On Monday, a team of Colombian officials began an excavation of what some believe may be the “world’s largest urban mass grave” in La Escombrera, a landfill in Medellín’s Comuna 13 slum. As many as 300 people are thought to have been buried there between 1999 and 2004, a period when the surrounding neighborhood was plagued by violence among paramilitary groups, leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers. Many in the city hope the excavation will uncover the remains of missing loved ones, a small portion of the thousands of men, women and children who have “disappeared” during Colombia’s five-decade long internal conflict.
Forced disappearances are not unknown to Latin America, and have served as a means of creating fear and stifling opposition in civilian populations at various times in the region’s history, perhaps most notably in Argentina during that country’s “Dirty War.” But nowhere has the tactic been more prevalent than in Colombia. Since the beginning of Colombia’s internal conflict, more than 60,000 people have disappeared, a number that continues to grow. Few disappearance cases are thoroughly investigated, and fewer still are successfully prosecuted, making closure for victims’ families hard to come by.
“The truth is buried there. We haven’t had any help from the state until now,” said Luz Elena Galeano, a wife of a disappeared in Medellín, in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We’ve been fighting to get justice and find out the truth.”
The Colombian government has taken steps to combat forced disappearances through legislation, including Law 589 and the Justice and Peace Law, but progress has been slow. Observers hope the move to excavate La Escombrera will mark a shift in the government’s approach to investigating disappearance cases.
“The Colombian government’s recent efforts to search for the disappeared, and to conduct exhumations and return remains to victims’ families, are commendable,” said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the non-profit Latin America Working Group Education Fund. “But far more must be done to achieve justice in these cases, as well to expand the search for the disappeared, and most important, to end the practice of disappearing.”