Colombia’s war crimes tribunal is set to pursue a case relating to forced disappearances at the site of the country’s largest hydroelectric dam project run by Medellin’s utilities company EPM.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), is demanding that EPM, the Socya Foundation and Antioquia governor Luis Perez, deliver information about the possible whereabouts of suspected burial sites of victims of the armed conflict within two weeks.
?|| La #JEP le solicita al gobernador de Antioquia, a EPM y a la empresa SOCYA entregar información sobre búsqueda de personas desaparecidas en los municipios aledaños al proyecto Hidroituango.
▶️Ver comunicado: https://t.co/7HyYdIB5LX pic.twitter.com/o5sX9r2LKo
— Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (@JEP_Colombia) March 6, 2019
The JEP, which was set up as a key element of a peace deal with the now-demobilized FARC guerrillas, is seeking information about the location of the bodies amid suspicions that they are buried within the proximity of EPM’s mega hydroelectric project.
While the JEP does not have jurisdiction over third party involvement in the armed conflict, Colombia’s ordinary justice system is obligated to investigate, which could see EPM and members of the regional elite implicated.
In September of last year, the JEP began its investigations in 16 places in the country where bodies of possible victims of forced disappearance could be found, located in the provinces of Antioquia, Caldas, Cesar, Santander and Sucre.
The latest demand refers specifically to a search related to the disappearance of people from the troubled Comuna 13 neighborhood in the west of Medellin.
The disappearances in question occurred during the infamous heavy-handed 2002 Operation Orion during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, when security forces removed left-wing rebels from one of Medellin’s most densely populated areas.
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The JEP refers to several specific locations in the Antioquia province including Medellin, Taraza, Ituango, Valdivia, Caceres, Yarumal, Nechi, Peque, Briceño, San Andres de Cuerquia, Liborina, Sabanalarga, Toledo, Olaya, Buritica, Betulia and Puerto Berrio close to the vicinity of the EPM Hidroituango project.
In April 2018, after 159 bodies were exhumed in that area, the European Parliament asked the Prosecutor General’s Office and authorities in Antioquia to suspend water supply activities at the site, as it was suspected that there could be more bodies there.
The Parliament claimed that since 2012 they received complaints about “alleged violations of human rights against peasant communities and victims of the armed conflict,” which mostly occurred during the “construction of the hydroelectric dam.”
Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez rejected the criticism, claiming the European lawmakers were “left-wing radicals.”
Despite international pressure warning that continuing with the project “would mean the possibility that hundreds of relatives of victims of enforced disappearance would lose the opportunity to find their loved ones,” the reservoir was filled at the Ituango site accidentally in May last year when EPM lost control over the project due to alleged corruption.
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In response to the latest demand, the governor of Antioquia highlighted that the transitional justice court does not have the jurisdiction to call for a suspension of activities on the hydroelectric dam site, which has already suffered a series of high profile setbacks.
Meanwhile, the court is also turning its attention to the mayors of Nechi, Caceres, and San Onofre for not sending any response to the request for information made to them.
They could be the first to face legal penalties for non-compliance with the war crimes tribunal.
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The watering down of the powers of the JEP by Colombia’s Constitutional Court may present major limitations to holding those responsible for the disappearances accountable.
In November of last year, the court declared that politicians, civilians and other third party actors will participate “voluntarily” in a transitional justice system for war crimes committed during half a century of armed conflict.
The obligation of the ordinary justice system to pursue those suspected of wrongdoing could however open the door for investigations into officials in the EPM company and the leading politicians in the Antioquia province.
Over the course of more than 50 years of internal conflict between Colombia’s government and the FARC, more than 80,000 people were forcibly disappeared and are presumed dead.