Searching for Lost Lives: Where Killing is a Means to Many Ends

Searching for Lost Lives: Where Killing is a Means to Many Ends

Viviana Peretti, 2024 Finalist

"Searching for Lost Lives" is a decade-long project about forced disappearances in Colombia. Over the past 60 years, nearly 106,000 people have been forcibly disappeared in the country (according to March 2024 statistics) — with more than 4,000 people disappeared in 2023 alone. Most of these disappeared are still missing today. The purpose of the project is twofold: to honor the thousands of disappearance victims and their families, and to raise national and international awareness about the tragedy of forced disappearance in Colombia.

A common ossuary at La Dolorosa cemetery in Puerto Berrío, a small town in the Colombian region of Antioquia. Over the past decades, the remains of many missing persons found floating in the Magdalena River that runs through Puerto Berrío ended up dumped in this ossuary. Puerto Berrío, Antioquia, Colombia, April 2022.

Members of Colombia's Search Unit for Missing Persons (UBPD) look for the body of Gerardo Angulo in the mountains that surround the village of San Juanito in Colombia’s Meta region. Gerardo Angulo (68 years old) was kidnapped with his wife Carmenza Castañeda in 2000 by leftist FARC guerrillas who murdered the couple a few months later in the forests surrounding San Juanito. In 2021, the UBPD found Doña Carmenza’s body, but not that of Don Gerardo. Nor did they find it on another mission in November 2023. The UBPD is a humanitarian and extrajudicial State entity that directs, coordinates, and contributes to the search for persons reported disappeared in the context of the armed conflict. San Juanito, Meta, Colombia, November 2023.

Doña Analigia wears a dress given to her by her son Roberto Antonio before he was forcibly disappeared 16 years earlier, at the age of 25. Doña Analigia and the association she belongs to, Madres de la Candelaria, which helps people trace what has happened to the forcibly disappeared, believe that Roberto Antonio was tortured, killed and dismembered by paramilitaries in the village of Toldas de Peque, Antioquia. Every Friday the members of Madres de la Candelaria meet in front of the church, La Candelaria, in Medellín’s city center. “They took our loved ones alive, and we want them back alive,” they shout, even though many know that they will never see their loved ones alive again. If lucky, and if the Colombian government fulfills its promise to return what was once taken, they may receive a few remains in a wooden box. Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia, July 2016.

An altar to the memory of Eduardo Loffsner Torres stands in the home of his partner Luz Marina Hache Contreras, who has spent decades looking for him. Loffsner, who organized the Workers' Union of the National Pedagogical University and was a member of the M-19, a leftist urban guerrilla movement, disappeared in November 1986, when he was 31. His whereabouts remain unknown. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, June 2020.

Darío Alfonso Morales Rodríguez carries the photo of his son Óscar Alexander Morales Tejada (26), who was assassinated by soldiers in the Colombian municipality of El Copey, in Northern Cesar, on January 16, 2008. His parents, Darío and Doris, spent years searching for his remains. This photo was taken at the El Copey Alternative Cemetery, where Óscar Alexander's body was found in June 2022, along with the remains of 61 other people recovered later, between 2022 and 2023. Óscar’s body wasn’t identified until early 2024. He was one of the thousands of victims of extrajudicial executions committed by law enforcement in recent decades: the misnamed ‘false positive’ scandal. To inflate body counts and receive promotions or other benefits, members of the military lured poor or mentally impaired civilians to remote parts of the country with offers of work, killed them, and presented them to authorities as guerrillas killed in battle, or buried them as unidentified bodies, referred to as CNI: “Cuerpo no identificado.” In June 2022, Darío and Doris witnessed a series of surveys and exhumations carried out at the El Copey Alternative Cemetery by Colombia's Search Unit for Missing Persons (UBPD), a humanitarian, extra judicial Colombian entity responsible for searching for those missing as a result of the armed conflict. El Copey, Cesar, Colombia, June 2022.

Forty-seven-year-old Sandra Cristina Arteaga carries a wooden urn where she hopes the remains of her brother Héctor Emilio will one day rest. Héctor, 30 years old, disappeared from his home in Medellín in 2005. To date, Sandra Cristina has attended five exhumations where she hoped she would finally find the remains of his brother who, according to investigations, was killed, thrown into the Medellín River and then buried as a CNI (“Cuerpo no identificado”) in El Universal cemetery of Medellín where victims of extrajudicial crimes were often buried, unregistered, in mass graves, evading discovery and accountability for those responsible. The last exhumation, which took place in July 2016, was not successful and Sandra Cristina went home with an empty urn. Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia, July 2016.

The names of the dead scratched into a wall in Bogota's Cementerio del Sur. For decades, this cemetery received the remains of many victims of extrajudicial crimes buried in anonymous mass graves, so that they would not be found and those responsible would not be judged — a way to impose a second disappearance and victimization. In 1985, the Institute of Legal Medicine buried 36 bodies in a mass grave in this cemetery, by order of a Military Criminal judge. Among the buried were several victims of the Palace of Justice massacre. The siege of the Palace began on November 6, 1985, when guerrillas from the former 19th of April Movement (M-19) broke into the building and took approximately 300 people hostage, including the judges of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Council of State. The Army repelled the takeover by storming the Palace with tanks and rockets, leaving a balance of 94 people killed —including 11 court judges — dozens injured, and 11 missing, mostly cafeteria employees, visitors, and Irma Franco Pineda, a lawyer and guerrilla member who participated in the M-19 siege. More than 1,000 soldiers took part in the operation to combat the 35 guerrillas. More than 6,000 files were destroyed in the fire, including several processes against military personnel for human rights violations. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, August 2017.

A detail of Auras Anónimas by Colombian artist Beatriz González, who filled the 8,957 empty receptacles of an ossuary in Bogotá’s city center with a series of tombstones printed on silkscreen. The tombstones bear images of individuals who carry the bodies of the anonymous victims of violence in the country. According to the National Centre for Historic Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH), between 1958 and 2018 there were over 250,000 casualties in Colombia’s armed conflict, with over 80 percent of these victims being civilians. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, February 2017.

Relatives of the victims of forced disappearance protest in front of the Palace of Justice in Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá. In November 1985, members of the former 19th of April Movement (M-19) took over Bogotá’s Palace of Justice, taking hundreds of people hostage, including all 25 Supreme Court justices. Security forces stormed and retook the palace, leaving a balance of 94 people killed—including 11 court judges—, dozens injured and 11 missing, mostly cafeteria employees, visitors, and Irma Franco Pineda, a lawyer and guerrilla member who participated in the M-19 siege. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, July 2017.

A passer-by looks at the photographic cutouts of disappeared members of the Patriotic Union (UP), a leftist political party founded by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian Communist Party. During the 1980s, the party’s leadership and members were subject to violent attacks and assassinations, seemingly carried out with political motives by drug lords, paramilitary groups, and some members of the government's armed forces. While some investigations were opened and some perpetrators convicted, most of the murders remain unresolved. However, on January 30, 2023, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned Colombia for the genocide of over 6,000 members and militants of the UP. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, October 14, 2021.

The remains of a photographic mural on the walls of the colonial city of Popayán in Cauca. Popayán, Cauca, Colombia, May 2022.

The remains of a body exhumed during a search for victims of Operación Orión lie in Medellín’s Jardín Cementerio Universal, ready to be transported to a forensic laboratory to be identified. Operación Orión was a security force intervention carried out in Medellín against the urban guerillas in 2002. Human rights and civil society organizations claim it to have been a joint operation between State forces and paramilitaries, or at least that there was cooperation with paramilitaries to some extent. The bodies of a number of people killed in the operation were buried, unregistered, in mass graves in the cemetery. After two weeks of excavations, a team of forensics found two of the nine bodies they were looking for. Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia, July 2016.

The hands of the relatives of the disappeared in Colombia and the photographs of the missing on a wall at the Madres de La Candelaria headquarters, an organization created in Medellín in March, 1999 in response to the many forced disappearances taking place in the country. Every Friday the relatives of hundreds of Colombians who in the last decades have been disappeared by state agents, members of paramilitary and guerrilla groups, politicians, or even civilians, meet in front of the church, La Candelaria, in Medellín’s city center. “To the living, we owe respect; to the dead, we owe the truth!” they shout. Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia, July 2016.

The faithful gather in Ciudad Bolívar, the most populous shantytown in Bogotá, to watch the Via Crucis processions in Holy Week. It is in shantytowns like Ciudad Bolívar that the Army recruited young men who were later victims of extrajudicial executions. The so-called ‘false positives’ scandal, in which security forces lured vulnerable youngsters to remote areas of the country with offers of work, killed them, and passed them off to authorities as guerrillas killed in battle, or buried them as CNI: “Cuerpo no identificado.” They did this in order to inflate body counts and thus receive promotions or other benefits. According to a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions in Colombia, examples of such killings date back to the 1980s, although nearly 80 percent of them took place between 2000 and 2008. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) records that 6,402 people were killed in this manner between 2002 and 2008 alone. Ciudad Bolívar, Bogotá, Capital District, April 2019.

A detail from Colombian artist Teófilo Hernández’s sculpture, Árbol de la Memoria de los Mártires, located in the garden of the Center of Memory, Peace and Reconciliation (CMPR). The center is dedicated to commemorating victims of violations committed during Colombia’s internal conflict, reparations, and investigation into the truth. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, August 2015.

A forest in which Colombia's Search Unit for Missing Persons (UBPD) tried to locate the body of Gerardo Angulo. Don Gerardo (68 years old) was kidnapped with his wife Doña Carmenza in 2000 by the leftist FARC guerrilla. After a few months of captivity, the couple was murdered by guerrillas in the forests surrounding San Juanito, a small city in Colombia’s Meta department. In 2021, the UBPD found Doña Carmenza’s body but not that of Don Gerardo. Nor did they find it on another mission in November 2023. The UBPD is a humanitarian and extrajudicial Colombian State entity that directs, coordinates, and contributes to the search for persons reported disappeared in the context of the armed conflict. San Juanito, Meta, Colombia, November 2023.

A sweater hanging from a cable in Medellín’s Comuna 13, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city. With the powerful criminal group, Clan del Golfo, edging in on a territory long controlled by the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) paramilitary groups, there is little sign of peace on the horizon. El Clan del Golfo, considered the country’s most powerful neo-paramilitary group with some 4,000 members in the inner circle of the organization, appeared after the theoretical demobilization of the AUC and was involved in the Colombian armed conflict. One of the many groups made up of former mid-level paramilitary leaders, Clan del Golfo has caused homicide and forced disappearance rates to skyrocket in Colombia’s Northern regions. Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia, July 2016.

A man walks alone in Las Cruces shantytown in Bogotá. It is in shantytowns like Las Cruces that the Army recruited young men who were later victims of extrajudicial executions. The so-called ‘false positives’ scandal, in which security forces lured vulnerable youngsters to remote areas of the country with offers of work, killed them, and passed them off to authorities as guerrillas killed in battle, or buried them as CNI: “Cuerpo no identificado.” They did this in order to inflate body counts and thus receive promotions or other benefits. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, December 2012.

Photographer's Statement: 

Óscar Alexander Morales Tejada was 26 years old when he was assassinated and disappeared by soldiers in Northern Colombia in 2008. His parents, Darío and Doris, searched for his remains for years afterwards. His remains and those of 61 other people were recovered in the El Copey Alternative Cemetery between 2022 and 2023; it was not until early 2024 that his body was identified.

Óscar Alexander is among the thousands of victims of extrajudicial executions, part of the ‘false positive’ scandal where law enforcement brutally executed civilians. For years, members of the military lured economically disadvantaged or mentally impaired civilians to remote areas with promises of employment, then killed them to inflate body counts for promotions and economic rewards. They presented them as guerrillas killed in battle, or buried them as CNI: “cuerpos no identificados” (unidentified bodies). [1]

Figures released by Colombia's Search Unit for Missing Persons reveal that, over the past sixty years, almost 106,000 people have been forcibly disappeared in Colombia. Most of them are still missing today. Impunity is the essence of forced disappearance. There is neither a body nor a motive and, thus, no culprit. It is a silent, almost invisible crime, far from the bloody visual imagery of any armed conflict. Most of the disappeared have been thrown into anonymous mass graves, rivers, mangroves, sugar mills, and crematorium ovens. 

Forced disappearance in Colombia, much more prevalent than in the dictatorships of Chile and Argentina, is used as a potent social control tactic. It is a hidden outcome of a complex low-intensity war over territorial control, illicit crops, and economic megaprojects, including hydrocarbons, dams, agribusiness, and tourism. The goal is to eradicate political opposition, and the crime itself, carried out by state agents, members of paramilitary and guerrilla groups, politicians, and civilians benefiting from the strategy. Despite the theoretical era of post-conflict inaugurated in 2016 with the signing of a milestone Peace Agreement between the government and the leftist FARC guerrilla, the disappearance of individuals and the selective assassinations of social leaders and demobilized guerrillas continue to occur on a daily basis. According to authorities, more than 4,000 people were disappeared in 2023 alone. 

By exposing the magnitude, systematicity, and impact of this crime, Searching for Lost Lives challenges the 'memoricide' perpetuated by Colombian authorities, who, for decades, have downplayed the existence of the crime itself. Even today, most Colombians believe that if a person has been a victim of disappearance, there must be a reason why. 

It is a quest for truth, justice, and dignity for the disappeared and their families, who have spent decades not only trying to locate their loved ones but also to restore their good name. Mothers who long for their Deiber, Fair Leonardo, Irina, Óscar Alexander, Roberto Antonio. Wives who continue to dream about their Eduardo, Jimmy, Julio, Héctor. Sisters who haven’t forgotten their Ana Rosa, David, Héctor Emilio, Pedro Nel. Women who shout and demand, who don’t give up, and keep going, hoping that one day they’ll receive what’s left of those bodies that someone decided to erase.

As Helmuth Santiago Angulo Castañeda, the son of a couple kidnapped and disappeared by the FARC in 2000, once told me, the hope of all the families of the disappeared is to find them alive. But when that is not an option, as in the case of his parents, “you at least try to pick up what is left.”

VivianaPeretti's picture
Viviana
Peretti

Viviana Peretti is an Italian photographer interested in long-term and in-depth stories about marginalized communities and human rights violations. In 2000, after graduating with a BA in Literature from the University of Rome, she moved to Colombia, where she completed an MA in Journalism and spent years working as a freelancer. In 2010, Peretti graduated from the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, where she lived for six years while working on personal projects about religious communities and diaspora, and producing assignments for The New York Times.

In 2013, Peretti was an Artist-in-Residence at L’École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie (ENSP) in Arles, France. In 2014, she was elected Photographer of the Year at the Sony World Photography Awards' Arts & Culture category, and won the American Photography 30. In 2015, she was a Camargo Foundation Fellow in France. In 2017, Peretti was a Bogliasco Foundation Fellow in Italy. In 2021, she was a E.CO Residency Fellow at Baudó in Colombia. In 2022, she received an Honorable Mention at the World Press Photo Awards for her project “Searching for Lost Lives,” about forced disappearance in Colombia. Her work has been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the MACRO Museum in Rome, the Museo Archivo de la Fotografía in Mexico City, and the Centre of Memory, Peace and Reconciliation (CMPR) in Bogotà, among others. Peretti’s photographs have been published by international media outlets including TheNew York Times, Newsweek, BBC, CNN, Vice, and Granta.

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