The truth buried six feet under

A cemetery is at the heart of a controversy about a deadly military tactic

Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images/ Nadja Drost

Some days, there are no bodies for Jesús Hernandez, the local gravedigger in La Macarena, Colombia, to bury. Other days, he is overwhelmed with corpses—three, seven, sometimes 15—all ferried in by military helicopters. In the tiny, white-tiled morgue where he tends to the dead, Hernandez records their fingerprints, the shape of any scars and the number of bullet wounds. Many of the bodies have fallen victim to maggots and the jungle heat by the time he sees them, leaving little with which to identify them. He buries them behind La Macarena’s municipal cemetery, in a field covered with hundreds of white wooden plaques, marked with a date, number and, sometimes, “N.N.”—the Latin abbreviation for an unknown person.

Who is buried in this cemetery—and how they died—is of great debate. The military says the bodies are guerrillas killed in combat. But there are growing suspicions, as well as evidence, that some were in fact civilians killed in a macabre practice known here as producing a “false positive.” In certain cases across the country, it has been proven that the army has passed off civilians as rebels killed in combat, dressing some of them in guerrilla fatigues and placing weapons at their sides.

Critics believe this is a consequence of government pressure on the military to produce results in Colombia’s war on drugs and insurgents, and of rewarding officers with job promotions for combat victories. The military scandal first came to light in late 2008 when 14 young men who had disappeared from a Bogotá slum were found dead and falsely reported as guerrillas. Now, the chilling questions surrounding La Macarena’s cemetery may unveil a large repository of “falso positivo” victims, and open a chilling new chapter by revealing greater military involvement.

The war dead started arriving en masse at La Macarena’s cemetery in 2002, when the government filled the region with thousands of troops in a bid to recover territory in this traditional guerrilla bastion. It was also the same time that residents say members of their families started to disappear. Beatriz Villegas says neighbours found her brother’s home ransacked and his ID lying on the dining table a day after the military initially barred them from entering his farm property in 2006. Outside the home, his rubber boots as well as blood-soaked gloves were strewn on the ground, but Villegas’ brother was nowhere to be found.

Suspecting the worst, and knowing that military combat kills are sent to La Macarena, Villegas and her mother went to the local office of the public prosecutor. As she leafed through the book showing photos of unidentified bodies at alleged combat scenes, Villegas recognized her brother, 22, splayed with a bullet wound in the leg. He had been buried as N.N. No. 031. She says her brother was a hard-working farmer who had nothing to do with the guerrilla forces. “I want to know why the people who did this, did this,” says Villegas. “Why did they kill him?”

Estimates of how many of the people buried in La Macarena’s N.N. cemetery are listed as guerrillas killed in combat vary widely. The military says there are 350, while the attorney general’s office says there are 449. But both the mayor of La Macarena and gravedigger Hernandez claim that there are more than 600, even though reports show they once declared there were 2,000 bodies.

Not only should the numbers of dead be investigated, but the circumstances of their deaths should be looked into as well, says Edinson Cuellar with the Orlando Fals Borda Lawyers’ Collective, who monitors human rights violations in the region. Cuellar’s group has traced 41 cases of alleged false-positive killings to La Macarena’s N.N. cemetery, and believes there are more. The attorney general’s office is investigating over 2,000 cases of suspected false positives nationwide. “We are a country that is uncovering 40 years of violence,” says Luis Gonzalez, the head prosecutor leading the investigation into La Macarena’s cemetery. “We have thousands of dead, thousands of disappeared. We need an army of people to be able to find all the cemeteries, all the graves, across the country.”

Rights groups are calling for a complete site exhumation and are frustrated by the sluggish and oft-stalled investigation launched by the attorney general’s office. But Gonzalez says the task of identifying victims using fingerprint records and mismatched databases is time-consuming. “Who has the truth?” asks Gonzalez. “This is the information that we are trying to match up.”

Arriving at the truth is further hampered by conflicting accounts, even among the people who buried the bodies. Hernandez, the gravedigger, cites evidence that he’s been burying members of the insurgency, as the military claims them to be. “It’s very rare that someone arrives with civilian clothing,” he says, pointing to the fatigues worn on arrival. But Israel Ariza, Hernandez’s former assistant, says he noticed peculiar characteristics of the dead that suggested they could be innocent victims presented as rebels: new pairs of rubber boots instead of the dirty, worn-out footwear guerrillas marching through muddy jungles would wear; holes torn through clothing that didn’t overlap with the bullet wounds; and scores of bodies dressed in civilian clothing. “I think about half were civilians and half were guerrillas,” says Ariza, who now lives in a slum of displaced people outside the city of Villavicencio. He fled there in January after Hernandez was targeted by death threats and an assassination attempt as news of the cemetery started to generate questions.

Jhonny Hurtado, a local human rights defender, was not so lucky. In March, a few months after he guided a delegation of British parliamentarians through the cemetery, he was murdered. He now rests in a marked tomb only metres away from the nameless graves over which he demanded answers.

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