SEMANA/Justice | 10/7/2008 12:00:00 AM
A ghastly theory
Two cases investigated by the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, could provide clues as to what happened with disappeared young men who later appeared as combat fatalities. It could be the work of a criminal network of human trafficking with links to the military.
The first case that sounded alarms happened in Barranquilla two years ago when a man, who identified himself as being an Army informant, convinced four young men from poor backgrounds to travel with him to the department of Córdoba where he promised them good jobs. Three of them appeared as combat fatalities one or two days after the informant turned them over to an Army official. A demobilized paramilitary, who had been contacted by the recruiter, but who later decided not to take him up on the offer to travel to Córdoba, gave his version about what had happened. Thanks to his testimony the recruiter later confessed that an official of the Gaula (anti-kidnapping unit) of the Army of the 11th Brigade of Córdoba, paid him to take the men.
That same Gaula unit was involved last year in an identical episode that was publicly denounced by internal international human rights NGOs and even from the Colombian vice president. Between July and August of last year 11 young men, aged 16 to 22, disappeared in Toluviejo (Sucre). Four of them were demobilized members of the AUC paramilitary group. In some cases the men received job offers from a farm in another town in Sucre, in other cases it was said that they were to join the Aguilas Negras, a dissident paramilitary group. They all appeared as combat deaths with the military joint command of Sucre or with the Gaula of the Army in Córdoba, one or two days after their disappearances, and were buried as “N.N.,” an abbreviation for “no-names,” or unidentified bodies, in cemeteries in the towns of Chinú and Sincé. Robinson Eustaquio Barbosa, the recruiter, was captured for these deaths. An Army captain was also detained and on October 6, bodies were be exhumed to look for new evidence to try to clarify exactly what happened.
The prosecutor general’s office is concerned that there are at least 100 more young men who are listed as disappeared throughout the entire country, in particular in areas where drug trafficking gangs are emerging like in the Eje Cafetero (coffee growing region), in the department of Antioquia, and in the Llanos (plains of eastern Colombia).
The similarities between these cases and that of the 11 young men of Soacha, Bosa and Ciudad Bolívar (outskirts of Bogotá) who died in Ocaña are worrying because the authorities and international observers are beginning to see many common elements that would discard that these are isolated cases, and would give credence to the theory that this is about a modus operandi of a criminal network or organization.
What are the similarities of these cases? For one, the profile of the victims. They were young men living in poverty, but not homeless or necessarily delinquents. They were desperately seeking income and were willing to travel anywhere to find work.
Secondly, they were all recruited to go far away from their homes. They were never offered work or to join groups in their own region. This leads one to assume that the intention was to take them to an unfamiliar place where they would not be recognized.
Third, judicial investigators have called attention to the fact that in the supposed combat activities involved almost always only one or two young men, usually armed with just pistols. If there had been real combat, camps or other remnants of war would have been found, as is usually the case when the military engages in combat with guerrilla forces. Additionally, it is curious that around 80 percent of the reported combat deaths against criminal gangs are “N.N., (unidentified individuals), despite the fact that many of them were buried with their identity papers. If you take into account that in the last year 500 members of criminal groups have died in combat, the number of anonymous deaths is disturbingly high.
For all those reasons Vice President Francisco Santos, the Minister of Defense and the Fiscal General have decided to create a high-level group to get to the bottom of things. Javier Fernández, representative of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) has been emphatic. “This cannot be treated like isolated cases because what we are possibly seeing are the acts of a macabre criminal network.” The U.N. has called for judicial action but also internal controls within the armed forces to discover whether or not any of their members are involved in the network and how and why they are operating with it.
Even though many indications point towards the existence of a criminal network of human trafficking, there are also many questions left unanswered. For example, who pays for the recruitment of these young men and why during the last two years has this means of recruitment extended from one region to another? It is not exactly known what military personnel would have to gain from this. Is it to improve the appearance of their operational results? Is it for money? Or is it simply a pact with real criminal gangs that continue to act with impunity while random young men are recruited to later die?
Today there is suspicion, but no evidence, that the recent case of the 11 young men from southern Bogotá is part of this same pattern. For now each case is being analyzed. SEMANA gained access to the autopsies and found that almost all of the bodies received six or seven bullets, and that in the majority of cases they were found with pistols, and in two cases, with rifles. But it still cannot be established whether or not there was combat.
The Army is without a doubt the party that is most interested in having these deaths cleared up, as there is a cloak of doubt hanging over several of their units. And above all because, if the allegations are true, Colombia would face one of the most shocking military corruption cases ever. That is why it is important to get to the bottom of things.