SEMANA/Justice | 11/17/2008 12:00:00 AM
The missing grave from the ‘Palacio de Justicia’ takeover?
After 23 years, SEMANA reveals photos that could solve the mystery of the disappeared from the Palacio de Justicia (the Palace of Justice) takeover.
The quest for the answer to this question is a central part of the investigation which has been led by the Fiscalía General de la Nación, the prosecutor general’s office, since the end of 2005 which has resulted in the detention of two colonels and a general. Although the prosecutor general’s office has confirmed the disappearance of at least three people, until now it hasn’t been possible to find any trace of them. In other words, we know that they left the Palacio de Justicia alive and that they were never heard from again after being under the custody of the public forces. Another eight people also disappeared after the ghastly events of November 6th and 7th of 1985.
The photos, taken by the reporter Harry Van der Aart, show a Dante-esque scene: the burial of several bodies in a mass grave one Wednesday morning in the Cementerio del Sur, a cemetery in Bogotá. The presence of Van der Aart and his journalist friend Jan Thielen, at that place, was accidental, they told SEMANA.
It is possible that those images and the story about what happened on that day would have remained undisclosed had it not been for an equally fortuitous event. Fifteen days ago Thielen decided to go on-line to see what was happening in Colombia, a country where he had worked as a correspondent in the early 1980s. He was surprised to see an item that left him perplexed. The title mentioned graves of Palacio de Justicia victims. The news struck him profoundly as he remembered an experience which still mortifies him. It made such an impact that he did something he hadn’t done in ten years. He called his friend Van der Aart in Holland to talk to him about that awful day that they spent together in the Colombian capital almost 23 years ago.
Van der Aart reminded him that he had some photos from that day and they began to reminisce about that trip they made to Colombia at the beginning of 1986. It wasn’t the first long journey that they had taken together. Thielen, who worked for 20 years as a radio and television correspondent in several Latin American countries such as Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, had previously invited his friend on another journalistic adventure. However Van der Aart’s love for that line of work would end that Wednesday in January when he saw with his own eyes such human degradation. Since then he has taught graphic arts in Holland.
It was the fourth time that Van der Aart had visited Colombia. Thielen had convinced his editors to send him there to do a series of stories. Colombia had been in the international news because of what had happened at the Palacio de Justicia and for the Armero mudslide tragedy, a town in the Tolima department in the centre of the country. As Thielen says in his heartbreaking testimony of the events (see “The ‘sons of bitches’ of the Palacio de Justicia”), they decided to do a story about violence in Colombia and the indiscriminate use of mass graves to bury homeless people and society’s “undesirables.”
On the morning of Wednesday, January 22- both believe that it was on that date- they arrived at the Cementerio del Sur. Within minutes they saw two “small cars or trucks” enter, according to what Van der Aart remembers. In the vehicles were more than eight bodies that were removed and thrown into a grave. That wasn’t all. From some buckets, Van der Aart says, they threw in some charred bones “black as coal” and body parts. The stench of death was everywhere. It was suffocating, they both say.
Some of the bodies had been bloated, including one that appeared green. Others were in a very good condition-bruised “fresh bodies.” According to both of the Dutch men, they seemed to have died recently, as can be seen in some of the photos. The majority of them were men, but there was at least one woman. It was facing the sight of that body that Thielen couldn’t take any more and vomited his disgust.
One of the men who participated in the operation told Thielen, “They are the sons of bitches from the Palacio.” For the Dutch journalist, that explained the presence of the charred bones. They were people who had died in the fire at the Palacio de Justicia takeover.
Both were struck by the lack of care with which they handled the bodies. “They weren’t treated with the respect that a human being deserves,” says Van der Aart. It made such an impression on him, that he described in detail his experience to his wife in a letter, that he still has, that he sent a couple of days later. They went immediately back to the hotel, anxious to take away the fetid smell of the cadavers. Van der Aart remembers as if it were yesterday his horror at seeing a piece of a body on the sole of his shoe.
Thielen made his radio report. Van der Aart was only able to sell one of his photos to a newspaper. Thielen moved four years ago to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil while Van der Aart lives in Europe.
The story of those two Dutch men would be just another anecdote of the Colombian violence where mass graves were sadly all too common- that is if it hadn’t had been for that memorable phrase that Thielen heard on that day: “Son los hijueputas del Palacio,” (“they are the sons of bitches from the Palacio.)” In January 1986, the claims of the families of the disappeared were not being taken seriously. The official version that they all had died in the fire on the fourth floor of the Palacio de Justicia was what was accepted. Perhaps because of that, the two journalists did not think any more of the comment that the dead were from the “Palacio.”
But in November 2008, thanks to an investigation lead by the prosecutor general’s office, which had found proof in unsuspecting places, the episode described and photographed by the Dutch could not be simply discarded.
SEMANA visited the cemetery in order to verify whether the photos were taken on that terrain, as the Dutch had stated. The lot, covered with overgrowth and trash, is abandoned today and is being looked after by a homeless man. But there is no doubt that it is the same place where the Dutch were (see photos from January 1986 and November 2008). Nearby is the so-called official grave from the Palacio de Justicia.
In that grave, 26 bodies from the Palacio were buried on November 9, 1985. In that same month on the 14th, 23rd and on the 30th, victims from Armero, fetuses and other hospital remains were buried in the same grave. In 1998 an exhumation of the bodies was ordered in order to find the disappeared from the Palacio. They only found the body of Ana Rosa Castiblanco. Last week, the Universidad Nacional, the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, reiterated that none of the remaining disappeared 11 was in that grave.
According to judicial sources, it is evident that that grave is different from the one that the Dutch described and that can be seen in the photos. For these sources, who because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter requested not to be named, the burial procedure that was witnessed was highly irregular.
In the first place, one of the vehicles which transported the bodies was private, according to what SEMANA could verify with the authorities. None of the men had a coroner’s office identification, the only authorized entity to give permission for burials. Several of the bodies didn’t have signs of autopsies, a required process for any corpse. And the disdain with which the bodies were thrown into the grave is noteworthy. There was no care taken whatsoever. That contrasts with the bodies that were buried in the official mass grave of the Palacio, where they were covered with plastic and were buried in an orderly manner. According to a justice source, minimal public health protocols were not followed in the grave photographed by Van der Aart. With the management of corpses there is always the risk that it could produce a gaseous gangrene, which could generate an epidemic in areas nearby the cemetery.
Those aren’t the only anomalies. According to the official registry of all the burials made in January 1986 in the Central and Sur cemeteries, only one “N.N.,” or no-name, burial of an 80 year old man on Wednesday, January 22 was found. On Tuesday, January 21st there were eight “N.N.” burials in those two cemeteries, but of those were a two year old boy and a 60 year old man. Van der Aart and Thielen both insist that they did not see bodies of children or of the elderly. Everything would indicate that that grave was not officially registered.
The condition of the bodies is also telling. They do not appear to be homeless persons, as a judicial source told SEMANA.
In the photos at least three individuals stand out as being different from the other participants in the operation. One of those men, according to the Dutch journalists, paid more attention to them than to the burial. He watched them like a hawk. The other three men, curiously, seemed immune to the stench of the bodies. They didn’t even cover their mouths with masks.
Judicial sources consulted by SEMANA say that it is highly likely that the prosecutor general’s office will order an exhumation of that mass grave in the next few weeks to verify whether there are remains from the Palacio. There are three additional reasons which could motivate this decision: the comment that Thielen heard about the Palacio, the charred bones described by Van der Aart and the proximity of this grave to the official mass grave of the Palacio.
For the time being, there is no reason to doubt the words of the Dutch journalist. He hasn’t been working as a journalist for years- he currently makes documentary films- and did not seem to be aware of the prosecutor general’s office investigation. Perhaps if Colonel Alfonso Plazas, accused of kidnapping and forced disappearance, had not indicated 15 days ago that the disappeared could be found among unidentified bodies without exhuming the official grave of the Palacio, Thielen and Van der Aart would not have begun talking again.
A few days after photographing the irregular burial, Van der Aart wrote to his wife about his impressions. His story has not changed and his description of the charred bones is shocking. If the bodies were of some homeless people, what were charred bones and mutilated arms and legs doing there?
If some of the remains were from the Palacio, why weren’t they buried in the official grave?
In any part of the world, the scene portrayed in the photographs would be cause for an investigation. They are more akin to Nazi Germany concentration camps. To quote Hamlet, “something is rotten…”