Colombia’s Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons

As part of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No Repetición​​, SIVJRNR), the 2016 peace accord, via Article 5.1.1., created the Special Unit on the Search for Persons Deemed as Missing in the context of the armed conflict. Colombia’s national government signed Decree Law N° 589 of 2017 to establish the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons (Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas, UBPD). The UBPD started formally operating in August 2017 after the President signed three decrees to determine the unit’s structure. Its mandate lasts 20 years. The goal of this unit is to direct, coordinate, and contribute to the implementation of humanitarian measures to search for and identify all people missing as a result of the armed conflict. In cases where individuals are no longer alive, the UBPD is responsible – whenever possible – for the recovery, identification, and dignified delivery of the remains. 

In February 2018, Luz Marina Monzón was sworn into office as the UBPD’s General Director. She is advised by a council made up of the President of the Truth Commission, senior national government officials, the Director of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (INMLCF), delegates of the National Victims Roundtable, delegates of victims’ organizations, and a representative of civil organizations with technical forensic expertise. In the last quarter of 2018, the unit was approved for a $26.3 million operating budget.

By September 2019, the UBDP met with 870 people in order to ensure the participation of victims and social organizations in the search process. They played an important role in the early stages of designing the unit’s search plan. During October 2019, eight meetings were held with Indigenous and Afro-descendant organizations, members of the LGBT+ community, women’s groups, relatives of forcibly disappeared and kidnapped victims, families of missing state force members, exiled Colombians, human rights organizations, and state entities. Overall, 124 organizations participated in the October meetings. In these meetings, people and organizations who have historically worked on missing persons cases were able to share their experiences and the difficulties of the search process. The UBPD is able to better carry out its search work with an ethnic and gender focus as a result of broader civil society involvement.

2019 PNB Meetings with Civil Society

LocationDateGroup
Bogotá D.C.September 30 and October 1Human Rights Organizations and Families of Forced Disappearance Victims
Bucaramanga, SantanderOctober 3 and 4 Gender Focused Organizations 
Barranquilla, AtlánticoOctober 7 and 8LGBTI Organizations
Cali, Valle del CaucaOctober 10 and 11Afro-Descendant Organizations
La Mesa, CundinamarcaOctober 15, 16, and 17Indigenous Organizations
Nevia, HuilaOctober 17 and 18Relatives of forced disappearance victims and missing Public Force members
Bogotá, Cundinamarca (virtual)October 23Exiled Colombians
Bogotá D.C.October 24State Entities 
Source: Plan Nacional de Búsqueda 2020, UBPD 

UBPD’s National Search Plan 
Article 5.2 of Decree 589 states the UBPD must design and implement a national plan which, along with regional plans, will establish procedures for the search, localization, recovery, identification, and return of missing persons. On May 6, 2020, the UBPD officially launched the National Search Plan (Plan Nacional de Búsqueda, PNB). The PNB is the unit’s framework to find the more than 100,000 people missing due to the armed conflict. As stated in Decree 589, the national plan must be executed in collaboration with victims and human rights organizations. UBPD’s General Director Luz Marina Monzón confirmed at the launch event that the PNB’s main characteristic is its participatory nature. 

The PNB framework allows the UBPD to plan, organize, and implement tools to search for missing persons. Based on the evolving circumstances due to continued armed violence in the territories, the national plan is subject to change. Updates to the Regional Search Plans (Planes Regionales de Búsqueda, PRB) will also result in PNB revisions. The PRB’s places emphasis on the specific characteristics of different regions, sectors of the population, or even certain time periods. Meanwhile, the PNB centralizes search efforts while still being responsive to the unique needs of different regions and communities. The plan’s structure can be broken down into three main points: 

  1. Information
    This first point focuses on information collection, categorization, systematization, and analysis. It also ensures that any information received is not used in judicial processes. Given the unit’s humanitarian mandate, it is essential the UBPD prioritize the wellbeing of victims and their families. These groups generally provide information to the state because it is useful to search efforts. The PNB encourages a more mutual relationship that guarantees the persons giving information receive answers in return. Building trust between the different actors is the first step. UBPD’s efforts also need to go beyond just numbers by understanding the scope and nature of the disappearance. It is important for the unit to actively investigate the information they receive. In addition to improving the national registry for disappeared persons, the UBPD is committed to establishing the National Registry of Ditches, Illegal Cemeteries, and Graves (Registro Nacional de Fosas, Cementerios Ilegales y Sepulturas, RNF). 
  1. Location
    The UBPD seeks to implement various strategies to address the difficulties searching for disappeared persons. The search begins by assuming the victim is alive. The information previously gathered and inter-institutional coordination is essential for investigations. In the case of death, the UBPD will try to locate the body and return the remains to the family. The unit will coordinate with the Institute of Legal Medicine, the Prosecutor’s Office, and universities to identify bodies found in cemeteries and morgues. 
  1. Participation  
    Historically, participation involves families providing information and/or being reunited with the disappeared person. The PNB challenges this simplistic view of participation in favor of a more humanitarian state response. This involves families and organizations being involved in all stages of the search process. For the UBPD, families include non-blood relatives, same-sex couples, and family conceptions of Indigenous and Black communities. 

Current Status of the UBPD
The UBPD received 5,195 search requests by April 2020. Out of those requests, 2,385 of them were made by victims’ organizations, 1,670 by family members, and 271 by armed groups. Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) recognized the contributions of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) in the search for disappeared persons. In addition to these search requests, there are currently 11 PRBs. Various files from institutions such as the INMLCF and Prosecutor’s Office were also added to the UBPD’s database. 

After two years in operation, the UBPD still needs to fill staff vacancies in order to advance their search process. As of February 2020, 341 positions out of 522 were staffed. The government approved a hiring process where 30% of the staff would be hired in 2018, 50% in 2019, and the remaining 20% in 2020. It was not until September 2018 that the Constitutional Court ruled on how UBPD’s staff would be hired.

Written by Araceli Becerra in August 2020.

Tags: Unit for the Search for the Disappeared

August 31, 2020

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