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Mass grave or massive propaganda?

BOGOTA, Colombia — It was said to be the largest mass grave in Latin America containing 2,000 bodies.

The shocking news led to a Congressional hearing and visits from international human rights activists who toured the southern town of La Macarena where the dead — victims of the war between the Colombian army and Marxist guerrillas — were supposedly buried.

Sen. Piedad Cordoba, of the opposition Liberal Party, denounced “a massive massacre” and blamed the Colombian military. Adding to the confusion was the government’s Inspector General who in January published a thinly documented report alluding to a mass grave in La Macarena.

The truth, it seems, is a little more complicated — and a lot less sensational.

Yes, a whole bunch of people were buried in La Macarena — 464 to be exact. But the dead were entered in individual plots in the town cemetery. According to defense ministry officials, they were among the 1,400 guerrillas killed in action during a long-running military offensive. The bodies, they claim, were brought to the cemetery for proper burials.

After one battle, the army turned over 18 cadavers, Jesus Hernandez, the cemetery’s gravedigger, told Bogota's El Tiempo newspaper. But he denied reports of mass graves. “There are fewer than 2,000 bodies in this entire cemetery which is more than 50 years old,” Hernandez said.

For a variety of reasons, however, it’s been easy to swallow the rumors.

Since 2002, the army has been engaged in pitched battles in and around La Macarena, an area that had long been dominated by the rebels. During the fiercest fighting, there were no judicial police on hand to inspect the casualties and verify cause of death.

In addition, the military has often been guilty of egregious behavior.

For example, scores of army soldiers have been accused of killing hundreds of innocent civilians and dressing them up as guerrillas in order to impress their superiors and receive bonuses. These cases became known as “false positives” and some believe the graveyard in La Macarena may hold more dirty secrets.

Forensic experts are now trying to identify the remains and there may have been some instances of foul play. But government critics may be jumping to conclusions.

If soldiers in the region were maliciously killing noncombatants it seems more likely they would have hid them in clandestine jungle graves rather than turn them over to the town cemetery for individual burials.

Alluding to the site where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered by Serbian gunmen during the Balkans war in the 1990s, the Colombian newsmagazine Semana declared: “La Macarena is not Srebrenica.”