Searching for the disappeared must be priority at Colombia peace talks, official says
BOGOTA (Reuters) - The search for tens of thousands of people who were disappeared during Colombia's six-decade conflict must be a priority at peace and surrender talks with rebel groups and crime gangs, the top official tasked with finding them said on Wednesday.
At least 104,600 people have been forcibly disappeared in connection with Colombia's conflict between leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries, criminal groups and the government. Nearly 89,800 remain missing.
The Search Unit for Disappeared People was created under a 2016 peace deal with the FARC rebels to find and identify missing people or their remains and give suffering families answers.
Now the government of leftist President Gustavo Petro is holding talks with the ELN rebels, and is set to begin conversations with a group of former FARC members who reject the previous accord. It also has plans to make surrender deals with crime gangs.
"This issue must be on the table from the beginning," said the unit's new director Luz Janeth Forero, in her first interview since taking up her five-year post. Humanitarian corridors are urgently needed in places with ongoing hostilities or armed group presence like Norte de Santander, Cauca and Narino provinces and Chiribiquete national park, to allow exhumations of remains possibly belonging to disappeared people, Forero said.
"The worsening of the conflict has meant that even though we have a list nearly ready for recoveries, we haven't been able to go in," she said. "We're going to work to make humanitarian corridors a reality very soon."
Though the unit made strides during its first five years - recovering 766 sets of remains, finding 12 living people and setting up 23 regional search teams - challenges abound, Forero said.
Identifications of deteriorated remains are complex and the unit depends on the overtaxed legal medicine department for forensic work.
Forero, a former official at legal medicine, echoed previous unit demands for that department to receive more government support to expand nationally and increase its technical capacity.
Forero added she hopes the unit will be able to tally many more recoveries of remains and identifications during her tenure.
The disappeared unit is the least well-known of the justice mechanisms created by the 2016 accord, which also include the truth commission and a tribunal tasked with trying war crimes.
The country's truth commission estimated the number of disappeared could be as high as 210,000.
"In many cases we won't be able to hand-over (remains) to families, but we at least will be able to give them the truth," she said.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Aurora Ellis)