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Home Facts Victims and Survivors Colombia Colombia Unearthing Plight of Its 'Disappeared'
Colombia Unearthing Plight of Its 'Disappeared' PDF Print E-mail
August 10, 2005
By JUAN FORERO
New York Times

SAN ONOFRE, Colombia - In one of the most horrific chapters of Colombia's long civil conflict, investigators are unearthing scores of bodies from secret graves dotting this humid cattle-grazing region near the Caribbean, the victims of right-wing paramilitary groups now benefiting from generous concessions for pledging to disarm.

With dozens of people coming forward in recent months to complain of missing relatives, government and military officials now estimate that hundreds of poor farmers may have been killed and secretly buried in a terror campaign that began in the late 1990's.

The paramilitary groups, they say, kidnapped and killed their victims to seize land and in some cases weed out supporters of the Marxist guerrillas who have been fighting the government since the 1960's.

For years, fear kept the crimes hidden. But with the arrival this year of a new military commander who has secured the region, families finally began speaking out, despite lingering dangers that cost the life of one whistleblower earlier this year.

So far, 72 bodies have been recovered from El Palmar, a vast farm outside San Onofre that was used as a local base by the paramilitary forces, whose militias control several coastal states.

From the dark, moist earth, the authorities have also uncovered bodies in several other villages and are working to locate graves in five other states, said Elba Beatriz Silva, coordinator of the attorney general's human rights office, which is overseeing a gradual process of exhumations that may expand even further.

"A lot of people here have disappeared - sons, fathers, mothers, brothers," said Iv?n Wilches, 22, whose brother disappeared. "Every day there were people killed. They would pull them out of houses, breaking down doors. They would all wind up dead."

The discoveries have highlighted a brutal but overlooked component of Colombia's war - the disappearances of more than 3,500 people in recent years - and raised fresh questions about whether there will ever be justice for the killings.

The authorities say they have arrested 11 paramilitary fighters from the area who face criminal charges. But the two suspected masterminds, according to local people and government authorities, are benefiting from a new Justice and Peace Law that offers them leniency in exchange for disarming.

The two commanders- Edward Cobos and his lieutenant, Rodrigo Mercado Pelufo, who ran the local 600-member militia - are ensconced in a government-run safe haven for 50 paramilitary commanders and could serve sentences as short as two years.

They and other militia members are not obliged to provide details of their crimes. If the authorities do press charges, the law gives them only 60 days to build cases, something that human rights groups say will be nearly impossible.

The government, which has tried and failed for years to negotiate an end to the conflict with the guerrillas, says the new law is needed to demobilize some 15,000 paramilitary fighters throughout the country who have taken up arms in recent years, adding to the violence.

The law has ignited fierce objections from those who fear that it will lead to a whitewash of some of the worst atrocities of a 41-year civil conflict in which 200,000 people have died. Until now, most notice was given to massacres and the assassination of politicians. But little attention has been paid to the what is known as the "disappearing" of people, something more commonly associated with other Latin American conflicts, from El Salvador to Brazil to Argentina in past decades, when it was used mostly by military governments wanting to silence adversaries and sow fear among civilians.

Since the 1990's, the tactic has been used with increasing frequency in Colombia, too. The Colombian Commission of Jurists says that 3,588 people vanished in this country from 1996 to 2004. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which visited Colombia in July, has investigated nearly 1,200 cases, including those in San Onofre.

Many of the killings here are attributed to a paramilitary unit calling itself the Heroes of the Mar?a Mountains, which the two commanders ran. The attorney general's office says that the group was engaged mostly in drug trafficking and corrupting local officials and that the killings helped it seize poor farmers' land and control cocaine trafficking corridors to the Caribbean.

Officials say the paramilitary groups also took aim at those they accused of aiding the rebels, the few who dared complain, small-time criminals and even their own fighters who fell out of favor.

"They were taken to that farm, where they were given an absurd sentence, not even a trial, since they were already condemned, and they were then killed in the most horrific of ways," said Ms. Silva, of the attorney general's human rights office.

Because the local authorities and rogue military officers were suspected of working with the militias, for years almost no one in the area said a word in protest, said families who have in recent weeks told the authorities about missing relatives.

"Everyone knew about this, but no one said anything, because if you did they'd come at 3 or 4 in the morning and take you away," said Lorenza C?rdenas, 60, the mother of Jos? Luis Olivo, who disappeared two years ago and is believed to be buried somewhere nearby. "Here, if you talked, you died."

The fear began to dissipate this year only after a hard-charging marine colonel, Rafael Col?n, was given command of the local marine base, residents said. Rooting out paramilitary forces as zealously as they did Marxist rebels, the marines instilled a sense of order.

That prompted one family, the Verbels, to gather others in town who knew about the graves to come forward. "Here, everyone knew about the graves, and we reported them," said Hermes Verbel, 43, one of eight brothers who organized the villagers. "Everyone knew how the paramilitaries took land, took people's cattle."

For their daring, the Verbel family paid a high price: the killing of one of the brothers, Guillermo, 52, in January. But by then the death only energized villagers. More came forward from neighborhoods like Alto Julio in San Onofre, where nearly every family in the ramshackle barrio can speak of a relative who has disappeared.

Iv?n Wilches's brother, Mauricio, 16, was snatched off the street a year ago. Fidencio Berrio, 67, recalled that his son, Andr?s, 42, went out to make a phone call in 2002 and never came back.

Maruja del Carmen Pestana lost two sons, and Hermenijirda Julio said her son, Jairo Luis Alta Miranda, was grabbed by gunmen from the local bullfighting ring in 2003.

"We don't know where our loved ones are," said Mariela Medina, whose father, Jos? Torres, 60, worked on El Palmar and disappeared in 1997. "We know they were taken, we know they are dead, but we don't know anything more."

For now, the authorities are searching for graves with the help of the families of the victims and informants like Feliciano Yepes, a former paramilitary commander now in prison. He has led investigators to one grave after another.

"There are approximately 500 people buried on that farm," Mr. Yepes said, according to a government deposition, "among them delinquents, farmers who did not collaborate and also paramilitaries."

Still the families of the missing continue to arrive and make their claims in the small local command post of the attorney general's office, providing clerks with details about the victims and identifying features. So far, only two bodies have been positively identified, though DNA samples have been taken from 46 villagers so they can be compared with those of the skeletal remains.

"We all want this so much," Ms. C?rdenas said. "A mother feels the pain, and all mothers wonder what happened to their son, where they are."

Just outside San Onofre, El Palmar ranch is now peaceful and still. Orlando Pascua, 33, one of the farmers working there, led visitors to the stables, where the militias have dug deep holes. The boot of one victim had been tossed to the side. Several hundred feet away, the militias had buried more people under a tree.

Mr. Pascua said that he and the other farmers were trying to forget what happened, but that it was not easy. "People say they did so much damage," he said. "When you were brought here, you didn't get out."

Jenny Carolina Gonz?lez contributed reporting from Bogot? for this article.
 

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