Paramilitaries are commiting murders in Colombia and then dumping the bodies in Venezuela to impede the investigation, according to a report by investigative website Verdad Abierta.
The website estimates that since the year 2000 more than 200 people have been murdered in Colombia’s Norte de Santander department and surrounding areas before being dumped in the Venezuelan state of Tachira, making it difficult for Colombian authorities to recover the bodies or investigate the deaths. The victims include peasants, smugglers, social leaders, business owners and the mentally ill.
The practice continues today, even after the paramilitary groups have been formally disbanded, according to the report.
Fear of reprisal from the criminal groups, the lack of organization of Venezuelan authorities, and the political tensions between Colombia and Venezuela all contribute to making the recovery of bodies and the investigative process more difficult.
The township of Juan Frio, in Norte de Santander, is a major focal point for violence. Situated on the Colombian side of the border from Tachira, it was a major stronghold for the Frente Fronteras, an urban paramilitary group that formed part of the Catatumbo Bloc of the AUC paramilitary coalition. After the group’s official dissolution in 2004, a number of splinter groups emerged that have continued the violence in the region, including dumping bodies over the border.
Llano de Jorge is a small area in Tachira just across the Venezuelan border, where several sets of bones have been found in recent months. It is believed that there are at least five more dumping sites along the border between Norte de Santander in Colombia and the Venezuelan states of Zulia and Tachira.
Verdad Abierta reports that when the Venezuelan authorities find a body, they store it only for a few days before disposing of it in a mass grave. If they find a skeleton, it is sent to Caracas for analysis, but in both cases the identity of the body usually remains unknown. No photographs are taken and no record is made of personal effects prior to disposal.
There are problems on the Colombian side too. The Justice and Peace Commission has asked demobilized paramilitaries for information regarding the identity of the bodies, but they have refused to help and Accion Social, Colombia’s presidential aid agency, cannot investigate the deaths because they cannot operate outside of Colombia.
Even when the Venezuelan government issues a death certificate for a Colombian found across the border, it is not recognized by the Colombian government, making it impossible for the victim’s family to claim compensation from Accion Social or make any other filing.