20 October 2008

Colombia's Young Men End Up As War Trophies

It is eleven in the morning but seems like night. Huge leaden, funereal gray clouds have settled on Soacha, giving a tone to the urban landscape in keeping with the sentiment of its inhabitants: sadness and fear.

Soacha, indigenous name in the Chibcha culture for son of the Sun, has almost 400,000 inhabitants and a long history of tragedies. Biblical floods, landslips that bury entire neighbourhoods, corrupt mayors who rob scarce resources and violence, lots of violence.

But these days its dead youth are crying: lads who started disappearing from the start of this year and whose bodies have been surfacing after being interred in common graves in remote places. Their story promises to be one of the most macabre events in the violence that has clobbered Colombia for decades.

In the first week of September, the morgue in the city of Ocaña, 610 km north-east of Bogota, could not stock the corpses of unidentified young men mounting up in its vaults. This drew the attention of some local journalists and rang the alarm in the government department dedicated to establishing the whereabouts of the disappeared.

After confirming the identity of Elkin Verano, Joaquín Castro and Julián Oviedo, all less than 20 years, their families reported they had left their homes months ago attracted by the promise of good work “on the coast”, adding that the corpses of their loved ones bore the impact of high-calibre bullets, repeating before the media what they had heard while recovering the bodies, that the bullets had been fired by soldiers.

The bodies kept appearing all through September and with them the complaints of the families wanting to know the whereabouts of their disappeared sons. In Soacha alone, 12 young men turned up dead but the number of complaints rose rapidly to 50.

On September 24, the police claimed that a group of recruiters belonging to paramilitary forces had toured the pauperised areas of the principal cities of the country, offering juicy contracts to the unemployed young wandering the streets and parks.

At the start of October, in the midst of the growing scandal of the appearance of a number of bodies, which the army made out to be combat deaths, the Defence Minister announced an investigation by the Attorney-General. A few days later, on October 7, President Alvaro Uribe, after describing the young men as criminals “who weren’t picking coffee at a ranch”, tried to put an end to the controversy, saying they were combat deaths.

What Uribe had not counted on was that on the same day itself, the Attorney- General would refute him, saying his office did not have evidence of how the young men had died.

Such interest by the army and President Uribe to close the case rang alarms among the many human rights NGOs and youth organisations who smelt a sinister scandal behind the official version.

According to press versions, the death of the young men would be associated with the grim business in which the recruiters would take the young men to war zones, provide them with small arms and later give the army the geographical coordinates of their location so that the troops could attack the place and exhibit them as “war trophies”.

The macabre operation, according the NGOs, worked thanks to the military’s policy of rewarding the soldiers and officials who show results in their operations.

While the Attorney-General investigates, darkness rules in Soacha. Few think there’s going to be justice. “I told my mother I would keep looking for the truth but she answered that I have already lost a son and don’t want to see the death of the others who remain,” said the brother of one of the victims who did not want his name to be made public.

[Abridged and slightly altered in translation]
Source: La Jornada, Mexico

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