Colombia Searches for its Dead

Luz María Sierra

One year since the country began to excavate common graves, chilling information has come to light: the “paras” (paramilitaries) gave courses on how to dismember a human body, the recently formed “Black Eagle” paramilitaries have been digging up graves and throwing the remains into the rivers and victims remain fearful.


Whose shoes are those? Who was she? Why was she killed? Is a tormented older woman with the memory of a lost daughter looking for her? These are the questions that spring to mind with this photograph taken in Facatativá, Cundinamarca in central Colombia by the Attorney General’s office (Fiscalía). They are only a few of the daily questions asked—during every waking hour—by those mourning for the 10,000–31,000 people who in the recent years of war have disappeared without a trace. (The first estimate is from the Fiscalía, while the latter is from the Colombian Commission of Jurists.)

With the first year of searching for common graves nearing a close this month, the fiscalía has received 3,710 claims of places believed to contain graves, but the majority of these sites have gone uninvestigated due to lack of resources: 533 bodies have been found, but the most dramatic aspect is that only 13 have been officially identified; that is, through DNA tests. Another 173 bodies have been preliminarily identified (by clothing, tattoos, etc.).

They Gave Quartering Classes

When we decided at El Tiempo to do a special report on the phenomenon of common graves a scene began to repeat itself in our newsroom: one by one, reporters coming back from the field, returned mortified.

Few discoveries have shaken us so deeply and few are as difficult to write about: from the scale of the horror, to the way they died, and by the insatiable pain of the families, as well as—perhaps most unsettling—realizing the magnitude of the work that remains to be done throughout the country. Will a significant number of the dead be unearthed and identified to alleviate their families? Will we be able to mourn, as we should, to prevent a third chapter of extreme violence from enrapturing Colombia?

Paramilitary testimonies and the results of forensic teams lead us to conclude that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary umbrella group, not only designed a method to quarter human beings, they also took the extra step of actually giving classes on the subject, using live people taken to their training camps.

Francisco Villalba, the paramilitary commander that directed the barbarism of the Aro massacre in the department (province) of Antioquia in which 15 people were tortured and butchered over five days, has revealed previously unknown details of those acts. “They were elderly people and were taken in trucks, alive, with their hands tied…. They were divvied up in groups of five … the instructions were to take off their arms, their heads … quartering them alive,” reads the testimony in his file.


A recent investigation into the Maripipán massacre yielded 57 dismembered bodies contained in the small white sacks.

The evidence collected from cadavers so far does not indicate the use of chainsaws. “Among other reasons, because it wasn’t practical. The chainsaws would get caught on people’s clothing, which is why they preferred to use machetes,” explains one of the prosecutors specializing in the exhumations. Seventy percent of those exhumed on the Caribbean coast were dismembered by machete and the majority of the 106 bodies found in the department of Putumayo—where paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño exported his killing machine from his headquarters in the departments of Urabá and Córdoba—had received a gunshot to the head and were subsequently torn apart at each prominent joint of their limbs.

Why dismember the bodies? A macabre pragmatism: to reduce the risk they ran at the hands of national and international judges they had to bury the bodies. And to avoid having to dig deeper graves, which would require expending more energy, it was easier to cut the bodies into pieces.

“At the middle of the torso (of the victim), you make a hole, a deep one. And you stick all the pieces into it. With four or five women, the job can be done in like ten minutes,” said one commander that led groups of paras in the southeast region of the country known as the “Llanos” (plains). It seems hiding victims has no anthropological explanation, just a practical solution.

Paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso confessed that to prevent authorities from finding the body of indigenous leader Kimi Pernía, they dug up his grave and threw his remains into the Sinú River. Informed sources allege that before beginning his demobilization negotiations with the government, Mancuso ordered land that was seeded with the dead on the Ralito estate to be dug up to hide his crimes. Now, investigators say the “Black Eagles,” which are a successor group of the paras, are going around the country digging up graves and throwing the remains into the rivers.

And the guerrillas? Their common graves have been found as well, especially in the department of Cundinamarca, but 98% of the denunciations and claims of graves being investigated by the Fiscalía are connected to the paras.

“Bogotá Could Give a Damn”

Disinterring the disappeared is a vital chapter if we are to embark on a process to heal this country’s wounds.

As Eduardo Pizarro, president of the National Reparations Commission, says: “They (the paramilitaries) are trying to erase our memory…. We have to unearth the dead, [because] the most important thing for the victim is to recover the body of their son.”

One of the biggest problems is that this issue does not seem to unsettle the nerves of country. “Every time it’s as if nothing happened: we keep finding common graves and it seems like this doesn’t cause the country any pain,” complains one of the prosecutors. María Victoria Uribe, an anthropologist who has spent nearly 50 years teaching the country about violence, notes: “Bogotá’s society could give a damn that 15 cadavers are discovered in Sucre.”

In the former Yugoslavia, for example, a DNA bank was created that led to the identification of 10,000 victims. Some positive steps have been made in Colombia: a search plan was approved, the Fiscalía’s investigative team was beefed up at the end of 2006—the number of specialized prosecutors went from one to three with an extra eight supporting prosecutors. But a central registry of disappeared has yet to be created, though it is required by law since 2000, and those exhuming bodies sometimes have to use the graves as trenches to protect themselves from attacks by armed groups.

Each of the victims’ personal histories are heart-wrenching. One lawyer has traveled for eight months along the shores of the Magdalena River looking for the remains of his brother, and then there’s the woman from Amalfi that lost her four children. She has even poked through truckloads of cadavers trying to find them. There are countless stories like these.

Discoveries: Compensation and Leniency

How many graves will be found? Authorities are tipped off about the location of common graves by informants who want the 500,000-peso reward (about $240) or by paramilitaries seeking to reduce their sentences by up to a quarter.


Among those found in Maripipán were the remains of two young girls, who make up part of a case against the Colombian government for collusion with paramilitaries at the Inter-American Human Rights Court.

Those trying to get money for locating the graves of the dead are in many cases obstacles, because they often pass on rumor and give information that ends up wasting the time of investigators. The claims filed by the paras are more credible. Indeed, these claims have climbed by 500% since the “Justice and Peace Law,” which regulates paramilitary demobilizations, was implemented. Nonetheless, since the leniency and benefits provided by the law are now in doubt, confessions have declined: in 2006 3,214 claims were made (about nine per day), while in 2007 the daily average has thus far fallen to five. And denunciations made by victims’ families are also declining due to fear: “Many [family members] don’t want to come with us,” says one investigator, “but at night they leave little sticks to guide us to the graves.”

What will the country do? As the first effort in Colombian history to learn the truth about an atrocious period, there would be no justification for the urban part of the country living in the twenty-first century to do nothing in preventing the destruction and barbarism of the countryside.


Luz María Sierra is an editor of the Bogotá daily newspaper El Tiempo. This article was published in the April 24th edition of El Tiempo and translated from the Spanish by Teo Ballvé. All photos are provided courtesy of Fotos, Fiscalía General.
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