Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Exhuming Nameless Victims

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTÁ, May 8 2007 (IPS) - Colombian Inspector-General Edgardo Maya asked the United Nations for help unearthing and identifying the hundreds of bodies removed from secret graves throughout the country.

Attorney-General Mario Iguarán, meanwhile, reiterated that his office is absolutely “overwhelmed” by the job of identifying the hundreds of corpses that have been exhumed.

In the oil-rich southern province of Putumayo on the border with Ecuador and Peru, the number of bodies found in common graves and clandestine cemeteries could reach 3,000, said Iguarán.

On Saturday, the attorney-general revealed the discovery of the remains of 105 people in 65 common graves in six different parts of the rural district of La Hormiga in Putumayo province.

Most of the bodies had been dismembered – the trademark of the far-right paramilitary groups, now partially demobilised as a result of negotiations with the government, which often chopped up their victims alive with machetes or chainsaws.

The remains included the bodies of women and children.

The graves were located thanks to information provided by relatives of the victims of forced disappearance and other local residents, and in some cases by demobilised members of the paramilitary militias themselves, who have been offered legal benefits in exchange for full confessions of their human rights crimes, said Iguarán.

“We are finding new graves every day,” he said, while calling on the international community for “more resources and total support.”

Of the thousands of demobilised paramilitary fighters, 2,699 who have been linked to crimes against humanity must confess all of their crimes and make reparations to victims and survivors in order to obtain benefits like short jail sentences (no longer than eight years), and in some cases to avoid extradition to the United States on drug charges.

Since August, 211 bodies have been found in Guamuez Valley, in La Hormiga, alone.

But the nationwide total is 800, Attorney-General’s Office spokesman Rodrigo Barrera told IPS. “We have received information, which must be verified by technical experts, that indicates that there may be 3,000 bodies” in Putumayo, he added.

Unverified press reports indicate that the bodies include victims of the leftist guerrilla groups, which emerged in 1964.

So far, the estimates of the number of victims in Putumayo have turned out to be conservative. Until a month and a half ago, it was estimated that 300 people had been killed in massacres (collective killings), and that around 1,000 had been forcibly disappeared.

Only 25 of the 211 bodies have been tentatively identified, based on elements like their clothing and gender.

The graves were pointed out by family members or other local residents who have known for years where their loved ones or neighbours were buried, “but did not dare to speak up, out of fear,” said Barrera.

Nationwide, 12 bodies have been fully identified and turned over to their families so far, all of them in the northwestern province of Sucre.

Inspector-General Maya, whose office is a sort of internal affairs department for the government, in charge of oversight of public employees and of helping to ensure respect for human rights, made a plea Monday to the United Nations to share the experience in identifying bodies that it has gained in wars and natural disasters around the world.

“The truth about paramilitary violence is gushing forth,” said Eduardo Pizarro, president of the National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation (CNRR), when presenting the commission’s proposal on how judges should award reparations to victims in trials against demobilised paramilitaries.

The CNRR was created by the Justice and Peace Law that governed the paramilitary demobilisation, and which was strengthened by a Constitutional Court ruling.

Some 50,000 victims and survivors have registered under the law, to demand information from the members of the paramilitary militias who are being tried.

Both Pizarro and the government attribute the emergence of information on the secret graves to the Justice and Peace Law.

Civilians account for a large proportion of the casualties in Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict between the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) on one hand and government forces and paramilitary militias – which say they are backing the security forces – on the other.

“Everything that is being ‘discovered’ in Putumayo today was reported and denounced at the time by human rights groups and social movements. In other words, it could have been prevented,” Jorge Rojas, of the non-governmental Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), told IPS.

“The arrival of the paramilitaries from Córdoba and Urabá (banana-producing regions in the north), the procedures that were used to disappear, torture and kill many people, and the huge wave of displacement of people that was triggered – public opinion and judicial bodies knew about all of these things, and nothing was done when they were happening,” said Rojas.

“So let’s not say now that it is thanks to the Justice and Peace Law that all of this is coming to light, because these things were already known about, as a result of the action of civil society,” he argued.

Carlos Rodríguez Mejía, associate director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a human rights group, and a member of the National Commission for the Search for Disappeared Persons, said he was concerned about the lack of rigour in the exhumation process. “Evidence is being damaged,” he told IPS. “Unburying ‘NN’s’ (‘no names’ or unidentified bodies) is a failure for the judicial system.”

Before digging even begins, he said, there must be some idea of what is being searched for. “You have to interview the families, know whether you’re looking for a man or a woman, how tall the person was, what ethnic group they belonged to, whether they had some physical identifying feature like a broken bone, whether dental records are available, what they were wearing the last time they were seen, etc.,” in order to compare all of that information with the remains that are found, said Rodríguez Mejía.

“The most important thing is not merely to find and collect the remains, but to return them, fully identified, to their families, to enable them to go through a proper grieving process. They aren’t thinking about the victims now, but are just trying to show that the grave were found,” said the legal expert.

Rodríguez Mejía said the process is not complying with U.N. protocols or the National Plan for the Search for Disappeared Persons, “which is a mandate that must be fulfilled by all authorities, including the Attorney-General’s Office.”

On Monday, the CNRR presented its recommendations on the criteria that judges should follow with respect to reparations for victims and survivors of the civil war, in the trials against demobilised paramilitaries.

“The reparations are going to involve what the victimisers hand over in ‘good faith’ and of their own free will,” Camilo González, director of the Institute for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ), told IPS. But “that will not be enough to compensate even two percent of the victims,” he maintained.

Colombia’s development plan for the period up to 2010, which was approved by Congress Friday, does not include “one single line or one single peso for the National Reparations Fund,” he pointed out.

Under the plan, the victims will have to wait 15 years, until the legal proceedings come to an end and the amounts to be paid by the paramilitaries are fixed.

“That would imply neglecting the rights of the victims. The state, in the meantime, does not assume any responsibility,” added González.

The reparations that would be needed for the roughly 3.5 million people affected by the civil war between 1964 and 2004 were estimated at more than 22 billion dollars in a study released in February by INDEPAZ. Of that total, around 6.5 billion dollars would go to the survivors and victims of the most appalling crimes, committed by the paramilitary militias from 1994 to 2004.

The study recommends that the government open a reparations fund and develop a programme to administer the process.

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