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Unearthing Secrets of Colombia's Long War
Forensic Teams Track Victims 'Disappeared' by Death Squads

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.

Veloza said he did not flinch when it came to hiding the bodies. "We cut people's heads off, we dismembered," he said. "We had to spread terror."

Here in Anori, the exhumation team's arrival in July aboard two Vietnam-era Huey helicopters was an occasion for celebration -- a gaggle of rambunctious children met the seven-man team, which disembarked with shovels, plastic bags, hammers, chisels, measuring tape and cameras. Townspeople may never have reported who had been killed, but they knew where the bodies were buried -- and promptly told Hernández, the lead investigator.

The first set of remains, belonging to Alonso de Jesús Echavarría, 19, was pulled from a crypt where frightened relatives had placed the body after picking it up on a lonely country lane.

Two members of the exhumation team placed the remains on a white plastic bag -- connecting the femur to the tibia, the 26 bones of his hand, his 12 pairs of ribs.

"It was easy to put him together," said Saul Diaz, a forensic anthropologist who says he has dug up 2,300 bodies in a 14-year career, here and in Kosovo.

"The strange thing was that we did not find the skull," Diaz said during a break from the digging. "But we talked to the family, and they told us the body had been mutilated."

Echavarría's father, Orlando Jesús Echavarría, listened in silence as Diaz spoke, and then he recounted how he had discovered the body but never alerted authorities.

"You could not say anything, nothing," he said. "You were terrified. You were very afraid."

The skeleton of another victim, Francisco Luis Muñoz, was then dug up. Helmut Bermúdez, a member of the exhumation team, grabbed the skull and bounced it lightly on one hand as he examined a tiny bullet hole while brushing off dirt.

"Only a medical examiner can say if it was the cause of death," Bermúdez said. "But we can determine it was a bullet wound, and that there's an entry wound and an exit wound."

Muñoz's mother, Lidia Rosa Carmona, watched without expression as the bones were neatly laid out, a yellow plastic placard marked No. 2 placed next to the skull. She said she knew nothing about why her son had died.

"What happened is they killed him," she said. "It is that simple. They killed with one shot, and that was that."

The exhumations here provide a snapshot of what is happening across Colombia as prosecutors and detectives take on the daunting task of investigating thousands of crimes, from killings to land seizures.

Patricia Hernández, a prosecutor in Medellin, heads a special team attempting to untangle the crimes of Ramiro "Cuco" Vanoy, an illiterate rancher who built a 3,000-man fighting force that was among the most feared in the paramilitary structure.

That means sending investigators, prosecutors and anthropologists into isolated corners of Antioquia state to interview witnesses and the relatives of those who disappeared.

"We have many complaints of disappeared people, and we are always getting more," Hernández said, adding that people who take long mule trips into towns to talk to her investigators expect results. "We can't just tell them, 'Ride for 14 hours and file a complaint,' " she said.

Increasingly, peasant farmers who until recently thought they had no recourse say they are hopeful that justice will be delivered. That was how Ruth Barragán, 33, said she felt as she watched the exhumation team dig up bodies.

"It is what we people want," she said.

But after two days of digging, the team was unable to find the body of Baltazar Barragán, her father, who was killed in 2001. This region is isolated -- and dangerous, with security provided by heavily armed policemen -- and before long a military helicopter had arrived to ferry the investigators out.

"Evidence is lost, undoubtedly, because of the lack of time and circumstances," said Diaz, the forensic anthropologist. "Many bodies will never be recovered."

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