SEMANA, December 14, 2019
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
What may be the first massive common grave containing more than 50 corpses of “false positive” victims has just been discovered. SEMANA was there and now reveals the macabre story. All through last week, the forensic investigators were digging up the remains of nine bodies in the cemetery at Dabeiba in Antioquia Province.
A soldier named Buitrago remembered that once Sergeant Pedraza* gave him an order that was way out of line. They had just killed a young man and were trying to make it look as if he was a guerrilla. They told him to shoot the corpse again, this time in the head and with an M60 machine gun that shoots bullets as big as your finger. So that no member of his family would ever be able to recognize him. The idea was to erase every trace of the victim’s identity, to eliminate any vestige of his existence with just one shot.
“They buried two people there and they didn’t put them in a coffin,” said the soldier named Buitrago while he was walking around the tombs in the Catholic cemetery known as Las Mercedes in Dabeiba, Antioquia Province. He walked into the place last Monday after a little more than ten years, and he tried to remember the place where he and his military unit, as he told us, had buried dozens of innocent young men they had turned into false positives.
His testimony took the lid off a chapter of hidden extrajudicial executions, with characteristics previously unknown in the Colombian conflict, above all because three factors were put together here: a macabre modus operandi of killing, a large number of victims that continue to be “disappeared” and a possible strategy for keeping the real story under wraps. The fact that they continued to be hidden, all in the same place for such a long time, suggests innumerable questions about the role of the judicial system around one of the darkest chapters in Colombia’s armed conflict.
“So did you bury them in body bags?” Justice Alejandro Ramelli asked Buitrago. Justice Ramelli is handling the JEP’s Case Number 003, investigating the “murders illegitimately presented as guerrillas killed by government agents in combat.” The case that he and his colleagues Gustavo Salazar and María del Pilar Valencia are starting to investigate will bring to light nearly half a hundred extrajudicial executions, allegedly committed between 2006 and 2007 according to the first indications. And there could be more.
“No, just like that. They were buried without anything.”
The dead people that Buitrago was talking about were no more than 30 years old.
“And do you remember the impact of the bullets?”
Buitrago, who after beginning to collaborate with the legal system has received death threats, strode firmly among the dozens of white crosses and tombs. The Las Mercedes cemetery is located on a hill, and is also in a valley bordered by mountains. You can see some cows and one or another telecommunications antennae.
Buitrago pointed a finger in the air to indicate the point where they murdered the young man, where they simulated an operation that never took place and that they used to inflate the “results” for their battalion. That was how the soldiers got permission for days off and won praises on their resumés.
Afterwards, the soldier named Buitrago took several steps and stopped on the ground where some other graves were hidden: many of the victims might be under here, this soldier told us. They were boys that they brought from Medellín. Killing them so far away from home freed the military of claims and complaints by their families.
“From here you can see where we did it,” he said, pointing to one of the mountains. “Up there where you see those “matarratones” (poisonous shrubs), there just a little below that skirt of the mountain, close to a house where two real old people lived,” he said while he was describing some of the scenes of the crimes.
The soldier told about the murders of innocent people. Neither his face nor his body showed any alteration. While he was talking, a dog-days sun gave heat of more than 30 degrees (Centigrade, or 86 degrees Fahrenheit). A light breeze provided a little refreshment for the people attending the investigation. A few drops of sweet fell from the back of Buitrago’s neck and dampened his back. That was his only sign of physical effort in that walk in which he was making an inventory of the extrajudicial executions committed by his military unit.
His Battalion may have committed up to 75 cases of false positives in the two years that he was there. He says he took part in 20 or so. A JEP document calculates that there were around 50. Almost all of those cases were ignored by the legal system. Only Pedraza—the noncommissioned officer who on that day ordered a soldier to disfigure a corpse with an M60—was convicted for one of the cases in Dabeiba. The victim was a homeless person addicted to drugs who was presented as a guerrilla killed in combat. But his case is an exception, because almost all of the soldiers connected with these events have never been prosecuted. Those are cases of impunity.
In the cemetery in Dabeiba there are autopsies of bodies that the Army reported as having been killed in combat, but that now, because of the testimony by Buitrago and Pedraza, can be considered to be extrajudicial executions. Of that number, only ten have been the subject of procedures in the military criminal justice system. And the majority of those have not advanced.
The investigation took place last Monday, but this process has been going on for several months in the transitional justice system. In fact, in September, the National Movement of Victims of Crimes by the State (Movice in Spanish) asked the JEP to issue interim equitable relief to protect the Las Mercedes cemetery, considering the importance of the truth that could be buried there.
The Justices of the JEP listened to Buitrago’s testimony in earlier investigations and the Court sent an advance team to study the location. Finally on Monday of last week the Justices traveled there with a mission to check the statements by the soldier on the scene and to obtain more evidence. In only five days of excavating, the legal officials have recovered remains of nine bodies.
Buitrago had left his place of incarceration and arrived in Dabeiba very early on Monday morning. Wearing sunglasses, a sports watch, and tight boots reaching over his ankles, he walked into the cemetery. The space is somewhat circular. In the center there is an atrium for religious ceremonies. Around the borders of the cemetery there are three blocks with hundreds of ossuaries. These graves contrast with those that are under the earth and they appear strangely uniform. This could be one of the signs indicating that there has been an operation to alter the location and thus avoid having the truth come to light in the cemetery.
The tombs announce dates of death that differ greatly from each other—with up to 50 years of difference–but the majority of the concrete crosses appear to have been painted recently in the same shade of white. The majority of those crosses are marked with black paint and a similar calligraphy, as if the same hand had marked them with cursive letters. Some strange things have happened in this cemetery. And a number of testimonies confirm that.
Buitrago also had a sensation that the place looked different from the one he had visited frequently twelve years ago. He was so surprised that, when he walked in, he looked for the gravedigger to ask him about the changes. And that’s how he found out that the crosses had been switched over. They no longer face the south, as they did a decade ago. Now they face the east. And throughout the investigation, other indications appeared to show that there had been an episode in which the evidence had been covered up.
A CRIMINAL BATTALION
The Army Company that Buitrago belonged to in Dabeiba acted like a real criminal organization. There are still signs of that. At the time, some campesinos complained that there were extrajudicial executions, sexual assaults, and torture of the civilians who lived in the mountains bordering the Paramillo Massif and the Llorona Canyon in eastern Antioquia. Nevertheless, the majority of the investigations went nowhere. Nobody would listen to the complainants.
In the documents that record these deaths there is every kind of irregularity and actions that show manipulation of the material elements of evidence. “We examined the body of NN (unidentified), and there was no appropriate label or chain of custody (. . .) The judge’s record shows differences between the report of injuries described in the autopsy and those described in the record of inspections,” states one of the files.
At the time the bodies were taken to the cemetery, the soldiers made sure that the bodies would be buried without any kind of identification. In another of the files, you see this report: The boss of the municipal workers reports that there is a place in the cemetery set side for burial of all of the unidentified bodies, turning it into a place that could be called a common grave, where they bury fifteen or twenty bodies without any sign, name, or date.” The Inspector of Police at that time signed that statement.
There are other indications of the murders at the hands of this unit. During the second term of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace informed the Office of the President that that Battalion was violating humanitarian treaties. And that the targets of their macabre operations were women, children, and people who had returned to civilian life after having deserted the guerrillas.
The report details a number of horrifying acts. Among then, the extrajudicial execution, never investigated, of a disabled man. The soldier, Buitrago, standing in the middle of the cemetery this week, gave some clues about this case for the first time in twelve years.
“The disabled man with the mule. That case you can find in the register there in the Municipality because people did recognize him and they called him Mollejo, said Buitrago. He also mentioned that the victim lived in a settlement known as Cuchillón.
That matches a case that SEMANA found, registered by the Inter-Church Commission at the time. According to their complaint, which was ignored, on Sunday, November 11, 2007, men from the Battalion that Buitrago belonged to arrived at the Cuchillón settlement, in the District (corregimiento) of La Balsita, in the Municipality of Dabeiba. They asked for Gabriel Everto Pérez, a 50-year-old man who lived by the charity of his neighbors because he was not able to take care of himself. The left side of his body was paralyzed and he suffered epileptic attacks.
According to testimonies received that year, the soldiers forcibly dragged Gabriel out of his house, put him on a mule, and took him to a football field located in the upper part of the settlement, about five minutes away. At about noon, you could hear two shots and a few minutes later, several rifle shots, as if they were simulating a battle. During the afternoon the soldiers told the Cuchillón Community that Gabriel had died in combat with the Army. A week earlier, counter-guerrilla units had arrived at the town (vereda) and taken over houses belonging to campesino families, including women and children.
In Dabeiba the complaints did not get beyond the mountains. Several investigators of the conflict consulted by SEMANA agreed that the remoteness of this Municipality from other regions means that the truth will be silenced. In contrast to other regions like Eastern Antioquia, in Dabeiba there is not the strong leadership that reports on criminality. According to the National Registry of Victims, 18,914 residents of that Municipality have reported suffering crimes related to the conflict. Mainly they spoke of forced displacement, followed by murders, forced disappearance, and threats. The statistic is devastating if you consider that the village only has 23,000 residents. 82% of the population has suffered the war at first hand.
The years in which the crimes recounted by Buitrago took place match the years with the highest rate of extrajudicial executions committed by the Army in the whole country. Several months ago, the Attorney General’s Office delivered to the JEP a report that recognizes 470 cases in 2006; and 733 in 2007. Actions like those in Dabeiba show that these figures might increase.
YOUNG PEOPLE RECRUITED IN MEDELLÍN
The soldier Buitrago’s account of the burials lasted a little less than an hour. Besides pointing to possible graves, he related details of his Unit’s specific strategy of killing innocent people. Almost all of them were recruited in Medellín, so that, since Dabeiba was 174 kilometers away, there would not be complaints. A group of soldiers from Buitrago’s Unit had been installed in the capital of Antioquia with the specific mission of recruiting people from the edge of the city and taking them to the mountainous area of Dabeiba where the Battalion operated and, after simulating some combat, they would kill them and make them look like false positives.
They killed them with rifle fire, almost always in the head and in the chest, and later they dressed them in sweat suits, shirts and black sweatpants and rubber boots. They reported the killings in areas that were high and hard to get to, risky, and not safe, so that the prosecutors would not be able to get to the area and would let the Army carry out the processing of the bodies. One soldier verified that they never did irregular things that were visible: that the entry wounds of the bullets would match the holes in their clothes, that their shoes were on the correct foot. In effect, to cover up the macabre farce.
Later on he took them to the autopsy laboratory, located at one side of the cemetery. A white room, five meters by five meters, that smells of death. Inside there are three gurneys for placing the bodies and a concrete slab to carry out the autopsies. There, in that place, the soldiers themselves would interfere with the investigations and manipulate the results, according to Buitrago.
While they converted the innocents into guerrillas in the laboratory, outside, a few meters away, the gravedigger was digging the grave. Sometimes, the Municipality would donate simple coffins, just a few boards put together to stick the body in. But on some occasions there was no box. Then they threw them into the ground, barely covered with a plastic bag, or, lacking that, without the bag. After reporting the results, they would get their rewards, their leave permissions. According to Buitrago, two Majors who commanded the Unit while he was there gave the orders for this killing machine.
SEMANA will not reveal the real names of those officials and of the Battalions they belonged to, in order not to interfere with ongoing investigations. Sergeant Pedraza, Buitrago’s immediate commander, has submitted to the JEP and has informed the Court of several cases of false positives that he is charged with, in different parts of the country. The ordinary justice system has sentenced him for the murder of two campesinos in Nariño, which demonstrates that the soldiers that specialized in these crimes went around the country spreading these criminal practices. He also has eleven cases in the military justice system that are barely in the investigation stage, in spite of the fact that the events being investigated took place between 13 and 16 years ago.
The Commander of the Brigade that Buitrago belonged to was arrested in 2009, but for other actions. The Attorney General’s Office has investigated his alleged connections with the Calima Bloc of the paramilitaries, and has also charged him with the massacre of 24 people in Buga, carried out by paramilitaries in 2001.
The Major who commanded Buitrago’s Battalion was promoted to Colonel and now is a private consultant.
THE REMAINS THAT THEY FOUND
Buitrago was telling about the crimes, talking so fast and so boldly that the Justices had to slow him down so that they could nail down what he was saying. Toward the end of the investigation, the soldier took about 50 long steps to identify a rectangular area where he said his Unit buried all of the innocents. The forensic investigators from the JEP and from the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared cordoned off the area with a yellow tape, tied to crosses and tombstones.
At the conclusion of his story, Buitrago went over to get relief from the sun in the cemetery atrium. He was checking his cell phone while the forensic investigators started digging. First they opened the place where the soldier had said that they had buried six people. With the help of four old campesinos from the village, the officials attacked with picks and shovels under overwhelming heat. For two hours, all they found were rocks, roots, and worms.
The digging in the cemetery had attracted attention in Dabeiba, where the presence of judicial officials is not common. Soon some volunteers started coming to the cemetery and furnishing information. One of them pointed to an area where the “disappeared” had been buried decades ago. Another one said that his brother had been forcibly dragged away from a party. They put him in a truck and he ended up buried here as unidentified.
One person also arrived at the cemetery might be a key to this investigation, because he worked there for twenty years, including in the period where the things happened that Buitrago is telling about. He came in walking very slowly and he met Buitrago. They recognized each other and greeted each other warmly. Later, the person pointed to an area where he remembers that bodies were buried without identification. It is the same area that the soldier told us was used to bury the false positives. Somebody tried to kill this person a month ago, when the JEP investigations were just beginning. A man whose face was covered by a helmet burst into his house and shot him five times in the arm, without saying anything, for no apparent reason.
The forensic investigators had been digging for two hours before they found something. Just where the soldier had said that six people were buried, there appeared a skull at the depth of half a meter. At just a few more centimeters, they found the remains of long bones. The preliminary analysis showed that the body was not complete or in one piece. It gave the impression that part of the remains had already been removed.
And the signs that the cemetery had been altered opened the possibility of a theory that might broaden the efforts of the investigators.
Some testimonies indicated that there could have been a complicated framework of cover-up, although it may not yet be part of the investigation. It’s probable that a couple of years ago, some Army personnel were in Las Mercedes to dig up and move bodies from one side of the cemetery to the other. This represents an enormous challenge to the JEP in its task of bringing the truth to light, not just the truth of Dabeiba, but of the whole conflict, and the task of identifying the perpetrators.
The strategies of silencing have been evident in other cases. In the middle of this year, SEMANA revealed an illegal structure created to shut the soldiers up who were confessing their own participation and that of others in false positives to the JEP. This year a Colonel was threatened with a weapon right after he provided his testimony. This paper has documented eleven cases of threats to those who are appearing before the special justice jurisdiction. Buitrago himself and his family have been harassed.
By Thursday evening the forensic investigators had disinterred eight bodies in Dabeiba. Some of them showed signs of violent death; others, because of their age, were not counted preliminarily as the false positives described by Buitrago.
The Justices have now returned to Bogotá to continue their investigations. This investigation, was continuing in Dabeiba. At about six in the evening, Justice Gustavo Salazar received a phone call in his office, from the window of which you can see Seventh Street (Carrera Séptima) crowded with cars in the dusk. They were calling from the cemetery, confirming the most recent discovery: the remains of a person buried in an Army uniform. He answered: “Very well, you have to keep going.”
* All of the names of the soldiers and military units have been changed for reasons of security and so as not to affect the ongoing investigation.