Colombia’s Institute of Forensic Medicine has embarked on a massive project to identify the remains of children from mass graves, hoping to find answers for some of the families of the more than 17,000 children who have gone missing in Colombia.
Most of the victims were child soldiers, taken by armed groups. Their families didn’t see them again until they appeared years later in mass graves or unmarked graves in cemeteries.
In one case, a girl was conscripted by the far-right United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group and executed with a shot to the head in 2003 by members of the same group, according to testimony from a demobilized fighter. She was dismembered to hide the evidence
Her remains, partially decomposed after eight years in a grave, are now being compared with her paternal grandmother’s DNA.
But identifying through DNA is difficult because acidic soil and a hot and humid climate speed up the deterioration of the bones. Children also have a lower concentration of the minerals that protect bones than adults, which leaves them more vulnerable to decomposition.
Further, there is no national database of genetic information. In the coming months, the government will approve the existence of a gene bank. The chances of identifying the lost children are greater if DNA samples from a parent, rather than a sibling, are available.
Former AUC members have informed authorities of 1,025 graves. The Colombian General Prosecutor’s Office said it is investigating the disappearance of 45,154 people who may be buried in mass graves.
One grave, containing the bodies of 17 peasants (alleged FARC members), was discovered in a ranch in the north-west belonging to a paramilitary leader.
An average of twelve bodies are uncovered every week in mass graves across the country, reported Justice for Colombia in July 2013.