Colombia: disappearance

18-04-2012 Feature

Disappearance is a source of constant pain for families who never stop searching for their loved ones. Unsolved cases, the persistence of the problem and the neglect of many affected families are a cause for serious concern. Extract from Colombia report 2011.


© Revista Semana / D. Reina

There may be no trace of those who are missing, but each has a story. Behind each missing person lies the uncertainty and anxiety of a family tirelessly searching, suffering constantly and in silence. Their pain is only eased when they discover the fate of their loved ones.

The exact number of missing persons in Colombia is not known, but we do know that there are many more than the 51,000 names on the State's national register. This is a cumulative, large-scale problem. Every year, more names are added to a long list whose first entries date back more than half a century. 

There are two specific scenarios that result in people being declared missing: forced disappearance in connection with the conflict and other situations of violence (when the perpetrator intends to make the person disappear); and disappearance as a result of bureaucracy, lack of information or oversight. The latter category includes those who die in combat or other violent circumstances, without any explicit intention to make them disappear. In some cases, bodies are simply left behind on the battlefield when the fighting ends. Due to shortcomings with the procedures for recovering, identifying and burying bodies, many have been buried in unmarked graves bearing no information whatsoever, or in mass graves in cemeteries around the country, thereby drawing out the search and uncertainty of their families.
Although in recent years there have been major advances in searching for and identifying missing persons (thanks to inter-organizational agreements and harmonized forms, protocols and procedures, among others), there is still a great deal of concern about the number of unsolved cases, the persistence of the problem and the neglect of many families of missing persons.

Although the missing persons are the direct victims of the violation, their relatives, who suffer their loss and embark on a campaign in search of them, are also victims. Another factor compounding the situation in Colombia is the fact that families experience innumerable difficulties when navigating the complex legal and forensic procedures in pursuit of their loved ones. In many cases, they are unfamiliar with the system and with their rights, or they get lost in all the bureaucratic steps.

Apart from this lack of knowledge, relatives may also be afraid to report a disappearance. This fear arises from suspicion and from the ongoing underlying threat, since the search goes on against a backdrop of persistent armed conflict and may result in the disappearance of more people. Their search is therefore not made official, denying families the chance to receive proper State assistance to ascertain the fate of their relatives. Families of missing persons have the right to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones.  


Victims' voices

It is painful, very painful

© ICRC / Y. Castiblanco

"My son has been missing since 6 February 2006. He was 18 years old. He went out at 6 o'clock in the evening, saying 'I'm going to run an errand. I'll be right back'. At 10 o'clock he still wasn't back and I went to bed as I was tired. I got up just after 5 o'clock. I always look in on my children when I get up. But I couldn't see him. Dario wasn't there!

We started by looking for him at the police stations. I went to the authorities to report him missing. I am still looking. What I want is justice and the truth. I want to know what happened. It is painful, very painful – to lavish so much care on your children and then end up searching for them. All I do is ask God to grant me strength. At least if I knew one way or the other, but you don't know what it's like to go to sleep every night with that uncertainty, to get home from work and not find him there."

Margarita, whose son is missing.

I want them to help me find him, whether he's alive or dead

"My eldest son is missing. He went out with three friends to sell glass photo frames in La Guajira on 7 October 2004. I've heard nothing since. I didn't want to report his disappearance as I was hoping he'd turn up alive, because he wasn't a criminal. I only reported it two years later when I had looked everywhere for him, knocking on doors, and found no trace. I still have hope, but sometimes it wavers. I'm tired of taking papers to and fro, giving DNA samples and so on. I long to find my son alive, but if he's dead I want to recover the remains so I can give him a Christian burial. I want them to help me find him, whether he's alive or dead. I depended on him to feed and clothe me. Now I struggle to get by; I make cakes and soup and take in ironing. This is how it started. Where will it end?"

Dora, whose son is missing.

The ICRC's humanitarian response


The ICRC tries to help ascertain the fate of missing persons and to prevent new cases from occurring through its confidential dialogue with armed actors, by providing support and guidance to the families, and by constantly advising the relevant authorities.

Over the years, the ICRC has documented more than 5,160 cases. In 2011 alone, a further 138 missing persons were registered. Over the year, 82 cases were broached with the alleged perpetrators on one or more occasions in pursuit of answers about the fate of the missing persons.

The ICRC also offered support and guidance to more than 170 families in the search and identification process, and helped several of them by making available the funds to travel to exhumation sites or to collect the remains of their loved ones. Its assistance includes psychological support, advice on accessing State services and liaising with forensic and legal authorities. In six specific cases closely monitored by the ICRC, the remains were successfully returned to the families.

Supporting State institutions

With a view to improving the efficiency of identification processes, the ICRC organized two meetings of national forensic experts. These meetings were opportunities to brainstorm and work out practical recommendations for responding more swiftly to identification requests and fostering dialogue between families and local authorities. The ICRC also organized a seminar with 26 public prosecutors to share those recommendations and to stress the importance of diversifying identification methods beyond DNA evidence.

The fact that many bodies are buried in different regional cemeteries around the country complicates the identification process. In most cases, cemeteries located in remote areas are not managed by the authorities, and the officials in charge do not comply with burial protocols. The bodies are buried in mass graves and unclaimed identified bodies are mixed up with unidentified bodies. In Olaya Herrera municipality, in Nariño department, the ICRC, with the support of the local council, helped to identify mass graves and is currently working on refurbishing the morgue and blocks for unidentified remains and building cold rooms in which to store the bodies.

See also:

The tragedy of unmarked graves in cemeteries