SEMANA/Conflict | 11/26/2008 12:00:00 AM
The big exhumation
For the first time, a provincial capital such as Medellín will be the scene of a massive exhumation of disappeared persons. 150 bodies that were thrown away like trash are being looked for.
“They would cover the heads of many with rags,” says a woman who lost one of her sons in the famous war of Comuna 13, a poor sector of Medellín. When they would arrive at the highest part of the mountain, they would execute them, open up a hole and throw them in. Among so much trash, dirt and sand it was difficult for someone to figure out which was the exact location where they were buried. In addition, save for the paramilitaries, no one would dare climb up to La Escombrera.
People have designated it a no-go zone because of their fear. “Sometimes we dared to ask those men what they had done with a certain person, and they would tell us not to look for nor ask about it anymore because they were now well chopped up in the dump,” remembers a neighbor whose son was disappeared by the paramilitaries in 2004.
In the upcoming days, that place will become scene of the largest excavation by the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, since they began to exhume the dead from the last 20 years of violence in Colombia. It will also have a special meaning for being the first massive exhumation in one of the country’s major cities.
Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” head of the paramilitary Bloque Cacique Nutibara that operated in the area during the time of the disappearances, declared that in Comuna 13, including La Escombrera, there were more than 100 mass graves. The Medellín human rights office of the Personería, a local independent watchdog, believes there are more than 150 bodies below the mounds of rubble.
Since 1999 the guerrillas dominated sectors of that comuna, which is part of the strategic corridor from the Caribbean Coast to the center of the country. The paramilitaries arrived later to dispute that territory. The war came to a point in which not even Medicina Legal, the forensics office, could go in to take out the dead. That is why in October 2002, two months after Álvaro Uribe took office as President, a military operation of dimensions never before seen in a city took place.
“The war began at dawn on a Wednesday while everyone was sleeping,” remembers a resident of the Las Independencias II neighborhood referring to Operation Orion. “My son got up frightened and told me that three armed men were on the roof of the house, and because the “paras” were there everyday I didn’t pay any attention to him and I went back to bed.” Ten minutes later, her family and the rest of the 100,000 residents of the comuna had to protect themselves as best they could. A neighbor, Clara Peña, tells that during the three days that the military intervention lasted, she couldn’t leave her house. Her microenterprise of arepas, operated out of her house, ran out of stock because it was the only thing that her family and the neighbors could eat. Leaving the house meant death.
They were three nights of terror along the slopes of the west of Medellín. The black helicopters, the tanks and thousands of men with sophisticated artillery, that people had only seen on television before, became a reality.
On the third day, the gunfire ceded and the helicopters stopped patrolling. The residents of the 23 neighborhoods of the comuna who dared to leave their homes found the streets filled with hundreds of patrolling police officers and military. Several families turned to the commandos to ask about their sons who had been captured during those days. A total of 450 people were taken to police and military installations. Of that figure only 82 were detained and six years later, still have not received a sentence.
At the head of the operation was General Mario Montoya, who was then commander of the 4th Brigade and who in the following weeks would dedicate himself to clear up in the media that the objective of Orion was to put an end to the violence that had put the residents of Comuna 13 in jeopardy for three years.
Several demobilized paramilitaries have told the Fiscalía that after Operation Orion the AUC, the main paramilitary organization, took control of those neighborhoods. One of them described the supposed collusion with the public forces during the operation. “The entrance to Comuna 13 was made taking advantage of Operation Orion. We received help from all of the authorities. The order that they gave was to finish off the guerilla militias and stay in the area. To be sincere, all of the police helped us. I don’t know whether it was out of fear, but we worked together.” Thus, according to testimonies gathered by SEMANA, a good part of the disappeared that were left from the paramilitary incursion in the days following Orion would be buried in La Escombrera and in La Arenera (a neighboring site).
The book “Dinámicas de guerra y construcción de paz: el caso de la comuna trece de Medellín,” (“Dynamics of War and Construction of Peace: the Case of Commune 13 of Medellín”) prepared by the Interdisciplinary Group on Conflict and Violence from the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín, notes from the testimonies of the people not only this deadly collusion but also the difficult situation in which the neighborhoods were left after the operation.
Ten days ago, during a humanitarian vigil to remember the victims, several people from Comuna 13, whose family members were disappeared during and after the operation, demanded their right to exhume their loved ones who are still buried in La Escombrera.
In the last six years there have been 70 cases of forced disappearances and 30 murders of recognized Comuna 13 leaders. This doesn’t include the number of dead during the days after the military intervention.
Another woman told SEMANA part of the horror that she experienced in the 13th, even years after Orion. “In my house we had to sleep with the machete below the pillow. I promised my sons that I would not let them take them away for them to be killed.” In March 2006 a man who identified himself as being from the paramilitary self defense forces entered the living room and snatched her 12 year old son. She managed to get him loose and push the man out of the house. “We locked all of ourselves in the house for a week,” she says, “and those men screaming from the roof, ‘so, gonorrhea, have you saved up for the coffin?’”
Today she lives in another neighborhood and her house in the 13th was looted by the paramilitaries. In the neighborhoods they say that an evangelical minister lives there, and alleges to be the owner. Relatives of the victims and some NGOs from the city have proposed to make this place a national memorial for the disappeared. “I know that it is possible that they will never find my son…. It’s a big possibility and they have been throwing in trash for many years. But what is important is to see that that money from the city government is being used for something… at least to begin to recognize our right to exhume our dead,” said Bertha Yepes, whose son disappeared in 2004.
Gustavo Duque, director of the exhumation team of the unit of justice and peace of the Fiscalía, told SEMANA that thanks to an agreement signed last week between them and the city government, not only will they suspend the transport of waste to La Escombrera but that they also will use advanced technology equipment from the school of mines from the Universidad Nacional to excavate tons of garbage in the illegal dump.
He says that the process of excavation and exhumation could last many months. “It will be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” he says.