B2 High-Intermediate US 86 Folder Collection
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We usually think of the former
dictatorships in Chile and Argentina when

we hear about people disappearing in Latin
America, civilians forcibly taken by the state,

their whereabouts unknown.
But, in Colombia, after five decades of conflict,
it's estimated that 83,000 people were disappeared.

That is the worst record on the continent.
The 2016 peace deals between the government
and Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the

FARC, mandated that finding the missing.
But the new unit to search for the disappeared
is struggling even to begin its job, with

the current government cutting support.
Regardless, finding loved ones remains as
important as ever for the families of those

With the support of the Pulitzer Center, special
correspondent Nadja Drost and videographer

Bruno Federico brings us this report.
NADJA DROST: Julio Marquez's daughter, Lizzeth,
was 25 when paramilitary gunmen pulled her

out of a taxi.
Now missing for 14 years, her father went
searching for her body at a farm where he

was told she was buried.
We drove past homes the paramilitaries had
driven residents from, through lands they

had seized, and hamlets where they murdered
people and disappeared them, all to terrorize

the people and wield control.
Marquez arrived at the farm with a team from
Equitas, a forensic organization that helps

families of the disappeared find their loved

But talking to the farmers, they found Lizzeth
may not be the only one.

JORGE, Farmer (through translator): Locals
says there's a lot of people buried here.

NADJA DROST: The farm, it turns out, has a
disturbing past.

This farm is called El Silencio, or The Silence,
but screams used to break the silence when

it used to be a paramilitary base in the late

No one knows just how many civilians were
brought here, detained, tortured, raped and

buried somewhere on this farm.
For years, Marquez was threatened if he dared
search for Lizzeth.

Two years ago, Marquez came here with an ex-paramilitary
fighter who said she was here.

Now he tried to retrace their steps.
JULIO MARQUEZ, Daughter Killed By Paramilitary
Gunmen (through translator): He came and said,

look for her here, this is where she is.
The paramilitary who killed her said he got
her naked, used her, and then killed her.

NADJA DROST: Marquez returned a few days later
with a friend and a shovel, but they didn't

find anything.
It wasn't surprising.
Witnesses' memories shift.
Terrain changes.
Equitas combines forensic and geo-referencing
techniques to probe areas.

Drone footage can show changes in topography.
Soil mineral content, changes in soil density,
or sound waves can help determine where human

remains may lie.
So can clues about a person's last steps.
Marquez had been told his daughter was tied
to trees before she was killed, and he led

us to them, now lifeless and bare.
JULIO MARQUEZ (through translator): They had
her tied up for four days here, is what I

was told, that people walking nearby would
hear her asking for water when she sensed

people moving by.
NADJA DROST: Around us, it felt like the bucolic
landscape turned sinister, the rolling hills

silent witnesses to atrocious crimes, every
vale a possible mass grave.

Marquez is certain his daughter is somewhere
on this farm, but where?

JULIO MARQUEZ (through translator): There's
another thing.

Look over at that tree trunk.
There were two pits there.
NADJA DROST: Years ago, the farmers discovered
a pit two yards' deep with bottles scattered

around, but the earth has since filled it.
DIANA ARANGO, Director, Equitas (through translator):
The bottles smell of gasoline, so it might

have been used for incineration.
NADJA DROST: For Diana Arango and Zamir Gomez
of Equitas, this makes sense.

ZAMIR GOMEZ, Equitas (through translator):
One of the paramilitary's modus operandi was

to extract bones and gather skeletal remains
them in one spot to incinerate them, to hide

them yet again.
NADJA DROST: The team marks it off so that
Equitas can return with a government forensic

team to excavate.
Marquez will continue to wait for a grave
and for answers, like tens of thousands of

families across Colombia.
While the paramilitaries disappeared people
more than any other group, over the course

of 50 years of conflict, all warring factions,
leftist guerrilla groups, drug cartels, state

security forces, used the tactic.
Those left behind suffer, in the absence of
remains and answers, a never-ending grief.

In the coastal city of Tumaco, family members
of the disappeared gathered, casting their

sadness in songs about husbands leaving one
morning and never coming back.

Their message to authorities is clear: Look
for them.

CARMELITA, Mother of Disappeared Person (through
translator): Now they're inventing machines

to look for buried treasure in the sea.
We're asking, please, for a machine so you
can extract human remains from the depths

of rivers and lakes.
NADJA DROST: Many of the families believe
the remains of their loved ones may lie nearby

in anonymous tombs in Tumaco's main cemetery.
Gravedigger James Colorado points out one
tomb after another marked "Unidentified body."

But there's also less obvious places where
the disappeared may lie, like under this sidewalk.

JAMES COLORADO, Gravedigger (through translator):
There's thousands of bodies here because,

when we arrived here, there was a pile of
remains turned to dust.

We put them in plastic over here.
NADJA DROST: Bags of bones, remains that get
shuffled around, incomplete cemetery records.

The only way for forensic investigators to
find where the disappeared are is to excavate

That's a mammoth task.
In cemeteries across Colombia, there's an
estimated minimum of 20,000 unidentified corpses.

Any remains found are brought to state forensic
laboratories for analysis and identification.

Any personal possessions that family members
may recognize are recorded, underwear, a shirt,

a belt.
In the last 12 years, the state forensic unit
has exhumed 9,000 dead attributed to paramilitaries,

but about half remain unidentified, stored
on warehouse shelves.

Tens of thousands of missing are still waiting
to be found, including the son of Maria Quinchia.

We followed one government forensic team led
by anthropologist Freddy Ramirez.

FREDDY RAMIREZ, Forensic Anthropologist (through
translator): Who are you in relation to the

MARIA QUINCHIA, Son Killed By Paramilitary
Gunmen (through translator): I'm the mother.

NADJA DROST: Grave sites are often in areas
that are remote, littered with land mines,

or controlled by armed groups who don't want
investigators to unearth their crimes.

As a precaution, the military accompanies
the mission today.

When Quinchia got information five years ago
about where her son, a member of the FARC,

was buried, she was too scared to come forward.
But now, after the peace deal, and in the
absence of FARC rebels, she leads the forensic

team to an abandoned schoolhouse atop the
community she fled in 2003.

A year later, Quinchia learned her 25 year-old
son had been killed.

MARIA QUINCHIA (through translator): It was
terrible to get that news.

And since I was far away, I couldn't return.
It was too dangerous.
The violence continued until now, and, look,
here we are now.

Everything has been lost, but there's peace,
like a calm.

NADJA DROST: In this case, Quinchia had detailed
information, and the FARC grave was quickly

FREDDY RAMIREZ (through translator): It doesn't
matter to us if they were guerrillas or from

whatever side.
We have to recognize that they are humans.
NADJA DROST: It doesn't take long to find
the first remains.

MARIA QUINCHIA (through translator): Hello?

We have seen a bone and a boot.
They're taking out the bones.
We don't know when we're leaving here.
Ave Maria.
NADJA DROST: Even though this exhumation is
considered simpler than others, because of

the fact that the exact location was known
and because the grave is relatively shallow,

this is still a monumental undertaking.
It took us over six hours of hiking to get
here and dusk is falling.

There's few remains, almost nothing left of
the cranium, but several teeth.

And then Ramirez hits the forensic equivalent
of treasure.

He asks Quinchia if her son ever had a fracture.
MARIA QUINCHIA (through translator): Yes,
on his right elbow.

FREDDY RAMIREZ (through translator): He's
got an osseointegrated implement.

It's a screw.
It's him.
NADJA DROST: It's rare to find such an identifying
element that can give certainty to investigators

and families.
After 14 years, Quinchia will finally be able
to bury her son.

MARIA QUINCHIA (through translator): For me,
it's a relief that I know he won't be on a

mountain anymore.
NADJA DROST: The long and arduous day has
left the forensics team injured and stranded

in the dark on the mountain, and they need
to be at a cemetery by morning.

A military chopper takes them away, on to
unearth more of their country's truths.

From a mountaintop in Antioquia State, Colombia,
reporting with Bruno Federico, I'm Nadja Drost

for the "PBS NewsHour."
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Families of Colombia's disappeared endure 'never-ending grief' and a wrenching search

86 Folder Collection
Yi-Jen Chang published on May 1, 2019
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