THE HUMANITARIAN CRISIS IN THE EASTERN PLAINS OF COLOMBIA
By Attorney Eunice Gibson
Secretary Colombia Support Network and former Madison City Attorney
A small-town weekly in the boondocks of Colombia’s Meta Province broke the story of the hundreds (or thousands) of unidentified bodies in La Macarena’s village cemetery. In its July 30-31, 2009 edition, the Llano 7 Dias (“Plains Weekly”) reported that the cemetery in La Macarena, which abuts a large Colombian Army base, contained at least 564 unidentified bodies and that the Army was bringing in more every day. It quoted the Mayor of La Macarena as estimating that there were already some 2,000 unidentified bodies buried in the cemetery, and complaining that the municipality was spending some 6 million pesos (about $3,300) every month for body bags and autopsies. He thought he would have to expand the cemetery because of the influx of bodies, mostly unidentified.
General Javier Flórez, in charge of the Army base, told the Plains Weekly that all of the bodies being delivered to the cemetery were “guerrillas killed in combat”. Years ago, that answer might not have aroused suspicion. Now, however, throughout Colombia, “guerrillas killed combat” might mean “false positives”. Soldiers would murder civilians, dress their bodies in camouflage and present them as “guerrillas killed in combat”.
Under Colombian Army policy in effect between 2005 and 2009, soldiers received rewards of promotion, money, or vacation each time they presented a “guerrilla killed in combat”. Therefore these murders have been referred to as “false positives”, and the Colombian Attorney General’s Office is investigating more than 2000 such cases.
The United Nations Special Envoy, Philip Alston, has reported “the cold-blooded and premeditated murder” of civilians by Colombian Army troops has been a “pattern” all over the country. United Nations Envoy Alston’s report is cited in the U.S. State Department’s 2009 report on Colombia’s Human Rights Practices, issued March 11, 2010. A few soldiers have already been found guilty of these murders and sent to prison, but the majority of cases are still being processed. New ones continue to appear.
In the current situation, when the Army reports dead bodies as “guerrillas killed in combat”, the citizens have to ask, “How many of these unidentified corpses are really ‘guerrillas killed in combat’ and how many are ‘false positives’?” This is especially true in a region like the Eastern Plains, where many residents have complained of forced “disappearances”, murders and other abuses by the military. A Colombian NGO, Colectivo Orlando Fals Borda, using Defense Ministry figures of 25,000 soldiers stationed in a region of 73,246 inhabitants, concludes that there is an average of one soldier for every three residents.
In December 2009 a visiting group of British journalists, labor leaders and lawyers visited the cemetery and met with representatives of the Colombian Army, municipal officials and community leaders. They were shocked by the testimonies of the local people, relating horrifying and brutal treatment of civilians by the Army. In January 2010, residents complained to El Nuevo Herald of Miami and a Spanish newspaper about their suspicions regarding the nameless bodies buried in the cemetery. The head of the Special Investigations unit of the Colombian Inspector General’s Office indicated that she believed there were some 2000 unidentified bodies and asked for international help to set up a forensic laboratory. At this writing, the cemetery is closed off with crime scene tape, but it is not clear that any investigation is taking place.
The Senate Hearing
In this situation, Colombian Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez Ríos sponsored a Senate resolution calling for a public hearing on “The Humanitarian Crisis of the Eastern Plains of Colombia”, to be held in the village of La Macarena where the cemetery and Army base are located. After the Colombian Senate passed the resolution, Senator Ramírez invited Senator Russ Feingold, elected officials from European countries, and representatives of NGO’s all over the world to attend the hearing on July 22, 2010. The writer attended the hearing as a representative of Madison-based Colombia Support Network.
La Macarena lies some l70 miles southeast of Bogotá, about 1 ½ hours by charter plane. There is a road, but it was blocked by a landslide. The hearing was a combination legislative hearing and political rally. Some 1500 citizens gathered in a large roofed hall cheered the international delegations as they arrived. The hall was decorated with signs identifying some of the NGO’s involved and with dozens of large photographs of the dead and disappeared. Many of the men and women wore large pictures of their dead and disappeared loved ones. A number of young women wore “Emotional Support” badges.
The master of ceremonies announced a precise agenda, beginning with the reading of the Senate’s resolution, setting forth the purpose of the hearing, and the singing of the national, state, and municipal anthems. Just as in U.S congressional hearings, testimony of witnesses was interspersed with political speeches, but here the audience was much larger and the applause was much louder, although always polite. There were no whistles or catcalls.
The first witness told of seeing an 8-year-old girl raped by paramilitaries. After she reported what she saw, she was threatened and her three adult daughters all disappeared. When she asked the police for help, they told her to go to the dump to find their bodies, but they were not there. She pleaded for help in finding them, for the sake of their children.
The second witness was an elderly man who needed assistance in telling his story. In January 2008, his son disappeared. He went to the Army base to inquire and was told “the guerrillas probably have him”. He found out that his son and several others had been working on the farm when they were taken away by the 10th Mobile Brigade. Neighbors said they had seen him and the others blindfolded in the school. A week after his inquiry, he received a letter stating that, as an unidentified guerrilla killed in combat, he had been buried in the cemetery. He would be allowed to reclaim his son’s body, but he would have to pay the expense, which he cannot afford.
The next witness read from a prepared statement. His wife was murdered on July 4, 2007. He had been working on the fields about an hour away from his farm and his wife was alone in their home. When he got home, the soldiers wouldn’t let him enter his house. They said his wife was gone and they would be looking for her because “everyone around here is a guerrilla”. He spent the night with neighbors but the next day he found his house wrecked, bullet holes and blood everywhere. A few days later he went to another town to tell her family. They called the general to ask about what happened and were told that she was killed in combat and her body was in the La Macarena cemetery. They asked for her body but were told they couldn’t have it because “she was a guerrilla.” An Army representative offered them 20 million pesos (about $11,000) “to forget about it”. He declined, but he was able to retrieve her body.
Another witness did not complain about murder, but about the theft of land. He started organizing a union of farmers in 1976. In 2002, 100 of his members were displaced by the Army, the police, and the paramilitaries working together, allegedly because “the farmers were collaborating with the guerrillas and had to leave their land.” After some 150 murders and 20 disappearances, “the region was pacified”. He demands return of the land.
The next witness sobbed throughout her testimony. An “emotional support” assistant held the microphone for her. Her son, aged 23, was a soldier. He was injured in the line of duty and was home on leave after getting out of the hospital. On March 24, 2007, he dressed up and went to meet a girl and never returned. The next day she and her daughter began searching for him. They went to the Attorney General’s forensic medicine office. At first no one had time to talk to them but when they presented his identification, they said he was a guerrilla killed in combat. “No”, they said, “He is a soldier!”. But the prosecutor told her “not to make a scandal”, and kicked her out of the office. Her son had been buried without identification. She retrieved his body, but she is worried about his reputation. “He was not a guerrilla. He was a soldier!” she sobbed.
A young woman in her twenties described what happened on November 30, 2002. She has the names of the soldiers who tortured and killed her husband and two of his friends after they complained about the soldiers killing their cows. They were buried in black bags as unidentified guerrillas. She reminded the crowd that there are many more cemeteries with unidentified bodies, not just La Macarena.
Another witness said that on May 18, 2006 he was at a neighbor’s house. Around 3 pm Army troops approached and he left. The next day he heard shots. At 11 am he went to the neighbor’s. The house was turned upside down and no one was there. The next day he went to La Macarena to check with the Attorney General’s office. He was told the neighbor had been “killed in combat”.
Fr. Javier Giraldo, S.J. concluded the hearing by announcing that he had spent three days taping “horrifying” testimony by many other residents of the community. After the hearing the international delegation was allowed to tour and photograph the cemetery. The Army’s portion of the cemetery is guarded and marked with crime scene tape so that it cannot be altered in any way before forensics experts have a chance to examine and identify the bodies that were buried as “unidentified”.
The day after the hearing in La Macarena, the Colombian elected officials and the international delegations held a press conference at the Cinep (Center for Investigation and Popular Education) office in Bogotá. The speakers pointed out that the disagreement over the number of unidentified bodies in the cemetery reinforces the need for immediate investigation. While the Inspector General’s Office estimated 2,000 unidentified bodies, the Mayor reduced his estimate to 386 and the Attorney General’s Office changed its estimate from 650 to 459. The Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies the existence of any such common grave. Fr. Javier Giraldo, who interviewed all of the witnesses, stated that there had 52 statements by family members of victims and there are existing complaints of 22 “false positives”.
On Sunday, August 25, outgoing President Alvaro Uribe addressed troops at the La Macarena Army base, expressing his confidence in them and his belief that the hearing was intended “to aid the guerrillas”. In the next day’s newspapers, Army Commander General Fredy Padilla was quoted as saying that the widely circulated photographs of the cemetery were fakes and were actually taken in Yugoslavia.
Since the delegates and the press were allowed to photograph the cemetery, there will be overwhelming evidence of its existence in La Macarena. What is needed now is a prompt and complete investigation of the circumstances that have resulted in the deposit of unidentified bodies in the cemetery, as well as an accurate determination of the number of graves and identification of the individuals. Without waiting for the conclusion of that process, Senator Ramírez intends to schedule hearings at other cemeteries in other parts of Colombia. She remembers the words of the young widow who gave testimony: “There are many more cemeteries with unidentified bodies, not just La Macarena”.
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