Colombia’s cemeteries could contain answers for families of the disappeared

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When her 17-year-old son, Jose Andres, was kidnapped by paramilitaries at the height of the Colombian Civil War, Gloria Ines Urueña vowed not to leave the sultry riverside town of La Dorada until she found him.

She has kept her word for more than two decades – despite threats from the group that killed him, she’s looking for her son’s body. An estimated 120,000 people were missing during the nearly 60-year conflict in Colombia. A 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Marxist FARC rebels allowed some respite, but another left-wing uprising and armed criminal gangs – many of them descended from right-wing paramilitaries – persist.

Now, a national plan to identify victims anonymously buried in cemeteries has renewed the hope of Urueña and thousands like her of finding the remains of loved ones. The Search Unit for Disappeared People, established under the 2016 agreement to fulfill one of its key promises, investigates cemeteries across Colombia in hopes of unraveling years of chaotic records and neglect, identifying remains, and sending them to families return.

“Back then, I spent a month looking near the river, near the dump, farms and all that, and I was alone,” Urueña said when a forensic team examined human remains in the La Dorada cemetery . “I’ve always said that I don’t just want to find my son, I want to find everyone who has disappeared.”

Many of those who disappeared in Colombia were killed by left-wing rebels, right-wing paramilitaries or the military. Others have been kidnapped, forcibly recruited or voluntarily joined armed groups. Most are likely dead, buried in secret tombs high in the windswept Andes or deep in the thick jungle, submerged in rivers or canyons.

But some ended up in cemeteries. Found on the roadside or pulled out of waterways, the remains were anonymously buried by locals who risked the wrath of armed groups. Their graves were marked with NN for “no name”. The strategy may be unique: the recovery of potentially tens of thousands of bodies from cemeteries has probably never been attempted before, especially during an ongoing conflict.

Some remains were moved or mixed up, exhumed multiple times during identification, or kept in garbage bags in storage rooms. Some remains were assigned multiple case numbers, while others were buried in cemeteries but were never autopsied and therefore have no case number at all.

Other remains have case numbers but cannot be located. “It’s not just about recovering bodies, it’s also about information,” said the unit’s head, Luz Marina Monzon. “It’s a puzzle.”

ASSEMBLY The unit has no estimates of how many disappeared people might be in Colombia’s cemeteries. Many cemeteries do not have consistent resource management or are operated by religious organizations with their own records and rules.

DNA from nearly 5,200 unidentified corpses, along with nearly 44,400 samples from families of the disappeared, is stored in a database of the Government’s National Forensic Institute for the purpose of comparing genetic material with newly discovered remains. The institute also has its own database of missing person reports. So far, the unit has uncovered around 15,000 reports of missing people who were not previously on it.

Threats to families and former combatants who provide information to the unit can hinder its work, Monzon said. “The persistence of the armed conflict is a major challenge in terms of accessing information, accessing locations and ensuring victims’ participation in the search,” said Monzon.

This level of cemetery exhumations is unusual, mainly because many people who disappeared in countries like Argentina, Chile, Bosnia, Guatemala and Kosovo were buried in secret graves. In some places, scattered cemetery exhumations were carried out. But Colombia’s efforts could bring special lessons for Mexico that must be read before https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-missing/in-their-own-blood-mexican-women-demand-help-for- victims stands -of-violence-idUSKBN2AG07M perhaps the most active crisis of disappearance in the world and where strangers are sometimes buried in cemeteries but rarely exhumed.

“Mexico needs to start investigating what Colombians are doing,” said Dr. Arely Cruz-Santiago from Exeter University, who researches citizen forensics in Mexico and Colombia. “Mainly because, in terms of the extent of the conflict, they are more or less very similar countries.” BONES IN POCKETS

Beads of sweat bloomed on the temples of forensic anthropologist Carlos Ariza as he held a skull in one hand and used his finger to indicate the likely trajectory of the bullet. This skull belonged to a man around 40 years old. Later, during an examination in a stuffy tent in the La Dorada cemetery, Ariza discovered a second bullet hole in the skull, hidden under encrusted mud.

“NN March 17, 2003” read the label on the plastic garbage bag that had kept the remains in a dark storage room. Over the course of a few days, forensic staff opened the bags and carefully removed any bones, fragments of fabric, or tufts of hair. They packed 27 remains for DNA testing in a regional laboratory.

La Dorada is located at the southernmost point of the Magdalena Medio region east of Medellín, once a hotbed of violence, where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, disappeared, raped and displaced. Paramilitary groups were frequent perpetrators. They demobilized between 2003 and 2006 under a peace agreement, although many members later formed criminal gangs.

FOR HOW MUCH LONGER? About a month after Urueña’s son was kidnapped in 2001, two men showed up on a motorcycle at her home in La Dorada and told her to stop looking.

“‘He was my son and I won’t leave this house until I know what happened to him. And if your boss wants to kill me, that’s my answer,'” she said. “I told him, ‘do it now if you want, and you will end my suffering.'” Jose brought flowers to his mother on the way home. When his sister became pregnant as a teenager, he helped support the baby.

“If he were here it would be different, both for the family and for me, because the family was falling apart,” said Urueña. Her older son fled the city in the face of paramilitary threats and did not return for 11 years. Her older daughter went to find work and left Urueña to raise her grandchildren.

Her granddaughter, now 18, has promised Urueña that she will continue the search for Jose even after Urueña’s death. “We ask how long we have to wait,” said Urueña. “Even as the years go by, I am still full of hope.”

“And even though you don’t want to cry, the tears come.”

(This story was not edited by Devdiscourse staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)


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