Colombia Is Uncovering Right-Wing Militias’ Mass Graves

Recently, Colombia discovered mass graves in a cemetery over 150 years old in the city of Cúcuta. The bodies, many of which were smuggled into the graveyard this century, reveal unpleasant connections between right-wing militias, business, and the state.

Mourners visit graves at the Cementerio Central in Cúcuta, Colombia, where authorities have discovered hundreds of murdered or disappeared bodies. (Courtesy of Kurt Hollander)

In May, Cúcuta, a Colombian city of one million people located on the border with Venezuela, became the focus of attention of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the government institution in charge of identifying, documenting, and establishing the responsibility for the deaths of victims in the country’s ongoing armed conflict.

After testimony from a paramilitary commander revealed the existence of mass graves within the city, the JEP, in its largest and most critical intervention ever, shut down Cúcuta’s Cementerio Central and designated it a major crime scene. Forensic investigators working for the JEP uncovered ten unmarked mass graves within the cemetery, from which they dug up thousands of decomposing black bags full of decaying corpses and crumbling bones. In the plot surrounding a nineteenth century Italian marble monument, they discovered an extra one thousand bodies in deep pits piled up on top of each other.

A JEP sign outside the Cúcuta cemetery. (Courtesy of Kurt Hollander)

Over one hundred thousand people are currently registered as “disappeared” in Colombia, a legacy of the country’s ultraviolent conflicts between guerrillas, paramilitaries, criminal groups, and the government. In the state where Cúcuta is located, over four thousand people had been reported as “disappeared” by their families. Through DNA testing from the human remains found in the Cementerio Central, more than two hundred of the corpses have already been identified as those of people who were murdered and disappeared. The earthly remains of these corpses have been carefully cataloged, equipped with microchips to trace any future movements, and buried in family plots or in small niches within concrete walls newly constructed for them at the cemetery.

Cúcuta’s Cementerio Central was established in 1885, one decade after a magnitude 8.5 earthquake completely leveled the city, killing as many as 1,500 people. The cemetery was originally built atop a hill outside the city limits on a large plot of land with commanding views of the city below and the Venezuelan mountains to the east. However, due to some of the fastest urban expansion experienced anywhere on the planet — a direct result of the violence raging in the countryside over the past decades, which has forced millions of Colombians from their land — the cemetery currently sits smack in the center of the city.

In its first hundred years of existence, over one hundred thousand people from all walks of life and all strata of society, including Colombians, Venezuelans, Germans, Arabs, and Jews, were laid to rest on the site. The cemetery originally offered different burial plans for all classes: luxury plots with marble monuments designed by Italian sculptors, complete with elegant funeral processions of carved wooden coffins pulled by horses; modest tombs in functionalist architecture; or common graves marked with just a cross or stone.

Over time, the cemetery’s architecture evolved to keep up with changes in the city around it, incorporating newer materials and technologies into both the tombs and the memento mori. As the economy of Cúcuta tumbled due to Venezuela’s economic crisis, hand-carved marble has given way to cement tableaux vivant designed with digital photographic images that depict the deceased in religious scenes or with personal possessions. In Cúcuta, most of the men who die young die violently. Often they were participants in battles between criminal groups. Objects photoshopped onto their plaques sometimes document their criminal activities, with motorcycles (used in sicario assassinations) and AK-47s the most popular images.

The most-visited tomb in the cemetery belongs to Fabio Isaza, a criminal who operated in Cúcuta in the 1960s. Although he was eventually shot dead on the streets of the city by the police, his fame lives on as a local Robin Hood (a romantic precursor to urban guerrillas), his tomb adorned with hundreds of metallic plaques that people hang on the walls to thank him for helping answer their prayers.

The tomb of Fabio Isaza. (Courtesy of Kurt Hollander)

For many, cemeteries filled with dead people lying in their tombs are creepy places fit for horror films. In Cúcuta’s Cementerio Central, the horror is real, with skeletons often dug up, taken out of the cemetery to be incinerated, and then returned to unmarked graves to hide their identity from the authorities.

The fact that the corpses of hundreds of people murdered in and around Cúcuta have been snuck in at night through the back entrance reflects the high level of violence that has plagued the city for decades, but also the collusion of the local and regional governments with illegal paramilitary groups.

Since 2019, there have been more than twenty massacres in Cúcuta, designed to terrorize the inhabitants, authorities, and business rivals within the city. Almost all of Colombia’s major criminal organizations, paramilitary groups, and guerrilla splinter groups operate inside Cúcuta. Guerrillas and criminals tend to be concentrated in the hills above the city or within the poorest neighborhoods. Paramilitaries and narco bosses live in wealthy neighborhoods, while their triggermen reside in middle-class areas.

Up until the 1990s, violence between guerrillas and army troops raged in the periphery of Cúcuta. In the early 1990s, recently formed paramilitary organizations spread throughout the country, forcing guerrilla groups from the territories they had controlled, hunting down and killing ex-guerrillas, their sympathizers, and anyone else who got in the way of their business (which includes drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, and assassination).

The main plazas and soccer fields of many towns on the outskirts of Cúcuta became execution sites and mass burial grounds, while the local rivers were converted into watery graves. In 2000, a major paramilitary group operating in the city killed several brick workers in a town just south of Cúcuta and used their furnaces to incinerate the corpses of their victims. Within Cúcuta, torture and execution sites were established in parking lots and in an abandoned area of the city’s main market, and for many of these assassinations, the cemetery was used as the main dumping ground.

By disposing of the corpses of their victims in unmarked mass graves, the military and paramilitary groups succeeded in hiding the reality of violence in Colombia from the general population. For decades, thanks to the official, state-controlled media, people in Colombia were led to believe that communist guerrillas were responsible for most of the violent deaths throughout the country. In fact, though, according to Colombia’s National Center for Historic Memory, the vast majority of the more than two hundred thousand people killed during the armed conflict between 1958 and 2012 (when the FARC guerrillas negotiated a peace accord with the Colombian government) were assassinated by paramilitary death squads doing the dirty work of wealthy landowners, industrialists, and ultra-right-wing politicians in coordination with the Colombian military, and supervised, trained, and supplied with intel and weapons by the US government.

Crosses commemorating the murdered and disappeared, with placards identifying their microchip numbers. (Courtesy of Kurt Hollander)

A majority of the guerrillas the Colombian government claimed its military killed in battles throughout the country were actually innocent civilians (campesinos, students, journalists, professors, community leaders, and environmental activists), a common practice known as “false positives.” It is estimated that more innocent people were killed in Colombia by their own government than in all the dirty wars in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil combined. To maintain this dirty secret, thousands of bodies had to be hidden or disappeared.

The JEP, established in 2017, has been documenting the most heinous massacres committed in Colombia, collecting testimonies directly from the armed actors involved. Thousands of guerrillas, paramilitary fighters, and military officers who have participated have been given reduced sentences or have been cleared of past crimes in exchange for information. With these testimonies, the JEP’s forensic investigators are rewriting the history of armed conflict in Colombian by revealing many of the deepest, darkest secrets that the authorities have tried to bury. As in classic horror stories, skeletons in the closet have a way of coming back and haunting their killers.