Congress Should Support Efforts to Identify Bodies Found in Mass Graves in Colombia

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To: Foreign Policy Aides                            
From: Jennifer Trowbridge

As the paramilitary demobilization process in Colombia unfolds, there has been a surge in the unearthing of mass graves.  Paramilitary leaders have not, to date, fulfilled their obligation under the demobilization law (Law 975, or the Law of Justice and Peace) to disclose all information they have on abuses – including the exact locations of mass graves.  However,  some lower-level demobilized combatants have come forward with information on clandestine grave sites that contain the remains of people murdered or “disappeared” by paramilitary groups, attempting to obtain procedural benefits in the demobilization process. Other grave sites are being revealed by survivors of violence. While the revelation of grave sites is positive, little progress has been made in investigating and prosecuting even the most severe human rights violations.  Moreover, multiple problems exist within the forensic investigation process which limit the ability of Colombian officials to identify victims and implement justice.

The United States, as a major donor to Colombian judicial institutions and to the paramilitary demobilization process itself, should take steps to ensure that exhumations of mass graves follow proper investigative procedure with the ultimate purpose of positively identifying victims. (See page 3 for detailed recommendations for U.S. policy).

The Unit of Justice and Peace under the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía) was created through Law 975, and is in charge of exhuming mass grave sites that are revealed by demobilizing combatants. It works in conjunction with the Human Rights Unit of the Fiscalía, which handles the investigations of forensic cases revealed by anyone other than a demobilizing combatant. To date, the Unit of Justice and Peace has received information about the location of 3,710 grave sites.  Forensic investigations of mass graves in Colombia have been plagued with the following problems:

  • Despite the exhumations of 553 bodies by the Unit of Justice and Peace, only 13 have been positively identified. Although nearly 200 of the bodies found were reported to have been preliminarily identified by family or community members, only 13 have been identified with 100 percent scientific certainty. Bodies that are not positively identified cannot be returned to the family members of the victims, nor can the forensic findings be used as evidence in judicial proceedings. Unidentified bodies are re-buried in cemeteries as “No Name,” resulting in a “double disappearance”  of missing victims. Failure to identify bodies defeats the purpose of forensic investigation, and exhumations that do not lead to identification of bodies should not be viewed as successful.
  • It is unclear whether or not the exhumations carried out under the Fiscalía consistently follow proper scientific procedure. If improperly exhumed, damage to forensic evidence is often irreversible. This could account for the high number of exhumed bodies that have been left unidentified.
  • To date there is no functioning registry of disappeared persons,  which severely limits the ability of Colombian forensic teams to identify remains. While the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences is currently in charge of a registry, it is incomplete and not accessible to the public. Without a list of who is missing, it is extremely difficult to identify who has been found. The existence and consistent use of a database of disappeared persons by investigative bodies would reduce the task of identification to matching missing persons to found bodies, likely resulting in an increase of positive identifications.
  • The Colombian intelligence agency, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), regularly conducts forensic exhumations. The DAS is Colombia’s intelligence agency, and is involved in counter-insurgency efforts. Neither the Colombian military nor the DAS, as participants in the country’s armed conflict, should participate in the forensic recovery of victims’ bodies. Any group that could be implicated in cases of violence cannot be trusted to collect impartial scientific evidence, nor to turn evidence over to prosecuting authorities.
  • Regional offices of the Unit of Justice and Peace have run out of safe storage space for all of the exhumed remains. Many remains are placed in inadequate or insecure storage areas, leaving this forensic evidence susceptible to damage, or robbery. A functioning registry of disappeared persons would greatly reduce the surplus of bodies, since it would increase the speed of identification of remains and reduce the processing time of each case.
  • At some sites, particularly in the northeast region of Colombia, perpetrators are digging up and re-burying human remains in anticipation of forensic investigations. The Fiscalía and other forensic authorities should prioritize cases in which this problem is anticipated. In cases where it is discovered that remains have been removed, a thorough investigation of the burial site should be conducted anyway. It is often possible to find traces of human remains left behind unknowingly by perpetrators that could help to identify the victims and/or prosecute the case.
  • There is not always adequate protection for forensic workers and others involved in the exhumation process. In addition to the security threat that this poses directly to forensic investigators, inadequate protection often causes forensic teams to speed up their work. This may cause them to leave behind remains, and could contribute to the lack of identification of bodies.
  • Families are not allowed to be present for exhumations carried out by the Unit of Justice and Peace. Families, who frequently request the exhumations to try to find the remains of their loved ones, should have the right to participate at each stage of the forensic investigation. They should be kept informed of the findings in a timely and accurate manner.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy

The United States should take steps to ensure that mass graves in Colombia are properly exhumed, bodies are positively identified and forensic evidence is available for the prosecution of criminals.

  1. Congress should:

    Fund, through the Colombian government agency the Defensoría, the newly formed National Search Plan (Plan Nacional de Búsqueda), and insist that exhumations adhere to the procedures laid out in the plan. The Search Commission for the Disappeared – composed of Colombian governmental and non-governmental institutions – authored the National Search Plan in September 2006. The plan states that all forensic investigations should follow, in order, these procedures: a) Document missing persons; b) Search for missing persons or bodies; c) Recover human remains through exhumation; and d) Analyze and identify remains.

    Fund the establishment of an independent forensic lab at the University of the Andes in Bogotá.

    Support the creation and active use of a registry of missing and “disappeared” persons. If used by all Colombian agencies conducting exhumations, the registry would help to reduce the number of unidentified bodies found in mass graves and resolve storage problems.

  2. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Colombia should:

    Insist that neither the DAS nor any branch of Colombia’s military conduct forensic investigations of mass graves.

    Urge the Colombian government to provide adequate security for forensic investigation teams. The government should also provide increased protection for witnesses who testify in judicial proceedings for demobilizing combatants.

    Encourage the Unit of Justice and Peace to allow participation by family members of victims at every stage of the investigative process. 


1. “Colombia busca a 10.000 muertos,” El Tiempo, April 24, 2007.
2. “Colombia busca a 10.000 muertos,” El Tiempo, April 24, 2007;  “Este año se han exhumado 95 cadáveres de fosas comunes de victimas de paramilitares,” El Tiempo, July 27, 2006, and; “Cada cuatro días desentierran una fosa de paramilitares,” El Tiempo, November 20, 2006.
3. “Apreciaciones a las exhumaciones e investigaciones forenses realizadas por la Unidad Nacional de Justicia y Paz de la Fiscalía General de la Nación,” Equipo Colombiano Interdisciplinario de Trabajo Forense y Asistencia Psicosocial (EQUITAS), August 2006.
4. “Apreciaciones a las exhumaciones e investigaciones forenses realizadas por la Unidad Nacional de Justicia y Paz de la Fiscalia General de la Nación,” Equipo Colombiano Interdisciplinario de Trabajo Forense y Asistencia Psicosocial (EQUITAS), August 2006.
5. “Colombia busca a 10.000 muertos,” El Tiempo, April 24, 2007.
6. “Fosas comunes: secretos dolorosos,” Diario El Pais, January 7, 2007, and; “Descubren fosas comunes en antigua zona de ubicación de las Auc,” El Tiempo, March 17, 2007.  “Los rostros de las fosas comunes,” La Semana, June 15, 2006.
7. “Trasteo de cadáveres” El Tiempo, July 17, 2006,  and; “Mass graves unearthed in Colombia” BBC News, February 15, 2006.
8. “Plan Nacional de Búsqueda,” Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas, September 2006.