top of page

Remains in Conflict: Cultural and Religious Approaches to the Treatment of the Dead in Colombia

Mayra Nuñez Pastor*


In the aftermath of war, mechanisms designed to search missing people consider different factors when adopting a search plan, such as characteristics of the location, which armed actor/s had territorial control, among others. Apart from those factors, I consider there are many other factors, such as social, cultural and religious practices within armed actors and local communities, that should be taken into account so that search mechanisms are more effective and precise. I analyse some of these aspects in a recent article published by the International Review of the Red Cross, called “Behind the legal curtain: social, cultural and religious practices and their impact on missing persons and the dead in Colombia”. Here, the argument states that although there are legal norms concerning the treatment of bodies during and after the hostilities, there are many factors beyond cost-benefits analysis that explain the behaviour of armed groups and local communities towards those deceased. This blog post is based on the analysis and arguments made there.

Approaches to the treatment of victims’ remains in Colombia

With these considerations in mind, I analyze as case study the armed conflict in Colombia, analysing how guerrilla groups and local communities deal with victims’ remains. In the case of the guerrilla, the armed actors studied are the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP). These aspects are relevant as both the attitude of the parties involved in the conflict and of the civilian population have a major impact on the fate of the victims' remains. In the case of the guerrillas, through the analysis of their statutes, speeches, journals and press releases, the article seeks to identify other sources apart from legal obligations or cost-benefits rationale to understand their approach to their treatment of the dead. Regarding local communities, many of their cultural, social and religious practices are crucial to understand how different societies treat the bodies of people who died in the conflict.


Apart from legal approaches, especially from international humanitarian law, other disciplines are essential to shed light on key aspects that can bring about valuable information for search mechanisms, such as forensic anthropology and sociology.

These analyses have a profound impact on search mechanisms because they allow for greater precision in search operations for missing persons, as they offer useful insights into the relationship of different social groups to the dead. For instance, it is important to emphasize how the christian influence in the National Liberation Army played a key role regarding the importance given by this group to the proper burial of the dead in certain circumstances and an even greater resistance to the instrumentalization of bodies. Addressing these factors unveils logics regarding the role of corporality in armed conflicts and the significance of bodies. Thus, the body can be understood as a territory of war.

In this context, the work of forensic anthropology experts plays an essential role, as they revealed recurrent practices of armed actors concerning the victims’ bodies that serve to distinguish different armed groups. Thus, characteristics such as social and religious motivations, cultural practices, the construction of bonds between members of the group and even between the guerrilla and local society had a strong impact on the treatment of the dead. For instance, the recovery of the bodies of comrades fallen in battle was more relevant in some groups than in others. Memory, rooted in the corporality of comrades, is more present in the cosmovision of certain armed groups. Consequently, burial practices differ according to these beliefs and values.

Moreover, the practice of armed groups has been a fundamental element in the development of community practices concerning victims’ remains, as many communities faced situations where unidentified bodies were found in their territories.

The case of the cemetery of the local community of Puerto Berrío

On this point, the case of the community of Puerto Berrío sheds light on the different ways in which bodies are constantly re-signified during the armed conflict. On the one hand, there is a process of dehumanization imposed by an armed actor on bodies that have been brutalized and disposed of in rivers. On the other hand, the discovery of unidentified human remains on the river shores of the territory of some local communities led to the ‘adoption’ of these bodies by members of the communities. The inhabitants gave them new identities and buried them according to their traditions. Sometimes these new identities replace the identity of members of the community that are missing. This last resignification, the transformation of the identity of an unknown deceased person to serve as a coping mechanism for people who are also waiting for their missing relatives to come back, reveals a significant effect of the conflict: the body as territory and the body as meaning.

This situation is relevant to the operations carried out by the Missing Persons Search Unit (Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas Dadas por Desaparecidas, UBPD). This organisms is part of the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition in Colombia, included in section 5 of the ‘Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Lasting and Sustainable Peace’, signed between the government and the FARC-EP in 2016. The System comprises a set of judicial and non judicial organisms to guarantee the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition. Among these mechanisms are the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition and the UBDP.

The cultural and religious practices carried out in Puerto Berrío represent an obstacle for the search operations of the UBDP, as the renaming of unidentified bodies interferes with search operations. Thus, the different treatments on bodies developed by different actors during and after the conflict calls for studies that can account for these cultural and social effects when designing search mechanisms for missing persons.

The case of indigenous communities: the Wayuu

There are also specific impacts on certain communities concerning the treatment of bodies. In the case of some indigenous communities, such as the Wayuu, there is a double impact. On the one hand, not being able to bury members of their community in accordance with their ancestral traditions operates as a rupture in the cycle of that person’s existence. In the normal course of Wayuu life, the presence of a person continues after his or her physical death. This process is interrupted when people suffer a violent death. Those who cannot be buried according to traditional rites, face a ‘bad death’, i.e. an incomplete process where the victim cannot follow the same path taken by his or her family and community.

On the other hand, some communities have also identified that the burial (in individual or mass graves) of victims who are not members of their community, disrupts the spiritual bond they have with their land. Those people who remain buried there without being identified or buried by their families negatively affect the relationship that indigenous communities have with their territories. As can be observed, the treatment of bodies has multiple causes, but also multiple effects on different communities.

Policies to find missing people in the context of the internal armed conflict: looking at the future

Since the signing of the ‘Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Lasting and Sustainable Peace’ in 2016, different policies have been developed in order to find people missing in the context of the internal armed conflict. In fact, the creation of the UBPD was prior to the Peace Agreement, through Joint Communication #62 between the National Government and the FARC-EP in 2015.

So far, demobilized members of the FARC-EP have provided information that led to the identification of remains of 276 missing persons. At the same time, the UBPD works in collaboration with the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which has ordered several measures for the safeguarding of places that are potential illegal burial sites of persons reported missing.

In this way, the work of the UBPD takes place in close collaboration with different actors, namely demobilized persons from armed groups and other organisms from the Colombian Integrated System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition. Furthermore, the work of forensic anthropologists, as well as sociological approaches, allows it to account for factors that are key to establishing search operations in the field. The articulation of all these elements is the basis for establishing searching policies that are contemplative of experiences and practices that often exceed legal frameworks in transitional contexts.


The diverse approaches adopted by the different actors in the armed conflict to the dead have revealed the centrality of socio-cultural and religious factors when determining policies to search missing persons. Civilian population and armed groups have had different reactions to mortality and the significance of corporality. The analysis of these responses and their causes is key to better understand the fate of thousands of missing persons and to improve search operations.

* Mayra Nuñez Pastor is a lawyer with a focus on public international law (University of Buenos Aires). She holds a Master of Advanced Studies (MAS) in Transitional Justice, Human Rights and the Rule of Law from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. She collaborated with different organizations such as the Center for Justice and International Law and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. She is currently a doctoral researcher at the University of Deusto and Ghent University. Her research area is transitional justice, focused on reparations and economic, social and cultural rights.

The Human Rights in Context Blog is a platform which provides an academic space for discussion for those interested in human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. We are always interested in well-written and thoughtful comment and analysis on topical events or developments. Scholars from all disciplines, students, researchers, international and national civil servants, legislators and politicians, legal practitioners and judges are welcome to participate in the discussions. We warmly invite those interested in writing a post to send us an e-mail explaining briefly the relevance of the topic and your background as an expert. We will get back to you as quickly as we can. All contributors post in their individual capacity, and their opinions do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Rights in Context, or any organisation with which the author is affiliated.


bottom of page