LA DORADA, Colombia (Reuters) – When her 17-year-old son Jose Andres was kidnapped by paramilitaries at the height of Colombia’s civil conflict, Gloria Ines Urueña vowed she would not leave the suffocating town on the brink of the river of La Dorada until she finds it.
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 disappeared during Colombia’s nearly 60 years of conflict. A 2016 peace deal between the government and Marxist FARC rebels provided some respite, but another left-wing insurgency and armed criminal gangs – many of them from right-wing paramilitaries – persist.
Now, a nationwide plan to identify victims buried anonymously in cemeteries has renewed hope for Urueña and thousands like her to find the remains of their loved ones.
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The Missing Persons Tracing Unit, founded as part of the 2016 deal to keep one of its key promises, is investigating cemeteries across Colombia, hoping to unravel years of record keeping chaotic and neglectful, identify the remains and return them to families.
“At the time, I spent a month looking by the river, near the landfill, farms, all that, and I was on my own,” Urueña said, as a forensic team examined human remains in the cemetery of La Dorada.
“I’ve always said that I don’t just want to find my son: I want to find all the missing.”
Many missing Colombians have been killed by left-wing rebels, right-wing paramilitaries or the army. Others have been kidnapped, forcibly recruited, or have voluntarily joined armed groups.
Most are probably dead, buried in underground graves high in the windswept Andes or deep in thick jungle, dumped into rivers or ravines.
But some ended up in cemeteries. Found by the side of the road or pulled from streams, the remains were buried anonymously by residents, risking the wrath of armed groups, their graves marked NN for “no name”.
The strategy may be unique: the recovery of tens of thousands of potential bodies from cemeteries has probably never been attempted before, especially during an ongoing conflict.
Some remains have been moved or mixed up, exhumed repeatedly during identification efforts or kept in trash bags in storage rooms.
Some remains were given multiple case numbers, while others were buried in cemeteries but were never autopsied and therefore have no case numbers.
Other remains have case numbers, but cannot be located.
“It is not only a recovery of the body, but also of information”, declared the head of unit Luz Marina Monzon. “It’s a puzzle.”
The unit has no estimate of the number of people missing from Colombian cemeteries. Many cemeteries have not had consistent management or resources, or are run by religious organizations with their own records and rules.
The DNA of nearly 5,200 unidentified bodies is stored in a database at the government’s National Institute of Forensic Medicine, along with nearly 44,400 samples from the families of the missing to cross-check genetic material with the newly-found remains. discovered.
The institute also maintains a separate database of missing person reports. So far, the unit has uncovered some 15,000 missing person reports that were not previously listed.
Threats against families and ex-combatants providing information to the unit can hamper its work, Monzon said.
“The persistence of the armed conflict is a huge challenge in accessing information, accessing places and ensuring victims’ participation in research,” said Monzon.
This scale of cemetery exhumations is unusual, in large part because many missing people in countries like Argentina, Chile, Bosnia, Guatemala and Kosovo were buried in clandestine graves. Scattered exhumations in cemeteries have been carried out in some places.
But Colombia’s effort may contain special lessons for Mexico, which faces https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-missing/in-their-own-blood-mexican-women- demand-help-for-victims -of-violence-idUSKBN2AG07M perhaps the most active disappearance crisis in the world and where the unidentified are sometimes buried in cemeteries but rarely exhumed.
“Mexico needs to start looking at what Colombians are doing,” said Dr Arely Cruz-Santiago of the University of Exeter, who studies the forensic pathology of citizens in Mexico and Colombia. “Mainly because they are very similar countries in the sense of the greater or lesser extent of the conflict.”
Drops of sweat bloomed on the temples of forensic anthropologist Carlos Ariza as he held a skull in one hand, using his finger to indicate the likely trajectory of the bullet.
This skull belonged to a man of about 40 years old. Later, during the examination in a stuffy tent in the cemetery of La Dorada, Ariza discovered a second bullet hole in the skull, hidden under the agglomerated mud.
“NN March 17, 2003,” read the label on the plastic garbage bag that had held the remains in a dark storage room.
Within days, forensic staff opened the bags, gently removing every bone, piece of tissue, or tuft of hair. They packed 27 sets of leftovers at a regional lab for DNA testing.
La Dorada sits at the southern end of the Magdalena Medio region east of Medellin, once a hotbed of violence where hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered, missing, raped and displaced.
Paramilitary groups were frequent perpetrators. They demobilized between 2003 and 2006 as part of a peace accord, although many members subsequently formed criminal gangs.
About a month after Urueña’s son was kidnapped in 2001, two men came to her home in La Dorada on a motorcycle and told her to stop looking.
“’He was my son and I won’t leave this house until I find out what happened to him. And if your boss wants to kill me, that’s my answer,” she said. “I told him ‘do it now if you want and that way you will end my suffering too.'”
José used to bring flowers to his mother on the way home. When his sister got pregnant as a teenager, he helped support the baby.
“If he was here it would be different, both for the family and for me, because the family has fallen apart,” Urueña said.
Her eldest son fled the city in the face of paramilitary threats and did not return for 11 years. Her eldest daughter left to look for work, leaving Urueña to raise her grandchildren.
Her granddaughter, now 18, promised Urueña that she would continue the search for José even after Urueña died.
“We ask how long we have to wait,” said Urueña. “Even as the years go by, I am still hopeful.”
“And although you don’t want to cry, tears do come.”
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Nicolas Misculin in Buenos Aires, Gabriela Donoso in Santiago, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo, editing by Rosalba O’Brien)
Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.