Unearthing Secrets of Colombia's Long War

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

ANORI, Colombia -- A team of forensic anthropologists painstakingly dug up the bodies -- two from the town's decaying mausoleum, others from the moist earth in the cemetery, a couple from a field nearby. The preferred method of death: a single gunshot to the head. One young man had been beheaded, his skull now nowhere to be found.

Victims of Colombia's slow-burning but brutal civil war, they had been killed by right-wing death squads and left on roadsides and in ditches around this northern town. Their impoverished relatives, too fearful to report the slayings, hastily buried the bodies and never told authorities.

The scene had been repeated across Colombia for a generation, as illegal paramilitary gunmen, often working closely with army units, killed thousands of people in their war against leftist insurgencies and, in most cases, disposed of them in shallow, unmarked graves. With Colombia's economy booming and its government feted from Washington to Paris for its recent success against Marxist guerrillas, the disappearances of mostly peasant farmers, in a campaign that intensified in the 1990s, have been largely overlooked.

But government teams have been digging up the bodies and opening a window onto the calculated savagery that long marked this conflict. The remains of more than 1,500 people have been recovered, with DNA testing used to identify 400 of them.

Attorney General Mario Iguarán, whose office oversees the exhumations, said in an interview that authorities think more than 10,000 bodies might still be scattered across the country.

That number is three times as high as estimates made by human rights groups in 2005 after a forensics team unearthed dozens of bodies at El Palmar, a farm in San Onofre, northeastern Colombia, that paramilitary forces had used as a base. The discovery made it clear that a cornerstone of the paramilitary groups' policy had been to wipe away any trace of their crimes.

"They considered it important, and told their units, not to leave evidence of the people they had assassinated," said Wilton Hernández, the investigator who oversaw the exhumations in Anori. "Most of those who were disappeared are in graves or thrown in the river, especially the Cauca or Magdalena rivers, and it will never be possible, even with enormous effort, to find them."

Such vanishings are more closely associated with Central America or Argentina, where stridently anti-communist security forces tried to wash their hands clean of crimes by simply "disappearing" their adversaries in the 1970s and '80s.

In Colombia, a loosely organized coalition of paramilitary groups was better known for selectively assassinating adversaries or carrying out massacres of villagers before its militias completed a three-year disarmament in 2006.

But with people streaming into the offices of prosecutors to report disappearances, and exhumation teams at work in several states, it is becoming clear that the number of disappeared here has eclipsed the tallies in El Salvador, Chile and other countries where the practice was widespread. And if estimates by some investigators turn out to be correct, Colombia will soon count more disappeared victims than Argentina or Peru.

Ever Veloza, a top paramilitary commander being held in the Itagui prison outside Medellin, said in a recent jailhouse interview that army officers who collaborated with paramilitary units encouraged them to bury the dead or toss their bodies into the river. The victims included trade union members and leftist activists, he said, as well as peasants caught between warring sides.

"We would kill people and leave them in the street, and the security forces told us to disappear them in order to control the homicide rate," said Veloza, who is testifying in special judicial hearings designed to bring justice to thousands of victims.

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