Some 50,000 Colombians have gone missing over the past decades. In a series on the tragedy that has destroyed many families, Colombia Reports focuses first on a group of mothers demanding to know what happened to their loved ones.
Every Friday afternoon at 2PM in front of the Church of Our Lady of La Candelaria in downtown Medellin, a strong, low litany of voices can be heard: “We want them alive, free and in peace. We want them alive, free and in peace.” The refrain is repeated over and over again by women holding large banners full of faces, names and dates. The dates correspond to the time the person was last seen, some as long as 20 years ago.
The voices belong to the Asociacion Caminos de Esperanza Madres de la Candelaria (Association for the Paths of Hope Mothers of the Candelaria), an organization of women who have had family members “disappeared” as a result of Colombia’s armed conflict. The organization, which was started in 1999 as a response to the number of forced disappearances, kidnappings and murders in Colombia, gathers each Friday to hold a vigil in front of the church. Las Madres seek to increase the visibility of the problem of the disappeared in Colombia, as well as to find out the truth about what happened to their family members, and support others going through the ordeal. The organization won the National Peace Prize in 2006.
Teresita Gaviria co-founded Las Madres in 1999 after her 15-year-old son disappeared on the road between Medellin and Bogota in 1998. He was traveling by car with two other people when the driver stopped to get breakfast. Gaviria’s son and his friend continued walking on the road, and have not been seen since. Her son is the fourth person her family has lost, after her father was killed by paramilitaries and a brother and nephew also disappeared.
“For me, when one loses a family member, one cries … but the pain passes,” Gaviria said. “But a child, let me tell you that the pain never goes away. That was the hardest.”
Based on the area in which they disappeared, Gaviria believes her son and his friend were taken by paramilitaries from the Magdalena Medio Bloc. In that period of time, many young people traveling on the road between Medellin and Bogota were disappeared, most without leaving a trace.
“The armed conflict is like an avalanche, like the rains of Colombia,” Gaviria said. “They come and they take everything they find in their way and nothing is left behind. Those of us that remain remain to tell the story.”
Demobilized members of the paramilitary, like former Magdalena Medio commander Ramon Isaza, have given some clues to what happened to young people taken from the area, but Gaviria will likely never know for sure exactly what happened to her son.
“[Isaza] said that they dismembered and threw in the Magdalena River all of the young people that passed by,” Gaviria said. “This was horrible for me. I cannot even mention it.”
Las Madres seeks to unite people who have had similar experiences of losing family members, and empower them to report disappearances to the authorities. The organization currently has 696 people who are looking for 946 disappeared family members. Gaviria said that eight or ten years ago people were afraid to report forced disappearances to Prosecutor General’s Offices because the officials themselves were corrupt.
“They couldn’t put in a complaint at the Prosecutor General’s Office because these were the kind of people who had disappeared their family members,” Gaviria said.
Now, Las Madres encourages people to report the disappearances of their family members, and accompanies them through the process. Gaviria has a close relationship with the prosecutors headquartered in Medellin who are in charge of locating disappeared people.
Alonso Alvear is a prosecutor with the unit that heads the search for missing people in the regions of Antioquia, Uraba, Caldas, Risaralda, Quindio, and Choco. The unit is made up of three prosecutors and three investigators that are responsible for exhumations and identification of bodies. Alvear said the unit collaborates with police, municipal ombudsmen, non-governmental organizations, Las Madres, and other offices and organizations in their search for missing people.
Estimates of the number of disappeared in Colombia range from 30,000 to as high as 50,000, as reported by the National Ombudsman’s Search Committee. But because so many different entities receive reports of missing people, it is impossible to know an exact figure of the disappeared.
“We have not been able to consolidate this information and unify it in a database,” Alvear said. “We have a high number of people missing in Antioquia, but we do not have a number, a consolidated, concrete statistic of the amount of people disappeared.”
Alvear also said it is impossible to have an exact figure because there are disappearances reported that are not forced. Because of the high amount of migration in the area in which his unit works, sometimes people leave without telling their families and the family believes their relative to have been disappeared.
“The family comes, and because of the violence and the disappearances, people think of course if their family member doesn’t appear … they report it,” Alvear said. He added that many of these people will reappear three or four years later, but no one in the family will report the reappearance to the prosecutor’s office, so it remains on file as a disappearance.
Alvear and others in the search unit have the difficult task of exhuming graves and then attempting to identify the body and find the person’s family. Those reporting disappearances must provide as many details as possible to aid in the identification of the bodies. The unit can be led to a grave by information from families who have an idea where their family members might have disappeared and been buried, as well as confessions of demobilized paramilitaries who give information about crimes they committed.
The priority, said investigator Jorge Alberto Diaz, is to exhume the body. In order to go out on an exhumation mission, the team must have information on the site of a grave.
“To do an exhumation, we obviously have to have the most exact location possible,” Diaz said.
Upon receiving a request for an exhumation, the unit will locate the area, assess the available access to the location, assess the security situation, and locate the family to establish what exactly happened. They interview the family and take blood samples so they will be able to ensure that the body belongs to that family’s disappeared relative.
The search unit is presented with many challenges in their attempts to exhume and identify missing people. They are often sent to areas that have questionable security situations and are dangerous for both the exhumation team and families who are trying to locate their disappeared relatives.
“It is not an easy job because we are carrying out exhumation proceedings in zones where groups that haven’t demobilized are still prevalent, and where there is still common crime,” Alvear said.
The prosecutor said that in June of this year, he was returning from an exhumation accompanied by a full security detail when they realized they were being followed. One policeman was killed and another in the convoy was injured by a hand grenade. Families who report disappeared family members can also be threatened, making it impossible for both them and the search unit to get near enough to a grave to exhume and identify the body.
When they are able to exhume a body, Diaz said it can also be difficult to identify it because the clothes a person was wearing when they disappeared are often the most recognizable feature, but can be changed or removed altogether. He said it is common for paramilitaries to burry people naked, leaving no clothing or personal affects to aid in identification of the body. People generally report what their relative was wearing when they disappeared, but usually this information is not enough. The prosecutors also take down age, sex, racial background and stature to help them make a positive identification. The National Prosecutor’s Office also puts out a magazine full of pictures of clothing, jewelry and other personal items that have been found in exhumations in hopes that a family member will recognize an item and be able to identify the body.
Another large challenge faced by the search unit is how quickly the land changes. Under the law of Justice and Peace, paramilitaries are given reduced sentences if they cooperate with authorities and provide details about crimes they committed. These confessions can include information about the date and location of disappearances and murders, and can help authorities locate graves. The problem, however, said Alvear, is that the confessors often give grave locations relative to natural landmarks that may or may not still be there.
“The grave is located at this site on this farm, turn, there’s a mango tree, beside the mango tree is the grave,” Alvear said. “This is the reference they have from the time when they committed the crime.”
He said that the land, often thick forests or farms that have become overgrown, is constantly changing, making it at times impossible to locate a grave, even if the confessor believes their explanation of its location to be exact.
The ultimate goal for the prosecutors to be able to locate, exhume, and match bodies to reports of those disappeared. Ivan Cepeda, national representative from Bogota and spokesman for Movimiento de Victimas de Cimines de Estado (Movement of Victims of Crimes by the State-MOVICE), said he hopes to reinforce these practices as well as reparation for victims with the passage of the Victims Law. The law seeks to protect and provide reparations for victims of crimes perpetrated by illegal groups as well as the state in Colombia, and is currently being debated in Congress.
“Forced disappearance was a crime that was denied in Colombia for many years, when in the 80s and 90s thousands of forced disappearances were carried out. The reality of this crime was denied.” Cepeda said. “Afterwards, because of the fight of organizations of family members of the disappeared, they succeeding in making the crime a criminal offense and now there are laws and standards.”
Cepeda said forced disappearance has long been used in Colombia to silence political opposition, social movements, and defenders of human rights, but has also been used arbitrarily. Armed groups also use it as a scare tactic to take over land and force displacement. Perpetrators of forced disappearance can be paramilitaries, the state, or guerrillas.
“It has been a strategy primarily used by the Colombian state and also by the paramilitaries, but more recently the international convention to protect people from forced disappearance says that groups without the backing of the state can commit disappearances,” Cepeda said. “This means the guerrilla can also be accused of this crime.”
The congressman said that very frequently state agents actively participate in forced disappearances for political reasons. People are arbitrarily arrested, disappeared, sometimes tortured, and then killed. The state then denies ever having arrested the person. Many of these people are then found in mass graves, Cepeda said.
The congressman added that the Victims Law seeks to dedicate more resources to finding and identifying these bodies, and returning them to their family. The government also has a program to match fingerprints of the unidentified bodies with those in the national registry in the hopes of a positive identification, but he said the entities in charge of this process could be further reinforced by the law.
Despite the actions taken by the search units to exhume and identify bodies, for many whose family members have been missing for years the possibility of locating and positively identifying a body is a distant dream.
Maria Eugenia Cobaleda Roldan, another cofounder of Las Madres, had two brothers who disappeared from the municipality of Dabeiba, Antioquia in 1998. She has no idea what happened to them.
“Some say that they threw them in the river, other say they’re buried, but neither the Prosecutor’s Office nor the ombudsman nor the municipality of Dabeiba knows anything of them,” Cobaleda said. “It has been twelve years of a long struggle. The only thing I hope is that someday they tell us where they are.”
Her brothers, Oscar Alberto and Jairo de Jesus, were both lawyers, and Jairo de Jesus was an ombudsman. She said on the evening they disappeared, the two brothers were traveling from Dabeiba to Medellin and the family began to worry when they did not arrive by 11PM.
“At this point, a person doesn’t think that forced disappearance has hit them, just that they were in an accident or their car broke down,” Cobaleda said.
When the brothers did not appear, that night or in the following days, the family searched the surrounding towns and reported the disappearance, but all was in vain. There was no trace whatsoever of the brothers until five years later, when their car was found. It had been painted a different color, but still had the same license plates.
Paramilitary Luis Arnulfo Tuberquia, alias “Memin,” was sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison for kidnapping the brothers and Cobaleda said he is considered to be the intellectual author of the disappearance, but has not officially confessed. According to Verdad Abierta, Memin demobilized in 2005 but was disqualified for participation in Justice and Peace after he returned to criminal behavior. He was caught again by police in 2008, but Cobaleda’s family still has no indication of where the brothers’ bodies could be.
After the disappearances, Coableda’s mother suffered serious health problems, and died in 2005. Cobaleda said she believes the disappearances effectively killed her mother.
Cobaleda’s activism on behalf of victims of disappearances has endangered her own life. She says she once received a threatening phone call saying she was going to be killed if she continued her work with Las Madres. The caller said that the fact that Memin had been recaptured didn’t mean that she was safe. Cobaleda has not received any more threats, however, and she said victims must continue to speak out against disappearances.
“If we all unite in one voice, we are capable of [a movement of] solidarity with all the people of forced disappearance,” Cobaleda said.
She works with Las Madres to strengthen the voice of opposition to forced disappearances, and to help victims understand they are not alone. In addition to helping victims report disappearances of their family members, Las Madres also works to help victims get compensation from the state. Cobaleda said that because many of the disappeared are men, mothers and grandmothers are left to support children and grandchildren with little resources. She acknowledges that reparations will not return children to their mothers, but can help them support themselves.
“It is a symbolic reparation because the value of a child doesn’t have a price,” Cobaleda said.
This reparation is also a part of the Victims Law that Cepeda believes should be strengthened, and Gaviria, the other co-founder of Las Madres, too said families who have had members forcibly disappeared have the right to compensation. The fight for this need to be recognized by the state as victims is an essential part of Las Madres’ work, in addition to all the other services they provide for victims of forced disappearance.
“I am searching for my truth, and they are also looking for their truth,” Gaviria said, “that they tell us what happened to every one of the people that disappeared.”