Reporting The Unknown: Colombia's Missing Persons

There are an estimated 50,000 people who have disappeared in Colombia. Many will never be returned to their families, and what happened to them will remain a mystery. In the United States, this is a concept hard to grasp — having one, two, three family members taken from you, never to be heard from or seen again. Cases of disappearance make headline news in the U.S., but unfortunately in Colombia they are a daily occurrence.

I struggled to understand and convey this reality while working as a reporter in Medellin, Colombia. After living and working in the country in 2009, I went back in 2010 to the place that I’ve always felt a strong pull to, with the goal of combining my dual love of journalism and Latin America. I sought to bring stories like those of forced disappearance from my beloved Colombia to Americans through my work reporting for the only online daily news source covering Colombia.

The country has a complex history — too complex to accurately detail here. A civil war has been raging for over 40 years, and despite vast improvements in urban safety, the war continues between the government, paramilitaries, and guerrilla forces. Colombians are quick to sing the praises of their country, and rightfully so. Yet many continue to suffer from the effects of the conflict, in both urban and rural zones of the country, and these voices are not heard from publicly.

It is mostly the voices of women that are muted. They are the ones most often left with the puzzle pieces of forced disappearance, because most of those taken are men. Some disappearances are calculated — someone spoke out too loudly, protested too much, or got on the wrong side of those who run their town (often not the government). Others are merely a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Reporting on the problem of the disappeared and the women I met who were fighting for justice had the largest impact on me of any of the stories I worked on. Sadly, other stories like government corruption, police attacks, and drug busts became commonplace. Some events sparked intense debate in the newsroom. Are yesterday’s 12 murders in Medellin worth reporting on? Is that even news? Mostly, these things were not new at all.

And the stories of the women I met were not new. La Asociación de Madres de la Candelaria, the group of victims of disappeared relatives I spent time with, was formed in 1999. The tens of thousands of people who have disappeared over the past several decades have largely not returned. The women of Las Madres seek to locate their family members, find out the truth of what happened to them, and receive reparation from the government, which often (unofficially) had a hand in the disappearances.

Strangely enough, many of these women were interested in me. What was a gringa doing in Medellin? Why was she writing this story? Who was going to read it? I stuck out frequently in Medellin — my accent-less English giving me away at a press conference with an American diplomat and my mona (light skin and hair) self at Las Madres’ protest in downtown Medellin, which was held weekly to raise awareness about the problem of the disappeared. While attending the protest to conduct interviews and take photographs, I struggled to keep in the tears. Journalists are not supposed to cry, I told myself. Journalists are supposed to see things, report them, and make other people cry.

The women I met had children, husbands, and brothers taken from them, and were suffering every day. The government largely ignores their plight — not because it is unsympathetic, but because it is generally unequipped to deal properly with the problem and deliver justice. A founder of Las Madres told me the story of her teenage son disappearing while traveling by car between Medellin and Bogota, and was completely composed while explaining that most probably he was dismembered and thrown in a river. I was struggling to keep myself together, and capture the pain behind her steady voice with my words. How do you tell someone what it’s like to have your child taken away from you?

I will always feel a connection to Colombia, and am quick to play aggressive defense when people joke about cocaine or Pablo Escobar. People who ask me to bring back a kilo for them do not get a laugh, but a stern look of disapproval. Yet, how can they help it? The only Colombia the U.S. knows is drugs, because that is the only story told in mainstream media. The problem is more complex than that. It is the personal stories, the stories of lives destroyed, the inability to put a period at the end of the sentence, to know what happened. Those are the stories that must be told.

Photo Credit: Teresa Welsh