Could the construction of a huge new dam bury forever the hope that people disappeared in Colombia’s long conflict may one day be found?

A hydroelectric mega-project in central Colombia is the subject of a potential investigation by Colombia’s war crimes tribunal. Investigators have opened an inquiry into the location of mass graves and human remains from forced disappearances which may be buried at the property of the Hidroituango Dam, which relies on significant foreign investment. The investigation could implicate both local politicians and Public Companies of Medellin (Empresas Públicas de Medellín, EPM), the company responsible for the project.

Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the court created under the terms of the 2016 peace agreement and tasked with transitional justice relating to the country’s armed conflict, has requested all documents surrounding the dam project’s research into burial sites for victims of forced disappearances amid suspicions that the dam may damage or erase evidence of mass graves in the Cauca River Canyon.

This is the latest scandal to hit the mega-project which last month faced heavy criticism for the decision to close its dam gates, consequently diverting and temporarily drying the Cauca river, the second largest river in Colombia. The decision, which caused the deaths of more than 85,000 fish, sparked concern among environmental agencies. Although the river has now returned to previous levels, there are questions about the long-term impacts and the river’s capacity to recover its natural conditions.

Beyond environmental concerns, there are serious concerns that the dam’s construction could destroy crucial evidence of human rights violations and forced disappearances which occurred over the past three decades, and with it the opportunity for victims’ families to learn the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

EPM has contracted the services of two consultant organisations to explore the possibility of human remains located on its property: a Spanish company, Falcon High Tech, and Socya, a Colombian organisation. The court has asked EPM, the Governor of Antioquia and Socya to turn over their findings. This follows scathing criticism that their previous studies were a purely technical exercise which checked for bone matter in potential sites, rather than a comprehensive study with human rights and forensics experts. Further, they argue there was no adequate consultation of communities or victims’ families about potential burial sites.

The JEP’s decision to investigate was preceded by a 2018 petition presented by MOVICE, a national movement of victims of the conflict, that the dam not be filled until guarantees can be provided that human remains will not be buried. The area surrounding the dam was heavily affected by the conflict. The ‘El Aro massacre’ of 1997, in which paramilitaries murdered at least 15 people, has remained relatively well-known due to investigations around the alleged involvement of the former governor of Antioquia, subsequently the president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010, Álvaro Uribe.

This was, however, only one of many human rights violations in the area: a recent study by Astrid Torres Ramírez recounts data of forced displacement, massacres and other extrajudicial killings. The data, gathered from the Centre for Historical Memory and CINEP, a Colombian research institution specialising in issues surrounding the conflict, covers the period from 1996 to 2016 and presents 256 cases representing 607 victims and 116,000 people displaced. The sheer scale of violence in the region, combined with testimony from demobilised paramilitaries, has bolstered a belief that the Cauca River Canyon area may contain several mass graves.

As such, the JEP has directed that an international expert should conduct a review of the area to complement the studies carried out by EPM’s consultants, prior to re-filling the dam. Additionally, judges have requested the results from all exhumations carried out in the canyon so far.

The Governor of Antioquía, Luis Pérez, has responded that the JEP does not have the authority to stop the dam’s operation. As the JEP’s jurisdiction does not include third-party involvement in the armed conflict, other state authorities are obliged to investigate, which could implicate both EPM and the politicians who approved the project’s implementation.

This will add to mounting international pressure on the project for transparency around mass graves in the area and may encourage a withdrawal of support from international funders: the German state-owned development bank KfW and Canadian pension fund Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec have both made significant investments.

In April 2018, following the exhumation of 159 bodies from the canyon, the European Parliament issued a letter to the Colombian Government requesting that water-activities be halted until further investigations could be carried out. The dam was filled in May of the same year following issues which led to the evacuation of 25,000 nearby residents.

It remains to be seen whether the Hidroituango project and the Governor of Antioquia will comply with the JEP’s recommendations. The war crime tribunal has had a tumultuous year, with campaigns led by ex-president Álvaro Uribe to discredit the entity as a bastion for perpetrators of violence rather than victims. Current president Ivan Duque, who was elected with Uribe’s backing, has levelled a series of objections to a bill which establishes the JEP’s statutory powers.

Nevertheless, the tribunal has received both national and international support, particularly from the United Nations as a key actor in the implementation of the peace process. Most recently, a sub-commission of Congress voted to reject Duque’s objections and sign the statutory powers into law. The proposal will be brought to the house floor next week, where the objections are slated to be rejected, in which case Duque has vowed to sign the bill into law as it is.