Many war-torn countries struggle to find a post-conflict equilibrium between coexistence and accountability. Judging by Juan Jose Lozano and Hollman Morris’ docu “Impunity,” the Colombian government’s much-touted Peace and Justice initiative is doing a poor, patently hypocritical job of it. Beginning with a woman’s emotional account of her 12-year-old brother’s decapitation and ending with the hurried extradition of key witnesses before they can name the powerful figures behind the widespread carnage, pic covers the harrowing history of the war and the tragic sham of the ongoing trials (six years and counting). Clear-eyed docu merits a niche run before cable beckons.
In 2005, the Colombian government under President Uribe offered right-wing paramilitary soldiers reduced sentences of five to eight years if they laid down their arms and confessed their crimes. They were accused of torturing, slaughtering and “disappearing” more than 400,000 civilians and forcibly displacing millions from their land. “Impunity” mainly consists of the accused’s videotaped testimony intercut with peasants’ reactions, contrasting the cold-blooded enumeration of atrocities by those who committed them with the grief of those who suffered them.
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The film (based on an idea by Lozano’s close collaborator, Hollman Morris) shows relatives of the disappeared pouring into Bogota to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV in designated “victims’ rooms.” Their questions concerning the fates of their loved ones are relayed to those on trial, who generally plead ignorance and promise to ask around. Higher-ranking members of the paramilitary have resisted the trials altogether through legal technicalities or, covertly, through the assassinations of witnesses, activists, judges and jurors; many now hold government positions.
But the interminable information-gathering portion of the trials, indicated by shots of thousands of pages piled high in dusty offices, takes an abrupt turn. When paramilitary officers declare under oath that the government (in collusion with banana plantation owners, sugar magnates and other business interests) ordered massacres targeting opposition leaders and union members, and drove entire villages of peasants off land earmarked for other purposes, the whistle-blowers are quickly bundled off to the U.S. to face less controversial drug and money-laundering indictments.
Before being extradited, the most vocal defendant, one “HH,” remarks, “When we say that we cut off a peasant’s head, raped his wife and stole his land, nobody is shocked … but when we talk about who profited, we are attacked.”
Government representatives extravagantly laud the tribunal, while historians, reporters and human-rights advocates decry the charade. A Colombian jurist’s tally of the Peace and Justice Law’s results corroborates the latter opinion: Of 31,600 demobilized paramilitary members, 3,600 were held for prosecution, 600 were tried and only two were convicted.