Last Thursday CIP posted excerpts from two articles in Spanish-language media about a mass grave in the town of La Macarena. The grave is in the middle of a historically guerrilla-controlled zone in Meta department that, in the past five years or so, has been the site of several U.S.-supported military operations. The articles indicated that the La Macarena gravesite contains as many as 2,000 bodies, and that many of the bodies were deposited by the Colombian Army.
Though official investigations of the site won’t begin until March and we are, of course, not present in the zone, we’re following this closely. If true, these allegations could have strong implications for U.S. policy toward Colombia, which has included generous support for military units based in this zone. We have communicated with governmental, non-governmental and journalistic sources. Without violating these communications’ confidentiality, what we’ve heard can be summarized as follows.
- Sources agree that the site in question is an official cemetery in the La Macarena town center, not a clandestine area where bodies were dumped.
- The cemetery includes a large number of “NN” (name unknown) gravesites. The military recognizes burying unidentified individuals killed in the very frequent combat that has taken place between the armed forces and the FARC. The Army says that all of its burials have been duly registered with the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía).
- Estimating the number of dead at these gravesites is not possible at this time. Official sources doubt that the number is anywhere near as high as 2,000, and it is unclear how the media reports derived that estimate. If even a fraction of that total were “NN” cadavers, however, it would still be unusually large, as the town center of La Macarena municipality is home to only about 4,000 people.
- The mayor of La Macarena, quoted in one of last week’s articles as saying “we became the site for the depositing of the war dead,” now insists that the cemetery is not a mass grave site. He says that the cemetery contains 1,000 human remains, many from nearby combat incidents, and that 346 are unidentified combat dead buried since 2004. The mayor’s remarks came yesterday at a press conference for reporters brought to La Macarena by Colombia’s minister of defense.
- There is no clarity about the timeframe of the burials. Some sources contend that most of the bodies were buried before 2005, when the FARC had nearly uncontested dominion over La Macarena, which between 1999 and 2002 was part of the demilitarized zone where FARC-government peace talks took place. Bodies buried before 2005 would be considered more likely to have been buried by the FARC. The news reports, however, claim that most bodies are from the post-2005 period.
Much remains to be clarified. It will be especially difficult to determine whether any of those buried are “false positives” — civilians killed and claimed as guerrilla combat deaths — or others extrajudicially executed on suspicion of guerrilla ties. (Colombian human rights groups have documented a large number of “false positives” in Meta department.)
All of this will have to await further investigation, forensic and otherwise. Meanwhile, one source says, the people in the zone who had made the original denunciations about the grave — a group that includes employees of state institutions — are now too fearful to give any more information.