Trujillo continues the story.
[David]: As soon as she hung up from talking to the journalist, Zamira stayed close to the radio, waiting for information about the interview. After asking Catatumbo the question and getting his answer, the journalist contacted his station and went live, reporting what he had been told. It was impossible to get the radio recording of that moment, but a local news program interviewed the journalist to tell Catatumbo’s version. Here he is talking about Oswaldo:
[Journalist]: The kidnapped man began a relationship with one of the female guerrilla fighters who was guarding him, and about two and three months later, these two, the former councilor and the guerrilla fighter, tried to escape from the camp. The version that Pablo Catatumbo recounts is that in their attempt to escape from the camp where they were held, the guards who went out in search of them murdered them.
[David]: Catatumbo did not provide any further information. It is difficult for Zamira to put into words what she felt at that moment.
[Zamira]: I don’t know how God has given me so much strength, because that is hard, it is hard, very hard.
[David]: For Victoria it was not much different.
[Victoria]: It was very hard for me to realize that he was in fact dead, because in spite of everything we all—I mean, I think that one always keeps hoping. Now, the very fact that they have not given anything except for their statement saying that yes, that they know they killed him, but they don’t give you anything. How do you understand that on a physical level that person no longer exists?
[David]: In 2014, Santos was re-elected in a vote that he almost lost to the Uribista candidate, who promised to suspend the talks. A few days after taking office, the Government organized a group of victims to go to Havana to speak directly with the FARC commanders about the points to be discussed.
Although she did not agree with the dialogues, Zamira did not want to disengage from the process. She tried hard to be included in that group, but she didn’t succeed. That left her with the feeling that everything was being done behind people’s backs and that they only cared about some victims and not others. This, added to the news of Oswaldo’s death, strengthened her opposition to the peace agreement. They had gone from being kidnappers to murderers, it was just that simple, and you could not negotiate with murderers.
As expected, the peace process met with a lot of difficulties and was on the verge of being suspended on more than one occasion. The Government was clear from the beginning and said that it would not stop military operations against the guerrillas, so basically the negotiations were held in the middle of a war. There were attacks from both sides, kidnappings and bombings that put the talks in crisis several times. Furthermore, some political sectors, mainly Uribismo, levelled constant criticism against certain points of the agreements. They said, for example, that drug trafficking could not be classified as a political crime and therefore was not forgivable. Nor did it seem to them fair that the heads of the FARC should get guaranteed seats in Congress, much less that they could finish their sentences in special places of confinement, with social work and other activities rather than conventional prisons.
The government negotiators tried to explain these points and others: that amnesties would have to be discussed in Congress, that Congress would need to enact a law on the matter; that only five seats in the Senate and House of Representatives would be guaranteed, and for only two terms; that transitional justice was not the same as impunity because it demanded the truth from the perpetrators in exchange for alternatives to prison sentences. That strategy had already been implemented in other places in the world, such as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Argentina and Guatemala. In the end, they were mechanisms endorsed by international agreements to seek a solid peace.
After four very tense years, a final document was reached in 2016. On the last point, it was agreed that the document would go to a referendum, so that the people could decide between two options: to approve or reject the peace agreement.
By that time, Victoria was clear that her vote was a yes. She believed that with this, the chances were high they would get some kind of answer about her uncle’s case.
[Victoria]: I was convinced that that would at least give us an answer. That is, was he was really dead or not, or if maybe he had escaped, under what conditions he had died, if he was dead, where was the body. That was a healing action for everyone, and it was important to me.
But I wasn’t voting yes just because of my uncle, you know? I voted yes because the Colombian armed conflict is not just kidnapping. It is many things. Very painful stories. It was not only the issue of the guerrilla, but also everything that was involved in the conflict: the peasants, the children, soldiers, police, so many people involved trying to get ahead in a world and a country where there was so much inequality.
[David]: Sometimes she was daring enough to approach the subject with her parents.
[Victoria]: But it was very difficult because, as I told you, my father is in the military, so my father’s views are fixed and unmovable. “I’m going to vote no; I can’t believe you’re going to vote yes”. And my mother’s perspective was that of a victim who was not being taken into account in the process.
[David]: Because, besides not agreeing with the negotiations, Zamira also felt excluded in certain aspects—for example, that they had not taken her to Havana.
[Zamira]: No, no, no. Sometimes you feel even more… like you’re being victimized again. You feel mistreated.
[David]: While the guerrillas gained something, she was being ignored. And the very loud criticism of the peace agreement reinforced the idea that the FARC would control the country if it was approved. A week before the referendum, Victoria published on her Facebook account a reflection on the kidnapping of her uncle and the reasons why her vote was a yes.
[Victoria]: And well, oh my God, my uncles, my cousins came asking me how it it possible that I was going to vote yes, did I not appreciate that my father had been a military man who had to face those people in combat, or was it that I could not remember my grandmother’s suffering…
[David]: She wasn’t surprised by that reaction. She tried to respond to some comments in a conciliatory way and tried to explain her reasons, but then she gave up because, like her mother, those people were also very clear that their votes were going to be no.
[Victoria]: So just imagine, how was I going to have that discussion? I always ended up losing, but anyway, it was very clear to me where I stood.
[David]: On October 2, 2016, the day of the referendum, Victoria and Zamira left their homes and went to the voting station, each firmly believing in their decisions… and at the same time, both convinced that the yes vote would win. That was what the polls and analysts had been saying for months. That’s why the result was so surprising. This is President Juan Manuel Santos:
[Juan Manuel Santos]: I called on you to decide whether or not you supported the agreement to end the conflict with the FARC. And the majority, although by a very narrow margin, have said no.
[David]: The result was just over 50% for no. The difference was just over 53 thousand votes.
Victoria was one of the millions of Colombians who couldn’t believe the result.
[Victoria]: I cried so much. I felt such a deep sadness to see how people responded. Furthermore, that moment was one of so much polarization that it was no longer a matter of I belong to this or that political party, but “I want war and you don’t want it.” Or “I want peace and you don’t want it.” It was a very complicated discourse.
[David]: And it became more complicated as time went by. A few days later, the manager of the No campaign said in an interview with the newspaper La República that different opponents of the agreement—30 individuals and 30 companies—had joined forces to finance a campaign that would generate, above all, indignation. What they wanted was for people to come out and vote in anger. Different strategies were used. One of them was not really explaining what the agreements consisted of. Rather, they focused on circulating images and messages with misleading information on social media, where they said that the FARC would be in power, that the country was going to become a kind of Venezuela or that impunity was guaranteed. The statement from the interviewee that headlined the article was, “The Vote No in the referendum has been the cheapest and most effective campaign in history.”
For their part, the Yes voters took to the streets to ask the Government and the FARC to preserve what had been agreed in Havana, not to go back to confrontations. The international community also requested that the agreements not be broken, and a few days later President Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize, which many interpreted as a gesture that the process should continue.
Then the Government put together a strategy to move forward. They met with the opposition and made several adjustments to each agreed point, for example, that the comprehensive agrarian reform would not affect the right to private property; that in addition to the FARC’s seats in Congress, victims’ organizations would also have representation; and that the Government would not give up the forced eradication of illicit crops.
A month later, without submitting this new document to a referendum, the final agreement was signed.
[Anchorwoman]: Now we invite the President of the Republic of Colombia, Mr. Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, to sign the new peace agreement.
[Public]: Yes we could, yes we could…
[David]: The next step would be implementation of that final agreement. Strategies would now be put in place to deal justice to the criminals, reveal the truth about the crimes they committed, offer reparations to their victims, and provide the guarantee that such horror would never happen again.
In the justice component, a mechanism was created that is very important for this story, so I will stop for a moment to explain the basics. It is called the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the JEP, which investigates and prosecutes crimes committed during the armed conflict up to December 2016.
The design of the JEP is different from ordinary systems of justice. It hears all cases of former FARC combatants and members of the Military Forces and the Police. By voluntary decision, other State agents and civilians who supported the conflict in any way can also present themselves. Initially, the paramilitaries would not be tried there because they are covered by a different legal framework approved in 2005 as a result of agreements signed with them by the Uribe administration. But it was decided that some cases can qualify exceptionally if it is proved that they worked very closely with the Public Force.
On the one hand, the JEP hears cases regarding crimes that were agreed to be eligible for amnesty or reprieve: rebellion, sedition, conspiracy, espionage, illegal carrying of weapons, among others. On the other hand, there are some crimes that are considered so serious—crimes against humanity, war crimes—that they cannot be eligible for amnesty or reprieve. The JEP decided to divide them into macro cases—extrajudicial executions, recruitment of minors, violent actions against ethnic peoples. They also included kidnapping by the FARC. The JEP would also hear four other cases of crimes committed in specific territories.
The JEP’s task in those cases goes beyond dispensing justice. It also focuses on protecting victims and helping them satisfy their right to truth and reparation. To do so, all available information about each case is collected and those responsible are invited to voluntarily give their version of what happened.
This point in the process is very important. If the investigation shows that that version is not true or is incomplete, the respondents may be sentenced to ordinary sentences of 15 to 20 years in prison, if they are found guilty. In some cases, when they do not accept responsibility or are shown to have committed a crime again, they may be expelled from JEP. But the agreement makes it clear that if they contribute to the truth in a full, detailed and exhaustive manner, and if the victims also recognize it as such, they will receive alternative sentences of 5 to 8 years in prison, or specific sentences without prison but doing works and activities focused on victim reparation.
Let’s focus on the kidnappings by the FARC, which is our topic of interest in this story. The JEP opened the case in July 2018. During the investigation, they managed to identify more than 21 thousand kidnapped people, including Oswaldo Díaz Cifuentes.
Two cases came to the JEP for that kidnapping. One was Carlos Mario Cardona, a.k.a El Paisa, who was the second in command of the group that kidnapped Oswaldo. In fact, he was the only one of that group who survived the war. The other was Óscar Bolaños, whom Oswaldo’s son recognized when they took his father away, and who was later found out to be the driver for the Mayor’s Office.
Since 2019, El Paisa has given voluntary versions of what allegedly happened, but there are inconsistencies in the dates, events and the way Oswaldo died. For example, he does not mention the affair with the guerrilla fighter, but says he was informed that he had been murdered for being very rebellious. El Paisa also denies that Bolaños belonged to the FARC. The Díaz family finds all of this contradictory.
[Zamira]: Because, as I said, my nephew recognized the person who locked them up, which is this Bolaños guy.
[David]: For things like this, Oswaldo’s family asked the JEP not to take these versions into account for alternative sentences. So far, the JEP has not called Bolaños to give his own version of the events.
Pablo Catatumbo, the commander of the group that kidnapped Oswaldo and who later served in the FARC secretariat, is also in the JEP for different crimes in which he must contribute to the truth. Most recognition hearings are private, but, in some cases, to guarantee the rights of the victims, public events are held in which defendants like Catatumbo must admit their responsibility.
This is what was done with the kidnapping macro case. The JEP organized the first public hearings in mid-2022. The seven members of the former FARC secretariat were summoned, together with many victims, among them Edward, Oswaldo’s son who witnessed his kidnapping. The hearings were to be broadcast on live TV between June 21 and 23 of that year.
Edward asked his aunt Zamira to accompany him to Bogotá. She, in principle, would not stand in the presence of the former combatants or speak to them, but he told her that she could be in the audience and hear directly what he had to say to them, as well as their responses.
Zamira was doubtful. All of this had caused significant damage to her health, and she was not willing to endure one more blow. But Victoria insisted.
[Victoria]: Maybe she didn’t believe in it, but it was going to be transformative for her. I don’t mean for the entire family, but for her, for her own individual process. And it was also important that she accompany Edward. And I told her, “He also needs to be accompanied by someone, mom, you are not going to leave him alone with that.”
[David]: Victoria convinced her. Zamira traveled with her nephew, and before the public hearings, they were notified that there would be private meetings with the former commanders, so that they could speak directly, face to face, without cameras. Edward refused to go, but Zamira saw it as a unique opportunity to finally have them in front of her, including Pablo Catatumbo, and ask them whatever she wanted.
[Zamira]: My heart was beating fast. I said, “How am I going to face these people if…?” My God.
[David]: She called Victoria.
[Victoria]: And I told her, “Mom, I think that maybe the reparation that you are waiting for is not going to happen, because obviously it does not mean that by talking to him they are going to give you back my uncle. But I think it is important for you to have a closure, and also have a moment there to let it go. To finally let it go.”
[David]: Victoria encouraged her to write down any questions she had, and organize her ideas.
[Victoria]: Such as: Where were the remains? Why had he admitted the crime a year later, if Oswaldo had supposedly been killed six months earlier? Who killed him? Did he really fall in love? I mean, very specific things.
[David]: And perhaps the one that worried her the most: Why was he kidnapped if there is no evidence that Oswaldo committed those crimes that Catatumbo accused him of in the video?
[Victoria]: And my mother has a deep suspicion that it was the politicians of the moment. That they ordered his kidnapping, that what was done to him was an errand for them.
[David]: That day, the victims were taken to a special room. Each one sat at a table with people who would provide emotional and legal support. The idea was for each former commander to stop by a few tables and talk for a few minutes.
Before starting, there was a short talk to clarify to the victims what was going to happen, and emphasize that they were not obliged to be there, that they could leave whenever they wanted. This was followed by a prayer. When they were ready, the former commanders were ushered in. Zamira set her sights on Catatumbo…
[Zamira]: The release of emotions and anger and everything that I think we all feel is horrible, it is horrible. And I looked at that man with hatred, with something… horrible.
[David]: The first to sit at Zamira’s table was Pastor Alape, commander of the Magdalena Medio Front. He had nothing to do with Oswaldo’s specific kidnapping, but he was there to apologize on behalf of the FARC, admit the horrors they committed, and reaffirm his commitment to the peace process. Zamira was surprised to hear it.
[Zamira]: I saw in that man a sincerity, humiliation, remorse, all that… The way he spoke and wept.
[David]: Then followed Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, the last commander of the whole organization. He also asked for forgiveness.
Then came the third, the one Zamira was really waiting to see but the one she feared the most: Pablo Catatumbo.
[Zamira]: He arrived with his lawyer. Then he told me, “I was the commander of the Sixth Front of the FARC. I did not order your brother’s kidnapping. I was notified that he had been kidnapped.”
[David]: For alleged crimes of corruption.
[Zamira]: So I asked him, “Who were you people to do that?” He said, “Those were things we did trying to strive for a better country,” I don’t know what, and so on.
[David]: Zamira interrupted him:
[Zamira]: “Do you remember this and this, in September 2002?”
[David]: She talked about the video that appeared on the news and asked him insistently whether any of those crimes had been proven against her brother. Catatumbo said they hadn’t.
[Zamira]: “What did they prove against…?” “No, nothing.” Then, I told him, “Sir, I hope that you will clear the reputation of my brother and the family. We have never stolen from anyone—ever.”
[Zamira]: I had a lot of ideas and things in my head, and I was crying. But anyway, I don’t know how I managed there, all by myself, to let it all out. I did have the support of the social worker lady, and that man was kind of hanging his head… no, no, no, I don’t know.
[David]: After they talked about Oswaldo’s kidnapping, Catatumbo began to tell her his personal story. Maybe he wanted to justify all the horror he caused, arouse empathy, vent… Who knows, but Zamira listened to him carefully.
[Zamira]: He began by telling me things that have happened to his family. Horrible things. The paramilitaries sent one of his sisters home in pieces. Long story short, that is a family that has suffered very, very, very much. So, I say, “How does this man get the strength to continue in that war, my blessed God!”
[David]: She was horrified by the things that this man she had hated so much for two decades was telling her. But the horror also came from a place she hadn’t thought about before: In this conflict, many victims have become victimizers and have then left behind more and more victims—an endless cycle of violence. Zamira did not expect what happened to her:
[Zamira]: Of course, I humanized him. I touched his core, I don’t know, and he touched mine. My feelings are becoming more, like, flexible from the hatred I was feeling. I’m not going to tell you that you fully forgive… but I did feel empathy for those people… I think we reached a point where, without saying “I forgive you”—I don’t know, I don’t know, there is like some kind of understanding, because they have also suffered a lot in that struggle.
[David]: Zamira left that day exhausted, and the first thing she did was call Victoria.
[Victoria]: She cried on the phone. She told me everything, how it had been. And well, I’m not going to tell you that I feel proud of myself for encouraging her to go, but I think that it was a bit my role, I felt it was like taking my mother by the hand and leading her to take the next step, which was to let go. It was a very tough thing, very hard, and of course, no one is failing to recognize that this was very intense for my mother, but I do think that it was transformative for her.
[David]: After that, on June 22, was the public recognition hearing. Oswaldo’s case was included in the second session, which focused on kidnappings for financing purposes. It took place in a large auditorium in Bogotá and was broadcast live. On the stage were three tables: one placed horizontally in the back, where the JEP judges sat. The other two were face to face. On the left were the victims and on the right, the seven former commanders of the secretariat.
After almost seven hours of hearing, and several sessions in which other victims told their stories, vented and asked questions of the FARC members, it was the turn of Edward, Oswaldo’s son, to confront the perpetrators.
[Official]: We now continue with Mr. Edward Oswaldo Díaz. He is the son of former councilor Oswaldo Díaz, who was kidnapped on October 15…
[David]: On one of the seats in the auditorium, surrounded by many other attendees, Zamira and Edward’s mother accompanied him. Edward started by asking one of the FARC members not to fall asleep:
[Edward Oswaldo Díaz]: First of all, I wanted to call Mr. Milton’s attention. I don’t believe you can come to sleep here in this place. So keep that in mind.
[David]: After introducing himself, Edward narrated how he experienced the kidnapping:
[Edward]: My father was kidnapped in my presence when I was a 14-year-old boy. Now I am 34 years old. We were in a helpless situation.
[David]: While he spoke, photos of him as a child with Oswaldo were projected on a screen in the background. Edward went on to say that, although Catatumbo acknowledged they had killed his father while he was being held, he never clarified where his remains were or how long after his kidnapping he had been killed.
[Edward]: We need to clarify that because we suspect that they said they had him when he had already been murdered.
[David]: Then he returned to the question that Oswaldo’s family have asked themselves so many times and will probably never stop asking: Why was he kidnapped?
[Edward]: My father was not a wealthy man. My father was a good man. And he was the best father in the world. My father was not corrupt. He did not deserve to be kidnapped and disappear. I did not deserve to go through this and neither did my family. And even if my father had been a bad person, which he wasn’t, no one deserves to be kidnapped. Nobody deserves that, not even you, because you are human beings.
[David]: He went on to say that the only thing that decision to kidnap his father had produced was suffering. And he also spoke to all of them as an organization:
[Edward]: You were a terrorist group, an illegal army. You were not the law. You should not have existed; the FARC as an organization should not have existed. You did everything wrong; you did nothing right. You have been the cancer of Colombia. You are a cancer.
[David]: Victoria was with her grandmother in Palmira watching Edward speak. Although it was evident that he did not intend to reconcile with the victimizers, she was not surprised.
[Victoria]: I understood his pain, and I perfectly understood his approach towards them, because it was his way of dealing with things, and that is also fine. No one can tell him that he is right or wrong.
[David]: Both Victoria and her grandmother wept as they listened to Edward speak. Her grandmother was also very moved when she saw him.
[Victoria]: Of course, she recognized her son in his gestures, in the way he moves his hands, the tone of his voice. The way he moves. We had to turn it off because my grandmother was not able to watch it all.
[David]: Victoria continued watching on her cell phone, and Edward insisted that nothing can cure the trauma:
[Edward]: Nothing can repair this scar that we as victims have in our hearts. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
[David]: Then he asked them some questions similar to Zamira’s: Who did it? Were there politicians involved? How did Óscar Bolaños participate? At the end, he read a prayer, and finished with this:
[Edward]: You are going to pay. You are going to pay.
[David]: After Edward spoke, the magistrates gave the perpetrators the floor to acknowledge their guilt in front of the victims. After so many years of failed attempts at peace, that scene still seemed impossible—that the former commanders of such a violent and powerful armed group could actually be there. Before that, they had appeared only in videos, threatening with weapons and camouflage uniforms in the middle of the jungle, saying that they were going to kidnap others, plant more bombs, take over more towns, sabotage elections. But now they were sitting there, dressed in civilian clothes, and much older.
Catatumbo was the fourth to speak. He was in charge of contributing to the truth in the case of Oswaldo Díaz.
[Magistrate]: I give the floor to Mr. Pablo Catatumbo Torres.
[Catatumbo]: Well, good afternoon, everyone. A very special greeting of recognition and respect to the victims.
[David]: He began by admitting the crime.
[Catatumbo]: I am present here at this act of recognition to publicly and freely assume my responsibility for crimes of deprivation of freedom.
[David]: He acknowledged that the kidnappings were one of the most serious crimes committed during the conflict.
[Catatumbo]: Kidnappings became massive. Kidnapping caused pain, damage, fractures.
[David]: And it not only victimizes the kidnapped person, but also their loved ones. Although they did it as a way to finance the organization, with the excuse that the most powerful would contribute to the cause, he had to admit that the majority of the people they kidnapped for economic purposes had no way of paying that extortion.
[Catatumbo]: If we intended to strike the truly rich, the powerful, those we called at that time the oligarchy, well, we didn’t do it. But we did have an impact on our compatriots, humble people, farmers or small producers who were not responsible for the war.
[David]: Then he turned to Oswaldo’s case and spoke directly to Edward. As commander of his captors, he acknowledged responsibility for his kidnapping, murder and disappearance, and repeated what he had already said on other occasions: that his subordinates informed him that Oswaldo had been detained for corruption, and that some time later, without specifying how much later, they reported that he had been killed.
He accepted that there are contradictions, that there are still questions, and for that very reason he understood Edward’s anger. But he said he couldn’t give any more information because he didn’t have it. As he explained, he knew everything through third-party accounts and, as we already know, only one person remains alive from that group, El Paisa, who was not present at Oswaldo’s death either.
But he was clear about one key thing regarding Óscar Bolaños, the kidnapper that Edward recognized:
[Catatumbo]: Mr. Bolaños is not a member of the FARC. He was not a member of the former FARC.
[David]: Catatumbo went on to admit they were never able to confirm that Oswaldo was corrupt, and yes, they had attacked his dignity to the core. And as an act of reparation…
[Catatumbo]: I want to recognize and dignify the name of Councilor Oswaldo Díaz. As I have already said, we acted irresponsibly by frivolously slandering him and accusing him of a crime that he had not committed. Today I want to apologize not only to you, Edward, to your mother, to your aunt, to the rest of your family, because we did commit an abominable crime against your father. You have every right to think what you have expressed, and I hope that not only you and your family, but Colombia forgives us for the crimes we committed…
[David]: Finally, he asked his former teammates who were not present there to help alleviate the pain of the victims, to not be afraid of the truth, because the peace process needed it. And he committed to something:
[Catatumbo]: I will contribute in everything that depends on me so that this crime of Councilor Oswaldo Díaz can be clarified in its entirety. That is what I wanted to say, Madam Judge, and thank you very much.
[Magistrate]: Thank you so much. I think that at this moment we all need a pause. It has been very intense.
[David]: Zamira returned to her house in Palmira. She can’t say that she feels completely healed… Perhaps, like her nephew Edward, she will never be able to feel that way.
[Zamira]: The damage has been done and you never heal from the tremendous pain they caused you. Never. It is not about money or physical damage, but emotional damage.
[David]: But perhaps there is an obvious sign of a change in her. I asked her whether she would vote differently now in the referendum.
And after all this, do you think you would change your vote?
[Zamira]: Yes, well, maybe yes, because the meeting with these people was very useful for me to understand that, in reality, these things are needed so that perhaps the country can move on from so much violence, so much. God willing it to be so.
[David]: Let’s see whether perhaps the next generations will be spared a pain like theirs.
[Daniel]: The Missing Persons Search Unit, which was created along with the peace agreements, continues to search for Oswaldo’s remains.
To date, it remains unclear what relationship Óscar Bolaños, the kidnapper that Edward recognized, had with the FARC. He has not yet given his voluntary version of what happened.
To date, only two trials have begun at the JEP Peace Court, and they are for failure to admit the truth. None of those defendants is a former FARC combatant.
David Trujillo is a senior producer at Radio Ambulante and lives in Bogota. This story was edited by Camila Segura and Luis Fernando Vargas. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Ana Tuirán, with music by Ana.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Adriana Bernal, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.