The Memoria Viva (Living Memory) Union of bodyguards is the largest union in its sector. They are made up almost entirely of signers to the 2016 Peace Accord who ended the armed insurgency in favor of reintegration and nonviolent political activism. Thus, not only are they union members, they are veterans of the armed struggle. In that sense, this interview is a companion to the article we published earlier this year, Are there Veterans for Peace in Colombia?.
Memoria Viva is experiencing targeting and repression from a variety of directions. On one side, they are subject to hard working conditions, as well as false allegations and interference in union affairs, on the part of their employers; on the other, they are targets of paramilitary death squads and enemies of the peace.
Following is an an interview with Memoria Viva’s president, Victor Osorio. The interview was conducted by Maya Hernandez and James Patrick Jordan of the Alliance for Global Justice.
We are joined by Victor Osorio, president of Colombia’s Memoria Viva (Living Memory) Union of security guards. The union is mostly composed of ex-combatants of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and signers of the 2016 Peace Accords. Victor, please describe Memoria Viva. Tell us a bit about how and why this union was created. Why did you choose the name ‘Memoria Viva’ (translated ‘Living Memory’)? What is the ‘memory’ you are referring to?
Thank you for having me, good afternoon. The national union Memoria Viva was founded following the implementation of the Havana Agreements [the 2016 accords, which were negotiated in Havana, Cuba] and the resulting process of transitioning Colombian guerillas to civil life. The union was also founded in order to ensure the safety and protection of the signers of The Peace Accords, the families of the signers, and the political party that arose after the Peace Accords were signed.
Memoria Viva is an organized effort by the signers of the Peace Accords to stay unified and support the benefits and the reintegration of workers. In Colombia, unions and unionists have been major advocates of peace. At the same time, they are the people who have suffered the most death and imprisonment at the hands of the state. As a result, Memoria Viva strives to recognize the leaders and unionists who have given their lives for the fight for a better country and for peace. This is why we are ‘Memoria Viva’, because we want to exercise a collective memory and emphasize that we cannot forget those who gave their lives for these fights for the construction of peace in Colombia.
Memoria Viva is currently the largest union in your sector. You are also affiliated with the Unitary Workers Center of Colombia (Centralia Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia) or the CUT, the largest union federation in Colombia. What is Memoria Viva’s relationship with the CUT?
Recently, we organized the seven union organizations that are part of the National Protection Unit (UNP, the agency that employees Memoria Viva membrers) with which we are affiliated under the CUT. This is to say that we have a good number of unions and unionists that are represented in the CUT. The relationship between Memoria Viva and the CUT has been very harmonious and unifying from the beginning. We have the shared principle of prioritizing the interests and the well-being of workers in Colombia. Of course, we have differences, sometimes great differences with some, but when the purpose is the reintegration of workers, we are always able to get on the same page and build a mutual agenda. Recently, we had a meeting under the orientation of the CUT, planning for a mobilization on October 11th, organized by the seven organizations that are in the CUT network, to make demands on behalf of workers. The relationship between the unions has been a good relationship. The CUT is the union federation with the greatest number of signers of the Peace Accords as members but also the largest participation from unions in the National Protection Unit.
At the CUT we do our best to grow as an organization, to continue learning about the issues we deem most important with regard to workers on a national level. Memoria Viva is also affiliated with other organizations such as the Red Si Paz (Yes to Peace network) which is an organization of unions like ours that are working together for the implementation of the Peace Accords. We believe it’s important to ally ourselves with sister organizations that prioritize the implementation of the Peace Accords.
Many of our supporters, and a large part of the anti-war movement for peace, include veterans from wars created by the United States. Groups like Veterans for Peace and About Face are veteran groups that oppose war. I think they would be interested in knowing that you are a veteran and a former member of the FARC. You joined the insurgency when you were quite young. Why did you join? As a guerilla, why did you push for the Peace Accords? Why did you sign the Peace Accords in 2016?
I’m from the south of Colombia, from the Tolima Department. In order to understand the Colombian conflicts at play, it’s necessary to orient oneself in the national geography. I come from a region very close to Marquetalia [where the FARC was first organized in 1964]. I grew up seeing FARC as the authority in our area. They were respected and admired by the community. Living this instilled admiration and respect for FARC and the desire to participate in such an organization that was loved by the community. I wouldn’t say that I was integrated ‘young’; I would say I was integrated as a child. I started volunteering with FARC when I was eleven. I would insist that they take me around with them which I think speaks to the socio-cultural construction that exists in that area of Colombia where we see the insurgency differently from the people who judge it from afar or from social media and who have the luxury of living in cities and therefore living in a different world. I joined FARC because I truly admired and respected them and because I wanted to be a part of an organization that was appreciated.
Regarding the Peace Accords– In the insurgency, we were always taught that we have to be able to resist in this life but that the least painful way out for Colombians was through dialogue. We always understood that the least painful way out and the one that we were always going to strive for was the dialogue. This was why we knew we wanted the Peace Accords, to stop using or needing to be armed or to involve arms in politics, in order to get an outcome that was less painful. I signed the Peace Accords in 2016 as part of a collective decision under the direction of our leaders and as a result of internal discussions held in assemblies. I ratified my decision to sign the Peace Accords personally because I considered this peace agreement to be one that would lay the groundwork to construct a different society, a more just and generous one, and because I believed in the possibility of continuing to fight for the country that we dreamed of by creating mechanisms of participation and of representation of the communities that have been historically denied by this country. I believe that our historical context tells us today that we were correct to sign the Peace Accords, that it is possible to construct change in this lifetime.
Seeing as you are still quite young, how was it that you ended up becoming president of a national union like Memoria Viva?
In Colombia we understand that in order to have any success, to come out in front of something, society and history has shown us that, unfortunately, we have to cross many hurdles, deal with many obstacles. This is one of our greatest faults as a society in Colombia. In my case, I became president of Memoria Viva because my colleague who was president at the time was confronted with mounting security concerns. She ended up having to flee the country and apply for asylum in Europe in order to be able to manage the dangerous situation she was put in. As a result, she was no longer able to be the president. At the time, I was working as the vice president at Memoria Viva and so I assumed the presidency that way. This was very much a result and a product of the persecution, and threats that we have had to live with being a part of a union in Colombia. Since I joined the FARC, I’ve had to exercise the role of being a younger person who assumes great responsibilities.
Despite the signing of the Peace Accords, many of the Memoria Viva members have suffered stigmatization, false accusations, political incarceration, threats, assaults, disappearances, and assassinations. Can you please tell us more about this situation, and how we, as international solidarity activists for peace, can support or help you all in your efforts to guarantee the safety and security of unionists in Colombia?
We have suffered several cases such as the one that I just mentioned regarding the previous president of Memoria Viva. There have been six assassinations, disappearances, and declarations of inconsistencies regarding the assassinations of my colleagues, as well as regular national persecution. We were able to document these serious threats with the Special Jurisdiction for Peace [JEP], a tribunal created for issues regarding violations committed at the time of the conflict with the objective of collecting and taking action against these violations. We were heard, our allegations verified, they dictated cautionary measures to the relevant government entity who implemented security measures of protection to those affiliated with Memoria Viva.
Today, those terms that the JEP granted us have expired. We have received phone calls from officials asking questions and requesting our signatures on forms which is not a legitimate measure considering the judicial entity of Colombia already granted us the necessary measures. They are just looking to make things difficult for us. As of now, we are looking into whether there is legitimacy between the agreement, the organization, and the special judicial system that was created to ensure the security and protection of the signers of the Peace Accords. This has happened several times. We have colleagues who were assassinated as a result of not receiving their promised security and protection. These were situations where it was very evident that the person in question was in grave danger, but due to negligence and the lack of action on the part of the government those assassinations happened.
I believe that the Alliance for Global Justice can support us by helping to make visible the situation we are undergoing as a union in Colombia. We want to continue encouraging and prioritizing peace despite the difficulties we are confronted with. We stand firm on the implementation of the Peace Accords but in order for that to be possible we need our lives to be secure. We need to be able to move around in the territories where we can accomplish the goals we proposed. I believe that we can help make your work visible and that you and your collective can help make our work visible internationally, something which has been next to impossible on our end including with the new government. We have yet to get them to sit and talk with our unions in a genuine and sincere way or to follow our proposals and recommendations for better the security protocols. These protocols have the responsibility of guaranteeing the lives of those who signed the Peace Accords. This is very important.
Ronald Rojas, also known as Ramiro Duran, was an ex-combatant signer of the Accords in 2016 and a leader in the movement for peace. He was under the protection of Memoria Viva when he was assassinated in July of this year. The special security vehicle that he was designated was out of commission. According to the law and the promise of the state, they should have designated him a functioning vehicle while the other one was being repaired, but they failed to. Memoria Viva has a campaign to demand that the security conditions be adequate in order for you all to complete your missions. Until now, what, if any, has been the response from the state? Can you tell us a bit about the demands for better security protocols that you currently have?
The response from the state has been very unsatisfactory, as is the case for nearly all the signers of the Peace Accords who were murdered. Ronald Rojas had expressed to our colleagues that he had received concerning information regarding being following with the objective of assassination. Still, when the assassination happened, he was unable to depend on the security measures that should have been given to him. We have such a serious issue in Colombia regarding the protection of signers of the Peace Accords. The issue is that the renting car company, which has a million dollar contract with the state to rent those vehicles and provide security and mobility for the signers of the Peace Accords, also has the capacity to pick and choose the jobs they want to take. They have done it before. We have colleagues who have to ride public transportation because they weren’t guaranteed a vehicle. This puts them in very unsafe conditions. These rental companies earn a lot of money renting those vehicles to us, and they don’t follow through. They don’t follow through on upholding security protocols. Furthermore, the rental companies often supply old, dingy cars that spend more time in the shop being repaired than actually protecting anyone. Sometimes they take a car away from someone because of an order or priority. The determination of priority is fickle, in that the determination isn’t always made on the level of threat that the person in question is undergoing, but rather the activity that the driver is focused on.
What happened to Ronald was very painful for our community. All the deaths of the signers of the Peace Accords are painful, of course, but Ronald was someone who was very close to us, who had helped us assume the defense for a colleague who was assassinated. He was a leader in the protection of our friends. At the time of his death, the newspapers falsely reported that he was plotting something, but the truth is that he didn’t have the capacity to be plotting any crime because he didn’t have time to focus on anything like that. We have denounced and will continue to denounce and protest this kind of situation, to get justice regarding both the ones who murdered our loved ones and those who did not execute the resolutions for security protocols to ensure the protection of our friend.
We are impressed by the progress that the administration of Gustavo Petro, the new president of Colombia, has made regarding his promise to construct all-encompassing peace in Colombia. What are your thoughts on this? Do you believe that all-encompassing peace is possible in Colombia? We would like to know, particularly, if it’s possible for the Colombian Armed Forces and FARCmveterans to unite and create peace in a new Colombia?
Effectively I have to say that the discourse, proposals, and programs orchestrated by Gustavo Petro are compelling and exciting to us. We want to support him, we want to help him, we want to offer our experience and understanding regarding the political situation over the past five, nearly six years, since the implementation of the Peace Accords. We want to help him build the all-encompassing peace that he speaks of across Colombia. We like his proposals; we want to support them. We have sent letters to the government affirming that we are available to meet with the national government and offer our support for the construction of peace across the nation. Still, we feel today that his proposals are primarily talk as of now. We have yet to see a director in place at the Agency for National Reintegration (ARN), and for the normalization of the ARN. No one has been named officially as the person responsible for implementing the Peace Accords with FARC.
The director of the National Protection Unit, who we know to be very close to president Gustavo Petro, has not wanted to meet with unions. He meets instead with the directives who do not have a total grasp on the situations we have had to live through or the conditions we lived under the previous government. Like I said, I like the proposals Petro has made, but I feel that he needs to follow through on what he has proposed, which is to have a dialogue with Colombians. Here in Colombia, the signers of the Peace Accords are many. We have different visions regarding how the reincorporation should go, how the implementation of the Accords should go. We feel that the government for the moment has failed to answer the call of the majority of the signers. Yesterday, there was a meeting between the table that represents the Comunes Party [the legal political party created by the former FARC] and the director of the national union for protection to discuss the reassignment of the functions of specialized directives. It is very irresponsible to speak of the reassignment of the specialized directives when they have yet to meet with any union. It is irresponsible not to listen to the vast number of signers of the Peace Accords who come from not one or two sectors, but who are diverse and vary based on geographical location.
I believe it is possible for veterans from the FARC and veterans from the Colombian Armed Forces to unite in order to construct an all-encompassing peace and a new Colombia. Of course, I believe that. From Havana, our directives and members of the military forces who were in negotiations understood that it is far easier to understand one another, between those who are at the margin of the law and those who are on the side of the institution, than between politicians. We have seen this proven many times. We want to put in the work, we want to do it, we know it’s possible. The members of the public forces know that working with guerillas is far easier than working with people from other institutions. We know that we understand each other and that we can create a common cause in the construction of peace in our country.
Thank you so much, Victor. You have helped us understand the situation; not only regarding Memoria Viva specifically, but also regarding Colombia and its efforts to build peace. At the Alliance for Global Justice, we reaffirm our commitment to stand in solidarity with you. We believe in your union and in your vision for peace. It is very important, and we share it.
I wasn’t expecting that it would be from this side, but the Left for peace, for global justice, that we would find to the first to fight for peace but it’s the hand that was dealt. We understand that we have arrived here today and that we have gained the successes we have as a result of mobilizing. Today we have a president and a vice president who are different, and a new cabinet of social and political fighters and representatives and defenders of human rights. We helped select the president in the streets by mobilizing, marching, reclaiming. We will do the same to demand that Petro’s government follow through on the social and political changes they promised. We are not going to stop just because we heard proposals for change. We are going to protest and mobilize. It is our essence as revolutionaries and fighters for peace and justice. We believe in a country that has dignity and better guarantees for Colombians. Thank you.