2,304 unidentified bodies were found in 5 cemeteries: 1,674 had been reported as killed in combat.
By Juan David López Morales, EL TIEMPO, July 20, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
When his family received his body, 5,062 days had passed since José Indalecio González had been killed. He was “killed in combat” by the Colombian Army on February 6, 2002, but his remains were not returned until December 2015.
José Indalecio worked on the La Llanerita farm in San Martin, in Meta Province. He communicated with his family in Villavicencio regularly, until he stopped doing it.
Around 2004, his family received indications that he was dead and that his body might be in the cemetery in Granada, in Meta. The indications were uncertain, because there was no name on the grave where his body lay.
This case has not been resolved by the legal system. José Indalecio was reported as killed in combat by the 21st Infantry Battalion “Pantano de Vargas”, attached to the Army’s 4th Division. Supposedly, a guide had pointed him out as a FARC guerrilla.
At that time, the Battalion Commander was Héctor Alejandro Cabuya, who was convicted in 2016 of connections with the paramilitaries of the “Centauros” Bloc, and investigated for extrajudicial executions in the Plains in the beginning of the decade of 2000.
Many factors had to come together before the body of José Indalecio could be returned to his family. Among them was that ten years later, on July 22, 2010 , there was a public hearing in La Macarena, Meta that became a historic breakthrough for the disappeared in the country, and in particular for those so-called “false positives” in the Plains.
The biggest mass grave?
After the break-up of the dialogs with the FARC in San Vicente del Caguán, the government pushed forward an offensive to re-take control in the region.
César Santoyo, Director of the Orlando Fals Borda Socio-Legal Collective (Cofab in Spanish) describes how at the end of the decade several defenders of human rights that were working with the communities in the Ariari region, encountered the heartache of the families whose loved ones had disappeared. “We were able to document a number of cases and establish that something strange was going on,” he says.
The priest, Javier Giraldo, from the Center for Investigation and Popular Education (Cinep in Spanish), remembers that around 2009 “there was a lot of distress” among the people of La Macarena because the water was getting “completely rotten, with a nauseating smell.”
The water system passed close by the cemetery. You could see that military helicopters frequently arrived to unload dead bodies in the cemetery, and that they were buried in mass graves. “We started to figure out that maybe they weren’t being buried appropriately,” says Fr. Giraldo.
The gravedigger at that time confirmed that “they were burying a lot of people without the required precautions,” the priest recalls.
According to Adriana Pestana, a psychologist with Cofab, the people started to piece it together, because there had been so many people disappeared and there were so many unidentified bodies brought to the cemeteries.
Then the Human Rights Committee of the Colombian Congress convened a public hearing in which European members of Parliaments took part, along with nearly 4,000 inhabitants of the region, including hundreds of campesinos who recounted the stories of their family members. And that amplified the complaints about the resurgence and worsening of the conflict in the region, where it looked as if the result was disappearances and extrajudicial executions.
They examined five cemeteries: in Meta, La Macarena, Granada, Vista Hermosa, and Villavicencio, and in Guaviare Province, the cemetery in San José del Guaviare.
In February 2010 the Justice and Peace Unit in the Attorney General’s Office—now the Transitional Justice Unit—undertook the “investigative procedure related to the suspected existence of human remains buried without compliance with the legally required procedures and protocols,” according to the answer the Unit gave to this newspaper. A team from the Search and Identification of Disappeared Persons Group (Grube in Spanish) was assigned to examine the cemeteries in the Plains.
Later On October 26, 2010, the Interior Minister signed an agreement with the National Registry and the Forensic Medicine Institute to commence identifying the dead people and check the data with the National Registry of the Disappeared. According to Santoyo, “the cruelty and the horror of the situation in the communities made it more likely that there would be more sensitivity on the part of these government entities.”
At that time they were starting to assess the disappearances represented in anonymous graves all over the country. Pestana remembers that they started talking about La Macarena as the largest common grave in Colombia. She makes clear that, first of all, it wasn’t just one common grave, but many, and second, you couldn’t be sure of that, even though the dimension of what happened is not small.
Only in the five cemeteries was it documented that 2,304 bodies had been buried without being identified. Of those, 1,674 had been reported by the Armed Forces as killed in combat. Although we don’t know for sure, some of them were “false positives”. The Attorney General’s Office and the Forensic Medicine Unit have turned over 280 remains to families.
Searching for the “false positives”
According to a report presented in 2018 by several social organizations to the Search for Disappeared Persons Unit (UBPD in Spanish), the 21 Vargas Battalion—implicated in the killing of José Indalecio González—registered 450 deaths in combat in the first decade of this century, just in the cemetery in Granada.
That was not the only military unit in the region, and for that reason, the organizations asked the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) to investigate all of the units attached to the Army’s 4th Division.
The Counter-Guerrilla Battalion No. 47 registered 350 combat deaths in the cemetery in Villavicencio. In the one in Vista Hermosa, another 40 bodies were buried as having been killed in combat, registered by a different Brigade than Battalion No. 21.
424 unidentified bodies arrived at the La Macarena cemetery, registered as killed in combat by the Rapid Response Force (Fudra) of Mobile Brigade No. 2 and the Counter-Guerrilla Battalions 52, 36, 15, 17, and 70. And in San José del Guaviare there was the José Joaquín París Battalion, with 410 unidentified bodies reported as killed in combat.
Santoyo says that Cofab has filed direct lawsuits on the 40 cases that seem to be “false positives”. The group brought the suits in the ordinary justice system and also in the military criminal justice system, and now they are filing them in the JEP, where they have asked that the victims be accredited. About 40 soldiers are being investigated, most of them low-ranking privates.
The Vargas Battalion No 21 was prioritized in the investigation in the JEP’s case 03, covering “deaths illegally presented as killed in combat”. More than a dozen members of the military have given statements, including retired Colonel Cabuya and retired Major Wilson Orlando Lizarazo, both already convicted and sentenced. The organizations are hoping that the JEP will go higher in the ranks and find out if the heads of the 4th Division are responsible. In addition, they are prioritizing Guaviare.
A source that is familiar with the cases stated that Cabuya was investigated for five cases, but he mentioned 42 to the JEP. This retired officer’s cases refer, primarily, to the beginning of the decade 2000 and to a pattern of collaboration with the paramilitaries, but he was not the only one who worked with paramilitaries to commit “false positives”. “What happened in Meta was far beyond that period and that commander,” said the source.
The legal authorities have a duty to find out and report what happened. Even if the majority of the bodies were not victims of extrajudicial executions, it would establish the intensity of the war in that region. Meanwhile, the forensic work continues to return the bodies to their families.
Adriana Pestana relates how the largest ceremony of returning remains took place in December of 2015. At that time the negotiations in Havana were going on, where the parties agreed to urgent humanitarian measures regarding the disappearances. “It’s as if they stepped on the gas and went ahead to turn over to the families the bodies that had already been identified,” she says. There were 29 remains that were returned to their families.
In Cofab they realized that the victims were not just from the Plains. Many people had gone there, attracted by the economic bonanzas. With the first identifications that the Attorney General’s Office and the Registry were able to do, they did some publications in the Rastros (Traces) magazine and the Collective took the photos and converted them into communicative pieces to give to the families.
Afterwards, they realized that it would be necessary to take those pieces far beyond the municipalities in the Plains, because the families of many of these people were in regions like the Pacific, the Caribbean, Antioquia, or Cundinamarca. In the end, the truth that was dug up in the Plains is not just from that region, but rather it tells the story of people all over the country.
Exhumations are continuing in four cemeteries
The cemetery in Vista Hermosa is the only one where the exhumations are finished. In the others, according to the Attorney General’s Office, they are still working on collecting information, analysis, and verification, as well as on the recovery and identification of remains “given the complexity of the situations we have found there.”
Of the 1,667 bodies that have been exhumed, 425 were in Granada, 617 in Villavicencio, 90 in Villa Hermosa, 386 in La Macarena, and 148 in San José del Guaviare. The Attorney General’s Office is aware that 280 remains have been identified and turned over to the families.
For its part, the UBPD has received 889 applications for searches of 1,098 people assumed to have been disappeared in Meta. Of these, 40 applications match people that appear to have disappeared in La Macarena, even if their families are there or in a different region.
The UBPD is working on two regional search plans grouping 52 people in the province. At the same time, as they reported, they are trying to make new search plans that will group 453 disappeared people in the areas of high and middle Ariari, in Duda-Guayabero, in Capital, in Piedemonte, and in Puerto Gaitán.