The Other, Barbaric Colombia

Source:  Verdad Abierta

The Justice and Peace process (1) has revealed the worst atrocities committed by paramilitaries in recent years. They are a gallery of a cruelty of which society hasn’t been able to recover yet.

The Justice and Peace process uncovered the most brutal part of this nation’s ingenuity. Practices of extreme violence that were implemented by paramilitaries in the country are a spit on the conscience of mankind, and although they have been widely published during ten years of truth revelation, they still remain unnoticed by ordinary people.


The outrage is almost nil, regarding a repertoire of atrocities that would even frighten the inhabitants of prehistoric caves. There is, for example, a video found by a researcher of the CTI (2) on a cell phone lost by some paramilitary. I saw it a few years ago and I would not like to do it ever again: two young Colombians, both with marked regional accents. One of them holds an old machete in his right hand and is standing before the victim, a boy who is naked, squatting, subdued, his left forearm is already cut off, and blood is running down his face, coming from his shaved head. The video takes less than 30 seconds and consists of the dialogue between the barbarian and the victim, with only a rock next to them in a steep terrain:

Hey, excuse me, could you give me permission to run? – prays the victim.

Put it there, put your skinny bone here … – replies the criminal, pointing at the stone with his gun.

– ... To run over there … to pass the pain …

Put it there, put it there, bastard! Or I’ll blow your head up… the criminal eagerly orders.

The victim seems to think the situation over and he obeys, tending his right forearm on the rock. The machete is raised and comes down accurately. We hear the brutal clinnnk sound of the blade against the rock. The crying. And that’s it.

When I first saw this document, in 2008, to several officials for Justice and Peace, it was not a special thing. “There are a lot of them” said the researcher, to whom this was just one more piece, and anonymous; that’s why he had not started a formal investigation. In a grimm sense, the researcher was right, “there are a lot of them”, and the country has been discovering this intensively during the last decade of uncovering paramilitary barbarism.

The so-called Schools of Death are the worst and best example. Where simple systematic murders would be considered monotonous, in these places, people were murdered slowly, in order to learn to kill with no compunction. In the trial against Luis Eduardo Zuluaga, alias ‘MacGyver’, one of the commanders of the Selfdefenses of Magdalena Medio, there is this testimony of Rubén Arango, who was 17 when he was recruited and taken to one of these schools in the region of La Danta in Sonsón, Antioquia. The young man explained that during their training period, he and his colleagues were forced “to eat sardines with salt and water, eat soup and lemonade from containers (sic) in which they had introduced limbs and parts (heads) of animals, like dogs. When we were taken to the jungle, they ordered that we shouldn’t let the instructors capture us, but if someone was caught, they would tie him up to the trees and throw anthills at him, or they would throw him into a fish farm with his hands tied up, so that he would drown.”

The School of Death installed in Puerto Torres, Caquetá, is perhaps the best documented case. There, the Southern Front of  Andaquíes of the Block “Central Bolivar” took the rural school and installed an unparalleled theater of horror. It consisted of three sections, where an unknown number of victims witnessed the death of others while they were waiting for their own. The first section was known as the mango tree, situated in the schoolyard and where people were tied and hung for hours or days, without water or food and with temperatures between 30 and 35 degrees. The victims were targeted by apprentices training:  knives were thrown at them, their teeth were extracted with pliers, their faces and their genitals were burned with insecticide spray, cans were put on their head and were then fired at to improve their marksmanship. The second instance was the rectory, used as a dungeon of torture and where they took the victims who were still alive, to continue with more martyrs in order to obtain information. In this place they used to fire nonlethal shots at them and with open, infected wounds, the people would die after which their dying bodies would decompose. Then there was the cement structure, also in the courtyard of the former school. Suffice to say that on the cement structure there was a butcher’s table with instruments, all of which could be observed by those who were hanging in the mango tree.


Forensic anthropologist Helka Alejandra Quevedo, member of the National Center of Historical Memory, participated in the rescue of 36 bodies found in graves in this school, and she is the one who has most been investigating and documenting what happened. Her report ‘Body Texts of Cruelty’ collects the findings, the stories of the victims and the confessions of the instructors. The report explains that with the atrocities committed in this school of death, a “double pedagogy” was taught: internally, it was a training so that paramilitaries could learn how to inflict pain to the “enemy” without being disturbed, and so that they could learn to disintegrate the bodies quickly in order to disappear them easily in the graves; and externally, it caused terror among the people, produced by spreading the rumor and by the disappearances, which meant control over their territory.

Even more astonishing is the response of the anthropologist if you ask her for an explanation of how they arrived at such levels of cruelty: “We found that the perpetrators were not monsters, but ordinary people, placed in certain conditions. Conditions such as belonging to a group that trivializes evil, that has weapons, that acts massively and the absence of the State”, she says.

Some believe that the trivialization of evil is somehow spread beyond the perpetrators, in society in general. The fact that the Justice and Peace Unit of the Attorney’s Office registered, until August, 6.420 exhumed bodies from 5,025 graves throughout the country, seems a temporary fact. Many of the bodies were dismembered as the graves are usually a small hole of some 80 cm, and the bodies are disintegrated for practical purposes: depositing it underground involves less craving effort, because the body will disappear sooner, because the decomposition process is accelerated, more so if you cut the abdomen lengthwise, which facilitates their sinking when they are thrown into the water. “If you would remove the water from the Magdalena river, you’d find the country’s largest cemetery,” said the paramilitary commander Ever Velosa, alias ‘HH’, before being extradited to the United States. What the Justice and Peace process makes us think, is that the statement should correspond to reality, yet this does not seem to bother many.

“Justice and Peace has left a lot of truth which fell upon us like a waterfall, we were overflown by a macro-criminality of impressive dimensions and I don’t know to what point the Colombian people have assimilated it”, wonders María Victoria Uribe, one of the most respected voices in the study of Colombian violence. “We are absolutely indolent people, she adds, a society that if it doesn’t happen to us in our own flesh and blood, we don’t care. While nobody messes with me and they don’t kill my son, I do not care about what happens to the neighbor. “There is a big difference between trials of transitional justice in South Africa, where common people were interested in knowing the stories of the war, and the courtrooms of Justice and Peace in Colombia, usually empty, with barely a handful of interested people”.

In November 2014, the Court of Justice and Peace sentenced Salvatore Mancuso and other paramilitary leaders who confessed, among hundreds of other crimes, one of the worst practices ever recorded in the long history of Colombian violence: the so-called crematorium ovens, 30 minutes away from Cúcuta. It is estimated that at least 560 people were burned there.

According to paramilitary leader Jorge Ivan Laverde, alias ‘the Iguano’, “the idea came up out of concern that the Attorney’s Office would find a large grave saturated with corpses. Israel Soto alias” Yagua” explained me the possibility of incinerating these people because it was an easier way. I ordered them to take out the bodies, and build a kind of oven made of bricks where they could concentrate and burn most of these bodies, but the villagers realized what was going on because of the smell and started to leave the region”, he said. The Attorney’s Office documented four of such ovens, which were fed with car tires and other combustible materials, and where hundreds of victims were taken, whose ashes were then washed to remove any trace.


Since 2008, when ‘the Iguano’ made his confession, journalist Javier Osuna began investigating the atrocity, but focusing on the victims. His book entitled “Me hablarás del fuego”, recently published, is the result of these efforts, made out of the belief that human beings can not be disappeared as if they were objects. “All media focused on the testimony of Laverde, nobody looked at the victims. The grieving people who are trying to solve the murder of their family members are still being threatened. The paramilitaries have even offered to repair the victims with one of the lands where they burned dozens of people. All this happens and it doesn’t move anyone of us”.

For Judge Alexandra Valencia – rapporteur of the ruling against Mancuso, Laverde and others, some of the responsibility for the general indolence is to be attributed to the media and institutions that served to propagate the hate speech of the paramilitaries, because they contributed to legitimize and to “validate public or private revenge as mechanisms to solve social conflicts,” reads the ruling, which urges Congress to legislate a law that defines and criminalizes hate speech.

Omar Rincón, director of the Center for Studies of the University Los Andes and sharp critic of the activities of the media, does not believe that these have helped to legitimize or position the paramilitary project. He thinks that the imbalance of the generalized indolence is far more complex: “It’s an inability of all of us, the academy, organizations, intellectuals, institutions, the media; we have failed to communicate that we are all part of this conflict. It seems that the conflict and its atrocities is a matter of people over there, and the others are spectators of the show”.

All experts agree that however painful, the country must continue to learn about its barbarism. It should become even more widespread. The story of this young woman, forced to dig her own grave and buried alive as punishment for letting a prisoner escape, should be known. Or the man who was slowly killed with a hammer to rejoice over their victimizers who recorded the sound of his cries. Cases of sexual violence committed especially against women, girls and homosexuals, with the paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo Serna, of the Block Tayrona Resistance, playing an important and systematic role in this practice. The so-called “social cleansing” against indigent and disabled with which they instilled fear, especially the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Magdalena Medio. This poorly documented practice called “Chop houses”, imposed by the Calima Block in the area of Buenaventura. The use of chainsaws and torches, among other technologies, against victims of Trujillo, Valle del Cauca. The macabre story of the paramilitaries who practiced cannibalism in Meta and Vichada. Massive forced displacement and  selective disappearances with which the Castaño family cleared the wide area of Urabá …

But all the experts say that such stories, told within the Justice and Peace process, should be well formulated, that recognition should be made of the dignity of victims over the evil of the perpetrators. That exposure to extreme cruelty should not be followed by a simple “and that’s it”.

 (1) The Justice and Peace process was a demobilization process of paramilitaries in Colombia, which took place under the government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez and within the framework of the Justice and Peace Law (Law 975) of 2005. By many people, this process was considered a fake and orchestrated by Uribe to legalize the paramilitaries.

(2) CTI: Technical Investigation Team, a division of the Attorney’s Office. The main function is to advise the Attorney General on policies related with judicial police functions.