In Colombia 80,000 people have disappeared, although the true figures may be much higher. The majority of these disappearances have been perpetrated by the State, paramilitaries and guerillas. Their victims: social leaders, indigenous people, political opponents, peasants and just ordinary people.
Virginia Moreno Molina
It is a long-standing crime, and we know that between 1977 and the decade of the 90s, the targets were people working to improve social life. The message is clear: “anyone who continues doing this – the same will happen to them” (they will be disappeared).
Even so, warnings began to appear at the end of the 20th Century, that forced disappearances were being used in a strategy of terror to cause massive displacements of the population.
And since the year 2000 an increased number of massacres and forced disappearances have been reported [in Colombia] carried out by paramilitary groups with the aim of forcing people to abandon their land, so that they could concentrate on their mono-cultural agriculture or mining activities. This is still continuing today.
Another aspect of the forced disappearances is so-called ‘social extermination’. This refers to the activities of private groups who are disappearing indigenous people, prostitutes or people dependent on drugs … in the name of what they consider to be a beneficial activity for society.
This ‘cleansing’, “is another system of disappearances, which is almost invisible, but is very active in urban areas of Bogotá or Barranquilla”, according to Jomary Ortegón, a member for 20 years of the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (Cajar), and an advocate at the Inter-American System of Human Rights for the victims of many crimes. These include torture, forced disappearances, restriction of political rights (lawfare), and attacks by the police (on people who participate in social protests and have been injured by the so-called “sub-lethal arms”, and have as a consequence lost their eyes, for example).
Ortegón was in London at the invitation of Rodeemos el Diálogo (We circle the dialogue) to the event “Forward and backward steps: the search for missing persons in Colombia” (“Avances y retos: búsqueda de personas desaparecidas en Colombia), at which other contributors included Cesar Amaya Sandino from the Colectivo Sociojurídico Orlando Fals Borda; Elizabeth Santander from the Grupo Europa de Familiares de personas desaparecidas en Colombia (European Group of relatives of the disappeared in Colombia); and Andrei Gomez, member of Rodeemos el Diálogo.
Jomary Ortegón talked to The Prisma about the meeting, and explained how since the year 2000 forced disappearance has been considered a crime in Colombia, although cases have been recorded since 1977.
“During the decades of the 1970s to the 1990s, the disappearances were directly imputable to the government”, continues the lawyer. And thus, by implication to the police, the army or the Administrative Department of Security.
After that time the paramilitary strategy became more developed: in the 2000s the different groups began to share information about individuals that they had collected illegally.
Thus, the number of extra-judicial disappearances surged, in which there was an agreement [between the army and] the paramilitaries, to execute the person and then report them as missing in combat. Ortegón points out that, according to figures collected by human rights organizations, there are 6,000 cases recorded of people who were executed by the army.
Despite the signing of the Peace Accord with the paramilitaries (the United Self-Defence of Colombia), who reached an understanding with these groups, through a demobilization which took place between 2003 and 2006, Jomary explained that the paramilitaries still exist.
“A fraction of them did disband, but it is estimated that 30% are still continuing to operate. And at the same time more victims are reporting forced disappearances”.
The lawyer also believes that, with the increase in migration from Venezuela, not only to Colombia, but also other countries, more situations have arisen that could be reported as disappearances. For example, human trafficking.
However, he thinks that the main reason is that there has never been a cease-fire in the armed conflict, despite the Peace Agreement with the now ex-guerrillas of the FARC, and the number of paramilitary groups has increased. Dissident groups have also formed from the FARC as well as other types of organizations involved in narco-trafficking and illegal mining.
“A definitive peace remains a long way off, and this means that the problem of disappearances will not stop”.
The reporting Process
“The victim can go to the police or to the public prosecutor, although the police will not initiate a search until 72 hours have passed”, explains the lawyer.
However, the legal function belongs to the public prosecutor, where an investigation will begin immediately. This investigation consists of a preliminary phase and an instruction phase. And this latter can only begin when a suspect has been identified.
But one of the biggest problems is to identify these suspects. “It can take decades to find the bodies of the disappeared”, says Jomary, and in addition, if there is no suspect to be accused, “the majority of cases never reach the instruction phase and remain archived”.
An example is the case of the disappearance of Marino Escobar, 37 years ago, which is still stuck in the preliminary phase. In the end it’s down to the victims themselves to carry out their own investigation, to go to the places where they have to make inquiries, and to learn to formulate a mountain of juridical questions, to force the authorities to begin a search.
Although a mechanism for urgent searches was created at the beginning of this century, to put the State apparatus into action and investigate reports of disappeared persons, Jomary believes that it hasn’t worked, because there is no awareness of what a search means.
Later, once the Peace Accord had been signed by the FARC and the then President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos in 2016, the process of search was separated from the rest of the investigation, so it could go ahead without the identification of a suspect.
Jomary lists the areas where more disappearances have happened, as the departments of Cauca, Valle and Nariño. And one of the most dramatic events happened in the municipality of Buenaventura, where, some years ago, the so-called ‘Casas de Pique” were discovered, (coming from the verb picar, meaning to cut into pieces).
“These are houses, where the bodies of victims were taken to be dismembered”, explains the lawyer.
Patterns of disappearances
According to Ortegón, there are a number of different patterns, among which is included the ‘detention-disappearance’, which was most common between 1977 and the end of the 90s. This refers to people detained by the police or by intelligence agents and whose whereabouts are not known today.
“Data exist which show that these people were taken away by these security agents, either because they identified themselves as such, or because these people were recorded in police or military databases, explains the lawyer.
And besides these cases, beginning in 2002, with the controversial democratic security policy implemented by the then President Alvaro Uribe Velez, the number of extra-judicial executions increased considerably. The first cases were recorded in 2003, and the numbers increased rapidly until 2008.
“The majority of these people were victims of a forced disappearance followed by extra-judicial execution”, says Jomary, who refers to people who “were assassinated by the army or groups connected with them”.
The family reports the disappearance, and days, months or years later the person is found dead.
Despite this being one of the most recent patterns, these cases are investigated as executions but not as disappearances. “But in every case, there was first the disappearance. Despite this they become invisible”, she says.
She reports that in 2000, 60% of the disappearances were carried out by paramilitary groups, and in some case with the complicity of the regular army.
Typically, the victims were peasants, indigenous people, and functionaries who were investigating disappearances when they themselves were kidnapped.
Jomary also mentions the large number of unidentified victims in cemeteries and graves in different places. “Although a report was made, since no-one did the work of identifying the body, we don’t know who is buried there, as there is no way to match them”, emphasizes Ortegón.
Persistence and mourning
One of the biggest problems is that there is no central registry, but instead about 23 entities who work on forced disappearance, but they are not linked together. Jomary points out that “there is a lack of determination on the part of the entities responsible, because there is no clear path forward”.
This has resulted in a situation where the records are dispersed, the relatives have to go to many different places, and that there is no search method applicable to all cases.
But it’s true that there was a change after the signing of the Peace Accords in 2016, because now there is a search unit for disappeared persons, whose mission will be to bring together these registers, to work out an effective method of investigation.
Some specific cases have come to attention internationally but, as Jomary explains, this depended on the persistence of the relatives. Other reported cases are often those that remain open for a long time, or those where “in which the disappeared person had an important profile socially”.
One example is that of the 12 who disappeared from the Palacio de Justizia, whose relatives continued searching for 34 years.
Regrettably, one of the main consequences of this lengthy search, is that they can’t begin to deal with their loss emotionally, because although the relatives may believe that their loved one was assassinated, they still hold on to the hope that they might come back.
(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)