Authorities began excavating what could be the world's largest urban mass grave in Colombia this week, with the buried bodies of unknown numbers of victims thought to date back to 2002.
The grave, located under a landfill on the mountainous outskirts of Medellin, Colombia's second largest city, may contain the bodies of up to 300 people who were "disappeared" in and around the city's most embattled neighborhood.
The work around the grave stands in contrast to the media hype surrounding Colombia's most in vogue city, which has been seeking to shed its violent reputation by pumping resources into promoting tourism and investment.
The site, La Escombrera — literally "The Dump" — climbs the mountains of Comuna 13, a hillside slum that has been a byword for disappearances since a military campaign named "Operation Orion" launched there in October 2002. The operation forced out left-wing rebel groups, leaving right-wing paramilitaries in their place.
Relatives of 17-year-old Carol Vanessa Restrepo march up to the mass grave site. (All photos by Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News)
On Monday morning, a religious ceremony for victims took place at the grave, before preparations to excavate began on Tuesday. Movingly, the site was adorned with life-sized black silhouettes, representing the hundreds disappeared in Comuna 13.
Among those attending the solemn ceremony were relatives of Carol Vanessa Restrepo, a student who was last seen leaving school to meet friends on October 25, 2002, days after "Operation Orion" officially ended. Just 17 years old at the time, she was never seen or heard from again. Her family to this day have no idea what happened.
After laying flowers at the site, Mercedes Montoya, the girl's aunt, wearing a T-shirt with a photograph of her niece printed on it, told VICE News that Carol "was a young girl with a future, she was a student, she had dreams. We can't understand why [she was taken]."
Black silhouettes, representing the missing, line the site. The sign below reads "Never again."
Her family's plight is shared by dozens of others. Looking around the site on Monday morning, many families could be seen with similar T-shirts adorned with different faces, all hoping for some closure once the bodies below are unearthed.
The task ahead is gargantuan. Over the next five months, a forensics team from Colombia's judicial police will pull up 24,000 cubic meters of landfill, to find the bodies buried about 24 feet below.
Investigators at the scene told VICE News that ground will be broken next week, initially with heavy digging machinery, before moving onto manual tools so as not to destroy any remains.
Luz Elena Galeano in Medellin. She is looking for her husband Luis Javier Laverde, who went missing in 2008.
The neighborhood has long been one of the city's poorest and most crime-ridden slums. In October 2002 heavy military and police offensives retook the area from the violent guerrilla groups that occupied it, with over 1,000 soldiers deployed, who were aided by armed helicopters.
Luz Elena Galeano also attended the ceremony on Monday. She hasn't seen her husband, Luis Javier Laverde, since December 9, 2008. That day he was taking a bus home from work when he was abducted, put in a car, and driven away. There's been no sign of him since.
"The pain is completely the same since that day," Galeano told VICE News from an office in downtown Medellin. There, Galeano coordinates the campaign Women Walking for the Truth, a group of families fighting to learn what happened to their loved ones in Comuna 13.
After years of campaigning from victims groups like hers, and spurred by recent testimony of demobilized paramilitaries who told authorities where they had buried bodies, authorities were finally able to identify the grave site.
Medellin authorities first cordoned off the site before excavating.
On Tuesday, forensic teams surveyed the dump, with green plastic fences marking three areas that, according to rights groups, together hold up to 300 bodies. The site was described by Jorge Mejia, an advisor to Medellin's mayor, as "possibly the largest urban mass grave in the world."
And while the numbers are for now uncertain — though investigators at the scene told VICE News there's at least 100 bodies — the discovery and exhumation of the grave does give hope of closure for the families.
"Who are the victims?" Mejia told VICE News in an interview. "It could be innocents, certainly, who had nothing to do with the conflict. Guerrilla persecuted by the paramilitaries, or people sympathetic with the guerrilla. Anyway, regardless of who the victim is, nothing justifies disappearing people."
Relatives of the missing attended a religious ceremony at the grave site on Monday.
One constant across Colombia's conflict is the high rate of civilian casualties. Since rebels groups including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, took up arms against the government 51 years ago, some 218,000 people have been killed, 80% of whom were civilians. The involvement of right-wing paramilitary groups and drug traffickers also increased the violence.
Asked if the grave was thought to contain mostly civilians, a member of the investigating team told VICE News that "unfortunately, in the conflict, most of the victims are civilians."
As VICE News walked around the site, cordoned off with police tape, it became unsettlingly clear that the bodies would have never been found without the tips provided by ex-paramilitaries and the relentless pressure applied by the families of victims.
The landfill, compacted over time, has pushed the remains deeper underground.
"What a shame, the war!" reads the message on a T-shirt worn by one of the attendees.
"It's all because of the families of the disappeared," said Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group, or LAWG, in Washington DC. "There's some incredibly brave women — it's mostly women, though not exclusively — from all over Colombia who just don't give up the search."
Due to the likely decomposition of the bodies, the only way to identify victims will be through DNA taken from the remains — just bones and teeth after years underground — and DNA sampled from relatives of the disappeared.
Once identified, families in Medellin will be able collect the remains, or they can chose to have them interred in a mausoleum currently under construction.
"In the case of finding the body, it does take some pain away, and if I don't find my loved one there's a chance friends can locate theirs," Galeano told VICE News. "It's almost impossible to find all of them. There are still a lot more places where they've been buried all over this area."
Officials, victims, and press gathered at the site, which overlooks Medellin from the west.
The victims campaigning to find loved ones are risking their lives every time they call for the truth.
Galeano was forced from her home with her two young children when she was threatened in 2012. Her cries for justice were simply ringing too loud. While her husband is one of at least 30,000 disappeared in the country, she is now one of approximately 6 million displaced, another one of the ugly statistics of Colombia's war.
"It's pretty typical to receive threats if you try to uncover the truth. There's a sense that if your relative was disappeared, it was for some reason," Haugaard told VICE News.
Montoya also worries about reprisal, but said that "you must leave the fear behind. We must talk because if we don't, this will never end."
While Jorge Mejia believes that Comuna 13's biggest problems right now are "small trafficking gangs and extortionists," Galeano says the same paramilitaries continue to terrorize locals.
Despite the controversial demobilization of the paramilitary umbrella organization, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC in Spanish, between 2003 and 2006, the barrio continued to be victimized by the now-former paramilitaries. Galeano told VICE News that the process was "a complete farce."
Shovels, picks, and helmets lie in preparation for the exhumation.
Jorge Mejia recognizes the troubles in the area. "It's a complicated region because, located in the west of the city, it's an important trafficking route to and from Uraba," the coastal region where cocaine leaves the country and weapons enter.
An unfortunately reality is that with the slum built into the mountainside, and with locals talking of "invisible borders" past and present between criminal gangs, it's impossible to have a clear picture of what goes on there. And for the government, disappearances are often too easy to ignore.
"The scale of the violence is so immense in Colombia that it's only the most obvious, unavoidable things that are noticed," Haugaard said. "Disappearances are the most invisible crime because it takes [so much] time, if ever, to find the bodies."
However, the families of the victims continue to demand truth and justice, and as work begins to exhume the bodies, they could be one step closer.
"All we want is the truth," Montoya told VICE News. "And now there are lots of people with us."
Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan