Medellín, Colombia—When Alejandra Balvin walks through her childhood neighborhood in Medellín, she wonders what the flocks of tourists see in their surroundings. Some hold peace signs in the air for cheery photos in front of the famed graffiti art. Vendors sell T-shirts with Pablo Escobar’s notorious mug shot grin. The former slum’s storied violence now lends itself to an upbeat narrative of redemption. Tour guides tout that this neighborhood, Comuna 13, used to be a center of Medellin’s narco bloodshed, back when the city was the murder capital of the world. But now, with its sleek escalator into the hills, the area has become a proud emblem of transformation, with booming hostels and cafés evidencing just how far the neighborhood has come.
For Alejandra, however, the makeover of Comuna 13 conceals wounds that the city has failed to heal. She belongs to a collective from the neighborhood called Mujeres Caminando por la verdad—Women Walking for Truth, which has struggled for decades to get answers about what happened to their disappeared family members. Beyond the crest of the mountain, a bare scar of land interrupts the scenic sprawl below. The expanse of dirt known as “La Escombrera” is considered the largest urban mass grave in Latin America. For years, armed groups in the comuna made use of the construction landfill to hide their victims beneath an ever-accumulating mass of industrial wreckage. Experts estimate that over 400 bodies could be buried there, and Alejandra believes her father’s could be among them. She has waited most of her adult life to find out.
On November 10, Colombia’s Unit for the Search of Disappeared People (UBPD) finally began a comprehensive excavation of La Escombrera and an adjacent sand mine known as “La Arenera”—what members of Mujeres Caminando por la Verdad have requested for two decades. In 2016, a historic peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group laid forth a detailed road map to obtain revelations about long-buried secrets from the armed conflict. The UBPD emerged out of this process in addition to a truth commission and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP)—a parallel justice system designed to obtain testimonies from high-ranking guerrilla, military, and paramilitary leaders responsible for ordering violence in exchange for reduced sentences. As Colombia seeks to recover from six decades of armed conflict, clarifying the traumas that still haunt victims represents a critical step toward recovery.
“We are aware that it’s possible that they don’t find anything,” Alejandra told The Nation, “but it’s the peace of mind knowing they searched, and our right as victims to have a search.” She added that it seemed the government had no limit when it came to investing in wars, “but there’s a limit in looking for the disappeared.”
Since finalization of the accord, members of Mujeres Caminando por La Verdad as well as the Medellín chapter of the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) have sought to make use of the JEP and UBPD to find the truth behind the worst incidents of violence in their city. In mid-October, they commemorated 20 years since the Colombian military carried out the largest urban attack in the history of the conflict, Operation Orion in Comuna 13. Over 1,500 soldiers from the IV brigade alongside local police and paramilitaries descended upon the neighborhood with artillery helicopters and tanks to eradicate its guerrilla presence. They rounded up suspected members and sympathizers of the FARC and ELN rebel groups, assuming guilt of anyone in the area.
Ten days after the attack began, on October 26, 2002, Alejandra, a 13-year-old at the time, watched armed men escort her father, Hernando, out of their house. That was the last time she saw him. According to records from Medellín-based law firm Corporación Jurídico Libertad, Operation Orion and its immediate aftermath left 82 civilians dead and 92 others forcibly disappeared.
In July of 2019, Mujeres Caminando por la Verdad and other victims’ advocacy groups presented their experiences of Orion before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), making the plea that possible mass grave areas be closed off to preserve them leading up to pending excavations by the UBPD. During the assembly, city officials revealed that Medellín’s municipal cemetery, Cementerio Universal, holds over 900 murder victims who were buried without any attempt at identification. The following year, the JEP designated the Universal Cemetery, la Escombrera, and the Arenera sand mine as protected sites along with 16 other places in Colombia. Medellín’s region, Antioquia, has registered the highest number of the country’s more than 100,000 documented cases of forced disappearance.
Although the city government carried out a preliminary search of La Escombrera in 2015, it failed to identify any remains. Members of Mujeres Caminando por La Verdad doubted the integrity of the effort, knowing how exposures could implicate powerful state actors and private entities with a stake in keeping the truth hidden. During the 2019 assembly about Orion, the JEP revealed that the prosecutors’ forensic office of Medicina Legal in Medellín had lost two bodies for unknown reasons and ordered it to submit all of its information about unidentified remains. Advocates struggling to clarify and make visible what happened in Comuna 13 have often faced violent intimidation for their efforts.
In late 2019, the photojournalist Natalia Botero was kidnapped in Comuna 13 by the Clan del Golfo paramilitary organization for her documenting the issue of forced disappearances. Men abducted her for several hours when she visited the neighborhood to photograph La Escombrera. Natalia is now seeking protection outside of Colombia. Her photos are included in this story.
The ongoing danger to her life illustrates what Alejandra and other residents of the neighborhood maintain: that paramilitaries continue to control the area despite its flashy image of reform.
Luz Elena Galeano, a leader of MOVICE in Medellín, told The Nation that “in all of the cases of forced disappearance, there’s impunity in Comuna 13.” In December of 2008, Luz Elena and her two daughters waited up all night for her husband, Luis, when he didn’t arrive at the expected hour. She later learned from neighbors that he had been taken from a city bus by suspected paramilitaries. He was never seen again. “They say these [victims] are people who belong to gangs,” she added, “but we know it’s not like that, even though the state says so.”
In 2002, Operation Orion and the more than 20 other military offensives in Comuna 13 sought to eliminate guerrilla and delinquent groups operating in the neighborhood, a strategic narco-trafficking corridor. It succeeded in this goal, but merely replaced them with paramilitaries, at which point the number of forced disappearances in the area exploded.
Testimonies have confirmed how state forces collaborated with these paramilitary actors to carry out the attacks. Following his extradition for drug trafficking charges, the crime boss Diego Fernando Murillo, better known by his alias Don Berna, testified to Colombian prosecutors that the paramilitary group he led, Bloque Cacique Nutibara, played an instrumental role in Operation Orion. Berna took over Pablo Escobar’s crime network, La Oficina de Envigado and its paramilitary wing of Cacique Nutibara, which maintained a base near La Escombrera. They used the site to torture people and hide their bodies as a way to keep the city’s murder tally low. Berna revealed that his organization had deposited at least 300 slain victims in La Escombrera. Although Medellín’s homicide rate plummeted after Orion, disappearances skyrocketed—some 126 people were disappeared between the second half of 2002 and the first half of 2003.
The Colombian government concealed the disappearances of victims in order to preserve a public image of success even as violence continued. Exposures from the JEP demonstrated that the former mayor of Medellín, Anibal Gaviria, enabled the construction of apartment buildings over sites identified by paramilitaries to contain hidden bodies; meanwhile, Antioquia’s governor’s office was allegedly awarding mining permits to the company El Condor S.A to continue work in La Arenera, knowing that it potentially stored hundreds of victims’ remains. While sand was being extracted from the mass grave site to build new developments, the waste of torn-down buildings continued accumulating over the bodies at La Escombrera, making the goal to eventually exhume them increasingly difficult.
Victims of state violence in Medellín also see impunity on a national scale for the crimes they have endured. One of the chief political figures behind Operation Orion, former right-wing president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, has established ties to paramilitary and narco-trafficking groups, but attempts to bring charges against him have never succeeded. Uribe was one of the most vocal and influential opponents of the peace accord with the FARC—with its special justice system threatening to expose long-suspected state crimes and their ties to paramilitaries, who account for the majority of violence in the armed conflict.
Operation Orion represented an initial experiment in the iron-fist strategy of Uribe’s political party, the Democratic Center, to extinguish Colombia’s guerrilla groups at any cost, using brutal military tactics that include egregious human rights violations, such as the practice known as “false positives”: Uribe created an incentive structure in the army to increase the number of rebels killed, leading during his tenure to the extrajudicial murder of at least 6,402 civilians, who were passed off as members of the guerrilla. Just last month, the JEP tried military commander Mario Montoya, who carried out Orion alongside Uribe, for his involvement in ordering false positives in Antioquia. Montoya denied having any memory of the murders.
Despite the entrenched power of leaders with an interest in keeping the truth figuratively and literally underground, the women of Mujeres Caminando por la Verdad see some hope in the present. The current excavation of La Escombrera is leveraging resources that were not available during the prior search, drawing on the expertise of forensic specialists, anthropologists, and geoengineers, and information gathered through the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. On a national scale, Colombia’s new leftist president, Gustavo Petro, has promised to center victims’ interests and to advance the country’s peace process, fundamental to the UBPD’s efforts.
“There’s important information that still lies in the hands of the state and those who led the military intervention in Comuna 13 that we still don’t have access to,” explained UBPD National Director Luz Marina Monzón, in a phone interview. “I hope that with this new administration to have greater access to this information.”
In late August, the Colombian government finally ratified the UN Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, an international mechanism to report disappearance incidents independent of the state that may have perpetrated them. Most significant of all, the historic excavation of la La Arenera and Escombrera has the potential to provide closure for relatives about the fate of their loved ones.
Many members of Mujeres Caminando por la Verdad have been fighting for this moment for two decades, often at the risk of their personal safety. Luz Elena and Alejandra both moved away from Comuna 13 because of threats they attribute to their work demanding accountability for what happened to their family members.
As an act of acknowledgment for such violence, Ruben Dario Pinilla, the former judge who investigated Uribe’s relationship to paramilitaries, ordered the installation of a monument at the edge of the Escombrera. It reads, “To all of the victims of forced disappearance in comuna 13 of Medellín at the hands of the Bloque Cacique Nutibara. To not forget, to not forget them.” The homage served as a tombstone for the untold number of victims that never found the dignity of an official grave. After repeated incidents of vandalism, it was moved to Medellín’s House of Memory Museum, where the women of Mujeres Caminando por la Verdad hope it will show people the reality of what they have lived through. Some day, they hope to know the truth, too.