Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Saturday, 2 August 2008 11:49 UK

Colombia confronts its bloody past

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, El Charcon

Colombia's mass graves are starting to reveal the true horror of more than a decade of paramilitary massacres and murders. But few believe the full truth will ever be known or that the government wants it all revealed.

Investigators reconstruct Alonso Echevarria's body
Investigators say the true number of victims will never be known

The front line in the search for truth under the country's controversial peace and justice law, which set out the conditions for paramilitaries to disband, is the exhumation of mass graves across the country.

These are being carried out by the attorney general's office and its investigative wing, the Technical Investigative Body (CTI), which is examining the thousands of killings committed by the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

The police had already set up security on the ground in El Charcon as the two Vietnam-era Huey helicopters landed on the outskirts of the remote town in Antioquia province, two days on horseback from the nearest paved road.

During the flight, the fields of bright green coca could be seen cut from the woods and jungle that coat this section of the Andes Mountains.

No state presence

Drug crops are what the people of El Charcon have lived from. It was those drug crops that brought 300 right-wing paramilitaries that ruled this town from 1999 to 2003.

"There was never any state presence here," said chief investigator Wilton Hernandez as he strode up the town's main street. "And once we have left, they will be alone again."

There are dozens of bodies believed to be buried in the hills around this town of 1,000 people.

Unlike other places in Colombia, the paramilitaries did not need to bury or hide their victims as there was a total lack of government presence.

They simply killed people in the streets and waited for the families to pick up the bodies.

Police protection
Places like El Charcon did not usually see a government presence

It was these families that were waiting for the CTI team. They are hoping not only to get closure for the killing of their loved ones, but also to be able to register their deaths and so get compensation under the peace and justice law that was passed in 2005.

Relatives led investigators to the town's small graveyard, where they had buried their loved ones. A plastic number was placed at each point, photographs taken and the exhumations began.

The exhumation team was headed by Saul Diaz Restrepo, who has dug up and processed more than 2,300 bodies during his career, not just in Colombia, but in Kosovo as well.

"We will never know how many people were killed," he said, putting his white overalls over his black uniform.

"We will exhume all those we can find, but all too many of the paramilitary victims were cut open and thrown into rivers," he said, pointing at the waterway that sweeps past El Charcon.

Senseless killings

The first to come from his hasty resting place was Alonso Echevarria, aged 19 when he was killed in June 2003.

His father stood behind the CTI team, while his mother could be heard sobbing, unable to look as the bones of her son were laid out on a white plastic sheet. No head could be found among the remains.

Police examine the skull of Francisco Munoz
The exhumation of Francisco Munoz may help his family learn the truth

"It appears the head was taken away after he was killed, either as a trophy or to prove to the boss he had been killed," said Mr Hernandez. "His crime was to dance with the paramilitary boss's girlfriend at a party."

It was easy to see how Francisco Munoz, also aged 19, had been killed. The entry point of the bullet in his right temple was clearly drilled into the skull. His mother, Lidia, looked without emotion at the remains of her son.

"Nobody ever told us why he was killed," she said. "One night at 10pm one of the paramilitaries placed a gun against his head and shot him. We were told to pick up the body at 2am."

These investigators are working with the courts set up by the peace and justice law, which was passed as a tool to demobilise the AUC. As a result, some 33.000 paramilitaries have disarmed.

Large-scale murders

The law was not what the government initially proposed, which was almost total impunity for the paramilitaries.

Even the version that passed through Congress was not given teeth until changes were made by the constitutional court, which insisted that all paramilitaries had to make full confessions of their crimes.

If the paramilitaries make full confessions, they will serve no more than eight years in prison, no matter what the atrocities committed, even those that count as crimes against humanity.

One paramilitary commander, Ever Veloza, better known by his alias of HH, told the BBC from his prison cell in Itagui, Medellin, that he had taken part in more than 1,000 murders.

Another leader, Jose Jesus Jimenez, alias Sancocho, admitted to carrying out 1,500 murders between 2000 and 2003 in the province of Cauca by the Pacific Coast during testimony given in May to a Peace and Justice court.

Not only is the truth being discovered about the victims of the paramilitaries, but also AUC links to politicians and members of the security forces that supported their bloody war against Marxist rebels.

So far more than 60 Congressmen have been implicated in what is known as the "parapolitics" scandal - almost all supporters of President Alvaro Uribe, among them his cousin Mario Uribe.

The president has not been implicated in the scandal.

Extradition controversy

Some believe that the extradition to the US of 14 paramilitaries in May this year was an attempt to stop further revelations that could implicate the government.

"The attorney general was hugely opposed to the extradition of the 14 paramilitary leaders," said a senior source in the prosecutor's office.

"Why did the government have to extradite them just then, and not after they had finished giving testimony?"

Among those extradited were some of the AUC's most senior leaders, who between them held the key to the history of the paramilitary army.

While there are ongoing negotiations to collect testimony from them in the US, there are now few incentives for the extradited paramilitaries to confess and so the true extent of paramilitary violence and links to the government may now never be known.

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