Colombia’s Missing – a Systematic Approach to Resolving a Complex Issue

One of the tragic consequences of Colombia’s internal armed conflict has been the enforced disappearance of many thousands of people. The causes of these disappearances are more diverse than in other transitional societies. In Colombia, enforced disappearances have been perpetrated by a variety of groups, including paramilitary and guerrilla forces and state actors. Furthermore, as the conflict has not yet been brought conclusively to a close, disappearances continue to occur.

The disappeared in Colombia are located in numerous individual and multiple clandestine graves, as NNs (No Name) in ossuaries or cemeteries, or as partial remains recovered from rivers and other bodies of water. A recently found excavation site, La Escombrera (the dump), in Medellin has brought further attention to the issue. It is believed the site contains the remains of 300 victims. Excavation of the remains, which began in late July 2015, is reckoned to be the largest such undertaking in the country so far. [1] Britain’s Daily Telegraph has reported that, as trucks have continued to dump construction waste daily at the site, despite protests from campaigners, many of the remains will have been crushed beneath a wall of rubble 26 feet (8 meters) high. As progress is made towards ending Colombia’s half-century conflict, security in Medellin has improved, but criminal gangs are still active in the area of La Escombrera, many of them remnants of the officially demobilized paramilitary groups whose members are implicated in the crimes being investigated.[2]

Since 2010, the Colombian authorities have enacted legislation to address enforced disappearances in a more efficient manner. Among other things, recent laws provide for the creation of a database of genetic profiles, facilitate efforts to locate and identify victims’ remains, uphold the rights of families, and facilitate reparation. However, institutions and organizations created to address the problem of missing persons continue to face major challenges not only in locating and identifying victims, but also in the overall logistics of an extensive process that involves coordination among different institutions, the active participation of families of missing persons and the recognition of their loved ones as victims of human rights abuses.

The Legal Framework for Peace adopted by Colombia’s Congress on 14 June 2012 seeks to regulate the termination of armed conflict within the existing constitutional framework and to authorize the creation of transitional justice mechanisms to facilitate a massive demobilization of illegal armed groups and ensure the right of victims of armed conflict to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition.

Newly elected President Juan Manuel Santos’ plan for government in the period 2014-2018 includes a commitment to deepening the implementation of the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which aims to establish closer coordination in the implementation of policies and programs for victims without a dispersion of political responsibilities, to accelerate reparation to victims following the deadlines established by law, and to develop a territorial approach, especially to areas traditionally neglected by the state and where armed groups have a greater presence. President Santos has proposed the need to end forced displacement, ensuring peace and justice so that every family can be returned to its place of origin without any external threats.  However, there continues to be a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of state institutions and constant fear due to threats by the perpetrators and the minimal protection provided at the time of reporting cases.

A basic prerequisite for addressing the missing persons issue in Colombia is to ensure that the government and state authorities are willing to act. The creation of sustainable legal institutions and the cooperation of all stakeholders involved in the issue should also be taken into consideration. Moreover, the inclusion of civil society should not be disregarded, as this can provide valuable information on disappearances as well as ante-mortem reference samples, which are vital for DNA matching purposes.

Other elements include archaeological and anthropological expertise to excavate sites, capacity to obtain and preserve evidence from sites, and to obtain post-mortem samples; all this must be conducted in accordance with international standard operating procedures (SOPs) and ISO standards.

It is critical that state institutions enhance coordination efforts to locate, recover and identify missing persons. Insufficient coordination and information sharing, including within the State Prosecutor’s Office, results in numerous problems, such as potential loss of information crucial to making identifications.

Another necessary element in supporting a systematic and successful approach to the issue is a broad and concerted media campaign to attract those with missing relatives and encourage them to give a blood sample.  Such campaigns are part educational and part logistical, with the focus on explaining the process involved in donating a blood reference sample – which is key to identifying the missing – and providing information on how and where blood can be donated.

Further information on recommendations for Colombia’s missing persons issue can be found in ICMP’s 2008 report and its addendum. The document can be accessed at:


[2] Ibid.