Origin of Forced Disappearance in Colombia
(Translated by Chuck Summers and Susan Tritten, CSN Volunteer Translators)
In the late 70s the first forced disappearances began to occur in Colombia, directed against recognized left-wing militants (labor union members, students and intellectuals, among others), opposition political parties such as the Communist Party, or members of insurgent organizations captured outside of combat. It was an era when little was known of this crime, since it wasn’t considered criminal conduct in the country and was justified by the judicial and political leaders who stated that they were missing persons or that they had decided to join insurgent groups. Data about the victims have been collected, mostly by human rights organizations, which have systematized many of the cases in their databases, cases which remain victims of absolute impunity.
The practice coincides with adoption of military operations manuals, established by Decree 1537 of 1974, known as the Strategy for Defense and National Security, and Decree 1923 of 1978, that expands power for the prosecution of civilians to the security forces and gives judicial powers to the police. In both decrees the civilian population is considered the objective of the counterinsurgent struggle as it "is the base for the existence of subversive groups" and therefore the intelligence operations, psychological warfare and "defense" contained in the manuals referred to above are directed toward civilians. The strategy of classifying the population into black, gray, and white lists is well-known, each being subject to different forms of aggression, including forced disappearance. This was also the era of strengthening the paramilitary strategy with the emergence, in Magdaleno Medio, of MAS (Death to Kidnappers), which subsequently spread throughout the entire country.
By the 80s forced disappearance became widespread and permanent because the paramilitary groups, with the complicity of the Armed Forces, resumed the practice as one of the forms of aggression and terror against the peasant population whom they captured, tortured, murdered and then disappeared as a way to appropriate their lands and property, or as a way to implement strategic infrastructure projects or the exploitation of natural resources. By the decade of the 90s forced disappearance became the crime against humanity preferred by paramilitary groups and had three essential ends: (1) to exterminate and disappear social and political leaders; (2) to carry out acts of extermination against sectors of the population considered undesirable such as women prostitutes, drug addicts, the LGTB population and the impoverished; (3) as a form of discipline and social control of entire populations to whom this method has been applied in order to cause terror and thus eliminate any intention to denounce or oppose paramilitary strategy.
Many of the victims of forced disappearance ended up in hidden mass graves, converted to ash in artisan crematories located on the estates of ranchers, paramilitaries, or drug traffickers, or in the big rivers in the country. Their whereabouts are still unknown. This fact, together with fear of reporting forced disappearances because of the perpetrators’ control over the region, and distrust of state institutions, does not permit clear data about the total number of victims. They still continue to collect testimonies from families who only now dare to speak out, which leaves many more cases to document.
It was not until 2000, with Law 589, that forced disappearance started to be a crime and to be considered and documented by judicial agencies. Currently, Colombia has signed the majority of international instruments regarding this topic and has developed special legislation and mechanisms. Nevertheless, detention and forced disappearance continue being systematic, permanent, and widespread, as recognized in reports by the United Nations, human rights organizations, and the official institutions themselves. Only after a vigorous campaign by the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes and by other victims and human rights organizations, the government consented to present a bill that fully allows the ratification of the United Nations International Convention for the protection of all persons against forced disappearance.
How many victims of forced disappearance are there in Colombia?
No one has a definite answer to this question. Failure to recognize this crime, consequently registered as a simple kidnapping or homicide, lack of official reports, fear of families to speak out, persecution of organizations of victims dedicated to investigating the tragedy and the constant intention of the National Government to hide the figures, has led to a lack of clear data about the magnitude of this crime against humanity.
The National Attorney General, up to mid-2009, had a consolidated list of 25,000 victims and continues to receive complaints. The National Commission of Missing Persons Search has a global figure of 25,086 cases, and has also affirmed that forced disappearances dramatically increased between January 1, 2007 and October 21, 2008, a period when 2,763 cases were registered, of which 3,090 occurred during 2008. Nevertheless, the records of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences reveal even greater figures. Meanwhile, human rights organizations, including the National Movement of Victims against State Crimes, affirmed that if we consider the crimes committed since 1977 and include the last four years, the figure could reach more than 50,000 victims. All agencies, governmental and non-governmental, do agree that the figures continue to increase. This includes documentation of extrajudicial executions cases in the period of Democratic Security, euphemistically known in Colombia as “false positives.” There are 3,083 cases documented between July 2002 and December 2009, of which a high percentage began as forced disappearances.
One example illustrates the magnitude of the horror. The National Institute of Legal Medicine notes that it received, in the city of Medellín, between January 1 and April 7 of 2010, an account of 109 cases reported as forced disappearances. Of these cases, 6 victims were found dead and 103 are still missing, 34 of them women. Therefore, forced disappearance continues to be a painful reality and behind each case there is a person with a life plan, a family, and many times, a severely affected group.
Difficulties facing families searching for victims of forced disappearances
Other concerns of MOVICE have to do with the lack of participation by families in the search process for missing persons; only 448 households have been able to participate in the more than 4,000 exhumations. In most cases the families are seen only as complainants, sources of information, objects for DNA testing, but not as people with rights. Other reasons for minimal participation are:
Institutions’ ignorance of the identity of the families, a lack of preliminary rigorous and efficient investigation, so that the institutions do not know which families to contact, and a lack clear search methods;
Families’ lack of adequate and comprehensible information about their right to participate;
The Prosecution’s rejection of the presence of the families and escorts at the exhumations because of a lack of security, a contradictory argument, if at the same time the government denies the existence of an armed conflict, of paramilitary control, and emphasizes an increase in security thanks to the Democratic Security Policy;
Officials’ fear of the emotional impact on families and communities, and their inability to handle it without professional support, especially during exhumation and identification;
Lack of resources so that the families can track judicial and search processes;
Notice of exhumations on short notice.
“What we are looking for is our loved ones. We aren’t looking for graves and bones”
[This is the] expression of the families of the victims when they hear the cold figures of the judicial agencies about the success of the exhumations carried out by the National Program of Identification of Unidentified Victims and Search for Missing Persons, from the Attorney General of the nation. The program has been presented to the international community as part of the success of Law 975 of 2005 (known as the Law of Justice and Peace). Nevertheless, a look at the figures indicates that, while the prosecution has made some progress, it is far from [fulfilling] the right to truth and justice, as more than 90% of the victims are still missing and the cases have not been cleared up because the paramilitaries have made only general admission to their crimes and the State does not assume its responsibility for this crime against humanity.
The prevailing impunity relative to this crime; the fact that again cases of forced disappearance come before the military justice system as if due obedience existed [the law which exempts from accusation subordinates who were carrying out orders] in such cases; the fact that exhumed combatants are included in the statistics, so that results are inflated in the search for persons forcibly disappeared, all represent, from a psychosocial point of view, a re-victimization of the families. They also impede the healing nature of the search processes, exhumation, identification, and the dignified return [of the body] in Colombia.
Remember we are speaking of more than 50,000 victims of forced disappearance in the last thirty years. Of these the Prosecution reports that until February 28, 2010, they had found 2,488 graves with 3,017 bodies. Nevertheless, the identification and return of the remains and bodies are still very slow: there are 910, either clearly or indirectly identified, of which 796 have been returned to their families.
A Case Not to Repeat
On October 15, 2009 on the premises of the Technical Staff Investigation (CTI) of Medellín, an agency attached to the National Attorney General, 23 bodies of forced disappearance victims were returned by the Division of Justice and Peace. The families of the victims and the media were invited to the event. The remains were in small, wooden, sealed boxes and their families could never open them. Behind the boxes were all of the officials of Justice and Peace, CTI, and the Mayor’s office, among others. The families, meanwhile, were seated, far from the boxes which contained the remains of their loved ones, summoned to witness a ceremony in which what was most important were the speeches of the officials before the press that reported the great success of the program to exhume and identify the cadavers.
That day Yoni Rivera came, along with his ten siblings, to receive the remains of his father, Sebastian Enrique Rivas Valeta, and his brother, Wilson Rivas Lopez, tortured, murdered, and disappeared on July 20, 1996 in a village in the municipality of Turbo by paramilitaries who operated in the region. His mother, Rosiris del Carmen, could not come to the program because she was cruelly murdered in February of 1997 for reporting the event. It didn’t matter that Rosiris was pregnant and that her small children were clinging to her legs when they went to kill her. Her perpetrators had no compassion: they removed the fetus, dismembered her, and spread out her entire body so that her children could see. Yoni was 12 years old but already had courage to pick up, with his siblings, the pieces of his mother’s body. The day of the return [of the body] the children reunited, because now they are scattered in different places in the department of Antioquia, but few cared about their story because they were not the protagonists.
The National Movement of Victims of State Crimes united them in an intimate, Eucharistic celebration where, for the first time, they could talk about what they felt. They could approach the boxes with serenity, touch them, and express their fears. The oldest of them asked if these in fact were the bodies of their father and brother. They only knew that they had taken blood for a DNA test that few people understood, and did not participate in the exhumation. “That was like a presentation of diplomas at graduation”, some said