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Traces of disappeared people at the southern cemetery in Bogotá

At the Cementerio del Sur located in Bogotá are white walls sealed with grey headstones which preserve the bodies of unknown people. Many of these tombs are engraved with N.N., or unidentified bodies which were buried without establishing their identities or establishing their next of kin.

Data of the Coroner's Office and Forensic Services (INMLCF, for its acronym in Spanish) say that there are approximately 200,000 unidentified buried bodies the cemeteries of Colombia, a figure which may be linked to the 82,998 people reported by the Historic Memory Center as victims of forced disappearance.

At this stage of the post-conflict, cemeteries turn into strategic places to begin the search, location, identification and dignified submittal of the remains of disappeared people, as established in the Final Peace Agreement between terrorist group FARC-EP and the Colombian government.

It is not an easy task, as of 2009 a ruling of the Ministry of Health and Social Protection laid down the rules for cemeteries, inhumation, exhumation, and cremation of corpses. Before this ruling, there were no registries or markings and improper mixing of corpses in tombs and mass graves, among other issues, which is a challenge for the newly created Search for People Thought for Missing Unit (UBPD, for its acronym in Spanish).

This situation was experienced by UNal Anthropologists Laura Melissa Vera and Oscar Prieto, who repeatedly visited the South Cemetery in search of a method to comprehensively approach the unidentified body issue in Colombian cemeteries.

Mapping John Doe tombs

The first thing the researchers did was to map the tombs of the identified bodies, although it was not clear were these tombs were located in the cemetery. These vaults have no identification or the number of individuals, necropsy protocols, date of death or gender. The anthropologists discovered that up to 25 bodies were laid to rest per vault.

The research project included the period between 1994 and 2011 when the Cementerio del Sur accepted unidentified bodies. There is a direct relationship between the violence in the country and its expressions of cruelness such as forced disappearance, “social cleansing” y the appearance of unidentified bodies in cemeteries. Along with the rivers and mass graves, cemeteries turned into the final destination of thousands of victims of the armed conflict.

After building a database of the corpse´s discovered, the information was cross-referenced with the data of the INMLCF´s “Let’s Make Finding Them Compulsory” Program which includes photographs and information of victims. This cross-referencing was not exactly an easy task as the information was scarce and was contained in physical records which needed to be digitalized. Now it is possible to view this information which has data on gender, date of death, and location within the cemetery among others.

Buried violence

As a result of the census, the researchers identified 1,982 individuals, among John Does and “Unclaimed Identified Bodies”. In reviewing the causes of death (violent, natural or under investigation), 805 were “violent”, which includes accidental deaths, suicides, and homicides, among others. Most were men between 18 and 35 years of age. This discovery concurs with the profile of disappeared people provided by the Historic Memory Center in its report Hasta encontrarlos (Until we find them).

Professor and Coordinator of the UNal Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, says that more than 80% of disappeared people are in legal cemeteries, although the lack of “information or status of the same” (on paper, temporarily lost, incomplete) is and will be one of the greatest challenges of the UBPD.

The result was 114 coincidences in aspects such as gender, age range, date of disappearance, and date of death, evidencing that the research carried out by UNal could offer key insights on the importance of implementing a method for the search of missing people.

Bogotá, immersed in violence

A conclusion of the UNal project is that it is thought that Bogotá has been unrelated to the violence at the national level; it has had a continuous contact with the most hostile issues of the conflict.

In order to discover the links that connect the figures in the social, political and historical context and answer to the increase or decrease of John Does in cemeteries, the research project was not limited to a statistical interpretation of untied data, but they also used anthropology tools, such as documental research and ethnography; therefore they also interviewed gravediggers, cemetery administrators and forensic anthropologists, among others.

In this manner, they determined that the greatest records of John Does was in 1996, 1997, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2009, years in which the preceding vices of the conflict in the Bogotá territory was established. Between 1996 and 1997 Bogotá lived a phenomenon of what was wrongly called “social cleansing”, which mainly impacted youngsters of depressed areas of the city, mostly what is known as Ciudad Bolívar.

Although the reports of the Historic Memory Center show an immense sub-registry of victims of urban crimes, Bogotá reported at least 346 assassinations in an attempt to eradicate insecurity, consumption, and distribution of illegal drugs, besides issues related to youngsters becoming members of violent demobilized illegal groups.

There are thousands of cases of tombs around the country waiting for the truth to be unveiled in order to be stricken from the list of people in anonymity.

Between 2006 and 2015 there are peaks in disappeared people, such as in 2007, a time when not only forced disappearance increased, but also collective assassinations and kidnappings.

“The Historic Memory Center also reports a peak between 2002 and 2003, when the number of disappeared people increased with reports of almost 5,000 missing people”, added Professor Rodríguez.

The research project led by UNal researchers offers an Archeological-Forensic Management Plan, which is a method which could be applied in cemeteries to facilitate the systematic localization of bodies. It includes a historical contextualization of the cemetery, mapping, census and plotting, digitalized information, ethnography, and data collection, up to the anthropologic-forensic analysis of the information.

Articulate the data of different governmental institutions and cross-reference them in the national context means breaching a gap that seems obvious, but this, until now, means a historic disconnect which continues to bear on the thousands of families in their eternal anguish of not knowing where their missing relatives are.


Consejo Editorial