SEMANA SPECIAL: The Cemetery of Horrors, February 23, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
This is the history of one of the villages most ravaged by the crimes of agents of the Colombian government. SEMANA was there and reconstructed a painful and unfamiliar chapter in the war. It includes the extermination of a family, murders of children, and alliances with the most sadistic paramilitaries.
Ever since he learned to talk, and for most of his childhood, Daniel Lezcano asked his mother the same questions. “Where is my father?” Nohelia Rengifo never told a lie, though that would be the easiest way to lighten the weight of his absence. “Your father disappeared,” she told him. As he grew, his uncertainty became more complicated. “Where is my father buried, so I can go to see him?” Nohelia didn’t answer. “Or is it that they didn’t bury my father?” When he was ten years old, the boy stopped asking, accepting the painful uncertainty in silence. Now Nohelia shudders when she thinks about how all those last 18 years they had him so close, just five blocks from her house. She is shaken when she imagines that when they visited their other loved ones who have passed away, she might even have walked on the earth where the soldiers had hidden him.
The remains of Edison Lezcano appeared in one of the places that have been identified as part of the mass grave that that cemetery contains, where the Special Jurisdiction for Peace calculates that there could be around 50 civilians murdered by the Colombian Army and presented as guerrillas killed in combat. It’s the same place where, in the last two months, after they began the exhumations, they have removed the remains of 54 possible victims. One of them is a child about ten years old; there are adults buried with their boots on, and even a dismembered corpse. Edison is the first one to be identified by DNA tests, in a long-range forensic undertaking that has barely begun.
“Dabeiba is a carpet of the dead,” says a lawyer who knows like very few people what happened here, and who represented several of the victims in the region. His story warns that the tragedy of this village is much greater than what they tried to hide in the cemetery. “The La Llorona stream is the biggest grave.” There, he adds, is where the paramilitaries, guerrillas and Colombian soldiers had thrown hundreds of victims. The dimension of forced disappearance in Dabeiba is heinous, and it’s evident when you see the long line of people who went to the Village Hall this week to provide DNA samples to the JEP, trying to find their loved ones disappeared by all of the actors in the conflict.
The episode of the false positives in Dabeiba is especially sinister. Unlike other places, where that practice lasted for several years, it was prolonged there for at least 25 years. And in all that time, those stories remained hidden from the rest of the country. SEMANA was there, in the towns (veredas) hit hardest by the war, and searched in different courthouses in Antioquia Province, to document what they suffered in what must be one of the villages most affected by the crimes of the agents of the government in Colombia.
THE EXTERMINATION OF A FAMILY
Lucía Córdoba’s stomach turned when she saw a pile of dead soldiers piled up on the road, very close to her farm in the town (vereda) of Chichiridó, where the FARC and the Colombian Army had fought a brutal battle. Thirteen soldiers died on May 22, 1992. During the next week, the Army troops launched an aggressive attack to get revenge for the killing of their men. But what they did, finally, was massacre the campesinos whose only fault was living in the middle of the disputed area.
Three days later, a neighbor knocked on the door at Lucía’s house, where she lived with her husband and her ten children. He told her that the cows had broken the fence and got out into the field. John Kennedy, 26 years old, and Oscar José, 19, the two oldest brothers, got up from the table and got ready to go and get the cows. Bernabé, their father, warned them not to go out because you could still hear gunfire. The boys insisted that the animals would damage the plátano and the yuca and they went, along with a 17-year-old friend who had arrived a week earlier to work on the farm. They said they wouldn’t take long.
All afternoon, the boys didn’t come back. Their parents, consumed with fear, walked the floor in their house. They didn’t sleep that night. At 4:00 a.m. their father went out looking for them, but the firing from the helicopter that was flying over the town (vereda) made him turn back. That area was over the La Llorona canyon, a knot of steep mountains thick with tall trees that always seemed to be covered with fog. It was a decisive point in the conflict because it’s the entrance to the Antioquia Province part of Urabá, in the drug trafficking corridor that connects with the Caribbean. But it’s also the way to Paramillo, an area plagued with coca plantings, and to Chocó, i.e., to where the drugs leave for the Pacific.
When her husband came back frustrated, it was Lucía who left the house, looking for answers. She waited under pouring rain for a car to pass on the highway deserted by the fighting. Standing there alone, she heard some shots. She didn’t have to see—she knew what had happened: “Listen, they killed them, they killed them,” she thought. A neighbor picked her up and took her to the village, where the Police Commander told her: “Get the kids together, men and women, and go out and look for them. Carry white flags, and you’ll see they won’t do anything to you.”
On the third day you started seeing dead bodies. Another father that was looking for his son who had disappeared met them at a farm close to Lucía’s farm. Bernabé went there and he saw five bodies. His two sons were in the woods, “so swelled up they were bursting out of their clothes.” One body on top of the other one. They had killed them just a little after they took them away; maybe they were hit by the shots their mother heard on the road. Ten meters away, another three corpses lay in a pasture; one of the was their sons’ friend. They had dressed him in camouflage. Because they were lying out in the open, without trees to protect them, the buzzards had shredded their bodies. The families loaded the bodies on mules and horses and took them to the village. Lucía remembers that in Dabeiba the soldiers said they had killed “a bunch of guerrillas”.
Edison Lezcano is the first victim identified among the ones exhumed in Las Mercedes. He disappeared in 2002, when he was 23 years old.
On that same day, while Lucía was weeping over her boys, the Army arrived at another farm nearby and brutally opened fire from a distance. A large family was inside the house on which they rained bullets. According to the autopsies, the mother received five shots. The youngest son, five years old, one in the chest. An 11-year-old girl, several shots in the head, the abdomen, the legs, and the feet. The oldest, 21, received one shot in the head. The other one, 19 years old, several shots in the chest, the head, and the back. And the 17-year-old, in the head, back, skull, and abdomen. All of them died. The two youngest children, 23-month-old twins, miraculously survived all of the killing. The father was also saved. Minutes earlier, he had gone out with a machete to clean out the weeds that were covering a path to the farm.
In its report on the events, the Army said that during the battle seven days ago, the guerrillas had hidden out on that family’s farm. And when a patrol of 36 soldiers arrived there, the guerrillas started firing from out of the house. They also said that they had found weapons and other articles of military use in the house. The father and the babies who survived left the village for good and, years later, the widower filed suit against the Army. The litigation got as far as the Council of State, which refused to believe the soldiers’ lies, full of contradictions.
A soldier named Vásquez said that all of the dead had been dressed in civilian clothes and that they had grenades and communist booklets. A soldier named Martínez said they had rifles and police tee shirts. A soldier named Díaz said they were dressed in civilian clothes but wore rubber boots and had a shotgun. “In spite of the efforts made by the members of the patrol, it is evident that they were unable to recite accurately the version that had been prepared to justify this atrocious crime,” states the decision that condemned the soldiers. For the high court, the arguments were almost ridiculous. “It is absurd from every point of view that two of the people living in the house would have tried to attack the soldiers while their mother and six brothers and sisters, including small children, were in the house.”
The worst period of the war in Dabeiba started in 1996. It was marked by the arrival of men from the Self-Defense Forces from Córdoba and Urabá, sent by the Castaño brothers to put an end to the hegemony of the guerrillas in the village. The FARC, to defend their space, launched the worst kind of actions against the Army and this left hundreds of people dead. The role of the Armed Forces in that period was marked by complicity with the paramilitaries, at least until the beginning of the new century.
The stories told by the people describe that alliance. The paramilitaries’ house of tortures was right in the principal park, in full view of the Police Station, according to what a number of witnesses told SEMANA. The paramilitaries moved about openly, commanded by the sadist, alias Escalera, a local who walked about carrying a garrote that he used to leave his victims unconscious, before lifting them onto a truck that everybody called “The road to heaven”, because nobody that got on it was ever seen again.
In the village they say that many people were thrown off the cliffs in Dabeiba, a village that was located in the midst of three canyons where the winding roads border long abysses, covered with such varied and thick vegetation that anyone thrown off the edge will only be found by the birds of prey. Or in the rivers and streams that abound there, because all of that topographic connection is conducive to the origin of the many tributaries that are rushing through the mountains.
The connivance was exposed in the decision on the massacre at La Balsita. In 2008 an Antioquia court condemned former Lt. Juan Manuel Grajales who had been in charge of a counter-guerrilla company in Dabeiba at the end of the ‘90’s. According to the statements of the witnesses, he went around to the towns (veredas) wearing a mask and accompanied by paramilitaries, pointing out to them the people he thought were helping the guerrillas. The decision describes the officer’s closeness to the paramilitaries and points out that there were other soldiers that had that same relationship with the paramilitaries.
Between November 26 and November 29, 1997, after the Lieutenant’s statements, Castaño’s men went to the towns (veredas) of L Balsita, Antasales, and Buenavista, killing 11 people and “disappearing” several more. The residents could see the closeness between the two bands. “The deal was that the paramilitaries seized the people and turned them over to the soldiers to kill them and report them as guerrillas,” according to a witness statement included in the court’s decision.
After the worst years of the paramilitaries, a milestone of the conflict took place in Dabeiba. On October 18, 2000, more than 600 guerrillas entered the urban center and cornered the 28 police that were quartered in the station. The FARC launched cylinder bombs and the attack lasted two days. When the Army counter-attacked, the guerrillas hid on a hill and shot down a helicopter carrying 24 soldiers. They all died. The guerrillas were at the point of annihilating the troops that were fighting in the mountains around the village. Finally, the Army re-took control of the municipality, but the intense fighting took the lives of 54 soldiers, two police, and more than 20 guerrillas. This episode made the military offensive against the village more powerful.
Only eleven months after Edison Lezcano disappeared, the Attorney General’s Office closed its investigation. The case was on ice for 17 years.
IN THE TIMES OF THE FALSE POSITIVES
Ten soldiers of the Pedro Justo Berrío Infantry Battalion came to the house of the Guzmán Sepúlveda family in the town (vereda) Cruces de Termales, at 5:30 in the morning of May 8, 2005. They seized the brothers Mario and Juvenal and their brother-in-law Reinel Escobar, both of them between 20 and 30 years old. They also grabbed 10 hens, the food in the house, clothing, and sixty thousand pesos (about USD30) Two days later that military unit reported “the death of three bandits from the FARC” in combat.
For the authorities that investigated the case, the soldiers’ version turned out to be difficult to believe. The soldiers said that when they got close to the area, a group of guerrillas started to shoot at them from the top of a hill. And that was when Mario, Reinel, and Juvenal ran out of the house, which was lower down on the mountain, toward the hill, so as to take part in the attack along with their comrades ensconced above.
The Inspector General’s Office, that took disciplinary action against the soldiers involved, regarded it as illogical that, in the midst of the crossfire, three men would run out of a safe place toward an area where they would be targets for the soldiers, when they only had small arms that wouldn’t be of much use in combat at the distance that they had described. Neither did the agency believe that it was reasonable that the three supposed guerrillas that were sleeping in the house, separated from the main guerrilla group up on the hill, and also were brothers and brother-in-law. It’s a known fact that in the guerrilla organization, family members don’t generally fight together.
The analysis of the autopsies also ended up disproving the soldiers’ version. On the three bodies, the medical examiners detected major injuries that took place while they were alive, as well as signs that the bodies were dragged. Later on, a neighboring woman said that she saw the soldiers transporting the bodies on the backs of mules, hours after they had disappeared. The inconsistencies in the testimony and the forensic analysis ended up with ten soldiers found guilty of the three murders.
The stories about the Army’s crimes and abuses are heard repeatedly in the mountains of Dabeiba. Some of them, like the ones above, achieved a certain grade of justice, although they remained hidden from public opinion for decades. The great majority, however, stayed buried in complete impunity, and are just starting to come to light. In the case of Edison Lezcano, whose body was just identified by the JEP, the legal apparatus was not much involved. His family made a complaint of his disappearance right away. Don Gustavo, his father, a friendly and silent man, sought as much justice as possible in a village dominated by criminals. Nevertheless, the file was closed very quickly.
On April 22, 2003, eleven months after his disappearance, Section 50 of the Attorney General’s Office in Antiquia declined to continue the proceeding with a bare document, referring to “investigative efforts undertaken”, as they described it. Eighteen years hadto pass before several soldiers confessed to the JEP that they had converted the cemetery into a mass grave. And until the remains of the campesino were found there, with a bullet in the head and with another body wearing military camouflage. When Edison was dragged away from his farm on May 18, 2002, he was 23 years old and his third child had been born just 15 days before.
Nohelia Rengifo, one of the two mothers of his children, remembers that the day after he disappeared, an acquaintance came up to her in the park and told her that they had killed Edison, and that they had him in the morgue. She ran to the cemetery and she ran into three soldiers at the gate. They questioned her and refused to answer when she asked them about Edison. For all of those 18 years, Nohelia always remembered that episode. It made her suspect that those soldiers might have had something to do with his disappearance.
The family received Edison’s remains on Monday. They were placed in a child-sized coffin. Don Gustavo, his father, carried them quickly and in silence to the village’s only funeral home. There they kept a vigil over him for three days. On Thursday, the family went out in a funeral procession to the same cemetery where he had been buried for so many years. They placed the remains in an ossuary, this time marked with his name. While his second burial was being carried out in the Las Mercedes cemetery—where there are broad areas marked with yellow tape as possible common graves—the work of searching for the others of the hundreds of Dabeiba’s disappeared continues.