Disappearances in Colombia on a Scale Never Imagined

From Colombia's streets and fields, every week, people are still disappearing.
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"Disappearances." When you mention the word in the Latin American context, most people think of Argentina, where 30,000 people were disappeared during the dirty war, or Chile, where 3,000 people were killed or disappeared. But the magnitude of the tragedy in Colombia may be even greater.

More than 51,000 people are registered by the Colombian government as disappeared or missing. Those who were forcibly disappeared -- what we might think of as political disappearances -- range in official statistics from over one quarter of that total to more than 32,000, as detailed in the report, Breaking the Silence: In Search of Colombia's Disappeared, just released for Human Rights Day by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) and the U.S. Office on Colombia (USOC). But the real total is likely to be much higher, as new and old cases are entered into a consolidated government database. And many cases are never registered at all.

Today, the problem is far from solved. More than 1130 new cases of forced disappearance have been officially registered in the last three years, but from what I hear from Colombian human rights groups in areas like Antioquia and Buenaventura, the total is likely to be higher.

These are just numbers. But the disappeared are people, with mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. Human rights defenders, trade unionists, Afro-Colombian and indigenous people, and young men and teenage girls in rural conflict zones are among Colombia's missing. They had names. Names like Nydia, Angel, Claudia, Nelsy, Mónica, Gerardo, Humberto... The mystery over their loss adds another level of pain. "Without seeing the body, no one can give a loved one up for dead," says Colombian scholar Alfredo Molano. "To the torment of absence is added the sorrow of doubt."

Who disappeared them? All armed actors, including the Colombian armed forces, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas, are responsible for forced disappearances, but the paramilitary role in this crime is especially pronounced. Paramilitaries often destroyed the bodies of their victims, burning them or cutting them with chain saws, sometimes alive, burying the bodies in unmarked graves on ranches, riverbanks or cemeteries, or throwing them into rivers.

The highest number of forced disappearances in Colombia occurred from 2000 to 2003, the first four years of U.S.-funded Plan Colombia, according to Colombian government statistics. Many of those were committed by paramilitaries, but the U.S.-trained and -funded military aided and abetted these abuses. Another gruesome kind of forced disappearance escalated from 2005 through 2008. All over Colombia, army soldiers detained people, then killed them and dressed them in guerrilla uniforms and claimed them as killed in combat. Cases involving more than 3,000 people disappeared and killed allegedly by soldiers are now winding their way slowly through Colombia's civilian justice system. Those U.S. policymakers, military leaders and analysts who paint a pretty picture of Colombia's security progress in the past decade might want to search their souls about this somber cost. And remember it the next time the U.S. government considers escalating aid and training to another abusive military force.

The Colombian government's recent efforts to search for the disappeared, to conduct exhumations and return remains to victims' families are commendable. Positive U.S. efforts to support this should expand. But far more must be done to search for the disappeared, to uncover the full truth of what happened to them, and to bring those responsible to justice. And far more must be done to stop the practice of disappearing.

For far too long, the relatives of the disappeared and the human rights groups that accompany them have labored at great personal risk and without adequate acknowledgment and support. It is long past time to help them break the silence.

Disappearances are not just something you read about in an Isabel Allende novel, study in a Southern Cone history class, or view by clicking "Missing" in your Netflix queue. From Colombia's streets and fields, every week, people are still disappearing.

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