by Kelly Nicholls
Executive Director, U.S. Office on Colombia
After Everardo Borda was killed by the armed forces on January 16, 2008 his body was allegedly dumped in a clandestine grave site directly beside the military base of the Rapid Deployment Force in the Macarena, Meta in central Colombia. According to the Inspector-General’s initial report, there could be up to 2,000 non-identified bodies buried there. The Rapid Deployment Force (FUDRA in its Spanish acronym) has received considerable U.S. support since 2005 and the municipality of the Macarena and the surrounding region has been a focus of U.S.-backed military efforts to recover territory from the guerrillas.
On July 22 around 800 people from across the region came to the Macarena to tell an international delegation of political leaders, trade unionists and NGOs from the U.S. and Europe of the abuses they have suffered, many allegedly at the hands of the armed forces. Victims, like Everardo’ father, Gerardo Borda, took the stage to tell of how their loved ones had been disappeared and killed reportedly by the armed forces and when they were finally able to find their body – and many are still looking – they were told their family member was a guerrilla killed in combat. According to those who gave testimony, the army has generally stigmatized people from the region as members – or at least allies – of the guerrilla. Indeed three days after the event Colombian President Alvaro Uribe flew to the Macarena and said publicly that accusing the armed forces of human rights abuses was a tactic used by the guerrilla. These comments put the lives of those victims who spoke at the event in grave danger.
The Macarena and the surrounding region were demilitarized as part of the failed peace negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1999 – 2002. The Army’s subsequent recovery of the zone, via the creation and operation of the Joint Task Force Omega, has been highlighted by the Uribe Administration as a key success of the ‘Democratic Security Policy’. The task force has been at the heart of the United States’ support for the war against the FARC with a special focus in La Macarena. FUDRA, a central part of the task force, and its component mobile brigades have all been vetted to receive (and typically have received) U.S. assistance since 2005. Furthermore, the U.S. government has invested more than $40 million in the third phase of consolidation of state control in the zone, with the creation of the ‘Centers for Consolidation and Integral Action’ – CCAI. This new approach to state-building and counterinsurgency in Colombia involves a combination of military and development projects carried out in the same geographic areas, with the Macarena as the pilot program.
But, as the international delegation heard on Thursday, recuperation of the territory has come at an enormous cost for the civilian population. One of the participants, Dumar Zapata, told of how he returned home on July 4, 2007 to find his house occupied by the army. They refused to allow him in and when he asked for his wife, Maria del Socorro, they apparently told him that he should go look for her with the guerrillas seeing as she and Dumar were part of the FARC. A few days later when he was allowed into his house he found it destroyed and drops of blood across the kitchen floor. He went searching for his wife and was finally told that a body by that description had been dumped in the mass grave site in the Macarena. The army claimed she was a guerrilla killed in combat. Dumar told the delegation that he wants justice and for the truth to be told: that his wife was not a guerrilla, but another innocent victim.
As part of the delegation we visited the clandestine grave site, a field between the official commentary and the army base, which is full of crosses simply with dates of when the body was buried. Around 25 new graves have apparently been filled this year in the site. Local human rights groups have been denouncing the existence of the clandestine grave site for over a year, but only now with international pressure are they being listened to. It was only recently that the Attorney-General’s office Crime Scene Investigations Unit began working at the scene. Regional human rights groups claim there may be other mass grave sites in the municipalities of Granada and Vista Hermosa.
Even if the bodies that the army is dumping in this site really do belong to guerrilla soldiers killed in combat, it is still a gross violation of international humanitarian law to leave their bodies in unmarked graves, without due process of identification of the deceased, medical examinations to determine the cause of death, reporting to the relevant authority and then burial if it is not possible to return the body to family members.
But, according to the testimonies shared on Thursday, it is quite possible that many of those unidentified bodies may belong to innocent civilians killed by the armed forces. It is imperative that these alleged extrajudicial executions be investigated and the Macarena mass grave site be exhumed for scientific identification of the rests in order to be returned to their families. For Mr. Borda, it was a year after his son Everardo went missing that he finally heard that his body was found in the mass grave site – and that the army had allegedly left him there claiming he was a guerrilla killed in combat.
U.S. government must fully implement the Leahy Law, which requires suspending assistance to brigades for which there is credible evidence of extrajudicial executions committed by its members – as appears to be the case for many brigades operating in the Macarena and the surrounding region – until and unless those killings are fully investigated and the civilian justice system reaches a judgment. Furthermore, the USG should strongly encourage Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, to ensure the protection of human rights is a central focus of his security policy.