10 Dec 2015

Colombia in the shadow of the skull, despite peace deal

Despite a peace deal in a war that has already cost over 200,000 lives, drug violence continues in Colombia. Grieving families now hope forensics can give answers as they search for lost loved ones.

Medellin has spent years trying to shake off its chequered past. Now the Netflix series Narcos has reminded viewers just how savage it once was.

The show’s star character and the city’s former emperor, Pablo Escobar, is still eulogised here. Riding on the back of the unparalleled fortune his cocaine empire made, El Patron’s own reign of terror had Colombia in its grip for more than decade. The city even once boasted the world’s highest murder rate.

These days, Medellin certainly looks different.

It hosts an internationally renowned annual flower festival, complete with a dazzling procession through the streets which attracts visitors from all over the world.

War in the shadows

Colombia’s endemic drug violence no longer manifests as regular car bombs or political assassinations. Yet the global demand for its drugs and the ongoing battle for its riches, means that many still pay a heavy price.

After Escobar’s death in 1993, paramilitary groups stepped into the vacuum. They ran large swathes of the country, and divided up his drugs empire. In the early 2000s, several groups put on a show, laying down their weapons, and apologising for past crimes. The truth, says everyone in Medellin, was they just changed their names.

We went to meet two men at the frontline of a war that now simply plays out in the shadows.

Both had been part of their local gang since they were 15-years-old. They’d killed people themselves, and seen many friends die alongside them in the battle for turf. All for a weekly salary of little more than the minimum wage. Their choice, if you can call it that, was to join up or leave their neighbourhood forever.

“The truth is we’ve never demobilised. Whoever crosses us, we deal with them,” they told us in an interview from a gang safe house.

Armed groups used to leave their adversaries’ bodies on display in the streets. These days, they said, such moves are “bad for business”.

“Now, you take someone to a place, kill them, and then chop them into pieces.

“And throw the body parts into the river.”

It’s hard to see how the government’s flagship peace deal with the Marxist rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will make much difference to the lives of men like these. “The peace plan is just a farce,” one told us.

FARC also makes millions every year from trafficking cocaine. And while it may be prepared to officially disband as a revolutionary army, it’s hard to imagine it will easily relinquish its hold on their part of the drug trade.

Forensics frontline

Nowhere is Colombia’s pain more felt than on the hillside overlooking Medellin. It looms like an open wound that reminds the city of its bloody history. They call it the escombrera, or dump; a brutal metaphor for country desperate to escape its past.

It is thought to be the largest urban mass grave in the world, where hundreds of bodies where discarded, the collateral damage of a never ending war that has killed over 200,000 people and displaced over 5 million. There are still some 50,000 people still missing.

After years of campaigning, families looking for their loved ones believed to be buried here finally convinced the local government to begin the search.

John Freddy has been on the frontline of the search for his country’s disappeared. A forensic anthropologist by trade, he is charged with trying to find answers buried deep in the dump, as the expectant families look on.

‘Nameless people’

“We can’t just keep seeing more and more people die, we can’t become a country of anonymous people. Everyone was born with a name, with an identity. You can’t have a country with so many nameless people.”

John Freddy himself lost a young cousin in the violence. She disappeared over a decade ago.

Colombia lies at the centre of the cocaine trade. European and American demand for its product have shaped its fortunes for almost half century. Now, a tentative agreement has grabbed headlines. A symbolic handshake between once great adversaries marks a political coup for a government that wants to be seen as the great peacemaker.

The country’s streets and hillsides however, remain gripped by a past with few answers, and a still brutal present, rumbling beneath a peaceful veneer.

Written by Thom Walker