Photograph of an old sugar mill located in the frontier zone with Venezuela, where the so-called "crematorium ovens" used by paramilitaries are located, in Juan Frio, Colombia, 9 October 2023. EFE/Mario Caicedo

The improvised crematoria that paramilitaries used to erase their crimes in Colombia

Juan Frío, Colombia, Oct 27 (EFE).- Dogs have returned to the streets of the Colombian village of Juan Frío, on the border with Venezuela. Locals say that for years they had disappeared because, according to widespread rumors, the paramilitaries killed them so that they would not betray their atrocities.

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a far-right paramilitary and drug-trafficking group, took over the Catatumbo region, where Juan Frío is located, between 1999 and 2004.

Ostensibly, they were there to drive out the leftist guerrillas, but in reality they focused most of their attention on seizing control of coca plantations and exports across the border with Venezuela, and terrorizing the local population.

The “death truck,” as the villagers called the vehicle in which the paramilitaries transported people who were never seen again, usually passed by at night. And as it passed, dogs would bark, warning the villagers of the crimes to come, that’s why they killed them.

Fidedigna Gómez, a community leader, tells the story while two dogs bark behind her, but she´s careful not to raise her voice and asks for the recorder to be switched off. As her confidence grows, she dares to tell the story to the camera, with the mural the community painted to demand justice for the disappeared behind her.

“They killed people and buried them in a lot, but when the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Bogotá started harassing them to cover up their crimes, they burned them,” she tells EFE.

Civil servants, members of the armed forces and politicians were complicit in the paramilitaries’ crimes, and in the last twenty years dozens have been sentenced by the judicial system.

A few weeks ago, the Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons (UBPD), a state body created after the 2016 peace agreement, conducted an investigation at the oven allegedly used by the paramilitaries to incinerate and disappear the bodies of their victims.

According to the authorities’ investigation, the paramilitaries used an old sugar mill built for the production of panela to cremate bodies.

Next to it is another structure, used as a brick kiln, where the photos of seven disappeared people are hung, so that their memory and thirst for justice will not fade.

After laying down their arms in 2004, the Catatumbo Bloc of the AUC, under the command of Jorge Ivan Laverde, alias “El Iguano,” faced the judges of the Peace and Justice Law and acknowledged more than 12,400 murders and almost 400 forced disappearances, some of them in cremation ovens, although some human rights organizations believe the number could be much higher.

Photograph of an old sugar mill located in the frontier zone with Venezuela, where the so-called “crematorium ovens” used by paramilitaries are located, in Juan Frio, Colombia, 9 October 2023. EFE/Mario Caicedo

Horror in Juan Frio

The ovens “were not the first place they used (to conceal bodies), the river took many people away,” others were buried in the hills and others “were thrown to the other side,” to Venezuela, says Fidedigna.

Juan Frío is located in the department of Norte de Santander, on the Colombian side of the Táchira River, which borders San Antonio del Táchira, Venezuela.

After the paramilitaries arrived in 1999, they ruled as they pleased. “At that time, they were in charge here; I saw myself being killed several times,” says the leader.

“Heads will roll” and “Death to snitches” were some of the common messages at the time.

During those years of terror, “if you said (something), you had the tombstone on your back,” so a lot of things that happened were never reported.

And it was only in 2023 that a forensic team entered the site. And after five days of excavation and months of documentation, they did not find any human remains there.

“Confirming or excluding this area as a possible cremation site is not only determined by whether or not we found bodies,” Marlon Sánchez, a forensic anthropologist at the UBPD, told EFE.

The researchers made some findings that are now in the hands of the Institute of Forensic Medicine to “determine their nature”. “We found a lot,” said Sánchez.

“Almost two decades have passed, the place is located at the foot of a small mountain range, therefore it is exposed to climatic and meteorological factors (…) In addition, there are accounts that once the body was burned, the armed actor removed the ashes and threw them in the river,” he says.

“The recovery of the bodies is only one of the elements that are part of the reestablishment of the right to know what happened (…) Part of the process of reconstructing the truth, so that the families and society as a whole know what happened, is done through the investigation of these sites,” adds the forensic scientist.

That is why the excavation of the ovens was so important for the families; they had been waiting for it for years.

The story of the ovens brought Juan Frío not only pain, but also stigmatization: “It’s not Juan Frío who is guilty, it’s not the community,” says Fidedigna. But despite the past, “we have moved forward, Juan Frío is reborn,” she adds. EFE