BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 92,000 Colombians have disappeared during 50 years of war and at the hands of drug gangs, and the government needs to step up efforts to find missing people, the Red Cross said.
Every day nine people are reported missing in Colombia. Of the total number of those registered as missing over the years, nearly 70,000 remain missing without trace, according to the government’s official register.
Many are victims of five decades of armed conflict between government troops, right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist rebels, while others are victims of ongoing drug-turf wars.
"The problem of missing people in Colombia is as widespread as it is silent," Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Colombia said in a statement on Friday.
"We know many have disappeared because of the conflict and armed violence. The uncertainty and suffering of families which comes from not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones is unacceptable."
Government forensic teams and around 20 state prosecutors from the attorney-general's office are searching for the disappeared and exhuming bodies across Colombia.
The Colombian government offers up to $8,600 in compensation for relatives of those who have disappeared as a result of the conflict, and it recently adopted a protocol on handing back bodies to relatives to ensure they are honored properly and their rights to a private or public funeral respected.
But the government must do more to find and identify the tens of thousands of people missing in Colombia, raise awareness about the largely invisible problem, and make it easier for relatives of the missing to seek and get help from authorities, the ICRC in Colombia said.
A possible government peace accord with the Marxist FARC rebels might help throw light on some of the forced disappearances. Peace talks between the two sides have been under way in Havana, Cuba, since November 2012 in a bid to end the war, though fighting continues.
A peace deal might persuade rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to identify where bodies are buried, and might also encourage people who have never reported disappearances to come forward, rights groups say.
Earlier this month, twelve victims from all sides of the Colombian conflict, including relatives of those who have disappeared, addressed peace negotiators in Havana, marking the first time victims have been given a voice in peace talks to end a war that has killed over 200,000 civilians and displaced 5. 7 million Colombians.
They urged the FARC to reveal the whereabouts of mass graves and the truth about what happened to relatives killed and missing.
All warring factions, including state security forces, have been responsible for forced disappearances, according to a report by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory published earlier this year.
Over the decades, thousands of innocent people, including trade unionists, poor farmers and other civilians accused of being informers or of sympathizing with rebel groups, were killed by paramilitary groups and dumped in mass graves.
So far, around 4,000 graves have been discovered and 5,000 bodies found, following the confessions of scores of paramilitary warlords who laid down their weapons from 2003 onwards and received maximum eight-year prison sentences in exchange for confessing their crimes.
Editing by Ros Russell; Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers underreported humanitarian, human rights, corruption and climate change issues. Visit www.trust.org