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Until We Find Them, Part 2: The Disappeared in Colombia

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On Monday, March 18, 2013 the Latin America Working Group Education Fund together with theWashington Office on Latin America, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the US Office on Colombia, and the Guatemala Human Rights Commission hosted a panel event entitled “Until We Find Them: The Disappeared in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru” to discuss the situation of forced disappearances in each country.

Gloria Gómez is the coordinator of the Association of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Colombia (ASFADDES), an NGO and network of families of the disappeared. Since 1982, ASFADDES has accompanied and supported people in the search for their relatives while demanding justice in Colombia. The following is a translation…

 “I´d like to reiterate that there is a thirty year history of resistance and fighting for those who aren´t here but really are always here. Today, we illustrate some of them here on our t-shirts. We have dressed in their memory to make them visible, and so that society recognizes them.I wanted to speak to you quickly about the situation of forced disappearances in our country that dates back to the seventies. For the families of the disappeared, forced disappearance cannot be a thing of the past. Forced disappearance is past, present, and forever while they still don´t appear, while we still don´t know the real truth, while we still don´t see justice applied in favor of the victims, and of course, while there is no reconstruction of memory so that they are recognized and their dignity is returned. This dignity was taken not just from the direct victims, but also from us, their relatives.Gloria_Colombia_Disappeared_VocesGloria discusses the disappeared in Colombia. PHOTO CREDIT: Emma Buckhout, LAWG.Gloria discusses the disappeared in Colombia. PHOTO CREDIT: Emma Buckhout, LAWG.

Since the 1970s, Colombia has been an object of this repressive policy used to eliminate political opponents. During the 1980s, it was increasingly used against popular sectors and social networks, men, youth, rural farmers, and unionists. At the end of that decade and into the nineties, forced disappearance was used, more than just a repressive method, as a mechanism to generate terror. In areas where social society was strong, men and women began to be disappeared simply for the reason of living in these regions; like Urabá, Magdalena Medio, and Cauca, regions in which the social strength made possible the activities of demanding respect for human rights, and also demanding recognition of social, economic, and cultural rights.

At the end of the nineties and into the new millennium, forced disappearance in Colombia was not only used as a repressive mechanism, eliminating the small gains made by the country’s social movements, it was also used to generate terror and as a method to control territories.   Forced disappearance in Colombia principally continues to be a responsibility of the Colombian state, as it is in Mexico, through agent direct action or through provisions of complying with their duties. As in other countries of the [American] continent, forced disappearance is run by private groups on the legal margin, but with the complicity of state agents. The famous paramilitaries have changed their name. Now they are called criminal groups, the “rastrojos,” the “urabeños,” the “gaitanistas.” In regions like Magdalena Medio and the southern part of our country, in Areño and Cauca, these criminal groups continue using forced disappearance as a method of eliminating those people who do not submit to their orders and imposed control.

The crime and method of forced disappearance in Colombia is made totally invisible. The authorities, the government, and state entities protest that forced disappearance is a thing of the past. They present [disappearances] as voluntary disappearances—people that wanted to go, people that had debt, people that left because they didn’t want to be with their families. Even worse, in the case of women, they present disappearances as crimes of passion—the boyfriend that was jealous, the woman that had a lover, was promiscuous, and who is now surely hidden with one of her lovers. That is the justification. One specific case is Diana Mayerty Marlin Arango, a 22 year-old girl and mother of a two year-old baby, who was disappeared November 13, 2011 and has still not been looked for, a year and four months later. The authorities in charge of her case continue to argue that she is in hiding with one of her male friends. For this same reason, it has not been possible for the authorities to search for or find Martha Lucila Montaña, a young 23 year-old woman, who was disappeared with her seven month-old son. The investigators of the new forced disappearance and displacement unit argue that this is a disappearance of passion because Martha Lucila had a child with another man, so surely he was jealous and took her. This is the authorities´ argument.

Case_Photos_Colombia_Disappeared_VocesMiguel Angel Pabon, pictured left and Diana Mayerty Marlin Arango, pictured right. PHOTO CREDIT: Emma Buckhout, LAWGMiguel Angel Pabon, pictured left and Diana Mayerty Marlin Arango, pictured right. PHOTO CREDIT: Emma Buckhout, LAWGColombia is a country with too many instruments and tools—we say too many because there are too many to be effective. Regarding the urgent search mechanism that was instituted to try to save people´s lives, it has not been possible for it to be applied and activated in time to rescue them alive. The authorities conceived the disappeared persons search plan to look for cadavers, not to organize search plans and go out, find, and rescue them. In the case of Miguel Angel Pabon, an environmentalist who disappeared just a couple months ago on October 31, 2012, it has not been possible for the authorities to rescue him. It has not been possible because the authorities who received the request under the urgent search mechanism to look for and rescue Miguel Angel alive, argued that day that they had to wait 72 hours. This is just one example of many. The authorities argue for waiting periods, which have limited search actions, including the urgent search mechanism, to entering information into a database and searching among cadavers.

We relatives of the disappeared don´t believe in these mechanisms that come from the 589 law. Colombia, unlike other countries, recognizes forced disappearance as a crime under the 589 law, which includes all the tools like the urgent search mechanism and a commission for the search for disappeared persons. This commission should coordinate and take charge of the necessary efforts to rescue the disappeared and recommend exemplary punishments, but it does not fulfill its purpose because there is no political will to do so. Today, forced disappearance in Colombia remains a constant. Disappearances have increased, but with the difference that they are not known [or acknowledged] to be forced. It is the responsibility of the state to protect and guarantee the good of the Colombian people. That is why we continue working and why we are here today to tell you this and to recognize your efforts here, those of Lisa [Haugaard], and all of the people working for the situation in Colombia. We have to unite and double our efforts to break the impunity, to end forced disappearance in Colombia, and to begin the process of reconstructing memory in Colombia to return the dignity that has been taken.”