Under the veil - PhMuseum

Under the veil

Viviana Peretti

2013 - Ongoing

Bogota D.C., Colombia; Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia; Florencia, Caquetá, Colombia; Toribío, Cauca, Colombia; Puerto Nariño, Amazonas, Colombia; New York City, New York, United States

According to Colombia’s National Centre for Historic Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH), 82,998 people were forcibly disappeared in the country between 1958 and 2017, at an average rate of one disappearance every six hours over 59 years. Nine out of ten of these individuals are still missing today. Impunity is the essence of forced disappearance. There is neither a body nor a motive and, therefore, no culprit. Most of the disappeared have been killed and thrown into anonymous mass graves, rivers, mangroves, sugar mills, and crematorium ovens. Even the digestive systems of animals have served as the final destination for many of the missing.

The whole world associates forced disappearance with Southern Cone dictatorships rather than with Colombia where the number is three times as high and the crime continues even today. In Colombia, forced disappearance turned into one of the most effective social control strategies. The bloody result of a complex low-intensity war related to territorial control, illicit crops and economic megaprojects (which go from hydrocarbons to dams, from agribusiness to tourism). The goal was to wipe out any political opposition and to control the territories. The crime was carried out by state agents, members of paramilitary and guerrilla groups, politicians, and civilians who benefited from this strategy. Any kind of otherness was eliminated at different levels: indigenous leaders, activists of social organizations, unionists, students from public universities, environmentalists among many others. Their memory fell into an institutionalized oblivion that many call an operation of 'memoricide' directed by the State.

The victimizers have covered Colombia’s landscape and conscience with a large veil under which voices and bones were silenced and hidden. My photographic search aims to lift that veil, betraying power and its efforts not to leave a physical imprint of the crime. ‘Under the veil’ embodies the frustration of collecting visual fragments to rebuild stories and identities. It uses photography to build an impossible: a visual tribute to the absence.

{{ readMoreButton }}

  • Machetes come out from the wooden wall of a house in Puerto Nariño, a small village in the Colombian Amazon region. Puerto Nariño, Amazon region, Colombia, November 2015.

  • Police station in Toribío, a small village in the Colombian region of Cauca. Since the 1980s, Toribío has counted more than 600 attacks by leftist guerrillas within the framework of the Colombian internal conflict. It is estimated that 41 people have died and 600 have been wounded. The most violent attack was perpetrated by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) on July 8, 2011, when a chiva (bus) bomb destroyed the police station, located near the market. The explosion occurred at ten o'clock in the morning, when the market was crowded. At least three people died and seventy were injured. That same day, other attacks were reported in nearby towns. Since the attack, the police station in Toribío is heavily protected and watched over. Despite the signing of a milestone peace agreement between the government and the FARC in 2016, the Cauca region continues to have one of the highest rates of violence and killings in Colombia. Toribío, Cauca region, Colombia, August 2018.

  • Skulls of people killed by different 'actors of the conflict' (guerrilla, paramilitaries, state agents or even the Army) are kept in the laboratory at the ENAC (Escuela Nacional de Criminalística y Ciencias Forenses, National School of Criminalistic and Forensic Science) in Medellín, the capital of the region of Antioquia. Medellín, Antioquia region, Colombia, January 2017.

  • Pictures of victims laying in Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Palace of Justice holocaust. The siege of the Palace began on November 6, 1985, when guerrillas from the M-19 broke into the building and took about 300 people hostage, including the judges of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Council of State. The Army repelled the takeover by storming the Palace with tanks and rockets. In the Army’s retaking of the building, 94 people were killed —including 11 court judges—, dozens were injured and 11 were missing, mostly cafeteria employees, visitors, and Irma Franco Pineda, a lawyer and guerrilla member. On the wall of the Palace of Justice, behind the photographs, a graffiti reads ‘Resisting’. For 35 years, the relatives of the victims of the takeover of the Palace of Justice have resisted and fought for justice, truth and for the State’s responsibility in the murder and subsequent disappearance of their loved ones to be clarified. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, November 6, 2020.

  • A grave in the cemetery of Florencia, the capital of the Southern region of Caquetá in Colombia. Historically, Caquetá has been a zone dominated by illegal armed groups, and in the past fifteen years it has been a disputed zone between paramilitary groups and guerrillas, making the region one of the most violent of Colombia. Florencia, Caquetá region, Colombia, October 2014.

  • A passer-by looks at a photo exhibition hanging in the streets of Bogotá. The exhibition is about the internal armed conflict that has been bleeding the country during the last 52 years. According to a research published in 2013 by the National Centre for Historic Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH), it is estimated that between 1958 and 2012 there were over 200,000 casualties in Colombia’s armed conflict, with over 80 percent of these victims being civilians. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, January 2013.

  • A detail of 'White Squad I' by American painter Leon Golub at the Whitney Museum in New York City. 'White Squad I' is the first of seven paintings that Leon Golub created during the early 1980s in response to the activities of the Salvadoran death squads, an issue then receiving much international media attention. The massive painting —10 feet high and more than 15 feet wide— depicts five male figures in the aftermath of an execution. The figures were drawn from a media archive of “political criminals” that Golub amassed over forty years. Seeking to achieve what he called a 'barbaric realism', Golub developed a unique working process that mimicked the physical violence he depicted. Laying the canvas on the floor, the artist built up his figures with acrylic paint, then poured solvent on top and scraped away layer after layer —sometimes using a meat cleaver— until only a raw, eroded film of paint remained. Whitney Museum, New York City, March 2017.

  • The remains of a body exhumed in El Universal cemetery in Medellín, ready to be transported to a forensic laboratory in order to be identified. In 2016, Colombian authorities promoted the search for the remains of nine people who had been killed and disappeared by the Army in association with the paramilitaries during the ‘Operación Orion’ that took place in the Comuna 13 district of Medellín in 2002. The nine victims of ‘false positives’ were reported missing and, according to information, were buried in mass graves in El Universal.
    Every time a corpse is improperly identify and sheltered —as happened during decades in El Universal where hundreds of victims of extrajudicial crimes were buried in mass graves without registration, thus avoiding any chance of being found and those responsible being judged— a second disappearance and victimization is imposed. After two weeks of excavations, authorities found two of the nine bodies they were looking for. Both were buried in mass graves. They also found the remains of other 14 people registered as missing in other towns of the region. Medellín, Antioquia region, Colombia, July 2016.

  • Lawyer Jorge Franco in Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá during the protests on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Palace of Justice holocaust. The siege of the Palace began on November 6, 1985, when guerrillas from the M-19 broke into the building and took about 300 people hostage. The Army repelled the takeover by storming the Palace with tanks and rockets. In the Army’s retaking of the building, 94 people were killed —including 11 court judges—, dozens were injured and 11 were missing, mostly cafeteria employees, visitors, and Irma Franco, a lawyer and guerrilla member who participated in the M-19 siege. According to testimonies, Irma Franco left the Palace alive among rescued hostages only to be tortured, murdered and her body disappeared by the Army. Jorge Franco is wearing a T-shirt with a photo of his sister Irma and a face mask woven by members of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE). On the mask is written: '35 years of absence, 35 years of resistance'. For 35 years, the relatives of the victims of the takeover of the Palace of Justice have resisted and fought for justice, truth and for the State’s responsibility in the murder and subsequent disappearance of their loved ones to be clarified. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, November 6, 2020.

  • Remains of a body exhumed in El Universal cemetery of Medellín, Colombia. Between July and August 2016, Colombian authorities promoted the search for the remains of nine people who had been killed and disappeared by the Army in association with the paramilitaries during the ‘Operación Orion’ that took place in the Comuna 13 district of Medellín in 2002. The nine victims of ‘false positives’ were reported missing and, according to information, were buried in mass graves in El Universal.
    The size and drama of forced disappearance are compounded by the absence of adequate official processes to safeguard and identify the body of the victims. Thus, every time a corpse is improperly identify and sheltered —as happened during decades in El Universal where hundreds of victims of extrajudicial crimes were buried in mass graves without registration, thus avoiding any chance of being found and those responsible being judged— a second disappearance and victimization is imposed.
    After two weeks of excavations in El Universal, a team of forensic anthropologists, officials, and technicians found two of the nine bodies they were looking for. Both of them were buried in mass graves. They also found the remains of other 14 people registered as missing in other towns of the region. Medellín, Antioquia region, Colombia, July 2016.

  • A detail of 'Auras Anónimas' by Colombian artist Beatriz González who placed, in the 8,957 empty receptacles of an ossuary in the city center of Bogotá, a series of tombstones printed on silkscreen with images of people who loaded the bodies of the anonymous victims of violence in the country. According to the National Centre for Historic Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH), it is estimated that between 1958 and 2012 there were over 200,000 casualties in Colombia’s armed conflict, with over 80 percent of these victims being civilians. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, February 2017.

  • Pictures in María del Pilar Navarrete’s home in Bogotá. In the first photo on the left, hostages from the Palace of Justice in Bogotá are being rescued by the military. The siege of the Palace began on November 6, 1985, when guerrillas from the M-19 broke into the building and took about 300 people hostage. The Army responded by storming the Palace with tanks and rockets, leaving a balance of 94 people killed, dozens injured and 11 missing. The other photos show the exhumation in 1998 of bone remains in a mass grave in the Cementerio del Sur cemetery in Bogotá. Several bodies of victims of the Palace holocaust were found. María del Pilar is the widow of Héctor Jaime Beltrán Fuentes, a waiter at the Palace cafeteria who disappeared at the age of 28 during the siege. Jaime's remains were handed over to Pilar in 2017, just 31 years after his disappearance. Pilar keeps the photos stacked in a drawer. I put them on an armchair close to the window in order to take a photo with natural light. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, May 2020.

  • The hands of the relatives of disappeared people in Colombia and the photographs of the missing on a wall in the headquarters of Madres de La Candelaria (Mothers of La Candelaria), an organization created in Medellín in March 1999 in response to the many forced disappearances taking place in Colombia. Every Friday the mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, nieces, cousins and aunts of hundreds of Colombians who in the last decades have been disappeared by state agents, members of paramilitary and guerrilla groups, politicians, or even civilians, meet in front of Iglesia de La Candelaria in the city center of Medellín. They shout: 'They took our loved ones alive, alive we want them back', although many know that they will never see their loved ones alive again. Perhaps a few remains in a wooden box, if the Colombian government keeps the promise to restore to them what is left of what one day was taken away. Medellín, Antioquia region, Colombia, July 2016.

  • Members of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado, MOVICE) protest in front of the Prosecutor's Office bunker in Bogotá. The protest was organized because of the exponential increase in the number of murders and disappearances of social leaders, human rights activists, and former FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrillas who demobilized after the signing of a milestone peace agreement with the Colombian government in November 2016. In 2020 alone, the United Nations Office for Human Rights in Colombia has documented 66 massacres, in which 255 people were killed, in 18 regions of the country. In addition, the Office has received information about the assassination of 120 human rights defenders. Since the signing of the Peace Agreement in November 2016, the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia has also documented 244 killings of former FARC combatants. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, December 2020.

  • During 16 years, indigenous woman Doña Analigia has been searching for the bones of Roberto Antonio, her 25-year-old son, who was tortured, killed and dismembered by paramilitaries in the Toldas de Peque village in Antioquia. Doña Analigia still dreams with her son telling her: "I had a mother, I had a father, I had brothers and they weren't able to bury me, but they let me eat by the buzzards." The dress she's wearing was given to her by her son a few days before he disappeared. The disappeared and their beloved have been sentenced to inhabit a gray area, a limbo between life and death. Forced disappearance deprives families of the opportunity to perform the most human of acts: mourning. The photograph was taken in the headquarters of Madres de La Candelaria (Mothers of La Candelaria), an organization created in Medellín in 1999 in response to the many forced disappearances taking place in the country. Every Friday the members meet in the city center of Medellín to protest and drive attention to their cause. Medellín, Antioquia region, Colombia, July 2016.

  • A passer-by looks at the photograph of a missing person during a protest against forced disappearance in Bogotá. The protest was organized by the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado, MOVICE) on the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared, which is commemorated every year on August 30th. According to Colombia’s National Centre for Historic Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH), 82.998 people were forcibly disappeared in the country between 1958 and 2017, at an average rate of one disappearance every six hours over 59 years. Nine out of ten of these individuals are still missing today. Impunity is the essence of forced disappearance. There is neither a body nor a motive and, therefore, no culprit. In Colombia, forced disappearance turned into one of the most effective social control strategies. Any kind of otherness was eliminated: indigenous leaders, social activists, unionists, students from public universities, environmentalists. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, August 2017.

  • Detail of the 'Martyrs Memory Tree' sculpture by Colombian artist Teófilo Hernández. The statue is located in the gardens of the National Centre for Historical Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH) in the city center of Bogotá. The CNMH is in charge of contributing to the State's duty of memory regarding the violations committed during the Colombian armed conflict. Also, it helps on the comprehensive reparation and the right to the truth to which the victims and the entire society are entitled. According to the CNMH, it is estimated that between 1958 and 2012 there were over 200,000 casualties in Colombia’s armed conflict, with over 80 percent of these victims being civilians. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, August 2015.

  • Elizabeth López Suspes niece of David Suspes Celis—a chef at the cafeteria of the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, disappeared during the siege on November 6, 1985—leaves the San Gerardo Mayela Parish in Bogotá after a mass given in memory of the disappeared of the Palace. Elizabeth carries a chair with, on it, a photo of Julio César Andrade, auxiliary magistrate of the Supreme Court, also disappeared during the massacre. In 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned Colombia for the disappeared of the Palace. For the Court: "There was a modus operandi tending to the forced disappearance of persons considered to be participating in the taking of the Palace of Justice or collaborating with the M-19. The suspects were separated from the other hostages, taken to military institutions, in some cases tortured, and their subsequent whereabouts were unknown.” Thirty-five years later, Elizabeth’s family still have no idea of what happened to David and what the Army did with his body. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, November 7, 2020.

  • The names of dead people scratched on a wall in the Cementerio del Sur cemetery in Bogotá. During decades, this cemetery received the remains of many victims of extrajudicial crimes buried in anonymous mass graves, thus avoiding any chance of being found and those responsible being judged. A way to impose a second disappearance and victimization. In 1985, the Institute of Legal Medicine buried 36 bodies in a mass grave in this cemetery, by order of a Military Criminal judge. Among the buried there were several victims of the holocaust of the Palace of Justice. It wasn’t until 1998, 13 years after the siege of the Palace, that the remains began to be examined. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, August 2017.

  • The mountain of the Catholic sanctuary of Monserrate that dominates and, according to many, protects Bogotá, covered by clouds. According to Colombia’s National Centre for Historic Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH), 82.998 people were forcibly disappeared in the country between 1958 and 2017, at an average rate of one disappearance every six hours over 59 years. Nine out of ten of these individuals are still missing today. Impunity is the essence of forced disappearance. There is neither a body nor a motive and, therefore, no culprit. Most of the disappeared have been killed and thrown into anonymous mass graves, rivers, mangroves, sugar mills, and crematorium ovens. Even the digestive systems of animals have served as the final destination for many of the missing. Forensic anthropologist John Fredy Ramirez Santana, who has performed hundreds of exhumations in different regions of the country, describes Colombia as a 'huge, anonymous mass grave'. Bogotá, Capital District, Colombia, April 2014.


Newsletter