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Digging up Bodies: Colombia Is Searching for Thousands of Unnamed Dead

Colombia peace process has accelerated the hunt for the remains of the estimated 45,000 who disappeared in its half-century-long conflict.
May 9, 2016, 12:59pm
Foto di Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News

Ana Delfina Martínez last saw her brother, José Jacinto Martínez, 17 years ago. Corn crops had been failing on the family land so he had sought work in a nearby village in Colombia's then conflict-ridden eastern plains. He went to work one day and never came home again.

Last month Martínez was given a box containing her brother's remains — confirmed by DNA testing.

"We'd lost hope," she said, holding flowers in her brother's memory. "At first I didn't believe it was him, I thought it must have been a mistake or something."

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Martinez received the remains on April 15 during a special ceremony in Villavicencio, a city in the area that was once a rebel stronghold before the army took control with paramilitary help. Fourteen other families also received bodies or body parts belonging to previously missing loved ones in this and other similar ceremonies across Colombia on that day.

Those 15 represent a tiny fraction of the estimated 45,000 who have disappeared during Colombia's half century of conflict between government forces and left-wing guerrillas. Right-wing paramilitaries, often acting alongside the state, have also contributed to the bloodshed. All sides are responsible for atrocities.

But there are signs that the number finally finding their loved ones could soon increase dramatically as peace talks advance between the government and the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. A final deal is widely expected in 2016, after three years of negotiations. The smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army — or ELN — announced peace talks in March this year.

An agreement reached in October 2015 promised the sharing of information between the FARC and the government in order to expedite the search for Colombia's missing dead. They also announced the formation of a special search unit once a final accord is reached.

The chief prosecutor's office began searching the country's cemeteries in 2005 when the state-aligned paramilitary organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia — or AUC — began to demobilize in a process that was widely criticized for being too lax. Even so, the confessions of ex-combatants did help to find nearly 9,000 bodies.

'This site was an open secret not just in La Plata, but across Colombia'

According to the chief prosecutor's office, there are an estimated 28,000 unidentified bodies in unmarked graves. They are classified as NNs, which stands for Ningún Nombre or No Name.

Now, with the FARC's support, investigators across the country are able to recover and handover remains faster than ever before. Since the October announcement, 44 bodies have been returned to families.

The remains of six disappeared persons were delivered to their families in a solemn ceremony. (Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News)

The intensification of exhumations is most obvious in public cemeteries, long favored as dumping grounds by all of Colombia's armed groups.

Martinez's brother's bones were found in a cemetery in the town of Granada, not far from where he disappeared. Over 300 miles away another team of investigators dug up 37 bodies last month in a cemetery in the small southwestern town of La Plata, Huila. All of them remain unidentified.

Related: Colombia Is Investigating Whether 100 Bodies Were Stuffed in a Prison Sewer

"This site was an open secret not just in La Plata, but across Colombia," said the lead investigator at the site, Jaime Castro, as he wiped the sweat from his brow. "After years of investigating we are finally able to exhume."

Shoveling through rock, dirt, and mud, Castro's team of thirteen government investigators — including forensics experts, topographers, and photographers — was bolstered by four civilian gravediggers from the town. The operation took 15 days, working through oppressive heat and heavy downpours. They plan to return later this year to continue the search, expecting to find dozens more bodies.

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As his team dug, wearing white overalls to protect them against the health risks, locals poked their heads over the fence watching how their small town's role as a depository for the war's nameless dead was slowly uncovered.

Investigators wear white overalls to protect themselves against health risks. (Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News)

Residents of La Plata offered different theories to explain it.

Some spoke of bloody confrontations between FARC rebels and the military in a small hamlet an hour away. Others said they suspected the bodies could belong to victims of the so-called "False Positives" scandal, in which the military rounded up and killed civilians and declared them enemy combatants to boost performance statistics.

Investigators at the scene said the corpses in this particular gravesite were probably rebel combatants but that their affiliation really didn't really matter.

"They are victims of the armed conflict, just like anybody else," Castro said. "We do not talk in terms of guerrilla or state forces."

Related: In Landfill Atop Medellín, Colombia Begins Work on Exhuming Bodies in Mass Grave

For Pablo Cala, the director of human rights organization Colectivo Orlando Fals Bordo — which has been working closely with investigators and victims' families across the country — the lack of clear facts around who was killed reflects a deeper mystery regarding the disappeared.

"What's happening in La Plata is similar to what has happened in other cemeteries, where people are buried not only without names or identification, but without history," Cala said. "Now begins the stage of identification, and then the search for the families, some who are looking for loved ones and don't know they are here, or those who aren't looking because they still hope they will return alive."

'They are victims of the armed conflict, just like anybody else…We do not talk in terms of guerrilla or state forces'

The decomposed bodies brought to the ground in La Plata were little more than teeth, bone fragments, and shreds of clothing. They were then bagged up and examined in van-mounted morgues parked outside the cemetery gates under the supervision of Dr. Hernán Quijano, the head of the government forensics team at the site.

"Normally we would take samples from certain parts of the body, take a piece of the femur for example," he explained, as he got ready for a day examining the legacy of Colombia's long and horrific war. "In this instance it is more difficult because of the level of decomposition."

Inside one of of Colombia's van-mounted mobile morgues. (Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News)

The remains were analyzed and cleaned before being sent to the regional capital of Neiva, some 82 miles north.

Digna Isabel Durán, deputy director of the chief prosecutor's victims unit, said the intensification of efforts to exhume Colombia's unmarked graves is a step towards reconciliation in a country that has known only war for two generations.

'How can there be peace without justice?'

"We are not looking for those responsible. There are many dead, many disappeared… sons, fathers, brothers, whose families don't know what happened," she said. "This is a humanitarian act to build confidence and alleviate suffering for the families of victims."

Related: A New Law in Colombia Promises to Tackle the Country's High Level of Acid Attacks

Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group think tank, stresses that for the exhumation process to help cement peace in Colombia it must be done with particular attention to both the technical and the human aspects of the process.

"Quick isn't good with exhumations," she said following the announcement of an accelerated search last October. "They have to be really carefully done, and in coordination with family members who have the pain of loss and the pain of not knowing."

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Speaking last month at a forum on disappearances throughout Colombia, Haugaard added that the United States government could contribute enormously to the process by declassifying the vast information cache it has on the war in order to shed light on the disappeared.

Following the handover, some families buried the remains in their local ceremony. (Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News)

After the handover ceremony in Villavicencio, some of the remains were buried in a nearby cemetery. Many in attendance struggled to contain tears as a local gravedigger placed and sealed the bodies in above-ground graves.

Ana Delfína Martínez, who said she was taking her brother's remains back to their village, talked of the "pain of loss and also the joy" that she felt about being able to finally move on from the years of uncertainty.

But she also said the lack of information about how and why her brother was killed dampened her hopes for the future of her war-ravaged country.

"There are no answers, nobody knows anything," she said. "How can there be peace without justice?"

Related: Colombia Wants to Charge a Guerrilla Medic With Up to 500 Forced Abortions

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan