Investigative journalists use digital tools to map massacres from the armed conflicts in Colombia

This story is part of a series on Innovative Journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.(*)

Early in the morning of May 6, 1996, Gustavo Díaz, a merchant in the port of Turbo, in Urabá, Colombia, lost everything. His wife and two of his daughters were murdered and burned along with his grocery store at the hands of guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in one of more than 2,000 massacres that have occurred in that country since 1982.

Díaz fled the town for fear of losing his three surviving children. He was so devastated by the tragedy that he never knew the location of the remains of his murdered wife and daughters.

In official documents, data of massacre victims like the ones of Urabá are incomplete or not objective, partly because the information comes mostly from the version that authorities obtained from the perpetrators.

That void of information led Colombian journalist and systems engineer Óscar Parra to create the initiative Yo Sobreviví (I survived), which is part of his online platform for investigation and data collection, Rutas del Conflicto (Conflict Routes), created in collaboration with Universidad del Rosario, in Bogotá, where Parra is a faculty member.

Yo Sobreviví seeks to compile stories of survivors or relatives of massacre victims to match their information with official and journalistic data, in order to generate a more complete database.

“Yo Sobreviví is an exercise that seeks to start from data and then involves people in the communities to verify that data and provide new information. We wanted to try to involve the population to help us build the story from the perspective of the people who were there. We have collected about 70 testimonies and they’ve also helped us to verify incorrect information about names or numbers of victims, etcetera,” Parra told the Knight Center.

Rutas del Conflicto was born in 2014 due to the lack of organized databases of the Colombian government that documented the information of massacres and victims, and as a response to the complicated process of accessing information in that country.

Verdad Abierta, a site that documents the armed conflict in Colombia, was given the task of collecting data from the National Center of Historical Memory of Colombia and newspaper reports on the massacres. Then, they loaded them into interactive tools so that consumption was easier.

Rutas del Conflicto developed maps that show precisely the sites of massacres, timelines with the chronology of violent events and filters to locate the information by year, region or responsible armed group.

The team works with free data management tools such as Google Fusion Tables, as well as with data mapping platforms like Carto. For information organization, they use systems like PHP and SQL.

But checking the accuracy of the information was another task.

“The official information may be a long way from reality. Most of the victims or their relatives are more than 40-years-old and live in poor and isolated areas, do not have contact with the internet, so there is no way to compare that information, so there is only the ‘official truth,’” Parra said.

At the beginning, the project launched an application for mobile devices which gave access to interactive tools and allowed members of communities to provide information or stories about the killings.

“However, we realized that the app was not a vehicle to reach the victims. Most of the users of the application are victim organizations - almost always in cities -, academics, prosecutors, judges, that is our other large public, the Colombian judicial apparatus. Although I think they should be our sources and not the other way around,” Parra said.

Being mostly a university project, Rutas del Conflicto has faced financial challenges, as it relies mainly on scholarships from Universidad del Rosario and on funds managed by the National Center of Historic Memory, and even on contributions from Parra’s own salary.

“Like any independent journalism project, funding is not easy. But that is not a new thing, one has to be very creative to access resources. The project already has some relevance at the local level, and with that certain prestige, we could go out and find more money to cover the expenses. We have several things planned for crowdfunding and the University will continue to finance part of the project,” Parra explained.

In addition to Parra, the Rutas del Conflicto team is composed of eight journalism students and one Brazilian journalist. Its technical team consists of only three computers and audio and video devices provided by Universidad del Rosario.

For the process of fact checking, Rutas del Conflicto has an alliance with ColombiaCheck, a site of the journalists’ association of Consejo de Redacción that specializes in fact-checking.

As an online journalism project where timeliness is imperative, another major challenge of Rutas del Conflicto has been the time it takes to compile, analyze, organize and process the large amount of data it uses.

“In Colombia, there is no work culture for data journalism. Exploring new ways of doing journalism takes time. When information is scarce, it takes a huge amount of time, and meanwhile you cannot leave the site inactive,” he explained.

The content produced by Rutas del Conflicto has important impact in social networks, especially at this time, one year before presidential elections in Colombia in 2018, when all journalistic content about violence in the country is likely to be politicized.

“The information that has to do with the armed conflict is becoming part of the coming presidential campaign. When we put information on social networks, people give it a political bias that is very difficult to manage. They troll us, call us ‘guerrillas’, or they accuse us of being against the peace process. Much of our traffic comes from Twitter and Facebook, so we try to show the information without falling into the game. At the base level, what we want is to remind victims and for people to understand the dynamics of the conflict,” Parra said.

In spite of the challenges, the creators of Rutas del Conflicto are certain that their objective of documenting public information that is useful for the communities affected is being fulfilled, and also, that in the process, academics and researchers use them as a source of information.

“People have been able to demand their rights due to the fact that they are victims. We get mail in which they ask us for information that we have because they need to prove that they are victims of a massacre. Somehow this has a pedagogical use, but it clearly is information for any citizen to understand the context in which the conflict developed in Colombia with data that have been corroborated and reinforced by the same witnesses and victims,” Parra concluded.

(*) This story is part of a special project by the Knight Center that is made possible thanks to generous support from Open Society Foundations. The "Innovative Journalism" series covers digital news media trends and best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Other stories in the series include:

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.