By Laura Dulce Romero
El Espectador, December 14, 2019
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
This week the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) undertook its first major exhumation. The proceeding was ordered after a group of soldiers insisted that the majority of the civilian victims presented as guerrillas killed in combat by the 11th Brigade were buried in this cemetery.
Las Mercedes, the Catholic cemetery, is located over a small plateau in the high area in Dabeiba, in Antioquia Province. The plateau is surrounded by houses and by some enormous mountains that are veiled by fog in the morning and that in the afternoon give life to a corridor of wind that alleviates the suffocating heat. At first glance, it seems orderly, calm. But that tranquility was disturbed last December 9 when a group of soldiers walked through the entrance gate where there stands a statue of Jesus with one hand and one foot raised. The soldiers had applied to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in case No. 003, the case of the dead who were illegally presented as guerrillas killed in combat by government agents, the wrongly named “false positives.”
Right now these soldiers have been convicted and they are serving their sentences in military prisons, but they came to Dabeiba to comply with an order issued by the Justices of the JEP. They were required to show the Justices, at the location of the killings, where the bodies are of the 45 people they say they killed and buried between 2005 and 2007 in this cemetery when they were serving in the 11th Brigade.
This is the first time that the JEP has been able to hear the testimony of the parties that have submitted to that system in the verification stage. “We have talked to more than a hundred soldiers. They have revealed dozens of events, but we have to determine whether what they are saying is true. These are crimes that up to now have not been dealt with by the ordinary justice system,” said Alejandro Ramelli, a Justice in the JEP
Absence of Recognition Section. It is also the first time the JEP has ordered so many exhumations.
And the only way to know if they are telling the truth or not is to exhume the bodies. That’s why Ramelli, in charge of Case No. 003, ordered, “the location, exhumation, custody and identification of bodies, skeletons, and bony structures,” that, in accordance with the coordinates provided by the defendants, are resting in Dabeiba. In addition, he ordered interviews of possible witnesses, carrying out tests, and comparing similarities with the investigations that were carried out by the ordinary justice system or in the military criminal justice system.
Investigators from the JEP’s Investigation and Accusation Unit (UIA) were in charge of this work. To search for so many bodies it was necessary to have an interdisciplinary team. Even though the UIA was assigned by the JEP to get the forensic procedures moving, the Justices counted on the technical assistance of the Unit for the Search of Persons Recorded as Disappeared (UBPD). That unit preferred to act as observers in order to preserve their extrajudicial character. Criminalists, anthropologists, topographers, photographers and forensic physicians were ready for the first major exhumation ordered by the Peace Tribunal.
The task was to search, according to the information previously collected by the JEP, for the “201 locations of possible burials, of which 90 had some type of inscription” and investigate in “five zones with areas that, in spite of lacking any kind of inscription (stone, cross, etc.), have some characteristics typical of burial locations, such as rectangular depressions approximately 15 centimeters deep.
They started looking around the tombs at 9:00 a.m. The investigators from the UIA gave the soldiers several small phosphorescent green flags to point out the places where the victims of false positives had been buried. The group of forensic technicians, the village gravedigger, four campesinos that were helping, and the Justices walked in a procession toward one of the soldiers who pointed to the first stop: a tiny white hut. “Here is where they did the autopsies, Mr. Justice. This is where they brought the dead people and they put a change of black clothes on them and some powder in their hands.” They did that before the forensic technicians came. “When they came, we told them ‘killed in combat’ and they were registered that way.”
He placed the first little flag close to the hut. The victim’s name was Óscar. He was a man from Medellín, between 40 and 45 years old. He was killed on December 1, 2005.
“Where did they kill him?” asked the Justice.
“See those antennas up in the mountains? There are four. Between the first and the second one. We shot him and brought him down here.”
Most of the people were killed in the mountains that surround the cemetery. It was the ideal location, far away from the village where the possibility of anyone seeing us was remote. They were always shot “in the chest and in the head”. Later they brought them down to the hut for the autopsy and they buried them with the help of the gravediggers. While he was telling about the events, the technicians and the investigators would ask questions to delve into these kinds of detail. The Justices took notes and compared them with the versions the soldiers had recounted voluntarily in Bogotá.
The second stop was just two meters on. He placed three little flags.
“Here is where we buried three young men, all from 20 to 27 years old. They were killed with a shot in the face, the chest, and the head. They are probably at a depth of a meter and a half.”
“What weapon was used to kill them?” the Justice asked again.
“It was an M60.”
“You tore them apart!” commented an investigator from the UIA. The M60 is a machine gun than can fire 550 shots per minute.
In one of the 16 stops, the soldier mentioned Diego. “It was here, Mr. Justice, what I told you about the kid.” Diego was 15 years old. Even though he was supposed to be killed immediately after he was kidnaped, the soldier that was in charge of him had doubts and waited four days. The kid begged him to let him go, saying he hadn’t done any harm. But the Commander called the soldier out, saying, “you just aren’t up to killing him,” and he sent another soldier to do it. The other soldier killed him. Diego suffered so much that his kidnapper had decided to finish him off so as not to keep on seeing him suffer. His commanders never forgave him for hesitating and he was transferred to Nudo del Paramillo, where he lasted three months, just kind of out of it, because he hadn’t carried out the order.
All of the young men were recruited from Medellín. The soldiers stated that, different from other battalions, they didn’t pay recruiters but instead they trained some of the soldiers to talk the men into coming: “Later they trained soldiers from every unit to go out and bring people and that way they didn’t spend so much money, that is, they changed the system that they had used earlier, of using recruiters.” They also mentioned the characteristics of the victims: most of the civilians were poor, at least two were Afro-Colombian, one of them was disabled and another one was addicted to drugs. Some of them were buried in plastic bags. Others were just thrown in the dirt.
The day was already half over when they had identified 16 events. Among them were 45 murders. Nevertheless, in the first meetings with the Justices, they insisted that there could be up to 75 civilians presented as guerrillas killed in combat. “The Anti-Guerrilla Battalion had 75 “results” in six months, not 45, Mr. Justice . . . I wasn’t part of all of them, following orders . . . There were lapses, for example, they sent me to take an anti-guerrilla course, pardon me, a military course. I was gone for three months, besides vacations . . . when I returned the Battalion was already in another sector, so no, but there were 75 “results”.
While we walked around the cemetery, other soldiers told how in order to cover up the murders they attended judicial police courses: “I knew how to do it because I learned it in that course. When a new cadaver arrived, they asked me to go down from the mountain. I had to run from way up there, from the antennas, down to the cemetery to verify that everything was being done right: the powder, the boots, the clothes.” All of this was in exchange for decorations, promotions, money vacations, and benefits. The cover-up went as far as the military courts. “Mr. Justice, what I’m telling you is going to re-open a lot of cases. You even have to investigate the military criminal court judges . . . and I look back and I repeat, this is what really scares a person.”
Little by little, the stories were coming out. The procession went from one side to the other under the burning sun. Two little flags in one corner, three on the side, and even six in the middle. For moments, the men who were confessing what had happened got a little lost. One scratched his head trying to remember. The graves had been changed and many of them were painted. On some occasions there had been bad practices by the gravediggers, but in the case of Dabeiba there was something special: just the sector where the soldiers had confessed about their crimes was painted white. The crosses only had two kinds of typography, even though the dates were decades apart. One witness, hours later, confessed that members of the Army had painted all of them two years ago.
The pressure of seeing more than ten people aghast at hearing their answers was a motivation for them to keep on talking. In their stories there was not a trace of distress. They remembered how the residents took part in the autopsies and the cover-ups, and how they always buried them looking toward the white hut. The residents that were watching insisted to the investigators that they should look for the people they mentioned because they were sure they were alive.
And they were right. Later more witnesses came in. One of them had survived an attack just a month ago. He had five bullet wounds. The JEP asked to study the case so that he would receive protection, after he had contributed to the location of other points, on the higher side to the left of the cemetery. Another one identified more burial locations, in this case it was the paramilitaries who were responsible. He claimed to have helped bury eight bodies in two areas that he pointed out to the technicians. According to the JEP, they would be able to compare this informationwith the registry of unidentified bodies that is maintained by Section 50 of the Attorney General’s Office in this municipality. Even though the JEP has no jurisdiction over those cases, Ramelli pointed out that the transitional justice system could furnish information on other cases that are being handled in the ordinary justice system.
Dabeiba is not the only focus of attention in Case No. 003. There is another case in that same jurisdiction. Antioquia is the province with the highest number of persons “disappeared” in the whole country (24.66%). Besides the fact that Antioquia owns the dishonorable first place, it is also worrisome that 99% of those cases remain in impunity at this time. For that reason, the National Movement of Victims of Crimes by the State (Movice) requested a preliminary injunction to protect 16 locations where it is presumed that there are bodies of “disappeared” persons, among them, the area around the megaproject Hidroituango, Neighborhood 13 in Medellín, and the cemetery in Dabeiba.
The Search Unit has provided technical assistance in the investigation and staff went to Dabeiba with the objective of approaching “people and places that would have information about ‘disappeared’ persons, in accordance with its humanitarian mandate,” according to the Director, Luz Marina Monzón.
Dabeiba is one of the country’s municipalities most affected by the war. Besides the Army, there were also FARC and ELN guerrillas and the Élmer Cárdenas bloc of the Campesino Self-Defenses Forces of Córdoba and Urabá. From 2001 to 2006, the years in which they were presenting the false positives, the armed actors fought each other for control of the territory and they left 13,524 victims, according to the Unique Register of the Victims’ Unit. “The period of violence was very harsh here. All of us living in Dabeiba were affected. It brought us death and disappearances,” a resident added. Being located in a strategic area, the entrance to the Paramillo Massíf and the corridor leading to Bajo Atrato, condemned the area to be in the midst of the gunfire.
THE STORY OF RUBÉN
“Is this Rubén’s daughter?”
“No, no. Who is this?” Last week Beatríz received a call that she had been waiting for for 22 years. At first she was frightened, because the caller didn’t identify himself.
“Who is this? How do you know my brother?”
Rubén was a farmer in Buriticá (Antoquia Province). On June 13, 1997, several men in a pickup truck abducted him in the midst of a village celebration, recounted the neighbors. Three days later, his father heard on the radio that three unidentified persons had been murdered in Dabeiba. He got up and went to the cemetery to see if his son was one of them.
When the gravedigger showed him the dead people, placed in plastic body bags, he identified his son immediately. He was surprised that Rubén was not wearing the bridgework that hid the early loss of his teeth, and even more surprised by the shot in his back. He asked to take his son home, but the man told him to get going because he might be killed. The combat was continuing at the edge of town. He wasn’t able to take his son’s body away.
His family testified that, in spite of knowing the exact point of his location in the Dabeiba cemetery, he was afraid to disinter the body. Beatríz could only file a complaint in 2004, but the authorities never answered. Even though it was late, that decision was helpful because the UIA could call her and ask her about how she was related to Rubén. “It was a surprise. And I was delighted because my parents never stopped asking about him. This is our last hope.”
That was how she arrived at the cemetery in Dabeiba. It was the second day of the investigation and the forensic team was pushing forward its labors in exploration and exhumation, which they extended for six more days. They were prepared for the arduous physical work. Searching for a “disappeared” person is laborious. It took two anthropologists four hours to excavate forty centimeters until they found the first remains. To go deeper from there it was necessary to use a trowel to move the dirt and yet not damage the remains.
Even though the process has barely even started, the forensic technicians are certain that the earth has been moved. The new task, then, is to determine whether the bodies were taken out or have been mixed with others that do have identification. Karen Quintero, an anthropologist from UBPD who was observing the investigation, explained that this is used by the perpetrators to disadvantage any searchers: “In that re-use of the soil the truth can be hidden or disappear. That makes the comparisons complicated. Besides that, it can affect the graves of other bodies that do have mourners.” The key, then, will be the identification stage.
By Friday, according to the JEP, ten complete bodies had been found, and remains, apparently, of five people. They were found in the areas that the witnesses and the soldiers had pointed out to the Magistrates. The investigation will still take some time. The JEP is thinking of creating another committee for next year, because it was impossible to dig up all of the locations that were identified. Even though they initially planned to exhume all the bodies at once, by the conclusion of this investigation, they realized that there is talk of a disappeared person in every corner of the Las Mercedes Catholic cemetery. They also have to wait for the work of identification by the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Beatríz is waiting for the examinations and the comparison, but she is clinging to the hope that the investigators have found three bodies just at the point where her father remembers that he saw Rubén for the last time, along with the other two men.
*This name was changed at the request of the source.