Remains of Missing Colombians Unearthed

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Forced disappearance was for years a central element of military dictatorships quelling dissent in Latin America. For the last decade, it has been a key tactic for right-wing paramilitary groups in the war-torn nation of Colombia. Now, investigators are discovering the remains of citizens who disappeared along Colombia's Atlantic coast.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

For years, military dictatorships in Latin America quelled dissent with forced disappearances. In Argentina and Brazil during the 1970s and 1980s, thousands disappeared at the hands of government security forces. For the last decade, right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia have also used disappearance as a key tactic. Now Colombian investigators are unearthing the remains of citizens who disappeared along Colombia's Atlantic Coast. Brian Ellsworth traveled to the town of San Onofre and filed this report.

BRIAN ELLSWORTH reporting:

Colombia's rustic Caribbean coast was the inspiration for the famous novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude," an epic of magic realism in which bizarre and unnatural events became commonplace. The town of San Onofre is only two hours by car from the birthplace of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The town's beautiful tropical environs belie the horror residents say they've been experiencing.

Ms. BEATRIZ JULIO: (Foreign language spoken)

ELLSWORTH: Sixty-three-year-old Beatriz Julio says her son Emilio(ph) disappeared five years ago. She believes a group of right-wing paramilitaries known as the AUC killed her son and buried him in a nearby ranch called the Palmar. She says he was abducted by AUC operatives who were angry that he had refused to join their ranks. Julio's son may be among the 70 bodies unearthed during a state investigation at the 6,000-acre ranch. The property was commandeered by paramilitary forces over the last five years.

Ms. JULIO: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of donkey)

ELLSWORTH: Based on conversations with local residents, investigators believe over a hundred bodies were buried in the lush grassland of the sultry tropical ranch. The investigation represents an unprecedented effort by Colombian authorities to uncover the truth about the disappearances and punish those responsible. The AUC became the de facto governing force in San Onofre during the 1990s through a series of civilian massacres. By 2000, the paramilitaries were effectively running the local government and had extensive influence over the armed forces in the region. Things changed this year when Colombian authorities dealt a blow to the group, arresting key AUC leaders in the region. This led San Onofre residents to break years of silence and tell authorities about what they've endured over the years.

(Soundbite of traffic; vehicle horn)

ELLSWORTH: Carlos Franco heads the Presidential Human Rights Commission in the bustling capital city of Bogota.

Mr. CARLOS FRANCO (Presidential Human Rights Commission): (Through Translator) I believe this case will increase confidence of Colombian citizens and law enforcement agencies, which will allow more people to denounce these type of crimes.

ELLSWORTH: Franco says the government is spending $600,000 to create a database of those who have disappeared. However, he adds that in about half of the cases, investigators find that the missing person isn't dead, just living elsewhere. Others say the case of San Onofre is a tiny part of a much larger problem.

Ms. GLADYS AVILA: (Foreign language spoken)

ELLSWORTH: Gladys Avila's brother disappeared in 1993. Today, she runs a Bogota-based non-profit agency that represents families of those who've disappeared. She says that a controversial disarmament program that offers amnesty to paramilitary fighters will only boost impunity for those most frequently implicated in disappearances. Avila also says that, in many cases, the government itself is involved in the disappearances. She adds that government figures usually underestimate the incidence of the problem.

Ms. AVILA: (Through Translator) Usually families of the disappeared are told they will be killed if they denounce the disappearance. This means that most of the time, they don't because they are so terrified.

ELLSWORTH: Avila and her staff say they themselves receive so many death threats that the agency is outfitted with a bulletproof door and an alarm system. The Colombian government did not offer specific numbers of disappeared but the UN believes there are at least 6,000 unsolved disappearances. Avila says she is heartened by the San Onofre investigation, but still believes Colombia is littered with mass graves. Many like her fear that San Onofre simply represents the tip of the iceberg.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Ellsworth.

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