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Searching For The 'Disappeared' In Colombia

A mass grave is excavated last month in Las Canas, Colombia. The remains were buried 20 years ago and were located during the confession of former paramilitary leader Ever Veloza.
Raul Arboleda
AFP/Getty Images
A mass grave is excavated last month in Las Canas, Colombia. The remains were buried 20 years ago and were located during the confession of former paramilitary leader Ever Veloza.

Colombia has been in the news lately for the success its U.S.-backed army has had against Marxist guerrillas. But there is an overlooked story in Colombia's conflict — the story of how death squads killed thousands of people over many years and then buried the bodies in unmarked graves. They are the "disappeared."

Teams of forensics anthropologists are now using shovels and pick axes to find them — and unearthing a dark chapter in a shadowy war.

Wilton Hernandez leads a government exhumation team of detectives, forensics experts and topographers that descended on a hamlet in Anori, northwest Colombia, recently.


"Many people until now have not even reported the disappearance of loved ones," Hernandez says. "They remain alive in the census."

Bringing Justice To Families

Colombia's war continues, but special investigations have been launched to unearth the past and bring justice to thousands of families who lost relatives.

Under a three-year-old process aimed at dismantling the right-wing paramilitary structure, fighters have put down their weapons and are trying to rejoin civilian life. Former commanders are testifying about paramilitary activities — how they killed civilians to weaken their enemies, Marxist rebels.

Investigators are using that information and interviewing the relatives of the dead to find victims' remains.


Mario Iguaran, the chief prosecutor in Colombia, says that evidence shows that there are more than 10,000 people buried in unmarked graves across Colombia, "disappeared," he says.

The number is astonishing — three times what human rights groups estimated three years ago when the digging first began. That is more than the number of disappeared in Chile, Peru and El Salvador, where the tactic of disappearing adversaries was ingrained in state policy.

Finding The 'Disappeared'

The town of Anori is so isolated it would take a couple of days to travel by mule to reach it. Instead, the exhumation team travels by helicopter, arriving in two Vietnam-era Hueys.

Upon landing, the lead investigator, Hernandez, uses a loudspeaker to tell villagers his team of forensics experts is about to head to the cemetery to start looking for victims. In minutes, half the town is following them to the dig.

Many paramilitary victims were hurriedly buried by relatives — their deaths never reported.

Two members of a team hammered away at a cement crypt. They pull out the remains of a body, the clothes still hanging off the bones. After tagging the bones, they bag the remains.

The remains will be taken back to the regional capital of Medellin to be registered and positively identified. That gives prosecutors hard evidence to be used against perpetrators. The bodies are eventually turned over to relatives for burial.

Paramilitary fighters beheaded Orlando Echevarria's 19-year-old son Alonso, but Echevarria never reported the crime. He was afraid paramilitaries would return and harm others in his family.

"I feel better now," Echevarria says. "I feel so much better than when I buried him. Now I'm happy."

Finally making his death official was a big relief. For the exhumation team, it was another victory — another body to add to the 1,500 already unearthed since 2005.

But the challenges ahead are daunting.

Hernandez says that many remains are in unmarked graves or were thrown into rivers, never to be found again — no matter how much and other investigators try.

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