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Maira Alejandra Martínez Suarez is sweeping away another layer of dirt when the bullets come flying overhead. She’s twenty-six years old, and with her French braid tucked under a brand-new baseball cap, she looks more like a rec-league softball pitcher than a forensic anthropologist under fire. She grabs her shovel, paintbrush, and dustpan and, standing in an open grave, peeks over the ledge of moist earth. She scans for incoming fire across the clearing dotted with body-sized rectangular pits. Her Colombian army bodyguards, belly-down, shoot out into the surrounding brush. A ranch corral is too far for escape. She crouches, comes eye to eye with a silver tooth in a half-buried skull and starts to pray, lying in a grave she’s digging.
That was a year ago. Gunfire in the darkened valley below revives the memory of the ambush. By now, taking cover in an open grave seems almost quaint compared to what Martínez and a dozen Colombian forensic anthropology teams have faced in three years of exhumations. They’ve ridden mules into African-palm groves in the north, trucked to cattle ranches through the central valley, hauled canoes into the mosquito-infested jungles of the Pacific coast, and flown out to the untamed wilds near the Venezuelan border.
This time, the scene is an abandoned paramilitary camp, a few days’ trek up the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, at Cerro Mendihuaca, in the territory of Hernán Giraldo-Serna, the former paramilitary boss known as “The Lord of the Sierra.” Word is that despite his publicly televised demobilization and confession, the paramilitaries are back, rechristened as Black Eagles. What guerrillas are left in the upper reaches of the Sierra have also ventured down to wage the latest in half a century of turf wars. The kids of the Córdoba anti-guerrilla brigade, our army escort, have tucked in up the hill, in a jungle redoubt of hammocks, bamboo, and sandbagged guard posts. Lately, say the soldiers, things have gotten “hot.”
There could be anywhere from eight to fifteen bodies to discover on this expedition, and Olger Castro, a federal prosecutor, fails to convince a local farmer to let us use his mule on the march up, not even for money. In general, Castro dreads these trips to the remotest corners of Colombia. His job is to be present when a body is found, to officially designate a crime scene, but he’s past fifty and from the Eastern Plains, where the land is flat and open and people get around on horses. He’d always thought of lawyering as a good desk job, not one that would have him sweating up steep slopes. He’s unhappy about slinging his hammock in a crumbling adobe hut, under a sagging roof, the walls painted camouflage and pocked by bullets. What else is he going to do? He’s got a daughter to feed. Before story time, there’s debate about whether it even makes sense to stay the night. There’d been gunfire earlier, as the day waned, after some of the anthropologists’ security escort had marched off insubordinately to find better shelter, and nerves are frayed. “It’s Colombia,” explains Castro. “Uniforms are easily confused.” After the fire dies down, Castro rattles off a spoken-word ballad, “The Greenhorn Hunter,” from his cowboy home:
After such a long life, brother, and so much work
Death comes to collect, what a cryin’ shame!
I’m tired of fighting, by God, sowing banana and plantain
Tired . . . of being a ranch hand after I’d owned a farm.
What say we take a rest awhile
And make some shade, so the sun don’t burn so bad.
In the morning, the snow peaks of the Sierra shine sunrise-orange across the valley. It’s all uncolonized territory from here; sacred land to the local Kogi and Arhuaco natives. Over breakfast of leftover rice and fresh coffee, the soldiers trade stories of killing and engagement. “It was like the movies,” says one, spitting out some mimed rounds from a mimed gun. Twenty-seven guerrilla bajas or kills for his brigade, year-to-date. They took out a coke lab, just over there, the week before. Our elevation is 2,409 meters, according to the government-issue GPS, and this forensic unit is looking for its 141st body this year. Martínez sips coffee as her assistant takes the DuPont biohazard jumpsuits, latex gloves, and face masks from his oversize pack. Castro asks for a second cup, intuiting a long day.
Before long, we’re gathered in front of three casket-sized depressions in a vine-covered hill, miles from nowhere. Our informant, a nervous little bearded man who kept his face hidden through the lower, inhabited parts of the trail, tells us that there may be four people buried at the site, if this is the place where a pair went into one hole, he says, head to toe.
“Killed this one with a Venezuelan gun,” the informant says, “in his sleep.”
Martínez’s assistant, Julio Eliecer Leiva, a jocular, round gravedigger with a Shakespearean sense of humor and prolific sweat glands, has already set to the plot with his shovel, while the security guys, in the heavy black uniforms of the Colombian FBI, known by its Spanish acronym DAS, take comfortable positions around the perimeter and begin swatting at mosquitoes. It feels more like a lunch break on a long hike than a crime-scene investigation. Leiva starts talking, between swings of the spade, about the last time they’d been in the region, when they’d lagged behind a fit local campesino who led them to the top of a ridge, where there were two holes: one the slight depression indicative of a decayed body, the other deeper and empty.
“What do you think happened there?” Leiva challenges me, resting on his shovel with a mischievous look.
“There was only supposed to be one body.”
The cliff, he says by way of a hint, was high and exposed. And then he starts shoveling again, throwing the dirt over his shoulder onto a mounting slag heap. “Assassins were so dumb,” he says, “they threw the first dirt over the cliff, and had to dig a second hole to fill the first.” Leiva mimes the head-scratching look he imagines they had when they realized they’d needed to dig another hole to fill the first. And then he laughs, and returns to his own gravedigging.
A rumpled blue sheet and a busted agro sack—makeshift caskets—found under some dead leaves indicate that the tombs have been raided, and after more than an hour of methodical digging, Leiva can find no stray remains. When he gives up, grumbling that there’s nothing there, the informant leaps in, Hamlet-like, and stabs at the dirt. “It’s my brother-in-law,” he says by way of explanation, and then a heel appears, and later a bone sticks out of the excavation wall. Martínez logs identified bones in her field book, a colorful academic day-planner with notes on the burials of hundreds of Colombian dead. Castro clicks the ballpoint pen clipped to his army green T-shirt and fills out a case file before this crude jury of peers. “Why did you kill them?” he asks.
“Because they were going to turn in Don Hernán,” the informant says, passing the shovel back to Leiva. He then thinks a moment, and adds, “It was five years ago this Sunday.”
I ask the informant why they took the trouble to go so deep into the jungle, so far up the mountain, to bury the victims. “Because of the dogs,” he says, finally betraying the faraway stare of Colombia’s troubled rural class. “And because el pecado acobarda”—sinning makes a coward.
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