Colombia: Disappearance

10-07-2013 Feature

In 2012 more than 7,500 new people were reported missing in Colombia, according to official figures. Despite the rules and bodies established to help families trace their missing loved ones, ordinary people are still struggling to get answers.

Bogotá, 3-5 December 2012. An ICRC workshop brings together 23 relatives of missing persons to share their stories and get answers from the authorities. 

Bogotá, 3-5 December 2012. An ICRC workshop brings together 23 relatives of missing persons to share their stories and get answers from the authorities.
© CICR / E. Alfonso

Coping with the disappearance of a missing loved one is one of the most serious problems in Colombia from a humanitarian perspective. The institutions responsible for tracing missing persons are overwhelmed by requests. Thousands of cases remain unresolved and the list grows longer each year.

Up to 2011, more than 78,000 people were reported missing in SIRDEC – an online information database used to help identify dead bodies, managed by the National Institute of Forensic Science. Only 18,000 of those cases were resolved by finding the person dead or alive. In 2012 alone, a further 7,500 cases were reported, 4,300 of which are still unresolved.

Colombia leads the region in the field of forensic science. In the last three years, it has made great strides towards solid legislation in this area, with Law 1448 of 2011 on victims’ rights and land restitution, Law 1408 of 2010 on paying tribute to victims of forced disappearance, and Law 531 of 2012 on people unaccounted for as a result of enforced disappearance and other forms of involuntary disappearance.

Coordination has improved between the institutions in charge of these matters, with better mechanisms for reporting and tracing missing persons. In addition to the SIRDEC database, there is a centralized virtual information centre and a national tracing plan. Cooperation between these entities has facilitated the identification of mortal remains. For example, an agreement signed in 2010 between the National Institute of Forensic Science, the National Civil Registry and the Ministry of the Interior led to the identification of the remains of 10,500 people as of 2012. Subsequent agreements are intended to begin the process of locating those remains in cemeteries.

However, in remote areas far from administrative hubs, it is still difficult for people to negotiate the web of entities in charge of dealing with disappearance. State institutions face a whole range of challenges, from providing psychosocial support to families to locating mortal remains in cemeteries. This situation is exacerbated when the officials themselves do not understand the rules and procedures for reporting and tracing missing persons. Across the board, the ICRC works with victims’ families and with the institutions responsible for dealing with their requests.

As shown by the experiences of the mothers and wives of Buenaventura, who were provided with counselling as part of a joint ICRC-Colombian Red Cross initiative (see p. 26), or the 23 family members who attended a workshop where they were able to put their questions to the authorities (see p. 27), the main challenge is moving from a centrally decided system enacting the victims’ right to know the fate of their relatives to local implementation of that system.


Every story deserves an ending

In Buenaventura most of the missing persons are men, leaving behind their mothers and wives, often with children to look after.“We call ourselves the victims who survive. It’s a very difficult time. You’re very confused and think you’ll go crazy. You’re never really able to mourn your family member,” says Sol*, a community leader whose husband is missing... Read more


Meeting to share their pain and seek answers

“Who wants to know the truth?” asked one of the 23 participants during a group exercise at a workshop for relatives of missing persons organized by the ICRC. Those who answered “yes” were supposed to go to one side of the room; those who said “no” to the other. Everyone ended up walking to the “yes” side, in silence... Read more


ICRC recovers the remains of people killed in the conflict

On 12 July 2012 an ICRC team recovered the remains of two crew members from an Air Force plane that crashed in a rural area of Jambaló, in Cauca department. The ICRC delivered their remains to the Third Division of the National Army in Popayán.. Read more


Victims’ voices

“One day I want to be able to say: this is where my brother’s buried.”

“My case is a tricky one. My brother belonged to an armed group and was killed by State forces. We lost touch with him when he was 14. He was recruited aged 17, either because he wanted to or because it meant steady money. In any case, we didn’t know where he was. When we found out he was dead, we asked the public prosecutor’s office to hand over his body so we could bury him properly. They refused because they weren’t completely sure of his identity. It’s coming up for two years since he died. We know he’s buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery somewhere.

I was planning to stop pursuing the case, because I was starting to feel threatened. But thanks to the ICRC’s support, they took a DNA sample from me. However, there wasn’t an exact match because he was my half brother. Since my mother died in 1983 and my father was killed in 1980, I haven’t been able to get all the paperwork I need. The ICRC’s support has given me hope that the case will be resolved. I want to bury my brother and be able to move on. In five years his remains will go into a mass grave. Whatever he did, he was a human being and he deserves a decent burial in a marked grave. One day I want to be able to say: this is where my brother’s buried.”

Relative of a missing person.

The ICRC’s humanitarian response

The ICRC’s efforts to help ascertain the fate of missing persons in Colombia and to prevent new cases from occurring include supporting and guiding relatives, engaging in dialogue with armed actors, and advising and cooperating with the relevant authorities. The ICRC focuses on victims of forced disappearance, people killed in armed violence whose bodies have not been recovered, and combatants who are unaccounted for.

In 2012 the ICRC documented 161 new cases of disappearance, 53 of which arose in the course of the year. The other 108 were people who had gone missing prior to 2012 but whose disappearance had not been reported.

Through its confidential dialogue with those allegedly responsible for those disappearances, the ICRC sought to ascertain the fate of the missing persons. Of the cases brought to the ICRC’s attention, 94 were broached in this way on one or more occasions.

The ICRC also guided 126 families through the process of tracing, recovering, identifying and collecting the remains of their missing loved ones. The ICRC provided counselling, showed them how to negotiate the State system, and liaised with the forensic and legal authorities. Some families were also given financial support to travel to exhumation sites or to collect the remains of their relatives. On four occasions, ICRC support culminated in their relatives’ remains being returned to families.

The ICRC’s work also extended to collecting and returning to families the remains of 13 people buried in graves or cemeteries in districts where the authorities could not enter, or which were handed over to them by armed groups (see p. 29).

Supporting State institutions

En 2012, el CICR facilitó la realización de cuatro seminarios con autoridades en los que se presentaron los estándares internacionales sobre desaparición. El propósito de estos encuentros fue intercambiar conocimientos y llegar a acuerdos sobre los procesos de búsqueda, recuperación, exhumación, identificación y entrega de restos humanos, así como mejorar la respuesta de las instituciones a los familiares. Participaron 48 expertos forenses y 54 fiscales.

A su vez, el CICR asesoró a varias mesas regionales de instituciones que participan en la búsqueda de personas desaparecidas en los departamentos de Valle, Putumayo, Nariño y Antioquia.


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