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Using Cemetery Information to Search for the Disappeared Lessons from a Pilot Study in Rionegro, Antioquia, Colombia

Between May and July 2009, researchers from the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) conducted a pilot study to examine patterns of information about unidentified bodies at a cemetery in Rionegro, a town located Antioquia, Colombia. The study was carried out to support ongoing efforts by HRDAG’s partner organization EQUITAS (Colombian Interdisciplinary Team for Forensic Work and Psychosocial Assistance) to identify bodies of unknown persons in the Rionegro cemetery. EQUITAS has found that cemeteries in Colombia have become a common resting place for victims of conflict-related disappearances and a method for perpetrators to legally dispose of unidentified victims.


Well maintained sepulchres at a cemetery in Rionnegro, Colombia that receives “”NN” (no name) or unidentified bodies.

In May 2010, EQUITAS published an article about HRDAG’s pilot study at the Rionegro cemetery which summarizes the methodologies and results of this investigation. The article is included in a publication entitled, “Methodological Proposals for Documenting and Searching for Missing Persons in Colombia.” The article, located on page 19 of the English version of the publication, is entitled, “Using Cemetery Information in the Search for the Disappeared: Lessons from a Pilot Study in Rionegro, Antioquia. The article is located on page 31 in the Spanish version of the publication.

  • Download “Methodological Proposals for Documenting and Searching for Missing Persons in Colombia” (English) (Español)

The HRDAG pilot study has two purposes. First the researchers sought to explore the hypothesis that unidentified bodies in the cemetery might correspond to the remains of missing persons by matching the time and circumstances of the deaths. The second goal of the study is to test whether this method of gathering “found data” in cemetery records could be useful in searching for disappeared people in Rionegro – and determine if this same approach could be scaled to search for missing people in other places.

Cemeteries gather a wealth of indirect information or “found data” that can help in the process of accounting for deaths and disappearances. Administrative records on bodies often include names, dates and sometimes the cause of death. Gravestones contain information about the deceased and gravediggers keep accounts of their work listing the corpses recently arrived, interred and those that are moved from one tomb to another.

The analysis conducted by HRDAG compared data from records of deaths collected by the local church parish, a gravedigger’s notebook and a census of gravestones erected between 1876 and 2009. While the census counts both identified and unidentified graves and cadavers, it does not account for bodies in the cemetery’s mass graves. By comparing all available sources of information, the researchers were able to better understand the patterns and magnitude of the unidentified bodies.


The sepulchre of the most recent “NN” (no name) or unidentified body received by the cemetery in Rionegro, Colombia in May, 2009.

The authors of the HRDAG pilot study determined that the patterns of unidentified bodies at the Rionegro cemetery are different from that of identified deaths. The researchers noted a disproportionate concentration of unidentified bodies in 2003 and concluded that these deaths were not random events during a period when the overall death rate was high. Instead, the unknown people who were buried in 2003 died when the rate of identified deaths were at their lowest point in 30 years. In April 2003, unidentified deaths accounted for 67% of all dead buried in the cemetery


A lone sepulchre at a cemetery in Rionegro, Colombia.

The authors observe that the number of unidentified bodies brought to the Rionegro cemetery in 2003 were not consistent with the number one would expect to see in a society without armed conflict. The comparison of the data in this study indicates that some 462 unidentified bodies have at some point been buried at Rionegro.


The smaller of the two cemeteries in Rionegro, Colombia that receives unidentified bodies.

The Colombian army conducted extensive military operations in this region of Antioquia in 2003. The Colombian Prosecutor General’s Office has recorded more than 7,000 disappeared people in Antioquia since 1990 and each day, ten new cases from previous years are reported to that office. Due to the high number of unidentified bodies brought to the Rionegro cemetery in 2003, families in eastern Antioquia searching for relatives who disappeared that year may be more successful in locating their loved ones in this cemetery than families searching for those who went missing in other years.


Registry of burials in Ríonegro, Colombia including unidentified bodies. The third line says “NN,” which means no name. The registry includes date, name, location in the cemetery, and autopsy number of the bodies.

Data from Rionegro could also be combined and analyzed with additional data such as official deaths and homicide records, population data, registries from other cemeteries in region etc. This would help corroborate or invalidate qualitative hypotheses such as whether unidentified bodies from other regions were buried in municipal cemeteries, which actors may be likely perpetrators and other questions that may help clarify the historical record.

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