A map published this year by the Colombian newsmagazine Semana shows the location of 183 known massacre sites around the country. But the magnitude of the paramilitary slaughter in Colombia likely never will be fully documented.
Typically, paramilitary soldiers enter rural villages and round up townspeople they accuse of collaborating with leftist guerrillas. Some are tortured and killed and many others are taken away, never to be seen again.
Human rights groups estimate there are tens of thousands of disappearances in Colombia that can be linked to the country's 50-year-long conflict. A recent campaign by human rights and humanitarian organizations, however, and the creation of a national organization of victims of crimes against humanity have rekindled hope among family members that many of the disappeared will at last be located.
"People are beginning to come forward," says Wifredo CaM-qizares, director of a human rights center in Cucuta. "They've told us where there are more than 35 clandestine cemeteries, 19 of them in the countryside around La Gabarra."
La Gabarra is a sweltering frontier area in northeast Colombia near the Venezuelan border. It is also an important coca-producing region with vast swaths of jungle planted with coca bushes and dotted with coca processing laboratories. According to the U.N. Development Program, paramilitaries control over half of Colombia's $3.5 billion drug trade. They swept into La Gabarra in 1999. By 2002, coca cultivation had quadrupled in La Gabarra as they tightened their grip on the business. No one planted, processed or sold coca without their approval, and everyone paid them a monthly protection tax.
Mr. CaM-qizares says that after a regional paramilitary unit demobilized in December, peasant farmers from around the province began contacting him. Soon, some began taking him bone fragments, pieces of dried skin and hair salvaged from graves they had come across in the countryside. Too afraid to dig out the bodies themselves, they asked Mr. CaM-qizares for help.
People such as Fabio Toro, a 53-year-old farmer who runs a canoe ferry service on the Catatumbo River. He says his brother, Jorge, was killed by paramilitaries in La Gabarra on Oct. 23, 2002.
"They shot him many times. Then they cut him open and dumped him into a hole," he says. Mr. Toro says his brother was killed to steal his farm and because he belonged to a local farmer's cooperative, organizations that paramilitaries say are run by the guerrillas.
After his brother's killing, Mr. Toro and his family fled their home to the nearby town of TibM-z. He says he returned three times to look for his brother's grave but was unable to locate it.
"When I heard they were digging out some of the dead, I decided to come and see if my brother was one of them," he says. "As soon as I saw the red and white sweater and the white hat lying there, I knew it was Jorge."
Mr. Toro put his brother's remains into a plastic bag and took them to members of the attorney general's forensic team in La Gabarra. They took a blood sample from him. The next day, after checking DNA from some of the bone fragments he had given them, they told Mr. Toro he could take his brother's remains with him for burial.
Difficult terrain, thousands of land mines sown throughout the countryside and frequent combat among guerrillas, paramilitaries and soldiers combine to make this kind of forensic work particularly difficult in Colombia. In addition, paramilitaries frequently take steps to conceal the bodies of their victims, mutilating their remains and burying them in inaccessible areas or throwing them into rivers. Despite this, more graves are being discovered almost daily around the country.
Forensic teams are also at work near the town of San Onofre, northwest of La Gabarra in Sucre Province. They so far have unearthed 72 bodies from the El Palmar farm and estimate another 2,000 are buried on the vast rural estate. For years, El Palmar was headquarters for Rodrigo Mercado, known as Cadena, one of northern Colombia's most feared and bloodthirsty paramilitary leaders.
Despite the thousands of killings and disappearances committed by the paramilitaries, almost no one in Colombia expects them to pay for their crimes. More than 30,000 have so far demobilized as part of a government brokered peace plan that began in 2003. Last year, the Colombian Congress passed a law that offers most of them amnesty in exchange for turning over their weapons to authorities.
National and international rights groups maintain the law will do little more than consolidate impunity for thousands of crimes against humanity. There is growing concern that paramilitary leaders will be able to circumvent international justice as well.
Daniel Bland, a journalist and human rights researcher based in Ottawa, Canada, recently returned from Colombia, where he researched material on the exhumation of dozens of mass graves in the countryside. His e-mail is email@example.com.