- Title: Colombia's cemeteries may hold answers for families of disappeared
- Date: 24th August 2021
- Summary: LA DORADA, COLOMBIA (FILE - JULY 8, 2021) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF FORENSIC TEAM OF UBPD PROCESSING DATA
- Embargoed: 7th September 2021 23:06
- Keywords: Colombia La Dorada cemetery civil conflict disappeared people forensic team
- Location: LA DORADA, BOGOTA, COLOMBIA
- City: LA DORADA, BOGOTA, COLOMBIA
- Country: Colombia
- Topics: South America / Central America,Government/Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA003ERS1W07
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: When her 17-year-old son Jose Andres was kidnapped by paramilitaries at the height of Colombia's civil conflict, Gloria Ines Uruena vowed she would not leave the sweltering riverside town of La Dorada until she found him.
She has been true to her word for more than two decades - searching for her son's body despite threats from the group that killed him.
An estimated 120,000 people have gone missing during Colombia's nearly 60 years of conflict. A 2016 peace deal between the government and the Marxist FARC rebels brought some respite, but another left-wing insurgency and armed criminal gangs - many descended from right-wing paramilitaries - persist.
Now a national plan to identify victims buried anonymously in cemeteries has renewed the hope Uruena and thousands like her hold of finding their loved ones' remains.
The Search Unit for Disappeared People, founded under the 2016 deal to fulfil one of its key promises, is investigating cemeteries across Colombia, hoping to untangle years of chaotic record-keeping and neglect, identify remains, and return them to families.
"I've always said I don't just want to find my son: I want to find all of the disappeared," said Uruena, as a forensic team examined human remains at La Dorada's cemetery.
Many of Colombia's disappeared were killed by leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries or the military. Others were kidnapped, forcibly recruited, or willingly joined armed groups.
Most are likely dead, buried in clandestine graves high in the windswept Andes or deep in thick jungle, dumped in rivers or ravines.
But some ended up in graveyards. Found by the roadside or pulled from waterways, remains were buried anonymously by locals risking the wrath of armed groups, their graves marked with NN for 'no name'.
The strategy may be unique: the recovery of potentially tens of thousands of bodies from cemeteries has likely not been tried before, especially during an ongoing conflict.
Some remains have been moved or mixed together, exhumed multiple times during efforts to identify them, or saved in trash bags in storage rooms.
Some remains have been assigned multiple case numbers, while others were buried in cemeteries but never autopsied and so have no case number at all.
Other remains have case numbers, but cannot be located.
"It's not just a recovery of bodies, but also of information," said unit head Luz Marina Monzon.
The unit has no estimate of how many disappeared people may be in Colombia's cemeteries. Many graveyards have had no consistent management or resources, or are run by religious organizations with their own records and rules.
DNA from nearly 5,200 unidentified bodies is stored in a database at the government's National Institute of Legal Medicine, along with nearly 44,400 samples from families of the disappeared to cross-check genetic material with newly-discovered remains.
The institute also holds a separate database of reports of missing people. So far, the unit has uncovered some 15,000 reports of disappeared persons that were not previously in it.
Threats to families and ex-combatants providing information to the unit can stymie its work, Monzon said.
"The persistence of the armed conflict is a huge challenge to accessing information, to accessing locations and to guaranteeing the participation of victims in the search," Monzon said.
This scale of cemetery exhumations is unusual, largely because many people disappeared in countries like Argentina, Chile, Bosnia, Guatemala and Kosovo were buried in clandestine graves. Scattered graveyard exhumations have been conducted in some places.
Beads of sweat bloomed at the temples of forensic anthropologist Carlos Ariza as he cradled a cranium in one hand, using his finger to indicate the bullet's likely trajectory.
This skull belonged to a man, about 40. Later during the examination in a stifling tent in La Dorada's cemetery, Ariza discovered a second bullet hole in the cranium, hidden under caked mud.
"NN Mar. 17 2003," read the label on the plastic trash bag which had held the remains in a dark storage room.
Over a few days, forensic staff opened the bags, delicately removing each bone, fragment of fabric or tuft of hair. They packed 27 sets of remains off to a regional lab for DNA testing.
La Dorada lies in the southernmost point of the Magdalena Medio region east of Medellin, once a hotbed of violence where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, disappeared, raped, and displaced.
Paramilitary groups were frequent perpetrators. They demobilized between 2003 and 2006 under a peace deal, though many members later formed crime gangs.
About a month after Uruena's son was taken in 2001, two men showed up at her house in La Dorada on a motorcycle and told her to stop looking.
Her older son fled town in the face of paramilitary threats, not returning for 11 years. Her older daughter left to find work, leaving Urena to raise her grandchildren.
Her granddaughter, now 18, has promised Urena she will continue the search for Jose even after Uruena's death.
"We ask how much longer we have to wait," Uruena said. "Even though the years pass, I am still full of hope."
(Production: Camilo Cohecha, Javier Andres Rojas, Liamar Ramos)
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