Colombia is shamed by child killings

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The Independent Online
WAS IT a grisly satanic sect, a perverted serial killer or a group of policemen engaged in the "social cleansing" of glue-sniffing street children?

Colombian prosecutors are considering all three possibilities after finding at least 25 skeletons, most of them young boys and some decapitated, in the western state of Risaralda, about 110 miles from the country's capital, Bogota.

Thirteen of the bodies were found on Tuesday in a wooded area of the small town of Marsella, just outside Pereira, the capital of the state of Risaralda. Colombia's forensic science squad believes these children had been killed in the past two months, judging by the condition of the remains.

Two of the bodies were bound to tree trunks and bottles of local aguardiente schnapps were scattered near by, often part of a human sacrifice ritual among devil worshippers.

Five more bodies were found in a dry riverbed about 500 yards away on Wednesday, including two adults. They were discovered after workers repairing electric lines came across what they first thought were the bones of animals.

Last week, in another grisly find, 13 bodies were uncovered in a ravine in Pereira. They were found after a child reported finding a human skull. Those bodies were thought to be about a year old.

"It's a terrifying thing," the mayor of Pereira, Luis Alberto Duque, told Colombian radio. "The main concern is that we do not know what it is about."

Scores of people, many from Pereira's poorer neighbourhoods, have turned out to identify the bodies. At least 40 children are reported to have gone missing recently.

Satanic sects are said to have grown among the coffee-picking families of Risaralda in recent years. Local authorities have long feared that cult members may be grabbing street children, known as gamines, who live among the sewers of Bogota, and bringing them to Pereira to be used as human sacrifices.

"It's a city where satanism is widely practised and there's a lot of talk that children are used in rituals," Luis Fernando Henao, a city official in Pereira, said.

But prosecutors insist there was no evidence to link the various groups of corpses and doubt the latest five bodies were victims of devil worshippers. In this coffee-growing region the local farmers are all well armed and vicious family feuds are common.

The finger of suspicion is pointing also at the police. Unscrupulous officers and vigilante groups have been known to kill groups of children in the past. This ugly process of carrying out summary executions of homeless people, drug users and prostitutes has been called "social cleansing".

"The most likely explanation [for the killings] is `social cleansing','' said Robin Kirk, a Colombia expert from Human Rights Watch. "Pereira has a long history of this."

According to Human Rights Watch, the perpetrators of the killings are sometimes in league with local business leaders who lend them vehicles or participate directly.

"The whole phenomenon started directly in the early Eighties when the country began to feel the effects of drug-related violence," Mr Kirk said. He believes the killings began in Pereira, a city with a population of 700,000, because the decay was particularly noticeable there. "It is an attempt to get rid of the evidence of social breakdown, and that is often the children."

Colombia's left-wing guerrillas are also responsible for killings, but exclusively target adults and often announce the reason for the murders.

Colombia's level of violence is unmatched in the Western hemisphere. Last year alone there were almost 32,000 murders in a country of less than 40 million. Six thousand of those are related to the country's 40- year civil war. Police estimate that there are currently 87 killings a day.

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