Colombia: A Cemetery Full of Questions

LA MACARENA, Colombia - The most determined attempt by the far-right paramilitaries to establish a presence in this town in central Colombia ended in failure.

They showed up in 2003, protected by the police. But local residents armed with sticks and shotguns caught them and turned them over to the prosecutor general's office, which threw them in jail.

At the time, members of the paramilitary militias were robbing people outside of bars in La Macarena. The system was for the police to raid a bar and search the customers, before pointing out to their paramilitary partners which of the bar-goers were carrying anything of value.

When those customers left the bar, they would then be robbed and killed by the paramilitaries, who would dump their bodies in the nearby Guayabero river.

But the paramilitaries failed to extend their tentacles into the town of La Macarena, located to the south of the mountains of the same name, which are known for their unique and extensive biodiversity.

And that failure casts in a different light the finding of a 10,000-square-meter area of mass graves and burial sites of unidentified bodies, made up of two long plots of land in the form of an "L" that form sort of an "annex" to the local cemetery.

That is because up to now, the mass graves that have come to light in this civil war-torn South American country have been attributed to the paramilitaries.

But the one in La Macarena is located just outside the largest military base in the region: the local garrison of the mobile brigades of the Rapid Deployment Force (FUDRA), which receives U.S. military aid and fights the leftwing guerrillas.

The office of the inspector general (Procuraduria General de la Nacion) describes it as "a cemetery of unidentified persons," while "clandestine cemetery" is the description used by leftist lawmakers Gloria Ramirez and Ivan Cepeda, the latter of whom is also the head of the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE).

The shorter portion of the "L" is a mass grave, according to government experts and other witnesses who no longer dare to provide information.

It is located behind low burial vaults on the left side of the cemetery. Apparently nobody ventures in that direction, where there are no markers of any kind. No one is investigating, and it is said that land mines are planted there.

The longer stretch, measuring some 6,500 square meters, reached by walking straight back from the cemetery entrance, was marked off by yellow tape on Jul. 21, as forensic experts began to work in the area.

In that part of the "annex", there are hundreds of wooden plaques inscribed with NN (the Spanish equivalent of "Jane" or "John Doe") and with dates ranging from 2004 to 2010. For example, body number 54, buried in 2009, is marked 054/09.

The clandestine cemeteries investigated so far were the work of the paramilitaries, who partially demobilized under talks with the outgoing government of right-wing President Alvaro Uribe, whose term ends on Saturday.

The paramilitaries' confessions in exchange for lax prison sentences have enabled the prosecutors to locate 3,299 bodies, of at least 25,000 victims of forced disappearance -- a conservative estimate.

The "annex" to the La Macarena cemetery was first reported a year ago, in an article published in the provincial weekly Llano 7 Dias, which is published by the Bogota daily El Tiempo.

At the time, the authorities said the army had buried, in the La Macarena cemetery, 564 bodies of guerrillas killed in combat between 2002 and July 2009. Seventy-one percent of the bodies had not yet been identified.

It all started with the water

People in the Colinas neighborhood, some 200 meters from the cemetery, noticed in June 2008 that the water from two wells that they tapped in the summertime smelled and tasted rotten.

When they tried to find the source of the problem, the local residents realized it came from the cemetery. "That was the first sign," lawyer Ramiro Orjuela, who has family and business ties in the area, told IPS.

Since 2004, "one corpse after another was brought in here by helicopter, and holes would be dug by a bulldozer, where the bodies would be dumped.

"People in La Macarena knew about this," he said.

But they did not find it strange.

After all, La Macarena has been familiar with war since 1950, 14 years before the emergence of the main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The town and surrounding municipality formed part of the area that was demilitarized to pave the way for peace talks between the government of Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) and the FARC.

When the talks collapsed after three years, the army once again sought to seize control of the 42,000-sq-km demilitarized area, including the 11,229-sq-km municipality of La Macarena.

After the military returned to the area, local residents of the town began to see bodies of supposed guerrillas dumped in the cemetery on a near daily basis. The corpses, in black plastic bags, were piled up until graves were dug.

Everyone in the town knew about it.

So when local residents began to talk about the water being contaminated by the graves in the cemetery, they did so without any hidden agenda: "They didn't think it was a serious matter. They saw it as normal. But it turned out that it was a very serious matter indeed," the lawyer said.

The military told Llano 7 Dias that they were not worried about an investigation. They said the police had duly registered each burial, including details of the weapon carried by and the camouflage clothing worn by the individual buried in each grave, and that the reports had been cleared with the prosecutor general's office.

But in this region, the military criminal justice system and the civilian justice system have become one and the same in practice.

The prosecutors and police, according to a source engaged in humanitarian work in the Catholic Church, are actually retired or reserve members of the military who operate under the orders of the local military commander -- the result of a pilot civil-military program titled the "plan for integral consolidation of La Macarena", launched in 2004.

Orjuela is not pointing fingers or accusing anyone. He is simply calling on the authorities to investigate. "The only means of proof we have is what the community has told us," he commented to IPS.

"They tell us, but they won't confirm it in public, because they're scared," he added.

After Orjuela and a human rights group sent requests to the prosecutor general's office and the office of the inspector general, the latter carried out an on site inspection and produced a report that has not been made public.

Based on that report, the office of the inspector general's Direccion Nacional de Investigaciones Especiales (national office of special investigations) responded in February that its aim was "to fully identify the approximately 2,000 bodies," to which end it hoped to set up "a specialised laboratory" in La Macarena, in conjunction with other institutions.

But the prosecutor general's office did not respond in writing. In mid-July it informed Orjuela and Senator Ramirez -- who organized a Jul. 22 Senate humanitarian hearing in La Macarena -- that it had "detected" 449 bodies so far.

It also confirmed to them that "100 percent of the cases (bodies) were brought in by the army. All of them, without a single exception," Orjuela said.

Lashing out harshly against the organizers of the Senate public hearing, the Uribe administration asserted that the bodies were those of guerrillas killed in combat and transported to La Macarena for burial.

Asked to respond to that allegation, Orjuela said "That's possible. But not all of them."

He pointed out that 449 guerrillas would be equivalent to three or four entire units of the FARC. But since the insurgents remain active in the area, he wondered, "who do the more than 400 bodies belong to?"

The human rights and political violence databank of the Jesuit Center for Popular Research and Education (CINEP) has documented the forced disappearance of 79 civilians in La Macarena and nearby municipalities. And in 11 of 25 cases of purported army killings of civilians, there are signs that the bodies are buried in the cemetery "annex".

Up to now, the prosecutor general's office has identified, in the La Macarena cemetery, the remains of five civilians who had been reported as "disappeared", who have been returned to their families. It has also identified 37 other bodies.

The rest are still "NN".

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