At the beginning of May, the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a public act of remembrance in Juan Frío, a village next to the Táchira River, along the border with Venezuela. The most striking image was not that of former paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso — who appeared by videoconference — asking for forgiveness, but that of the ruins of some clay ovens.
The structures were used by the now-extinct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) — a massive paramilitary group — to cremate the bodies of murder victims. This past week, it was revealed that these were just the remains of some ovens. Several others have been appearing.
Earlier this week, the Search Unit for Disappeared Persons (UPBD) — which was created by the Colombian government in 2016 — summoned the relatives of missing people to the site.
After months of excavating, the team revealed that the clay ovens had been built as part of an old mill, to convert sugarcane into brown sugar. However, the paramilitary groups eventually converted and used these structures to cremate the bodies of their victims.
According to the UPBD, these are just initial excavations. In the search for the remains of missing people, anthropologists and forensic specialists have focused on the parts of the ovens most likely to contain “bone structures, teeth, or elements from the bodies of the individuals reported missing.”
To create a space for the relatives of those who were forcibly disappeared to participate in the memorial events, members of the NGO Progress Foundation accompanied them to the site. Marlon Ayrton Sánchez — a UBPD forensic anthropologist and leader of the commission that organized the visit — explained to the families why they excavated the ovens: “What we’re doing here is trying to reconstruct the areas where the bodies were presumably placed, to be subjected to high temperatures… [we are attempting to] document the possibility that evidence of [these acts] may still exist.”
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