BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Investigators in Colombia have begun exhuming bodies at a cemetrey where at least 50 victims related to a notorious military scandal are believed buried, officials said on Saturday.
The Special Peace Tribunal announced that forensic scientists have recovered the remains of seven men believed killed by troops and buried at the Las Mercedes de Dabeiba Catholic Cemetrey in Antioquia.
The exhumations are the first mass exhumation conducted by the Special Peace Tribunal, which was created by Colombia’s historic accord ending over five decades of conflict between leftist guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups.
The deaths are part of the “false positives” scandal in which troops killed civilians and then dressed them up as guerrillas in exchange for extra pay, vacations and other perks. Colombia’s military has been blamed for as many as 5,000 extrajudicial killings at the height of the country’s conflict in the mid-2000s.
Investigators acting on information from soldiers began the exhumations in early December and expect to find the remains of at least 50 mostly poor, young men from a province in northwestern Colombia that was a hotbed for violence.
“None of these crimes were ever investigated by the ordinary justice system,” the Special Peace Tribunal said in a statement.
The investigation is part of the tribunal’s “Case 3,” in which 160 military officers have provided testimony relating to the “false positives” scandal.
Though lower-ranking soldiers have been jailed in recent years, no top commander has been held accountable for the slayings and many families are still clamouring for justice.
Human Rights Watch has criticised President Iván Duque for appointing Gen. Nicacio Martínez Espinel as head of Colombia’s army, noting he was second-in-command of the 10th Brigade during years for which prosecutors have opened investigations into 23 illegal killings.
The rights group revealed that Martínez Espinel, who was a colonel at the time, certified payments to an informant who led to “excellent results” in a purported combat operation during which an indigenous civilian and a 13-year-old girl were killed.
The exhumations at the Las Mercedes de Dabeiba Catholic Cemetry are being done to corroborate new information provided by troops, identify bodies and provide answers to relatives.