Science & Technology

Identifying those left missing during Colombian conflict a daunting task

Bogota, Mar 17 (EFE).- More than 100,000 families are currently engaged in the drawn-out, emotionally draining search for a loved one who went missing during Colombia’s decades-old armed conflict, a quest made more difficult due to the ravages of time and the dismemberment of bodies found in cemeteries and other grave sites.

“Both violence and the passage of time erase people’s identity, and that makes (forensic) studies difficult,” Carlos Antonio Murillo, deputy director of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, told Efe.

Crushed ribs, femurs, skulls and other body parts arrive at the offices of that entity in Bogota due to a gruesome particularity of the Colombian conflict: the mutilation of murdered victims to eliminate all trace of those crimes.

The forensic work involves anthropological and odontological studies and other analyses to determine the victim’s gender, age and height, and whether he or she died of a blow or a gunshot, for example.

DNA samples are later collected to develop a genetic profile, which is compared to the more than 60,000 samples that were donated by family members looking for their loves ones and are kept at the Data Bank of Genetic Profiles of the Missing.

That data bank also serves as a storehouse for another 8,000 unidentified bodies.

But its administrator, Carolina Giraldo, explained to Efe that one of the biggest problems her organization faces is a lack of sufficient samples for identifying missing persons, most of them victims of Colombia’s armed conflict.

One major difficulty is many people’s reluctance to provide samples for a genetic profile, either because they don’t trust the government or because they still live in a conflict zone and fear being linked to a member of an armed group and becoming a target of reprisals.

Everyone with a family member missing ideally would agree to provide genetic samples, said Murillo, who added that collection drives are being carried out with that goal in mind.

“It’s not because of a lack of forensic expertise. It’s not because of a lack of institutional diligence. But rather it’s that we don’t have a way to compare” bodies to genetic profiles, he said.

Of a total of 104,606 people who had been registered as missing in Colombia by the Unit for the Search of Missing Persons, 89,782 still have not been tracked down and identified.

The National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, for its part, is responsible for identifying victims of all types of violence and conducts around 30,000 autopsies per year and 300,000 assessments of victims who suffered non-fatal injures. Regrettably, the corpses of people who died more than 20 years ago are the last priority.

“Sometimes we no longer have fingerprints to cross-check. Teeth often have deteriorated, and the profile of the structures becomes degraded,” Murillo said of the task of identifying the victims.

Likewise, soft tissue becomes damaged so that all that remains is bone tissue, which over time also becomes degraded and gradually loses that genetic information,” he added. EFE


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