Memory, Justice, Archive: Interview with Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez

During the lockdown period, the team has endeavoured to complete its schedule of interviews, and we were delighted to catch up with Gonzalo Sánchez, the founder and former director of Colombia’s Centro nacional de 

showing zoom conversation memoria histórica (until 2018), who spoke to us from his home in Bogotá. His rich interview will inform our final research report, together with the others we have gathered about the work of this important institution. But here is a ‘preview’ of some thoughts from his interview that were especially interesting or provocative for this research project.

The reports put pressure on the judicial system because, he says, ‘they showed that the judicial system was negligent’; in short, ‘the reports demanded answers.’

One series of very interesting reflections from Professor Sanchez concerns the relationship between the ‘memory work’ of the Group of Historical Memory – and the National Centre of Historical Memory that it became after 2011 – and justice processes. At first, he reflected, the Group carried out research in such a way that it constituted a demand for justice. The numerous reports that they produced about emblematic cases of the conflict – such as the Trujillo massacre, or that of Sergovia – put pressure on the judicial system because, he says, ‘they showed that the judicial system was negligent’; in short, ‘the reports demanded answers.’ Some prosecutions were re-opened as a result of these questions.

But later, the Centre was asked in effect to become part of the judicial progress, although not necessarily in ways that they felt comfortable with, when they were asked to receive the testimonies of members of the paramilitary groups who were demobilised under the 2005 law. The concept was that these people had information that needed to be recorded for the sake of historical memory, and that they should give this information before they could access the State’s help with the demobilisation process. The task of taking the testimonies and checking that they constituted a contribution to the truth about what happened, has continued, including with the FARC following demobilisation in line with the 2016 Agreement. But the Centre felt somewhat ambivalent about these testimonies. They were so weighted to hearing just one side. The 2005 law as a whole was ‘shameful’ Sanchez remarked, and especially the ‘Acuerdos de verdad (Truth Agreements)’: ‘there was only the voice of the perpetrators, according to their free will and telling whatever they wanted to tell’.

It was their ethic from the outset: to place the victims centrally

The Centre felt that their research in and with communities was the chance to tell the victims’ stories, and this was their ethic from the outset: to place the victims centrally. Yet this also meant their work exposed them to the law being used against them. After the report into the massacre at La Rochela, which was generally well received, the Centre was sued for defamation by one of the politicians named in the report. As with several cases, Professor Sanchez explains, ‘the degree of involvement that a military or a politician had was so widely acknowledged by all, that to hide that information would have meant to become accomplices in some way’. The Centre had felt they had to name him. Through the legal negotiations, it was eventually agreed that the Centre’s report would stand, but that the politician would be able to give his own account on their website about which they would not comment. While the case was resolved in this way, the experience was troubling, and made the Centre realise it could be vulnerable to prosecutions. To protect this from happening, the Centre requested that the 2011 so-called ‘Victims’ law’, in which the Centre was officially created, would include an article explicitly safeguarding the autonomy of the Centre from prosecution. This was granted and the guarantee was incorporated into Article 147 of the law.

“We don’t want a monument, it would be more valuable to have a school”

More recently, the Centre has developed another role in relation to justice processes, which has been to aid in how the justice process formulates historical memory and forms of reparation. Following the 2011 Victims’ law, the special prosecutors now have to add to every judicial sentence a paragraph about historical memory. Sánchez explained: ‘So, after every sentence was announced, a memorial or the victims’ biography had to be established as a way of reparation’. The Centre was required to help support the victims in creating the memorial, monument or bridge as detailed by the judges. However, this role became more a negotiating role since the victims would sometimes express doubt at the value of the symbolic reparation. He gives the example: ‘[They] began to say: “we don’t want a monument, it would be more valuable to have a school for the community and the victims”’. Because the Centre had established trust with the judges, it was able to act as a negotiator, speaking with the judges to help shape what the most appropriate reparation would be in each case. ‘The judges understood that they could see us a mediators and listen to the victims’ voices through us in order to be able to define what they needed in terms of memory reparation’.
This changing relationship between the Centre and judicial processes reflects, Sanchez suggests, a wider changing relationship between ‘memory’ work and ‘justice’ work in Colombia, as the value of the former becomes clarified within the latter.

‘These archives are closely related to their own identities, it’s almost like their own skin’

In relation to the archival work that the Centre has been doing over the years, Professor Sánchez emphasised that the archives that communities or individuals hold about what has happened in their local areas are surrounded by affect that is entwined with sense of self (and self-survival). He said: ‘for the communities their archives are closely related to their own identities, it’s almost like their own skin. So if you take their archives from them it’s almost like you have mutilated them.’ With this wonderful phrase ‘like their own skin’ Sánchez recalled how he and his team worked carefully and sensitively with the communities affected by the armed conflict in Colombia to mitigate this feeling of mutilation. The Centre is premised upon the notion that these are invaluable resources to gain a full picture of the armed conflict in Colombia, but it is not intended to dispossess these communities or leave them with a further sense of having been violated. They explain that the Centre does not physically store the archives of the communities in Colombia, but it takes a copy of them and/or notes their existence so that they could contribute to the telling of the story of the conflict in Colombia, while still owning and physically keeping their own archives. The idea is that the planned Museum of Memory in Bogotá will eventually host the digital archive, and continue a line of work that promotes the archives, and the victims’ stories therein.

Still, there is much work to do, and recent times the feelings of betrayal and of stories being ‘taken’ have been articulated very clearly by some victims’ and community groups. With the change of government and the change of directorship at the Centre, some of the groups have begun to doubt the neutrality of the organisation and of the museum. Even before the building has been built, the itinerant exhibition that showcases what may eventually be displayed in the permanent galleries has provoked anger as victims’ groups have complained that their stories are not authentically described and displayed. Other groups have declared that they wish to take their archives ‘back’ or otherwise signalled that they wish to withdraw their co-operation with the Centre. As Gonzalo Sánchez put it: ‘it’s like a political bomb for a research team that had built itself upon public trust.’

We are grateful for Professor Sánchez’s permission to use his words here.
Interview conducted 24th April, 2020 via Zoom with research team (Vikki Bell, Oriana Bernasconi, Jaime Hernández García, Ceci Sosa)

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