When members of Colombia’s Crime Scene Investigators (CTI) removed a section of topsoil indicated to them by a demobilized paramilitary member as being the site of a mass grave, they were expecting to unearth skulls, bones and fragments of clothing. Instead what they came face to face with were multiple round holes of medium depths.
“What happened here? Did you bury them standing up?” asked one CTI officer.
Far from it. The bodies of the deceased had been hacked into pieces and placed in tall milk urns and doused in acid. Once the human contents had dissolved and become liquid, the urns were then disinterred and their contents poured into the nearby Magdalena River. No trace no foul and another reminder of how far Colombia has yet to go to reconcile an uncompromising and bloody past. In this particular case, the number of people to have been killed in this fashion near to the colonial town of Guaduas, barely 77 miles northwest from the capital city of Bogota, is based on hazy recollections gathered from former combatants in Colombia’s conflict looking to reduce their sentences through an admission of guilt in participation in such heinous events. Sadly, these tales are the norm rather than unique.
That was in 2010 and as the Colombian government’s negotiating team grapples with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC guerrillas) in on-going peace dialogues in Havana, Cuba in an attempt to bring stability to much of the country, there is still the issue of thousands of missing people, many forcibly disappeared, resulting from more than 50 years of conflict. So, exactly how many people have disappeared in Colombia’s long-running conflict and where have they been disposed of? While the answer to this question in unknown, human rights groups estimate there to be 4,649 common graves across the country.
Through tearful eyes Margarita Restrepo shares with reporters that not a day passes when she doesn’t think of her daughter Carol who disappeared in Medellin in October 2002. 13 years is a long time and Margarita is just one of a group of family members here on the location of a former landfill known as La Escombrera at the westernmost edge of the city and above the infamous Comuna 13 barrio. There has been a ceremony of remembrance and on Monday July 27 authorities began an excavation which will reportedly take five months, in the hope of finding and identifying as many as 100 bodies expected to have been buried here between 1999 and 2004 when paramilitary groups took control of this strategically located district.
There’s a discrepancy in numbers as victims’ groups such as Asfaddes Medellín, Movice, Familiares Colombia and las Madres de la Candelaria which all believe there to be as many as 45,000 forcibly disappeared people across Colombia in contrast to the government’s figures of 15,000. Families seeking the whereabouts of loved ones also consider la Escombrera to be of significance in that it could hold the answers to an estimated 300 missing individuals and therefore garland Medellin with the unwelcome fame of being home to the world’s largest urban mass grave.
“They will find some things, but not the quantities that they are suggesting,” said a criminologist knowledgeable in the city and who preferred to remain anonymous in an exclusive interview. “This search is a sophism to create a distraction as the Comuna 13 has become something of a myth,” he continued.
So what is the myth surrounding Medellin’s Comuna 13, a district once routinely believed to be amongst the worst in Colombia’s second city due to gang warfare and drugs? Perhaps the answer is precisely that it has gained its notoriety for being the principal Comuna—of Medellin’s 16 Comunas—which was targeted by former President Alvaro Uribe as the one which required military intervention to pacify it. Thus, the infamous Operation Orion in 2002 was carried out and it is known that the military sent in right wing paramilitary groups first and then followed them up with an all-out assault to wrest this district from the control of leftwing guerrillas such as the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN rebels).
Certainly, this scarred hillside which for so long was a dumping ground for construction materials, household waste and even chemicals, will hold its fair share of secrets, as after Operation Orion, Comuna 13 was run by a ruthlessly savage paramilitary group known as the Bloque Cacique Nutibara under the leadership of alias “Don Berna” or Diego Murillo who was later extradited to the US in 2008 for drug trafficking and money laundering.
The excavations are not without their challenges, requiring digs to 8m in depth and which will focus on three points based on testimonies. To begin with, teams will have to move 24,000m3 of rubble and earth with heavy machinery for a period of two months before even studying the debris.
“No one can really know what they will find and what the state of preservation of the remains will be unless they attempt to excavate and recover the remains. Paleontology and Archaeology teach us that human remains (in particular bones) can survive at great depths, for hundreds of thousands of years, and that sometimes even soft tissue and clothing survive, and DNA can also be extracted. I would like to reiterate that the preservation will depend on the type of soil and whatever was dumped on the remains,” said Dr Karina Gerdau Radonic, Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at the UK’s Bournemouth University.
This situation is hardly unique to Medellin. La Escombrera itself has been visited on no less than four occasions by experts from the Attorney General’s Office since 2004 and as yet nothing of use has been uncovered. Then there are the environmental and geographical elements to consider. Colombia is home to various mountain ranges, is tectonically unstable and at the mercy of landslides, floods and heavy rainfalls across much of the country. There’s the very real fear that many remains will have shifted position from their original burial sites or have been lost altogether.
But, it’s a start down the road which hopefully can lead to closure for families and perhaps reconciliation in Colombia. While members of the leftist FARC guerrillas, involved in the peace dialogues since November 2012, have expressed their solidarity with the victims of the paramilitary killings believed to be in la Escombrera, the rebel group will be forced to recognize those disappearances carried out by members of their own.
It’s a grim reality in today’s Colombia. Killings by illegal groups in the Pacific city of Buenaventura in so-called “casas de pique” or “chop houses”, where the dismemberments of opponents occur, continue as the struggle for control of this strategic port heightens. Body parts are then bagged up weighed down with rocks and tossed out to sea. Where will forensic investigators need to look next? Grave sites attributed to the rise in gangs born from the shells of former paramilitary outfits, have been found in neighboring Venezuela as well. Nowhere, it appears, is exempt from this scourge.
The Attorney General’s website warns that some contents of their pages could be sensitive and may not be apt for minors. Here one can conduct a search through a macabre database showing items of clothing retrieved from common graves and posted online in the hope that a family comes forward to identify the missing person last seen dressed in these items. Another page offers up facial reconstruction renders, there are 64 images from the southern coca-growing department of Putumayo alone.
So, will this excavation at La Escombrera encourage further investigations around Colombia or will it lead up a blind alley and discourage the authorities from pursuing further cases? It’s hard to say. And are demobilized guerrillas or paramilitaries providing the authorities with accurate locations or leading investigators on a ruse? Unsubstantiated rumors abound that a stretch of land near to Medellin known as the Curva de Rodas was another infamous place used by gangs as a disposal area. What is not covered by new-build apartment blocks is a delicately landscaped park. In Bogota, after the military stormed the Palacio de Justicia in November 1985 in response to the siege by M19 guerrillas; those killed in the attack were supposedly unceremoniously dumped in an unused lot near to the Central Cemetery and in a more humble district of the south known as Matatigres.
Unmarked graves, mass graves and common graves abound in Colombia. The puzzle is finding those who know their whereabouts and who they contain. This is clearly easier said than done.
As the Criminologist said: “These groups are organized, the idea is to leave no evidence and no witnesses.”
It is clear that La Escombrera is just a start as thousands of Colombian families yearn for closure in a process which could easily take decades.