SEMANA, March 1, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) discovered a laboratory in the University of Antioquia with 53 skeletons of victims. The country is nearing a spine-chilling conclusion: many “disappeared” people died as false positives and ended up buried as unidentified. Their families will never receive their remains.

At 8:50 in the morning on October 29 of last year, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) was able to link up a series of findings that could constitute an unheard-of chapter in the history of the conflict. That day, a joint committee arrived at the anthropology laboratory at the University of Antioquia in Medellín, planning to make a judicial inspection. It was thought that in that location there would not be any skeletons of people who had died violent deaths. After looking around the laboratory, the officials noted a hundred boxes labeled with the initials CU, the initials of the Universal Cemetery. They decided to open one box chosen randomly and they found the bones of a young man, unidentified, with the perfectly round hole left by a shot to the base of the skull. They all understood that right away: the young man’s life ended when somebody executed him with a point-blank shot in the neck.

This find shocked the officials, and from that moment they undertook the  meticulous task, not yet finished, in which they have inspected hundreds of the skeletons resting there, one by one. The situation forced them to seal off a section of the laboratory. All in all, they counted 136 individuals that came from the Universal Cemetery in Medellín. And they discovered that of those, 56 had obvious signs of violence. The majority were, in forensic jargon, “TCE x PAF”; i.e., with craneocephalic trauma by means of firearms.

There were other traumas of the type “undetermined method”. These would be victims of dismemberment.

The JEP transferred the 56 bodies to the Forensic Medicine Unit so that the Unit would carry out more detailed examinations of the injuries and try to identify the victims.

The problem for the University is that those bodies of people who suffered violent deaths were not supposed to be in their laboratory. Least of all without clear and complete documentationfor each individual. The JEP found that very few of the 136 skeletons from the CU have the least trace of the required documentation. The majority appear as unidentified, without a file, simply recorded by sex and age. Others have some incomplete papers and there are a number who are not even listed as being in the laboratory.

The investigators particularly noted the boxes in the laboratory marked as coming from the Universal Cemetery because they had been searching for a month to find these dead. But they didn’t expect to find them there. In fact, they had come to look for others: the hundreds of bodies exhumed from the Hidroituango Project’s area of influence. In effect, they also found 186 remains of bones in the laboratory, out of the 349 that they were looking for. They considered those later.

 A joint committee made up of prosecutors, forensic researchers, and JEP investigators from the Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons conducted the inspection of the laboratory. Mariela Zapata, the University’s attorney, appeared for the University along with the Director and founder of the laboratory, the anthropologist Timisay Monsalve Vargas. They explained that the bodies had come there by means of an agreement signed by the University with the Medellín Mayor’s Office, which is responsible for the municipal cemetery. Monsalve emphasized that the cadavers had not been altered and that they were under the sole custody of the laboratory.

The existence of an agreement was also surprising. The JEP investigators had worked in the cemetery for weeks. Their objective was to obtain all of the existing information about people buried as unidentified and to find their exact location in the graves and vaults in the cemetery. But they only found monumental disorder, not just in the files, but also in the graves themselves. And nobody could offer clarity. The Committee interviewed all of the personnel, from gravediggers and contractors up to the Administrator.

In summary, nobody knew how many unidentified bodies, or bodies identified but not claimed, had been received at the cemetery throughout the decades. Neither did anyone know the location of each and every one of those bodies, and, worse still, that there probably were bodies mixed in with the undocumented burials. The JEP prosecutors have intervened in the cemetery and set apart the area where the unidentified bodies used to be buried, and the area is now under special custody.

Later, and after learning of the agreement and the discovery of the 136 cadavers in the laboratory, the JEP investigators returned to the cemetery to interview the Administrator, Carlos Alberto Luján. He explained that he had only been there a month and he had to carry out “certain” administrative functions. He admitted that he knew of the existence of the agreement, but he denied knowing the details or the conditions contained in the agreement. After looking and looking, a file appeared, containing the document and some attachments.

The agreement dates from 2008 and it promises the transfer  of 200 bodies “of different ages and genders” from the cemetery to the laboratory, as they are available, for “academic and scientific use”. The contract allows the laboratory to use the skeletons in its work, but it also requires the bodies to be preserved and, in case they should be identified, to return them to the bereaved. That kind of contract is not irregular, as long as the bodies are not connected to legal proceedings. But the law requires preservation of the remains of unidentified persons and of victims of violence. The intention is to be able to solve crimes and that their families might receive their remains some day.

SEMANA interviewed Dr. Timisay Monsalve, who insisted that she did not know whether the bodies that came from the Universal Cemetery could be the bodies of victims of forced disappearance. The scientist pointed out that she had repeatedly requested the various Administrators of the cemetery to provide information on each body, but they never furnished anything.

The JEP considers this to be a delicate situation. In a number of court orders, it points out that any person with access to the laboratory would have been able to change or destroy those skeletal remains. Besides that, they indicate that there are “serious and worrisome indications” that the bodies have been used for academic purposes, and that this manipulation could produce “irreversible alterations”. And that, inevitably, would imply more complicated processes for identification, if not making them impossible.

The peace tribunal’s concern is that, at the same time, it must listen to the demands of the victims. The most probable hypothesis is that there are victims from Comuna 13 (13th ward or neighborhood) among the bodies. And at the same time, that offers hope to the families of the disappeared. And it worries the persons responsible for those disappearances, among them high-ranking officers of the Colombian Army.

Are they from Comuna 13?

The JEP decided to do a thorough review of the Universal Cemetery in Medellín after holding a public hearing on the case of the disappearances in Comuna 13, a neighborhood that was a real powder keg in the conflict. Victims’ families, investigators, and the authorities took part in the hearing. The FARC operated in that territory, in the western part of the City, as well as The People’s Armed Commandos, who later became the paramilitaries known as the Metro Bloc. And that is where the Colombian Army, acting under a government declaration of a state of emergency, executed Operations Mariscal and Orión, which left hundreds of people “disappeared”.

In the public hearing, the Medellín government and the Mayor’s Office admitted that they did not know for sure the number of people disappeared in Comuna 13. On Wednesday the JEP said that beginning with information furnished by the Center for Historical Memory, the Attorney General’s Office, the Victims’ Unit, and social organizations, they had established that 417 people suffered forced disappearance in Comuna 13 between 1987 and 2016.

The organization Movice (National Movement of Victims of Crimes by the State) has investigated the case and believes that the forced recruitment by the guerrillas,  subsequent takeover by the paramilitaries, and the Army Operations left more than 300 persons disappeared. “And today, subtracting some exhumations, there are more than 250 people who still can be called forcibly disappeared in the Comuna,” says Adriana Arboleda. Movice and various victims insisted at the hearing that many victims are still secretly buried in La Escombrera (the city dump) and in the Universal Cemetery. Because of that, the JEP decided to carry out research in both areas.

In La Escombrera they decided on seven sites with “high probability”. However, up to now the search has not borne fruit. At one of the sites, the forensic experts found a cross with a name inscribed. They dug down two meters and all they found was the skeleton of a cow in an upside down position, i.e., with hooves pointing upward.  At another site they examined, the investigators found a half dozen shell casings. La Escombrera is an immense strip of mountain where people have been throwing and taking away garbage and junk for decades. Looking there for human remains is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

In the Universal Cemetery, in the place where the unidentified are buried, the investigators have also made excavations. Sometimes they found things and other times they didn’t. But the chaos is such that one of the few concrete findings, released by the Mayor’s Office, indicates that between 2002 and 2012 “a total of 906 unidentified bodies” entered the cemetery, but that “it was not possible to find information on the number of bodies between 1990 and 2001.” There lies the importance of the finding of 136 bodies from the cemetery in the laboratory at the University of Antioquia. There is a high probability that some of the disappeared from the Comuna are there.

Swampy cemeteries

Now the challenge will be to identify the bodies with DNA evidence and later connect them with their mourners.  After more than 20 years of impunity and uncertainty, the families victimized in Comuna 13 can finally see some hope. But the story up to now is only half of what was found in the laboratory. Also in the laboratory there are 180 bodies, resting securely, that come from an informal cemetery in the District (corregimiento) of Orobajo, in Sabanalarga, Antioquia Province, one of the territories affected by the megaproject Hidroituango.

The story of the cemeteries bordering Hidroituango was also revealed at a hearing called at the request of the victims. It was part of a second large investigation ordered by the justices after the hearing on Comuna 13. It’s purpose was to consider the need to order protective measures to conserve key evidence that could contribute to clarifying events relevant to the armed conflict.

In the case of Hidroituango, the victims argue that there are hundreds of bodies of the disappeared in the six municipalities that had direct influence on the project: Briceño, Peque, Sabanalarga, Ituango, Toledo, and Valdivia. That axis around the Cauca River canyon has been one of the areas most shaken by the violence throughout the decades. The people who live there say that dead bodies were often transported on the river and then buried in the beaches.  The National Center for Historical Memory records that from 1982 until 2016 there were nearly 600 cases of forced disappearance in those six municipalities. Besides that, the armed actors perpetrated 51 massacres that left 318 victims dead. Between 1995 and 2005 were the darkest years.

For its part, the Attorney General’s Office reports that as of May 2019 it had exhumed the bodies of 196 unidentified individuals. Half were in municipal cemeteries and the rest in common graves in rural areas. According to that, comparing the information of Historical Memory with that of the Attorney General, there would be 400 cases not yet discovered.

The JEP made a georeferencing study by superimposing the three phenomena (forced disappearance, massacres, and official exhumations) on a regional map. These showed a 90% co-incidence. A repeated shadow that follows the line of the Cauca River canyon.

Considering that panorama, several communities and organizations criticize the Hidroituango project by Medellín Public Works (EPM in Spanish) because, to fill in 79 kilometers of the wetland, they had to flood many areas and even move communities. That’s what happened to the indigenous community of Nutibara in Orobajo. It was fragmented and relocated to another area by the megaproject. They also had to move the cemetery of this small community. And Professor Timisay Monsalve did that work.

The documents indicate that EPM hired Integrál, an engineering firm, and that this company subcontracted with the University of Antioquia in 2017, in Agreement 14, to move three cemeteries. This was within the framework of the environmental permit issued for the Hidroituango project. In that way Monsalve led a team of 25 professionals who conducted the exhumations. They exhumed 180 bodies from Orobajo, where the community said there were around 100 dead; in Barbacoas, where the people also calculated 100 dead, they recovered 151 bodies; and in Fortuna, where they estimated ten individuals, they found 18, in spite of the fact that the backhoes had already leveled half the cemetery.

Professor Monsalve explained to the JEP that they recovered 349 bodies in all. “One by one labeled and documented,” she says, and emphasizes that the work was done with complete professional rigor in spite of the adverse conditions of terrain and danger in those locations. She describes what was done as a “bioanthropological” operation and insists that she was always accompanied by the community. She also explains that when accepting the mission, she assumed that there were no cadavers connected to the violence. “We were not looking for disappeared people; what we were doing was an administrative transfer that was within EPM’s environmental permit .”

With respect to the 180 bodies from Orobajo that are in the Medellín laboratory, the anthropologist says that the community authorized her to take custody of the written documents, since where they would be transferred to had not been decided. She also points out that the other bodies that were recovered were reburied in the Municipality of Peque. For their part, the Justices of the JEP believe that the transfer of the three  cemeteries is plagued with irregularities. In the public hearing, they questioned Professor Monsalve severely when she stated that she had washed the dead people’s clothing so that the families could identify them better. From the forensic point of view, that amounts to alteration of evidence.

The role of the Attorney General’s Office in Antioquia is also open to question. In the public hearing the EPM Directors explained to the Justices that the prosecutors gave the green light to their activities in the cemeteries, reasoning that the official searches were long over. The JEP considers that the Attorney General could not delegate that effort. “We are not talking about Norway here; we are talking about areas with the highest levels of violence,” said Justice Gustavo Salazar to the regional prosecutor who took part in the hearing.

This week the JEP forensic investigators were advancing their inspection of the 180 skeletons from Orobajo, trying to determine if there are victims of violence among them. The Justices also ordered corroboration of the location where the bodies removed from the irregular cemeteries in Barbacoas and Fortuna are lying now. The fact that there are 140 more bodies than the people had calculated makes the justices think that the actors in the conflict also buried victims there.

All of these developments were presented at the same time that in the Dabeiba cemetery, the authorities were able to recover and identify the remains of young Édison Lezcano, a false positive victim of the Colombian Army. Already 50 unidentified bodies have been exhumed in that cemetery. Outside of Antioquia the peace tribunal is examining a dozen more cemeteries. Up to now, they have been precarious locations that functioned for decades without much protocol or attention.  The responsible officials mixed the remains of unidentified dead and even sometimes burned them. Meanwhile the JEP continues to dig, in a land that is seeded with the dead.

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