Disappearances in Colombia: Living in the grip of uncertainty

04-02-2014 Feature

More than 63,800 people have been officially reported missing in Colombia. This situation has a drastic effect on whole families who are forced to live with nagging doubts as to the fate of their loved ones.

Puerto Asís, Putumayo, Colombia. Eight years have passed and 70-year-old Ancízar Osorio still does not know where  his son Arcesio is. ©ICRC / S. Giraldo


For Rubiela* 8 February was a red-letter day, as it marked the end of the uncertainty which had kept her on tenterhooks ever since her son Jáder had disappeared three years earlier. “We paid tribute to him and buried him in the local cemetery. At last my soul is at peace, as my son is resting where he belongs.”

The tragedy which Rubiela experienced is one facing hundreds of families in Putumayo, a department in south-western Colombia, on the borders with Ecuador and Peru. “At least 1,150 disappearances directly related to the conflict are known to have occurred” says Rubén Darío Pinzón, who works for the ICRC’s Puerto Asís office and whose duties include that of assisting the families of the missing.

“My son was here in the municipal cemetery”

On 24 December 2009, when he was 16, Jáder decided to join an armed group. He told his mum that he was going to work to earn some money and that he would be back in January in order to continue his education. That was the last time that she saw him alive.

“Scarcely 20 days had gone by when people started to talk about a shelling. A little later they said that my son had been one of the victims,” says Rubiela. “By the time I got to Puerto Asís, they had already buried him without knowing exactly who he was.”

Although some photographs in the possession of the authorities made Rubiela feel sure that her son was among the dead, two lost DNA samples and the slow response of the administrative authorities prolonged her agony. “I was nearly desperate. So much suspense was driving me crazy. Now I know where my boy is. If it had not been for the Red Cross, I would still have been looking for him.”

In Colombia, the ICRC is working to alleviate the suffering of missing persons’ families, by being attentive to their needs and encouraging a suitable response from the authorities. To this end, it endeavours to locate the missing and to prevent future disappearances by training the authorities in proper graveyard management (marking of areas and protecting data on unidentified bodies), holding workshops on the registration of missing persons and providing information about standards and laws.   

In addition, the ICRC offers guidance and advice to families and authorities about golden rules and procedures when searching for and registering missing persons and it fosters coordination among institutions.  It also instructs the parties to the conflict and other armed groups about the rules prohibiting the concealment of information regarding missing persons.

Puerto Asís, Putumayo, Colombia. Puerto Asís, Putumayo, Colombia. After years of anguished searching Rubiela managed to bury her son Jáder. 

After years of anguished searching Rubiela managed to bury her son Jáder.
© ICRC / S. Giraldo

“My son never turned up”

“The last time he called us, my son Arcesio said that he was coming to see us” says Ancízar Osorio in a faltering voice, after eight years of not knowing where his son is.  
One month after his disappearance, the Osorio family went to Chocó to begin their search which included, among other steps, the exhumation and irregular reburial by a gravedigger, without the authorities’ backing, of a body which they thought to be that of their son. Eight years later forensic science proved that this was not so.  

After looking at photographs in the possession of the National Directorate of Prosecution Services, Ancízar and his family are now certain that, after Arcesio died, he was taken to the cemetery at Itsmina where, however, it has proved impossible to find the place where the mortal remains of the young man from Putumayo lie.  

In Colombia, many people are buried anonymously in cemeteries throughout the country, a situation which prolongs their relatives’ uncertainty and searches. The ICRC, being aware of this reality, is working to improve the protection and identification of mortal remains.   

Puerto Asís, Putumayo, Colombia. Luz Mary travelled from Putumayo to Santa Marta, on the other side of the country, to receive the mortal remains of her brother Rodolfo. 

Luz Mary travelled from Putumayo to Santa Marta, on the other side of the country, to receive the mortal remains of her brother Rodolfo.
© ICRC / S. Giraldo

“Fear left me speechless”

On 18 February last year, Luz Mary travelled to Santa Marta, the capital of the coastal department of Magdalena, to receive the mortal remains of her brother Rodolfo. When she arrived in the town she was sad in the knowledge that she would never see him alive again, yet serene because she had found his body seven years after he had disappeared.

Luz Mary considers herself lucky. Unlike many families who are still tirelessly searching for their loved ones, her case was solved quickly with few problems. “In 2012 I was informed that my brother’s remains were in Santa Marta (Magdalena). The Red Cross helped me with transport and travel expenses so that I could go and collect them.”

“In Colombia there are fathers, mothers, siblings, spouses, children, men and women who search desperately day after day for their missing relatives” explains Rubén Darío Pinzón, from the ICRC. “Many families face the harsh reality of uncertainty, of not knowing for years what has happened to people they love.”

*All names in this article have been changed to protect victims’ safety.