According to estimates by the International Committee of the Red Cross, around 120,000 people have disappeared during 50 years of violent civil war in the South American nation of Colombia.
This week, 10 forensic anthropologists tasked with identifying the Colombian missing are at Offutt Air Force Base to meet with their US counterparts from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
“We have the same goal: to give these remains an identity,” said Francis Paola Niño Ruiz, who investigates the cases for Colombia’s attorney general’s office, through a translator.
They are participating in a workshop on Monday and Tuesday that is also attended by forensic experts from the US Department of Justice and the University of Nebraska.
“We brainstorm about the different cycles and processes that we go through in our case work,” said Jessica Yopak, an Offutt-based DPAA forensic anthropologist. “We are delighted to have them here.”
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The DPAA and its predecessors have been working to identify the remains of U.S. service members missing since 1973. The Offutt Lab opened in 2013 and undertook its first major project two years later with the identification of nearly 400 members crewmembers from the USS Oklahoma.
The Justice Department’s International Criminal Investigations Training Assistance Program has worked with law enforcement in Colombia since 1989, according to a DOJ fact sheet.
Over the past five years, he has worked specifically with forensic anthropologists to accredit Colombian forensic laboratories and build their capacity to identify victims, return remains to families, and prosecute crimes against victims. human rights.
With the program’s help, Colombian officials collected evidence leading to the recovery of nearly 300 sets of human remains, according to the fact sheet.
The visit to the Offutt laboratory lasted nearly two years. The visiting anthropologists said they looked forward to seeing how the DPAA conducts its work.
“It’s the benchmark in labs,” said Jonathan Buitrago Sanchez, head of human identification at Colombia’s Criminal Investigation Directorate.
The country’s civil war dates back to May 27, 1964, when Colombian armed forces attacked a small group of left-wing guerrillas in a rural village. In the decades that followed, he implicated far-left and far-right groups, as well as criminal syndicates and drug cartels.
The large-scale conflict between the government and the main rebel group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) ended with a peace deal in 2016, but it continues to simmer in parts of the country. A report by a national truth commission, released in June, said more than 7 million people were displaced and 450,000 people were killed during the decades-long war.
Niño Ruiz said the ongoing nature of the war has hampered efforts to find and identify victims.
“We have areas where we don’t yet have access to gravesites or families,” she said. “We have a lot of missing people and we have a lot of families that are scared.”
Buitrago Sanchez said the idea of bringing comfort to grieving families is what drew him to the work of identifying victims of his country’s bloody civil war.
“Working with the victims, with their families,” he said, “is very rewarding.”
Photos: Honorable Carry ceremony returns remains of USS Oklahoma to Hawaii