Colombia’s new push to identify the disappeared

When her 17-year-old son Jose Andres was kidnapped by paramilitaries at the height of Colombia's civil conflict, Gloria Ines Urueña vowed she would not leave the town of La Dorada until she found him.

She has been true to her word for more than two decades - searching for her son's body despite threats from the group that killed him.

"I've always said I don't just want to find my son, I want to find all of the disappeared.” An estimated 120,000 people have gone missing during Colombia's nearly 60 years of conflict. A 2016 peace deal between the government and the Marxist FARC rebels brought some respite, but unrest persists.

Most of the missing are likely dead, buried in clandestine graves high in the Andes or in jungle, dumped in rivers. But some ended up in graveyards -- their graves marked with NN for 'no name'.

Now a national plan to identify victims buried anonymously in cemeteries has renewed the hope Urueña and thousands like her hold of finding their loved ones' remains.

"I would like to know if there are some people from here among the people who were taken away, not only my son but the son of the neighbor or a person from another area and his loved ones are looking for him.”

The Search Unit for Disappeared People, founded under the 2016 deal, is investigating cemeteries across Colombia, hoping to untangle years of chaotic record-keeping and neglect, identify remains, and return them to families.

DNA from nearly 5,200 unidentified bodies is stored in a government database, along with nearly 44,400 samples from families of the disappeared to cross-check genetic material with newly-discovered remains.

The strategy may be unique: the recovery of potentially tens of thousands of bodies from cemeteries has likely not been tried before, especially during an ongoing conflict.

Luz Monzon leads the search unit.

"The persistence of the armed conflict is a very big challenge to accessing information, accessing locations, and guaranteeing the participation of victims in the search due to several things: the threats and risks to family members in their territories. Also the assassinations and threats, even displacements of those who signed the agreement and are participating or providing information."

About a month after Uruena's son was taken back in 2001, two men showed up at her house in La Dorada on a motorcycle and told her to stop looking.

Undaunted, she pressed on searching for him.. and now, 20 years later, her efforts might finally lead to answers…telling Reuters -even though the years pass, she is "still full of hope."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting