BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Investigators in Colombia have begun exhuming bodies at a cemetery where at least 50 victims related to a notorious military scandal are believed buried, officials said Saturday.
The Special Peace Tribunal announced that forensic scientists have recovered the remains of seven men believed killed by troops and buried at the Las Mercedes de Dabeiba Catholic Cemetery in Antioquia.
The exhumations are the first mass exhumation conducted by the Special Peace Tribunal, which was created by Colombia’s historic accord ending over five decades of conflict between leftist guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups.
The deaths are part of the “false positives” scandal in which troops killed civilians and then dressed them up as guerrillas in exchange for extra pay, vacations and other perks. Colombia’s military has been blamed for as many as 5,000 extrajudicial killings at the height of the country’s conflict in the mid-2000s.
Investigators acting on information from soldiers began the exhumations in early December and expect to find the remains of at least 50 mostly poor, young men from a province in northwestern Colombia that was a hotbed for violence.
“None of these crimes were ever investigated by the ordinary justice system,” the Special Peace Tribunal said in a statement.
The investigation is part of the tribunal’s “Case 3,” in which 160 military officers have provided testimony relating to the “false positives” scandal. Though lower-ranking soldiers have been jailed in recent years, no top commander has been held accountable for the slayings and many families are still clamoring for justice.
Human Rights Watch has criticized President Iván Duque for appointing Gen. Nicacio Martínez Espinel as head of Colombia’s army, noting he was second-in-command of the 10th Brigade during years for which prosecutors have opened investigations into 23 illegal killings.
The rights group revealed that Martínez Espinel, who was a colonel at the time, certified payments to an informant who led to “excellent results” in a purported combat operation during which an indigenous civilian and 13-year-old girl were killed.
The exhumations at the Las Mercedes de Dabeiba Catholic Cemetery are being done to corroborate new information provided by troops, identify bodies and provide answers to relatives.
According to the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, soldiers believed involved in the crimes went with investigators to the cemetery and put green flags into the ground where victims were interred. They described kidnapping victims, shooting them to death, dressing them in black clothes and putting gunpowder on their hands.
The victims were registered as “combat deaths.”
The sister of one victim recently contacted by authorities told the newspaper her father went to the cemetery looking for her brother after he disappeared in 1997. A cemetery worker showed him three unidentified bodies. Though her father identified one of them as his son, the cemetery worker refused to hand over the body, fearful he would be killed.
The family filed a complaint but until now has gotten no answers.
“My parents have never stopped asking about him,” she said. “This is the last hope.”