Common graves: stories of violence and impunity

Colombia and Mexico are two of the most worrying cases worldwide because, in both countries, violence has taken hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

Concrete tombstones in a cemetery.

Concrete tombstones in a cemetery. / Photo: Pexels – Reference Image

LatinAmerican Post | Juliana Suárez

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Leer en español: Fosas comunes: historias de violencia e impunidad

'The cemetery of horror', was thus titled a report by the Colombian magazine Semana, where a common grave was revealed and revived old ghosts of Colombia's warlike past. In it, were the human remains of at least 50 people who died in extrajudicial executions; young people who had nothing to do with the war were killed by the army to make them pass as guerrilla members killed in combat.

The above is not a new story in Colombia. These extrajudicial executions, also known as 'false positives' (falsos positivos), have been present in recent governments as a way of raising the figures of the Armed Forces to demonstrate better results. On this occasion, it was a soldier who told the Colombian media about the dozens of innocent civilians that he, 10 years ago, together with his military unit, had buried in Dabeiba, Antioquia.

The statements of soldier Buitrago were given in the framework of an investigation by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice body created to investigate everything that has to do with the crimes in the armed conflict that ended in 2016 between the government and the FARC guerrilla. “His battalion could have committed up to 75 cases of false positives in the two years he was there. He claims to have participated in about 20. In a JEP document, they calculate around 50,” says Semana.

The investigation, which so far accounts for 32 bodies buried in the Dabeiba cemetery, moved in the past few days to the scene to review the land and “in just five days of excavations, the judicial officials had recovered remains of nine bodies”, said the magazine. Among some of the victims, the soldier said, there was a disabled man.

These events allegedly occurred between 2006 and 2007, during the second presidential term of Álvaro Uribe Vélez and while former President Juan Manuel Santos served as Minister of Defense. During this time, despite not knowing this mass grave, which was just starting to consolidate, there were other complaints against the actions of the military unit in the area. Citizens had reported forced disappearance, forced displacement, murder and torture, but the cases never had a greater impact.

Also read: How far does the power of the Public Force can go?

Common trenches throughout the world

But the history of the mass graves is not unique and exclusive to Colombia or this particular episode. Latin America and other countries of the world have had to find years later victims who were missing, or unrecognized bodies, in common and clandestine graves, created with the purpose of disappearing any trace of atrocious crimes of all kinds.

In these cases, one factor predominates: forced disappearances. Mysteriously, hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared and the slightest trace of them has never been found, until the mass graves appear.

Colombia and Mexico are two of the most worrying cases worldwide because, in both countries, violence has taken hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, of which most cases are still unpunished. In the case of Colombia, it has been proven that many have died at the hands of the Armed Forces and in the case of Mexico, drug trafficking and organized crime gangs, in addition to the State itself, have been the main actors in cases of disappearances and torture, which have led to the search for hundreds of mass graves.

In the case of Mexico, new clandestine graves are found every year that reveal horrors and torture. In 2018, the #MéxicoPaísdeFosas research revealed that between 2006 and 2016 "at least 978 clandestine burials were committed in 24 states of the country." In them, 2884 bodies were found, of which only a little less than 800 were recognized.

Less than a year after the results of this research were published, in August 2019, the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador granted an update on the number of bodies found since 2006 and stated that there are more than 4800 bodies in 3024 graves around from the country. This figure shows the crisis of a country mired in crime, organized crime, and drug trafficking, and that has taken more than 250,000 thousand lives. In Mexico, in addition, the number of missing reaches 40,000, according to reports that have not been updated since April 2018, Telesur TV said.

Similarly, in African countries such as Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, systematic violence that has confronted different groups within the countries would be responsible for the finding of bodies killed violently and buried in mass graves.

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In other cases, it has been the military regimes that have left a long list of missing persons whose bodies have been found years later in mass graves. In Spain, in Aragon, the remains of 19 missing persons from Franco's regime were found in 2018. This would be the biggest grave of the regime.

Argentina also suffered this evil during the military regime, where the strongest voices were those of the Mothers of May, but they opened their eyes to a problem of forced disappearances at the hands of the State.

According to an investigation by BBC Mundo in 2016, in the case of Argentina in the 80s, the disappearances reached 30,000 people. “The military had made a detailed record of their arrests and burials. Documents many times with false data, but records at last, through which he had managed to conclude that in a specific place in the cemetery of La Plata, two hours from Buenos Aires, was the body of one of the many disappeared that the mothers claim for them” assures the investigation.

So the story revealed by soldier Buitrago, although it is chilling, is not the only one, which is even more worrying. What is truly chilling, then, is precisely the systematization with which these cases occur and the impunity that surrounds it. According to the report of the Semana Magazine, in the case of the Dabeiba cemetery, there is only one conviction and this is the case in most cases of extrajudicial executions in the country.

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