For more than 50 years, Colombia has endured an armed conflict that has claimed the lives of around 220,000 persons. According to the National Center for Historical Memory more than 80% of these victims were civilians. Human Rights Watch estimates that abuses and violence by armed groups displace 150,000 people each year, while five million Colombians have been formally designated as internally displaced persons (IDPs) since 1985. According to the Government Ombudsperson, more than 63,800 people have been officially reported missing. In December 2013, the Prosecutor General’s Office was reported to be “investigating the disappearance of 45,154 people who are thought to be buried in mass graves”. It was also reported that since 2006 more than 4,100 graves containing the remains of 5,390 people had been found. Of this number, only 2,483 have been identified, with all but 145 bodies returned to their families. However, discrepancies exist in the official figures. The Prosecutor’s Office recorded 21,900 cases between 2005 and 2012, but the Missing Persons Network (Sistema de Información Red de Desaparecidos y Cadáveres – SIRDEC) of the National Institute for Legal Medicine and Forensic Science registered fewer, at 19,254, for a much longer period, from 1970 to 2012. ICMP reported in April 2008 the role of various actors – paramilitary and guerrilla forces as well as the recognized political authorities – in enforced disappearances, and noted that Colombia confronts not only a sizable missing persons problem, but one in which the causes of disappearances are more diverse than in other transitional societies. Children and indigenous peoples represent two groups within the general population that have been particularly vulnerable. The unidentified remains of more than 4,210 children have been found in mass graves. Work to identify these child victims is being carried out by the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF) and the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences. Today, the National Register of the Attorney General’s Office lists 14,181 missing children and teenagers. According to the Centre for Autonomy and Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia (Observatorio ADPI), indigenous peoples have suffered from forced displacement and disappearance due to the presence of legal and illegal armed actors linked to drug trafficking and other criminal activities. Colombia’s Constitutional Court has recognized 34 indigenous groups that are in danger of physical and cultural extinction as a result of the internal armed conflict and serious violations of individual and collective rights. Organized crime is another major source of disappearances. A report by the National Institute of Legal Medicine noted that from the beginning of 2012 until the middle of 2014 more than 100 bodies were found in the Medellín River. Medellin is the capital of the Department of Antioquia, which currently accounts for the largest number of cases in the National Register of Missing Persons. Organised crime syndicates and juvenile crime gangs who often carry out “disappearances” have developed effective ways of making bodies disappear permanently – a key way of avoiding prosecution. Disappearances as a result of human trafficking, migration and natural disasters are often classified as voluntary disappearance or “autodesapariciones”. Since 2010, the Colombian authorities have enacted legislation to address enforced disappearances in a more efficient manner. Among other things, recent laws provide for the creation of a database of genetic profiles, facilitate efforts to locate and identify victims’ remains, uphold the rights of families, and facilitate reparation. However, institutions and organizations created to address the problem of missing persons continue to face major challenges not only in locating and identifying victims, but also in the overall logistics of an extensive process that involves, coordination among different institutions, the active participation of families of missing persons and the recognition of their loved ones as victims of human rights abuses. ICMP conducted activities in Colombia from 2008 to 2010 focusing on institutional development and providing technical, forensic assistance. Specific activities included:
- Contributing to public policy documents oriented toward the strengthening of search and identification mechanisms;
- Contributing to the development of the 2010 law, ensuring the inclusion of protection of genetic data, establishment of a national DNA database for the identification of missing persons, collection and processing of reference samples, protection of unidentified remains at cemeteries, provision for symbolic reparation to the families of the missing, mapping of sites of clandestine burial, and financial support to families to be able to participate at handover and burial ceremonies;
- Contributing to changing legal processes to address enforced disappearances;
- Cooperating with the Colombian Search Commission (NSC) to draft the first public report on enforced disappearances, and the implementation of the National Search Plan and National Register;
- Helping the NSC to establish a unit for primary attention to victims;
- Coordinating the National Inter-Institutional conference for the Search for Missing Persons;
- Producing a manual on the search and identification process;
- Conducting training in the DNA extraction protocol from bone samples;
- Coordinating the Advances in Human DNA Identification conference;
- Assisting in the systematizing of reference sample collection efforts;
- Creating the unified informed consent form for the collection of biological samples via an inter-institutional working group; and
- Helping the sub-committee on DNA to create unified collection kits.
Available open-source information concerning Colombia’s forensic data management and laboratory capacities is very limited. However it is reasonable to assume that the high number of missing persons cases requires a high-throughput DNA identification capacity. The Legal Framework for Peace adopted by Congress on June 14, 2012 seeks to regulate the termination of armed conflict within the existing constitutional framework and to authorize the creation of transitional justice mechanisms to facilitate a massive demobilization of illegal armed groups and ensure the right of victims of armed conflict to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition. The National Center for Historical Memory, established by law in 2012, receives, recovers, preserves, collects and analyses all documentary, oral testimony and other materials on violations that occurred during Colombia’s internal armed conflict, through research, cultural, and other educational activities related to help to establish and clarify the causes of such phenomena, to know the truth and help prevent future repetition. The creation of laws on missing persons has raised awareness, which can be seen by the high number of families of the missing applying to government institutions for support, answers and compensation. This, added to the demobilization of paramilitaries and the investigation of extrajudicial executions that has led to the discovery of mass graves and has motivated more families to file reports, has prompted the national government to continue to invest financial and human resources to meet the expectations of the direct victims and the expectations of civil society, NGOs and the international community. Newly elected president Juan Manuel Santos’ plan for the government for the period of 2014-2018 includes a commitment to deepening the implementation of the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which hopes to establish closer coordination in the implementation of policies and programs for victims without having a dispersion of political responsibilities, accelerate reparation to victims following the deadlines established by law and, develop a territorial approach, especially to areas traditionally neglected by the state and where armed groups have greater presence. Santos has proposed the need to end forced displacement, ensuring peace and justice so every family can be returned to its place of origin without any external threats. However, there continues to be a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of state institutions, and constant fear due to threats by the perpetrators and the minimal protection provided at the time of reporting cases, expressing an opinion or supporting the families of the victims in their struggle for truth and justice.