Colombia peace talks may lead to discovery of more missing people's graves, but relatives are losing hope after 50 years of fighting
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – After 22 years, Mayerlis Angarita has finally given up hope and stopped searching for her mother, who disappeared one afternoon when Mayerlis was just 11.
“There comes a moment when you stop looking and searching for the truth. I know it will be difficult, if not impossible, to ever know the truth about what happened to my mother,” said Angarita, 33, who heads a women’s rights and land campaigning group, Network for Life.
“You learn with time that if a person doesn’t return home it’s because something has happened to them, that they’re dead,” she said.
Angarita blames her mother’s disappearance on right-wing paramilitary groups which were formed in the 1980s and backed by landowners and politicians to protect them from attacks by leftist rebels.
Around 35,000 paramilitary fighters demobilised as part of a peace deal with the last government, but thousands have since returned to crime and formed new gangs.
Angarita says her mother was last seen being grabbed while washing clothes in a river and bundled into a van by several paramilitary fighters near the town of Monteria in western Cordoba province, a paramilitary stronghold in the 1990s.
“When someone disappears it’s a permanent crime ... The worst thing is that at the time we couldn’t even say my mother had gone missing because it would have been seen as a rebellious act by the paramilitaries. I remember going to school and people asking where my mother was. I had to say she died of natural causes,” Angarita told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Angarita is one of more than 30,000 people in Colombia whose relatives have disappeared without trace since 1977, victims of five decades of civil war between government troops, paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas, according to government estimates cited in a new report on Colombia's missing people.
The four-volume report by the National Centre for Historical Memory says that all the warring factions were involved in forced disappearances from 1970 to 2012, but that state security forces, allied with paramilitaries and drug traffickers, played a “notable” role in forced disappearances from the 1980s onwards.
“An attitude persists that denies forced disappearances have been, and are, a reality in Colombia,” the report by the independent research group said.
Over the decades, tens of thousands of innocent people, including trade unionists, poor farmers and other civilians accused of being informers or of sympathising with rebel groups, were killed and dumped in mass graves around the country.
The report cites numerous cases where state security forces tortured civilians and hid their bodies to destroy the evidence, making it almost impossible to trace their crimes.
In 1998, for example, the report says government soldiers and paramilitary fighters were responsible for the torture and disappearance of 26 members of the Embera indigenous tribe and farmers, including nine women, who were suspected of collaborating with rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group.
One of the worst atrocities involving state security forces was the “false positives affair”, the report said. In 2008, security forces were accused of murdering civilians and passing them off as rebels killed in battle to inflate the body count in the government’s war against the FARC. The killings involved scores of innocent men, some as young as 16.
Dozens of army officials have been imprisoned for these crimes and investigations and trials of soldiers suspected of involvement in the scandal continue.
The report said families looking for missing relatives faced “massive obstacles from the state apparatus,” and that the authorities’ response to the families had been “defective, erratic and inadequate.”
Forced disappearance was only recognised as a specific crime in Colombia in 2000, even though the first case was officially registered in 1977, the report said.
Few families have found the truth about what happened to their loved ones.
Of the 28,000 cases of missing people being investigated by the attorney general’s office, only 35 have led to convictions, the report noted.
The attorney general’s office only set up a special unit to investigate forced disappearances four years ago, it said.
A government peace accord with the Marxist FARC rebels might help throw light on some of the forced disappearances. Peace talks between the two sides have been under way in Havana, Cuba, since November 2012, though fighting continues.
A peace accord might persuade FARC rebels to say where bodies are buried and might also encourage people who have never reported disappearances to come forward, rights groups say.
While the peace talks continue, forensic teams and around 20 state prosecutors from the attorney-general's office are searching for the disappeared and exhuming bodies.
State prosecutors say it could take 10 years to find and open the estimated 30,000 unmarked graves.
So far, around 4,000 missing people’s graves have been discovered and 5,000 bodies found, thanks to the confessions of scores of paramilitary warlords who laid down their weapons and received maximum 8-year prison sentences in exchange for confessing their crimes.
But Angarita has little hope of ever recovering her mother’s body.
“I’m still waiting but I've almost no hope left. It’s been known for the paramilitaries to cut up bodies and dump in them in rivers,” she said.
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