The time has come for Colombia to support the efforts of women and others searching for victims of enforced disappearance. Women suffer very serious human rights violations while, individually or collectively, searching for loved ones, including sexual violence, kidnapping, privation of liberty, extortion, threats, and reprisals.
The leadership role is not recognized by society or even the Colombian state, which is often, “a spoke in the wheel” of compliance on existing laws relative to enforced disappearance. “In many cases, officials do not fulfill their job due to negligence, indifference and indolence,” say women searchers.
The women suffer manifold revictimizations from all sectors of society. Many have lost their jobs as a result of the search for a son, sister, husband, father, or mother who was erased from the map by violence.
Beyond these violations the measures to recognize, increase awareness, and provide prevention, care, and protection are minimal. This is compounded by the lack of truth, challenges to access information, poor psychosocial care, and confusing orientation from state entities. All of which makes the need for a public policy to comprehensively protect the work and rights of women searchers even more urgent.
According to the Search Unit for Disappeared Persons (UBPD in Spanish), the armed conflict has generated over 99,000 disappeared persons in Colombia. For the victims, an enforced disappearance is a living death. They inhabit a limbo of not being able to mourn their dead nor hold them in their arms.
Women and other searchers are people who, individually or collectively, have continuously and substantially dedicated themselves to the search for victims of enforced disappearance throughout the country.
There are many women who give their lives to this task. One of the most inspiring is Yanette Bautista, founder and legal representative of the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation. Nobody spoke about enforced disappearance in Colombia before she began her work.
Yanette had to leave the country in 1997 after receiving death threats for her efforts to find her sister, Nydia Erika Bautista. Her work culminated in the firing of now ex-General Álvaro Velandia Hurtado, then commander of the 20th Brigade of the Colombian Army.
Nydia Erika Bautista, an M-19 militant, was disappeared during a joint operation of the 3rd and 20th Brigades of the Nation al Army on August 30, 1987. While in captivity, she suffered torture and sexual violence before being killed. Her body was abandoned as a NN in the Guayabetal municipal cemetery in Cundinamarca. The Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation was created in 1999 while Yanette was in exile.
Yanette has been doing this work for many years and knows better than anyone what it means to work for the victims of enforced disappearance.
“We women have shouldered this task, which corresponds to the State. Due to negligence, inefficiency, indolence, or indifference they have not searched for people, the task has fallen to us,” she told Infobae Colombia.
A critical region in the search for disappeared persons is the Colombian Pacific Coast, specifically, La Calavera (Skull) Island in the San Antonio Estuary of Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca). The UBPD’s Mid Pacific Regional Search Plan estimates that the remains of 1,136 individuals are located at this underwater site.
Luz Dary Santiesteban, a leader from the organization Madres por la Vida (Mothers for Life) in Buenaventura, lives in the port town. She hopes to find her two forcibly disappeared brothers: Luis Alberto Santiesteban, disappeared on November 23, 1998, and Pedro Manuel Santiesteban, disappeared on April 23, 2000. Both could be in the San Antonio Estuary.
While waiting for a response from the state to begin search work at the San Antonio Estuary, Luz Dary spoke with Infobae Colombia, recognizing and valuing the work of the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation to accompany them in their social activities.
“I hold Dr. Yanette’s empowerment and human touch in high esteem. She allows other women to follow her path, that we don’t forget our goals. This is a legacy for the organizations of today,” Luz Dary told this outlet.
Madres por la Vida was founded on November 23, 2006, out of the Redepaz initiative. The main objective is to recover the historical memory of victims of enforced disappearance, and other events such as sexual violence and forced displacement, in Buenaventura.
On October 18, Yanette Bautista together with senators María José Pizarro, Isabel Cristina Zuleta, Clara López, Gloria Flórez, and others, presented a bill that seeks comprehensive recognition and protection of the work and rights of women and others searching for victims of enforced disappearance.
“We opted for a bill after listening to so many women searchers who spoke about the violations suffered during their struggle. We stand in these women’s shoes, because we have also sought our loved ones,” Yanette Bautista told Infobae Colombia.
One aspect of this bill, currently before the Congress of the Republic, that is different is its focus on women searchers, not the disappeared. “We perceived a gender perspective that needed to be addressed and not pushed aside,” Bautista said.
Women who are subjected to enforced disappearance are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence. And women who are family members of the disappeared person are more vulnerable to serious adverse social and economic impacts, in addition to violence. This is a compelling reason to watch the work of women searchers closely.
According to the bill’s explanatory statement, it seeks to recognize and value the work carried out by women and other searchers, to guarantee effective participation in decision-making spaces, and seeks measures to access education, comprehensive healthcare, and social awareness, among others.
This bill is led by the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation, which provides supports to over 600 families victims of enforced disappearances (corresponding to between 900 and 1,000 cases) and aims to strengthen the search for disappeared persons, in addition to contributing to access to truth for victims, so they can find out what happened to their loved ones and achieve full justice.
According to the Office of the Attorney General, 99% of cases of enforced disappearance are in total impunity. Up until 2021, there were 136,344 judicial cases. Of those, 1% have a ruling, 0.9% are in the trial stage, and in 0.42% of cases a punishment has been awarded.
In this context of structural impunity, families—particularly women—are forced to face the government apparatus in a state of total defenselessness relative to humanitarian, social, and legal issues. This was confirmed by the Truth Commission:
“The collected testimonies reflect the deep-seated consequences of enforced disappearance on the victim’s family. In studied cases, 19% suffered stigmatization, 10% experienced discrimination, and 13% faced obstacles to file the complaint.”
For Luz Dary, as a representative of victims, the bill is an opportunity to dignify her work. If passed, the institutions will have to investigate enforced disappearance more rigorously and grant clarity to victims.
On the other hand, Yanette does not take pause before stating that enforced disappearance is not investigated, nor codified, nor punished by the Attorney General’s Office: “it is invisible.” On the other hand, Luz Dary remembers how that same investigatory body often told her, “it’s because you buried him somewhere else.”
Since December 2021, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) issued precautionary measures for the San Antonio Estuary “to guarantee the rights of victims of disappearance and consequently prohibited any intervention in the San Antonio Estuary during a period of 180 days, extendable, especially dredging and the execution of civil works.”
This is a critical point for multiple reasons, but two are particularly important. The intervention must be carried out underwater and it seeks to avoid port expansion by means of dredging. In September of this year, the JEP extended the protection measures on the San Antonio Estuary for an additional six months.
Buenaventura is the main port on the Colombian Pacific Coast for imports and exports, and hence, large companies are interested in the expansion megaprojects, despite the problems this would cause the women looking for their loved ones.
Both Yanette and Luz Dary told Infobae Colombia that the Search Unit “has fallen short in its effective search approach for victims in the San Antonio Estuary.”
“This year we have been working to start searching for the disappeared. The fact that five bids were lost for underwater searches speaks to the Search Unit’s, let’s say, inefficient efforts,” said the director of the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation.
In response to questions from this outlet, the UBPD noted that it has created a methodological design for the Humanitarian and Extrajudicial Investigation of the San Antonio Estuary, which seeks to answer five strategic questions:
1) How many disappeared persons and who are in the San Antonio Estuary?
2) Where can we find the people reported as disappeared in the context of and due to the armed conflict?
3) What happened to the people reported as disappeared in the context of and due to the armed conflict?
4) Who is looking for people reported as disappeared in the context of and due to the armed conflict?
5) How do we look for people reported as disappeared in the context of and due to the armed conflict?
The entity, which was created by the Final Peace Agreement also noted that they have worked with organizations to collect information on the realm of individuals reported as disappeared in the San Antonio Estuary, potential sites where bodies have been disposed of, and systematic practices of disappearance, disposal, and the dumping of bodies, as well as possible patterns of transportation, disposal, and the transfer of remains, using community knowledge.
The collective process of constructing information for the search will allow the underwater prospecting process to begin in the estuary, “which we hope will be carried out in the first quarter of 2023,” stated the entity.
For the black communities of Buenaventura, the San Antonio Estuary has historically been a site to recreate community life. For decades, it has been a source of food turned livelihoods and connects various territories recovered from the sea, making it a place that is full of wisdom and used to recreate ancestral practices.
One women searcher has called for respect of spiritual customs during the search. “The San Antonio Estuary must be healed through ritual, because something that should not be there is present,” said Luz Dary.
The UBPD has proposed underwater geophysical prospecting using acoustic geophysical methods such as sonar and echo sounders, “which will reveal the presence of anomalies in the seabed.”
Although the UBPD’s comprehensive search proposal for the San Antonio Estuary is experimental archaeology, the entity expects to recover the remains or associated elements that can give an effective answer to families and searchers.
The organizations that promoted the precautionary measures in the San Antonio Estuary have fought tirelessly to incorporate an ethnic approach and the black communities’ worldview. “Unfortunately, the Ministry of the Interior responded negatively at the start of the precautionary measures. This had a major impact at the beginning of the search, saying that it was not a black territory, when at least 90% of the disappeared population is Afro descendant,” affirmed Yanette Bautista.
According to studies from the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation, in the territories where they work, is 95% of the cases it is women who are searching for the disappeared.
“Women are searching, because women birth our children and because a mother’s pain is felt in the womb. That is why, the womb is so sacred. Women are spirit, body, and soul.” With those words Luz Dary concluded her conversation with Infobae Colombia.