World Press Photo 2022

South America - Honorable Mention

 Around 100,000 people have been forcibly disappeared in Colombia over the past 60 years, according to figures released by the Colombian Attorney-General. Most of them are still missing today. The perpetrators of these forced disappearances come from all armed agents involved in Colombia’s internal conflict. The spectrum of armed actors includes guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group in the country until the signature of a peace agreement in 2016; state security forces; paramilitary groups; and illegal groups involved in illicit trade, along with other criminal groups, who use it as a method of silencing opposition. In most documented cases, it is not clear who the alleged perpetrator was, or why a person disappeared. According to the Colombian National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH), most of those forcibly disappeared during the years of internal conflict were civilians caught up in the fighting. Forced disappearance has also become a strategy of social control. Targets are frequently human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses, social leaders, members of opposition political parties, protesters, and legal counsel dealing with cases of forced disappearances. Most of the disappeared are thought to end up in anonymous graves, but bodies have also been disposed of in rivers, or in the ovens of crematoria or sugar mills.

This nine-year project is a visual tribute to absence. It documents the lives of families hoping for their loved ones to return, and work carried out under “Plan Cementerio” – a national programme to exhume and identify remains of the thousands of disappeared who remain in unregistered graves during the years of armed conflict, and to return their remains to their relatives. After years of photographing and investigating the crime of forced disappearance in Colombia, the photographer feels that Colombia’s post-conflict stage cannot prosper without uncovering what happened to the thousands of people who are still missing, and proving accountability.  

The police station in Toribio, a small village in the Colombian region of Cauca, standing fortified against attack. Despite the peace agreement between the government and FARC in November 2016, the Cauca region continues to have one of the highest rates of violence and killings in Colombia. The police station in Toribio has been heavily guarded and protected since a bomb attack in July 2011, which killed at least three people and injured upwards of 70. Title: A Portrait of Absence © Viviana Peretti
The remains of a body exhumed during a search for victims of Operacion Orion lying laid out in the Jardin Cementerio Universal, in Medellín, Colombia. Operacion Orion was an action by security forces against Medellin urban guerillas in 2002. Human rights and civil society organisations claim it to have been a joint operation between state forces and paramilitaries, or at least that there was cooperation with paramilitaries to some extent. The bodies of a number of people killed in the operation were buried, unregistered, in mass graves in the cemetery. After two weeks of excavations, a team of forensics found two of the nine bodies they were looking for. Title: A Portrait of Absence © Viviana Peretti
Handprints of relatives of disappeared people and photographs of the missing adorn a wall of the headquarters of the Madres de la Candelaria, an organisation created in Medellin, Colombia, in March 1999, in response to the many forced disappearances taking place in the country. Every Friday, female relatives of the disappeared gather to commemorate them and protest their disappearances. Title: A Portrait of Absence © Viviana Peretti

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