He helped bury murdered people that may have been victims of the false positives being investigated by the JEP
By Heidi Tamayo Ortíz
El Tiempo, December 22, 2019
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
He doesn’t remember the exact date, but he does remember the horror that he felt. After it happened, Roberto* got sick and he was incapacitated for fifteen days. With an effort, he remembers, and he thinks it was a day around the middle of 2004. He and two other men were ordered to dig a hole in the Las Mercedes cemetery, located in Dabeiba (Antioquia Province), the place where the JEP is investigating to see whether there remains of victims of extrajudicial executions.
That day, he says, four bodies of people that had been killed: three men and one woman, arrived at the municipal morgue. They were told that these were guerrillas that had been killed in combat. Roberto had seen one of them before, but he had never established any kind of relationship with him and he didn’t know for sure if he belonged to the guerrillas, but he assumed it must be so. He was the one that had the worst wound; it had disfigured his face. Another one of the men was very young.
Roberto and the other two men had been hired to dig the graves, and he says that it was common to assign this work of burying bodies that turned up in the area, and nobody complained about it.
“They told us to bury the people, so we dug a very large hole, four meters wide, sixteen meters long, and one meter deep, and we were getting ready to take them there when an Army Commander with fifteen soldiers came over and he told us we had to dress them,” says Roberto.
They put a police uniform on the woman, and on the man with the bad wound in his face, they dressed him in camouflage, but they left the other two in their underwear. The soldiers took pictures of the bodies. Afterwards, they covered them with dirt, all together in the same hole.
“And they put some guns in with them, and a camouflage bag, which I think was empty,” says Roberto, adding that they did the work tense and terrified, as fast as they could, so they could get back to their houses.
Today he feels nervous about the arrival of JEP officials that are starting to dig up graves after an ex-soldier testified that there are at least 50 bodies of people killed illegally, between 2005 and 2007, by the Armed Forces as part of the so-called “false positives.”
He is afraid that, without knowing it, he may have been involved in a macabre episode in Colombia’s armed conflict.
The JEP investigation, which will continue in January of 2020, begins with the story told by that ex-soldier in which he relates that men between 15 and 56 years old are buried in the Las Mercedes cemetery as false guerrillas. Many of them had been brought from Medellín and some of them were disabled.
Augusto González, Director of the House of Memory Museum in Dabeiba, has always heard rumors that the bodies brought to Las Mercedes cemetery were bodies of people from other areas in the province, like Medellín.
Up to now, the JEP officials have exhumed seven complete skeletons of people that could be victims of these crimes, as well as other bone fragments that might possible be from other victims. They will need to finish the complete identification, an effort that is being carried out by the Forensic Medicine Institute.
That way they will be able to compare the reports to learn the identities of the bodies and determine whether they were murdered by the Armed Forces to later pass them off as guerrillas, or whether they might be other people who fell into the hands of other armed groups such as the FARC or the AUC.
In view of the fact that it is not yet possible to determine which “false positives” victims are in the Las Mercedes cemetery, they might be reported on the list of forced disappearances in Antioquia. These added up to 1,345 in 2005, 934 in 2006, and 864 in 2007, according the data from the Victims Unit.
Those years match the years mentioned by the ex-soldier in his testimony to the JEP about common graves in that cemetery for extrajudicial executions.
In his testimony, Roberto says that at that time Dabeiba was plagued by violence, even beginning in the decade of the 90s. In all of those years, paramilitaries and guerrillas left blood flowing and the civilian population lived in fear.
Now he is conscious of the risk he ran, without realizing it, when he did work like digging the grave for the four dead people, supposedly combatants, that he had to help bury.
But that was not the only occasion in which he found himself involved, and neither was he the only resident that they hired for that work. He remembers one time when they buried 28 people in the course of a week, around a tree that grew in the cemetery.
“Most of them were unidentified. They were buried up to three at a time, in plastic bags. Once they sent me to a hardware store on the main street of Dabeiba to make bags with a roll of plastic, a scissors and a little machine to seal up the bags. I made 38 bags and those didn’t last a week. But that time the Army didn’t show up to give orders or anything,” he said, remembering that the plastic was black, thick, and fine.
Nobody ever came to claim those bodies we put in bags and buried.
*This name was changed at the request of the source.