By Jorge Cardona Alzate, EL ESPECTADOR, May 8, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
This is the story of a doctor who knows that bodies talk, and for that reason is familiar with Colombia’s contempt for life. As a forensic pathologist, he has dealt with cases that continue to lash the country’s conscience, such as the attacks by the Extraditables, the killings of Luis Carlos Galán, Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, and Teófilo Forero.
Death does not intimidate him. He has seen it so often that it pains him more to record the disregard for life when violence is the cause of death. He worked almost thirty years as a pathologist at the Institute for Forensic Medicine; he has twice been the Assistant Director there, and now performs investigations in his own laboratory. He is Pedro Morales Martínez, a doctor from Santander who in these times of coronavirus, admits that what also concerns him is that other diseases will be ignored; or that people are acting as if the fact that the Mayor of Bogotá disobeyed a quarantine regulation is more important than finding out how 23 inmates died at the La Modelo prison.
“What’s considered important continues to be the superficial, and people aren’t moved or scandalized by the seriousness of violent death,” he said from his home in Bogotá. But in his next line, he mentions that, after the United States, for all that this country has experienced, Colombia’s accomplishments in anthropology and forensic genetics lead all of the other nations on the continent. With all of his experience, he can say that definitely. He knows that “the body talks”, that every organ has a story to tell. He has understood that through countless cases between 1988 and 2016. That certainty comes from his many diagnoses that today can be useful to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).
He was born in Málaga (Santander Province) in 1952, and he was the only one of six brothers who followed the family tradition by studying medicine. His father practiced medicine until his death. He had an office at their house. But the legacy goes back to one of his great-grandfathers, who healed the wounds of the soldiers in the War of a Thousand Days. He went to high school in Pamplona and then took up medicine at the National University until 1979. Looking for a specialty, at the University of Antioquia and San Vicente de Paul Hospital, he found experiences that led him to understanding pathological anatomy. Up to that time he had only seen one death, a campesino who had been murdered in García Rovira Province.
He learned from the masters César Augusto Giraldo, Constanza Díaz, and Mario Robledo, at a time when Medellín was beginning to experience the scourge of the violence. He had a chance to leave for Bogotá in January 1988 to enter the Institute of Forensic Medicine. From then on, finding reasons in the dead bodies as a forensic pathologist, his story is one of a nation that was going forward between assassinations and massacres. He dealt with the victims of several car bombings by The Extraditables. And the ones from the attack on the DAS, those from Centro 93, and those of the women and children who lost their lives in the Quirigua neighborhood in a prelude to the Mother’s Day bombing.
Without chronological order, he recalled from memory the autopsy of the presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán and, in that same bloody political campaign, that of Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, the Democratic Alliance M-19 candidate. And the autopsy of the communist leader Teófilo Forero, who was assassinated along with his wife and two companions. And that of Manuel Cepeda Vargas, the Patriotic Union Senator, and of the conservative leader Álvaro Gómez Hurtado. He has never lost his capacity for astonishment. Not even at the rigidity of death, nor at the signs of carelessness for life.
In July of 1999, three fronts of the FARC and a mobile column of the Eastern Bloc were concentrated in the foothills of the eastern mountain range, in the Sumapaz region, near the Municipality of Gutiérrez (Cundinamarca Province). They attacked two Army anti-guerrilla battalions camped in the town (vereda) of El Cedral, at the altitude of 2,350 meters. Disadvantaged both in position and in numbers, the soldiers were beaten. The combat lasted more than ten hours and eight soldiers were killed. Twenty-three of them surrendered, some of them with injuries. Without any thought of humanity, the guerrilla chieftain, Romaña, in reprisal for the guerrillas who were killed, ordered their execution.
They were all killed at point blank range. “We prepared an important document. It was one of the first times that there was clear evidence of violations of International Human Rights Law and of extrajudicial executions. The weapons that they used, the distance from which they fired the shots, the premeditated conduct in these acts,” recounts Pedro Morales. He was also familiar with the homicidal details in the eastern region because of a different chapter of atrocities; the ones that the paramilitaries with Martín Llanos and the ones that Miguel Arroyave’s Centaur Bloc carried out in Meta and Casanare.
Later on, in the expert report that he prepared on his examinations of the bodies of the Del Valle Deputies, he also established that there was not even a trace of mercy shown to the victims. “We conclude that in Colombia there are no battlefields now, but rather places where defenseless people are killed in cold blood. They kill them and that’s that, as if they were hit men committing a murder.” All of that has so much historical value in that it establishes, for example, “in the case of the death of RaulReyes, in Ecuador, the body was not processed legally; there was just a simple paper where the police in Putumayo request an autopsy.”
“That autopsy was performed in minute detail, but since the body arrived at Forensic Medicine without the protocols being carried out, the legal error was clear,” adds the pathologist Morales. Years later, the Supreme Court of Justice threw out the case known as Reyes’ computers, precisely because of the anomalies like the one I mentioned, and also because it appears that the chain of custody for the evidence was broken. In the clamor and clash of war, “violent death becomes routine, it stops scandalizing, society becomes indifferent, every kind of extreme situation can take place.”
Today he reminds us, with a certain tone of powerlessness or of thinking about lamentable events, that even though through his many years in Forensic Medicine and his two terms as Assistant Director in 2000 and 2011, he prefers to extol the construction of the morgue in Tumaco (Nariño Province). “I had to go there and improvise autopsies for some Awá indigenous people that were murdered by the FARC’s 36th Front, and I decided it would be necessary to fix up that desolate place.” But now, the morgue is the most notable public building in the Pacific port, where unfortunately, there continue to be a lot of deaths from violent acts.
He has been married three times to women he describes as “extraordinary”, and he speaks with pride of his six children. Two are university professors in the United States, another manages a history department in Louisiana. He has a daughter who is a medical anthropologist, another a lawyer, and the youngest is a journalist with UN Women. His family is near and he already has four nephews who want to be doctors. Just as he does these days, they share their reflections on the coronavirus. His is that “all epidemics end; this one will do it when it runs out of susceptible victims, and later on there will be permanent changes in society.”
“As well as in the case of AIDS, besides the medical treatments, we learned the importance of using condoms and the syndrome was handled with education. Now it’s clear that social isolation is unavoidable, and later there will be a permanent culture of hand washing or the use of masks,” explains Morales. What is really hard to get through is the severity of the burden on families who have not been able to accompany their mothers, sisters and brothers, or children who have died from the coronavirus, or who have had to postpone the gathering of the family or the embraces of their friends as they say a loving good-by to those who are gone.
That’s what happened to him two weeks ago, when his mother died at the age of 98, in Bucaramanga. “She didn’t die of the virus; she had diabetes and it was more of an ending that was related to a change in her nurses. At the beginning of the week she was playing parqués (Parcheesi-like board game) and talking about everything, but her condition deteriorated in five days.” Along with the difficulties with the medical service, neither did she have a funeral. The mortuary treated her as if she were a case of COVID-19.”We attended a Catholic mass by Zoom, but before the service was over, we lost the signal. We held the wake with a family chat group where we told about our memories of her.”
When the quarantine is over, along with his brothers, Dr. Pedro Morales would like to provide the dignified farewell that every dead person deserves to receive. They will do it with the same merciful treatment that they have given to hundreds of dead bodies, whether known or anonymous; with the respect that their diseases and their deaths in the revolving door of existence deserve. Later they will go back to their Citomap laboratory that assists in the Western Clinic, because he knows very well that it’s his duty to keep working in forensic pathology, to determine the causes of death of the people who have died, or assist the surgeons in understanding the diseases, and thus save many lives.