President Gustavo Petro’s government faces a major challenge in making the decision on which of the hundreds of young people detained under the national strike will benefit from their freedom by being declared peacekeepers. A decision that has a legal framework, but which is above all a political decision.
Interior Minister Alfonso Prada and Judge Néstor Osuna said there would be no pardon or amnesty and that each case would be analyzed individually. There will be no general release. And this is precisely the most important aspect because not all prisoners are accused of the same crimes and some of them are very serious.
Opposing reactions were immediately sparked by President Gustavo Petro’s announcement to release these young men as peacekeepers. Some argue that social protest has been criminalized and that is why the decision is right, others believe that criminals cannot be rewarded and that a bad message is being sent to society. Some context is needed.
The role of peacekeepers has been used by various governments. Criminals responsible for heinous acts were released under a law that allows the government to request the revocation of arrest warrants as part of efforts to carry out peace talks with groups outside the law. In 2009 Elda Neyis Mosquera García, alias “Karina”, and Raúl Agudelo Medina, alias “Olivo Saldaña”, two guerrillas whose criminal investigations included crimes such as kidnapping, extortion and murder, were granted the freedom to be peacekeepers. A couple of years earlier, in 2007, by order of the then president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Rodrigo Granda of the Farc had also been released from prison with the same legal appeal.
The first thing then is that the figure of the peace manager is not new; There has been a law that has allowed this to be done for some time and it appears in law 418 of 1997, a law that has been expanded and amended several times, the most recent in law 2272 of 2022 known as the “total peace” law. Article 8 of the two laws speaks of “representatives expressly authorized by the national government, in order to promote reconciliation between Colombians, peaceful coexistence and the achievement of peace”. Subsequently, paragraph 2 authorizes, at the request of the national government, the revocation of the arrest warrants for those who will participate in the peace talks.
These rules are what, according to the Government, would be the legal basis for being able to release the detainees. However, there are several doubts. The first is knowing how many will be released. Has Minister Prada said that 230 cases will be analysed, will all those released from prison go to the discussion tables? And if they do, are they going on behalf of some illegal group or will they be government spokesmen? The current law establishes that they can go on behalf of “an armed group organized outside the law”, of “an organized armed structure of high impact crime” or as “members of social and humanitarian organizations to which the President of the Republic deems they can contribute to the peace process, to social conflict and they are deprived of their freedom”. In what capacity do they sit at the table and if they don’t go, what tasks will they have?
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Nor is it clear what happens to the condemned. Minister Néstor Osuna said the trials of the released people would continue. However, when asked about the convicts, he stated that it is not yet clear and that this will be regulated. It is also worth asking whether members of the public force arrested for crimes committed in the national strike can be released. The law allows it. Doing so is a political decision.
President Gustavo Petro is keeping a promise made to the young people who participated in the social protest and who are an important base of his followers and who voted for him. We recall that the issue was in his victory speech and that they tried to include an article of pardon in the total peace project which ultimately failed. Now the figure of peace managers seems to be used in a very flexible way to request the revocation of arrest warrants. Can the norm be stretched that much?
The decision is no less. Among the detainees are some who have been charged with serious crimes. This is the case of Sergio Andrés Pastor, already sentenced to 14 years in prison. It is difficult for President Gustavo Petro to ask for his release after a conviction for criminal association and torture. The character has become a symbol of the crimes committed as part of the strike. Let us not forget, however, that others convicted of atrocious crimes have been peacemakers.
On the other side there are the abuses of the public force documented in various fields. The most recent is the Amnesty International report detailing 28 cases of sexual and gender-based violence in the context of the strike. This has made it possible to affirm that there have also been abuses in the arrests and denunciations, and that the protest has been criminalised, as President Gustavo Petro himself has stated.
In the arguments for granting freedom, it is said that they try to appease the country by all means. However, it is unclear whether the goal will be achieved. The decision sends a message of peace to one sector who have felt their rights violated in the protest, but radicalises another who do not support those concessions and who have also felt that collective rights have been affected. The matter is not easy. Once again, President Gustavo Petro makes a bold move. It would be ideal for the decision of who to grant freedom and what tasks the country, the whole country, will have to think about, so that only in this way a decision that seeks to pacify does not become another cause of confrontation and violence.
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