SAN JOSE DEL GUAVIARE, COLOMBIA — Cerafín Méndez was out drinking one night when a fight broke out with his neighbor. The next day, three FARC soldiers came for him, bound his hands, and led him away.
That was the last time his family would see him alive.
“I was worried he had been left in the bush and eaten by animals, as if he were a dog,” said his wife, Miriam Méndez. “20 days passed, a month and nothing, nothing was found.”
Thirty years later, Méndez was finally given some closure when the Colombian government successfully identified her husband’s remains, and scheduled an event to bring them home for a proper burial.
“I finally feel like my mind was put to rest. Knowing his final location makes us feel less like he was abandoned alone,” Méndez’s daughter Mary told VICE News. “Before this, it was like he was forgotten in time.”
Méndez’s story isn't uncommon in Colombia. More than 80,000 Colombians were violently disappeared at the hands of Guerrilla groups, armed gangs, and government forces during a half century of civil war. And for decades, their cases went cold, ignored or out of reach of authorities.
But in 2016 after the government signed a historic peace accord with the FARC, the nation’s largest guerrilla group, families again had reason to hope. Specifically, the deal re-emphasized the importance of finding every single missing person and, for the first time, allowed investigators to safely search FARC controlled land for remains.
The effort has inspired hope, but suffered setbacks. Administrators have struggled to develop a system that integrates multiple government bodies into the search process — which was already understood to be a nearly impossible task.
“It is a very serious problem to have such a huge number of missing people in Colombia.” said Claudia Adriana García Fino, the director of the National Institute of Legal Medicine, one of the two main government bodies involved in the search for the disappeared.
Three years since the peace accord was first announced, officials have only managed to reunite less than 100 bodies with their families, estimates García Fino.
“I think this country will spend the next 100 years to fulfill the identification and exhumation of all the corpses that we have and also the delivery of these corpses to their relatives,” she said.
But for the few families who have managed to find their disappeared loved ones, the process brings closure.
“It’s just the least a human being deserves,” Méndez’s daughter Mary said. “No matter the case, people who’ve passed away deserve proper burial.”
Cover: Unidentified bones are displayed in the anthropologists' office. This is one of the many scientific steps required to ID the remains of someone killed during Colombia's Civil War. Once they are identified, the Colombian Government will attempt to reunite them with their family for a proper burial. (Joe Hill/VICE News)