Survey by the Attorney-General: 10,000 unidentified bodies

7 November 2010 – 7:54pm

(Translated by Peter Lenny, a CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, CSN’s Volunteer Editor.)

With reports in from only half of Colombia’s municipalities, the survey (which began last July) has now passed that figure, and warns: other similar initiatives must be scrutinized.

The Justice and Peace Unit of the Attorney-General’s Office has now received the records submitted by local governments in Colombia on 10,084 unidentified deaths. That figure is all the more impressive considering that over half of Colombia’s 1,103 municipalities have yet to send in records on the unidentified bodies buried in their private and public cemeteries. Although the project has proceeded relatively successfully and without incident, the Attorney-General’s Office has now started to express reservations about parallel endeavors apparently being pursued without regard for the technical standards and protocols required for this kind of undertaking in Colombia and elsewhere.
To date, the districts that have reported the largest number of such cases is Antioquia (3,573), followed by Meta (1,363), Santander (776), and Caldas (723). The authorities regard these figures as corresponding to the historical presence of armed outlaw groups, such as the guerrilla, paramilitary or drug traffickers. Particularly in the past twenty years, such conflicts have escalated as a result of confrontations between illegal organizations and agents of the State; disputes between these same illegal organizations for territory; attacks on the civil population; and targeted murders.
The municipality heading the list continues to be Mutata (Antioquia), with 1,500 unnamed bodies, but now El Carmen de Chucuri (Santander) ranks second, with 515, displacing Granada (Meta), which reported 510. Next is the municipality of La Macarena (Meta), with 464 (although currently the subject of controversy over a purported common grave holding more than 2,000 bodies). San José del Guaviare reported 389, Marsella (Risaralda), 383, and La Dorada (Caldas), 378. The first large capitals to show in the survey are Barranquilla, with 412 bodies unidentified, then Cali, with 348, and Medellin, with 312. Curiously, localities with significant statistics of violence in the past twenty years, such as Barrancabermeja (Santander), reported only 108 cases of unidentified bodies.
There has also been an evident lack of haste on the part of certain districts in sending in their reports. This has happened, for instance, with Cordoba, which, after subversives were present, suffered a strong paramilitary offensive whose echoes are still to be felt in that region. So far reports have been received from only five municipalities, with records totaling 66 unidentified dead. Something similar is true of Sucre, where the Attorney-General’s Office has information of only 98 nameless bodies in seven municipalities; Arauca, 37 bodies reported by two localities; and Caquetá, with 184 dead in con 6 municipalities; Casanare, 30 cases reported by one single municipality; and Magdalena, with only seven victims in two villages.
Over and beyond the survey figures, however, there is a larger concern: “Similar initiatives have started to be taken at the district level which may not be complying with the protocols set down for procedures of this kind,” warn sources at the Attorney General’s Office. “Often the number on the grave does not match the post mortem number, and that means that when we go to check, instead of the man described in the record, we find a woman or that the person who should be buried there was 1.8 meters tall and the remains we find are of a body no more than 1.60 meters tall,” they add. As if that were not enough, there are the traumatic consequences of returning bodies to families and then having them prove not to be those of their loved ones.
That was why the spokesperson stressed that this endeavor cannot be undertaken individually, but that it has to be organized among the agencies of the State with centralized coordination, as the Attorney General’s Office has been doing. This is the situation in Antioquia, which heads the list of nameless bodies (see box below). Four months after starting to receive information from all over Colombia, the Justice and Peace Unit feels the balance is satisfactory, to the point that in the next few weeks the first consolidated figures will be available on possible cases with probable identities. The final goal, however, is to give answers to the families of the more than 32,000 people who have disappeared.

The case of Antioquia
Last October, El Espectador published an article titled “Muertos que buscan su hogar” (Dead looking for home), claiming that a program to identify nameless bodies had been underway in Antioquia for a year and that, to date, it had managed to recover the names of about 22 people buried as unidentified corpses. Also, exhumation orders had been issued for another eight bodies. In that district, Rionegro had been made the pilot locality and the initiative was being led by the state government with the support of the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation, the forensic authorities, UNDP and the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP/OAS). In view of the mistakes made during burial of the dead, the Antioquia peace advisor, Jorge Castaño, declared: “Technically an unidentified body is a disappeared person and that is the connotation we are giving them in order to identify them more easily. During training for municipal attorneys, gravediggers, police inspectors, physicians and more generally all those who have anything to do with unidentified bodies, we are teaching them how to draw up the file with the postmortem protocols, where as much information as possible is recorded so as later to facilitate possible identification.”
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