Colombians pin hopes on new agency seeking missing war victims

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 23, 2015 9:37 AM

By Julia Symmes Cobb

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A new agency tasked with finding tens of thousands of Colombians who have disappeared over 51 years of war is a ray of hope for families, but will need political power and plenty of resources to be successful, advocacy groups say.

Negotiators at peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels agreed last week to create a special unit to search for the missing once a final deal is signed.

The effort may finally provide answers about the disappeared, whose cases are often caught up in a complex bureaucracy, but it will need political bite, victims organizations said.

"We think a historic moment has come, we are filled with hope," Ulianov Franco, director of Families Colombia, told Reuters on Thursday.

"But there are also fears," said Franco, whose father disappeared in 1987, adding the unit will need sufficient personnel and budget to avoid the fate of previous failed efforts to find the missing.

The unit will provide families with official reports on their missing family members. Marxist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and government troops have all been implicated in disappearances.

"It needs to have a high profile that allows it to bring together institutions like the attorney general's office, the coroner's office, the investigator general, the ombudsman - so they make a joint effort," said Diana Arango, director of forensic charity Equitas.

Previous agencies meant to find the disappeared became "dead elephants", she said. "Big and unworkable."

"There is a ray of hope, but it'll need teeth."

Estimates vary widely on how many people have gone missing during the war, which has killed 220,000 and displaced millions.

The national victims agency says the figure is 45,000, while the attorney general pegs it at 52,000. Human right groups say there could be 100,000 missing.

The lack of a definitive number is "embarrassing", the country's ombudsman said this week.

The new unit must provide a precise figure, Arango said, and work to identify thousands of unidentified bodies stored in morgues across the country.

"This is the start of saying we are ready to confront the past, as horrible as it might be," said Christoph Harnisch, the Colombia delegation head for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which will aid with searches.

The ICRC will demand the creation of comprehensive database to help with identifications, Harnisch said.

For now, families have hope, Franco said.

"We just want to be heard."

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and David Gregorio)