DABEIBA, Colombia – Jaime de Jesus Arango shovels more than just dirt with his exhumation work at Las Mercedes, a cemetery in this municipality of the northwestern Colombian department of Antioquia.
Each quantity of soil he moves has the potential to shed further light on a now-infamous chapter in the Andean nation’s decades-old fight against leftist guerrillas: the widespread perpetration of war crimes by army soldiers.
“It’s a different kind of work; there’s no family member here and you don’t know where the (deceased) is,” Arango says of his search for “false positives,” young men who were lured by the army from the slums of Bogota and other low-income areas of the country on the promise of well-paid jobs, only to be murdered in cold blood and presented as rebels killed in combat.
The killings, which occurred when Colombian politicians and the military brass were demanding results in the war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), were a way for troops to inflate body counts and earn promotions, bonuses and extra leave.
Arango said he and 11 other gravediggers, most of them residents of Dabeiba, carry out their work at Las Mercedes at locations indicated by forensic experts from the Investigation and Accusation Unit of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a court established as part of the 2016 peace deal with the FARC and tasked with investigating and adjudicating crimes committed during Colombia’s longstanding armed conflict.
The exhumations at Las Mercedes began in December 2019 after the JEP had gathered testimony from army soldiers who acknowledged having participated in these extra-judicial executions and revealed the location of the graves.
“We don’t know anything about (the identity of) the bodies because that doesn’t correspond to us,” Arango, who works alongside forensic experts, said while a drone used to create a 3D map of the cemetery was flying overhead.
During the initial exhumation work in Dabeiba, forensic experts collected 150 DNA samples and conducted interviews in a bid to match the information with the exhumed bodies. The process of gathering genetic material proved crucial in identifying and delivering the remains of five victims to their family members.
A total of nine bodies were recovered during the fourth round of exhumation work at Las Mercedes between March 6-13, bringing the total number of corpses exhumed at that cemetery to 80 over a period of 15 months.
During its work, the JEP has found naked bodies stuffed into black bags and corpses with gunshot wounds to the head. Some of the victims were dressed up as guerrillas, while others had their hands and feet tied.
In February, the JEP estimated that there were at least 6,400 false positive cases – or nearly triple the number previously estimated by prosecutors – and that most of those extra-judicial killings occurred between 2002 and 2008 when hard-line President Alvaro Uribe was in office.
A gateway to the strategic agro-industrial region of Uraba, the Dabeiba municipality was a stage of operations for several fronts of the FARC’s Jose Maria Cordova Bloc, which fought army soldiers and paramilitary fighters for control of that territory.