- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

SAN ONOFRE, Colombia

Paramilitary thugs hauled Rafael Barbosa from his mother’s home five years ago and accused him of making off with bags of cocaine found floating in the Caribbean. His brother Freddy “disappeared” soon afterward because he had taken up with one of the gunmen’s sisters.

The Barbosas, humble farmers and craftsmen then in their 30s, are among thousands of Colombians who have disappeared in the past decade in a war spearheaded in the countryside by landowner-backed militias — known as paramilitaries — as life became safer for upper-class urbanites.

Former paramilitary fighters seeking reduced sentences under a government amnesty are leading authorities to clandestine graves in vast areas they once controlled, including this coastal ranching town. At the same time, relatives of some victims, previously terrorized into silence, now dare to reveal to authorities the locations of burial grounds.

“What is it that we want?” asked Maruja del Carmen Pestana, mother of the two slain Barbosa brothers: “That they tell us where the bodies are buried.”

More than 400 bodies have been unearthed at more than 20 locations in the past 18 months — nearly 100 of them since early June. Hundreds are thought to be buried at San Onofre, where 87 have been unearthed since last year.

The discoveries have plunged Colombia into a crisis of scientific identification of the remains: Investigators can’t properly store and identify so many remains, and they lack a registry of the disappeared to match names to victims.

In many cases there aren’t any bodies — just bones, some clothing, a watch, some jewelry. Most of the uncovered remains are at least three years old, and sometimes are exhumed carelessly, destroying evidence.

“I think we’re on the verge of an overflow in which graves and bodies are going to appear that could overwhelm the state,” said Eduardo Pizarro, president of the government’s Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation, which was created eight months ago by the same law that led 30,000 fighters to demobilize.

Peasant victims

Although leftist rebels are responsible for some forced disappearances in Colombia’s “dirty war,” investigators and human rights activists blame most of the killings on paramilitaries that emerged in the 1980s to fight the leftists but whose victims more often have been peasants who resisted extortion or were accused of sympathizing with the rebels. The violence was compounded by land disputes and the intrusion of drug-running into what began as a political war.

Digs are being conducted throughout Colombia in areas that until recently were rural fiefdoms of paramilitary gangs that tortured and dismembered victims with a wink and a nod from local authorities, police and military officials.

Investigators were led to most of the remains at San Onofre by relatives and townspeople. Some were on a ranch where paramilitary boss Rodrigo Pelufo, now a fugitive sought in connection with eight deaths, was said to tie victims to a rubber tree and torture them before killing them. Also dug up nearby was the car in which two federal investigators were traveling when they disappeared in 2001. Their bodies have not been found.

Two mass graves revealed by ex-paramilitaries have yielded 46 bodies since early June — 34 in Dibulla in the far north, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range; and 12 in the far south, outside Mocoa in the largely lawless jungle province of Putumayo.

Investigators say the doomed were delivered to the Dibulla site in a white Toyota 4X4 where their bodies were cut up with machetes. At the site outside Mocoa, they said, one L-shaped pit yielded the remains of a father and his pregnant daughter. They think more than 300 other bodies lie in Dibulla and nearly 50 outside Mocoa.

Investigators were led to both graves by former midlevel paramilitary commanders, said Leonardo Cabana, director of the human rights unit of the federal prosecutor’s office.

By cooperating, the men — their names kept secret to prevent reprisals — are seeking reduced jail terms of five to eight years as opposed to a potential 40 years. It is not clear whether top paramilitary commanders also could qualify for reduced sentences if implicated in the crimes without having confessed to them.

Difficult search

Prosecutors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because their work often makes them targets of vendettas, say they found signs of an effort to hide the evidence: graves dug up at Dibulla just a few days before investigators arrived.

Colombia has some of the world’s most skilled forensic anthropologists, but the prosecutors’ Technical Investigations Unit has only eight digging for bodies, and it is hurrying to train more in DNA collection and exhumation techniques.

Foreign governments led by Spain and the United States are helping, but a single DNA test costs $600 and is useless without a relative’s DNA for comparison.

Because Colombia’s nearly half-century civil conflict is still raging, the number of disappeared is underreported. Leftist rebels, such as the paramilitaries financed by cocaine trafficking and extortion, remain potent in some regions.

A team from the United Nations that visited Colombia last year said reasons include a lack of trust in the judicial system and a history of ties between authorities and the paramilitaries.

Colombia’s nonprofit Association of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained recorded 7,300 forced disappearances between 1997 and 2004. Only a tenth of the bodies have been found, said Esperanza Merchan, the group’s secretary-general. She estimated the total number of disappeared at 15,000.

A 2000 law created the National Commission for the Seeking of Disappeared People, and authorized it to build a “unified registry” of the missing. But only now has it bought the necessary software, said Marta Mireya Moreno, the commission’s technical secretary.

Besides, disappearances continue to be reported, “and this pokes a big hole in the government’s claim that the conflict is winding down somehow or that the paramilitaries have demobilized,” said Maria McFarland, the Colombia specialist of Human Rights Watch-Americas.

Truth commissions have belatedly tried to resolve the fates of thousands who disappeared in dirty wars in Guatemala, Peru and Chile, but Colombia presents a unique challenge.

“Our war’s not over, yet we’re undergoing a peace process,” said Miss Moreno. “And as the conflict continues, we’re investigating and identifying the missing.”

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