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Digging up past in search of closure

Teams work across Colombia to recover and ID remains of the civil war's victims.

August 04, 2008|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

SANTA MARTA, COLOMBIA — When Maira Martinez graduated from college in Bogota, she had dreams of being a female Indiana Jones, excavating ancient burial sites and unlocking secrets to Colombia's rich pre-Hispanic past.

These days, she's sifting through a much more recent, and grisly, past. The 27-year-old forensic anthropologist is a member of one of 12 exhumation teams working to recover and, they hope, identify the remains of thousands of victims of Colombia's civil war.

Less glamorous than she had imagined, Martinez's role is nonetheless important in Colombia's nascent peace process, in which families are slowly coming forward to seek the truth, and some sort of closure.

Since April 2006, the investigative teams have exhumed 1,536 bodies, of which 172 have been identified, according to the federal attorney general's office. With an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 victims of right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing rebels missing, she is unlikely to run out of work.

This year, Martinez has excavated dozens of grave sites in 15 states, from the jungles of Putumayo to the sweltering lowlands of Arauca to the crisp mountain climes of northern Colombia's Sierra Nevada -- wherever the paramilitaries and rebels committed their many atrocities.

"I never thought I would be doing this, but there is very little pure archaeological work in Colombia that pays anything," said Martinez, a native of Santa Marta who works for the Department of Administrative Security, Colombia's equivalent of the FBI. "Working for the state, I'm interpreting clues and reconstructing history. And I prefer a job outdoors."

Martinez's routine is far from the deliberate, scholarly pace she once imagined. One day in June, she spent 13 hours digging up three graves in the mountains southeast of this coastal port, accompanied by a 50-man armed guard, four confessed paramilitary killers and a pit bull terrier named Canela trained to detect decomposing bodies.

"Male, 18 to 25 years old," Martinez said, examining a collarbone and dictating to an assistant taking notes. Looking like a displaced graduate student, she was standing waist-deep in a grave on the Girocasaca Ranch, a notorious paramilitary killing ground about 10 miles from Santa Marta.

Paramilitary militias were formed by ranchers and farmers in the 1980s to defend against leftist rebels, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, but in many cases turned to violent crime. Under a demobilization accord with the government, thousands of militia members began surrendering their arms in 2003.

At the bottom of the grave were the jumbled bones of two skeletons, which Martinez had cleared away with a bricklayer's spatula and a brush. She gently lifted the bones and examined them for signs of violence and age.

Identification would be difficult because the heads and extremities of both bodies had been cut off, a common practice of paramilitary executioners, and no documents were recovered. But Martinez collected strands of clothing, a plastic cellphone holder and sunglasses, clues that could lead to an identification by the victims' families.

"The guerrillas have a different modus operandi," Martinez said. "They don't dismember people."

The graves had been pointed out by Adan Rojas, 36, a top lieutenant of notorious commander Rodrigo Tovar, or "Jorge 40," supreme commander of the so-called Northern Block paramilitary forces. Tovar and 13 other leaders were extradited to the United States in May on terrorism and drug-trafficking charges.

Under heavy armed guard, Rojas had accompanied Martinez and the others up winding gravel roads and through mountain ravines to the remote grave sites. He was there to comply with the demobilization law, which promised paramilitary fighters light sentences in exchange for confessions and help in locating their victims.

"I participated in 100 killings," Rojas said calmly in a brief interview 30 yards from where Martinez was working, his prison guards hovering nearby.

"It was war," he said, adding that he and others under Tovar's command were defending themselves from leftist insurgents. Prosecutors believe Tovar controlled massive drug-trafficking and extortion rackets.

Because of the backlog, Martinez's team works quickly, taking only 2 1/2 hours on average to dig up each grave, gather clues and then bag and number all human remains before moving on to the next site. Crime scene investigators in the U.S. might spend days at a similar scene, said her boss, prosecutor Omar Cardoso.

The pace of work has picked up over the last year and a half with the increasing number of confessions by paramilitary leaders such as Rojas.

Victims' families, after having been cowed for years, are slowly coming forward to claim the remains of loved ones, prompted by the recoveries by forensics teams, government encouragement and a DNA program in which the country spends an average $1,500 per case to match genetic evidence with family samples.

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