Eduardo Cifuentes (Popayán, 1954), an experienced jurist who decades ago had his baptism of fire as a magistrate of the first Constitutional Court of Colombia, will preside over the next two years the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the system in charge of judging the most serious crimes committed during more than half a century of armed conflict between the State and the defunct FARC guerrilla. The also former Ombudsman takes over from this Wednesday Patricia Linares, the first president of the court that establishes alternative penalties to jail for ex-combatants in exchange for confessing their crimes and repairing the victims.
Lawyer from the Universidad de Los Andes de Bogotá –where he was also Dean of Law–, with a doctorate from the Complutense University of Madrid, the new spokesman for transitional justice gained notoriety as a robe of the unpublished constitutional court that emerged from the new political letter of 1991, which came to preside. After completing his eight-year term, he headed the Ombudsman’s Office, in charge of promoting human rights, where he created the early warning system that warns of the risks faced by communities. Three years ago, an independent commission of international experts chose him as one of the judges of the nascent Special Jurisdiction for Peace, in the Appeals section, another milestone in his long career.
“Eduardo Cifuentes is one of the best jurists the country has, a lawyer who knows the fundamental legal institutions very well, he is really a person well versed in the legal universe, which is something that is not usual”, highlights Catalina Botero, dean of Law of Los Andes who worked alongside him as an assistant magistrate in the Constitutional Court. “His style is that of a sober, conciliatory, rigorous, ethically unquestionable person,” he emphasizes.
“He is the wise man of the tribe in the JEP”, points out the lawyer Santiago Pardo, scholar and disseminator of constitutional history. “He is one of the magistrates with the most judicial experience, quite robust in defending the Constitution and fundamental rights. His time at the Court defines him as a wise and well-considered judge ”, values Pardo, co-author with journalist Ana Cristina Restrepo of The heretic, a book on the late Carlos Gaviria, another of the magistrates of that first and remembered Court in charge of opening the constitutional path. In addition, he highlights, the Ombudsman as the person in charge of denouncing human rights violations is in constant tension with the public powers, so that Cifuentes “knows how to navigate these disputes.”
The JEP must work in the midst of the polarization that has characterized Colombia. Cifuentes assumes at a delicate moment for transitional justice, wrapped in constant tensions and points of friction with the Executive of Iván Duque. Despite having been elected with the support of the sectors that opposed the peace accords, the president is responsible for implementing a pact that has always had solid support from the international community. The peace court is advancing despite formidable obstacles, to which the pandemic has added, in a country that intends to repair more than eight million victims of a war that involved guerrillas, paramilitaries and state agents.
The jurisdiction, together with the Truth Commission and the Unit for the Search of Persons deemed Missing, make up the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, arising from the agreements. The court administers restorative justice through macro cases – seven have been opened so far – that require the analysis of voluminous information. The ex-guerrillas have recently recognized their participation in other emblematic crimes, such as the assassination of the conservative leader Álvaro Gómez, which could lead to the opening of other major processes. In the coming months, the first sentences are expected in two of the most serious and representative, those related to the wrongly named false positives –Extrajudicial executions of civilians by members of the public force to pass them off as combat casualties– and kidnappings perpetrated by the FARC.
“It is a justice that demands complete truth and acceptance of responsibility. If this is not achieved, regarding the conflict that has torn Colombia apart in the last 50 years, our collective and individual destiny will be uncertain and unworthy ”, declared Cifuentes this Wednesday during his inauguration. In his speech he called for an “ethical and spiritual” movement for peace. As vice president, Alexandra Sandoval, a victim of the takeover of the Palace of Justice in 1985, where her father, also judge Emilio Sandoval, died. The magistrate of the Amnesty and Pardon Chamber has dedicated her career to the protection of human rights and has been the coordinator of the gender commission at the JEP.
The peace agreement in general, and the JEP in particular, have been the target of incessant attacks by former President Álvaro Uribe, Duque’s political mentor and the ruling party. “We must insist on the repeal of the JEP and on the reform of the Havana accords,” the former president said last month in his first statement after the justice ordered his release after more than two months of house arrest for a witness tampering case. Duque had already proposed in 2019 to modify the JEP, considered the backbone of the agreements, with a series of objections that crashed with a thunderous defeat in Congress.
In the latest example of the tensions that the JEP must deal with, President Duque demanded “exemplary sanctions” from the magistrates last week during an international transitional justice meeting in which he criticized the court. The president has already been questioned for not respecting the independence of powers in his unrestricted defense of former President Uribe. “Justice is subject only to the rule of law, and not to the incumbent president, whom we respect and from whom we also demand respect,” he said. answered Cifuentes in his first statements.