Femicides and Rape in Colombia’s Armed Conflict



Above: AUC paramilitary graffiti on a wall in the moonlit town of El Placer in Colombia’s Putumayo

An assignment for The Washington Post and National Public Radio ·

The Coca Town

The small town of El Placer in the Colombian department of Putumayo was once a thriving hub during the coca boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. Growers would come to the town to sell the coca paste to buyers, and FARC guerrilla militias would regulate and tax the trade. The guerrillas were the authority: they maintained order and resolved disputes. However, all that came to an abrupt end on Sunday the 7th of November 1999, a market day, when right-wing paramilitaries of the South Putumayo Front entered the town with guns ablaze.

Above: The beach from where according to witnesses paramilitaries disposed of the bodies of victims of femicides by casting them into the waters of the River Guamuez.

Eleven townsfolk were massacred that morning and the FARC militia that had controlled the local coca trade was scattered. But the paramilitaries did not leave. They melted into the shadows whilst the authorities came to take notes and count the dead and when these left they stayed and so began a seven-year reign of terror in El Placer.

They had come to manage the lucrative cocaine trade in the region and their rule, which had the tacit consent of the Colombian State, was absolute and they acted with total impunity. Their cruelty towards women was particularly marked during their reign. Many of their victims were the sex workers of the brothels, always under suspicion of perhaps being potential guerrilla informers, but local girls too fell prey to the sexual predation of their all-powerful armed overlords.

Above left: Drawings on the walls of an abandoned house whose walls were covered with sexually explicit drawings and references, almost entirely despective of women. Above right: An approach to the shores of the Guamúez River where allegedly many victims of femicides were disposed of.

I travelled to El Placer with the Washington Post’s Juan Forero in 2013 after the publishing of the book “Women, Coca and War in Lower Putumayo” by the Colombian Centro de Memoria Historica. The once booming coca town was a shadow of its former self – it was littered with the abandoned ruins of brothels and houses once occupied by the demobilised right-wing paramilitaries of the AUC (United Self-defenses of Colombia). Most townsfolk who had fled the town had not returned.

If the paintings on the walls of the brothels and buildings were reminiscent of those I had once seen painted on the walls of brothels in the ruins of Pompeii there were many more that were more reminiscent of the cave paintings – all about the hunt but without displaying respect and paying homage to the power and grace of the hunted beasts. The drawings of El Placer were full of vulgarities, and hatred and laced with misogyny. Women were objects, mere vessels to be used to please these men who imposed their will by armed force. Women were not worthy of respect it seemed but were like pieces of meat to be shared around and discarded without remorse. Bodies!


“Ugly, Damaged, Black and Tiny” – derogatory writings on the wall of a house apparently used for sexual encounters.

Isabel was raped by several men dressed in military fatigues who held her captive when she passed through the Colombia-Ecuador frontier.


Twelve-year-old Brigitte Carreño came to the attention of the paramilitaries when they visited her school after the massacre. Somewhat naively, teachers organised a presentation, as one would normally do for any visiting “dignitaries,” at which Brigitte danced Shakira’s Pies Dezcalzos. The small girl did what she loved and danced but this brought her to the attention of the assembled military men who immediately sexualised her. They planned her rape.

Later, a school friend, an older girl who had had liaisons with the paramilitaries lured Brigitte to the house occupied by the paramilitaries, where the commander, Fredy Almario Gómez — alias “Coco” — raped her.

“He tore off my shorts, and he tore off my underwear and I said, ‘No,’ ” Carreño, now 25, said in an interview, speaking on the record because she said she wanted people to know her story. “I don’t know if it lasted minutes or hours, but for me, it was an eternity.”

For several weeks, alias “Coco” would barge into her school and rape her there. When he was away, other commanders arrived to do the same. In all, Brigitte recalled, 15 men from an illegal paramilitary group raped her, warning that if she ever said a word, her father would pay with his life.

Her silence for the fear that her father would be murdered by the paramilitaries seemed to have marked her as if she were in some way at fault and complicit in her own lamentable situation. Her nightmare only ended when one day the family stole away from the town.

We met with Brigitte in a town close to the frontier with Ecuador where in a calm tone she recounted the multiple cases of abuse committed against her, sometimes tearing up as she spoke. She bravely chose to be identified as a survivor of sexual crimes.


Fredy Almario Gómez — alias “Coco” – was eventually shot dead and others from his group negotiated with the government and reinserted back into civilian life between 2003 and 2006.

No one knows how many were victimized. But investigators who are interviewing victims and perpetrators say the illegal armed bands that battled it out — including the rebels, but most notably the paramilitary groups that terrorized small towns such as El Placer — enslaved girls, turned women into porters and housekeepers, carried out rapes and killed those deemed sympathizers of their enemies.

“Gender violence, not just sexual violence or rape, has taken place on a gigantic scale in the armed conflict,” said Camila Medina, an investigator with the Historic Memory Center, a state-supported group that is unearthing details of war crimes and compiling in-depth reports.


Hilda de Carmen Meneses claims she was raped by a paramilitary commander.


Above left: The lane that leads to the River Guamuez, which was a conduit for the bodies of the victims of the paramilitaries. Above right: The abandoned ruins of “Reinas” (Queens) discotheque previously a bar and brothel.

“Here we are miserable communists” – graffiti left in El Placer by paramilitary occupiers.

Researchers for Historic Memory and local prosecutors who are building cases against paramilitary commanders have uncovered numerous crimes that took place early in the last decade.

In the northeast where he led 1,200 paramilitary fighters, the paramilitary commander Hernan Giraldo fathered at least 20 children with girls, one of them just 12. Investigators determined that Giraldo, who was later extradited to the United States on drug-trafficking charges, often gave poverty-stricken parents money in exchange for a virgin daughter.

In the Montes de Maria mountain range farther west, investigators say a feared commander, Marco Tulio Perez, nicknamed “The Bear,” forced women in the towns he controlled to have sex with him and organized beauty pageants in which teenage contestants were sexually abused.

And in the far northeast near Venezuela, paramilitary groups targeting the Wayuu Indian tribe went after a group of women in 2004, hacking them to death and cutting off their breasts.

Perhaps no other town, though, saw as many crimes against women over such a long period of time as El Placer — or the Pleasure — just on the edge of Amazonia in the isolated southern state of Putumayo.

“There was suffering, all you could imagine, suffering no person or animal should have to go through,” said Isabel Narvaez, 32, a resident and rape victim who, like others interviewed, said she wanted to be quoted by name.

Crimes of opportunity

Here, farmers grew a cash crop like no other, coca, which produces a bright green leaf central to the production of cocaine. The rebels began to tax farmers and traffickers. That brought the paramilitary groups, heavily armed bands numerically inferior to the rebels who undercut the guerrilla’s support by massacring villagers.

The paramilitary fighters in El Placer went further, in what Maria Luisa Moreno, another Historic Memory researcher, called “crimes of opportunity” made possible by the absence of the state.

“All the rapes that happened and that I know of were opportunistic because these men were armed figures in a war, and through force and through coercion were able to reach these girls,” Moreno said.

Residents speak of the rape, mutilation and murder of women who were believed to be close to the fighters. They say prostitutes who were HIV-positive were shot and dumped in the Guamuez River. They talk of girls barely into their teens enticed with gifts, then forced to have sex and led into prostitution.

“Parents would try to keep their girls indoors,” recounted Elizabeth Mueses, 52, leader of a group representing victims. “They would sleep with their girls in between them in bed to protect them from the paramilitaries.”

Social collapse

Teacher Alba Lucia Gelpud called the violence and oppression that came to El Placer “a virus” that fragmented the town’s social structure. Girls abandoned their homes. Some who wound up dating paramilitary fighters, even if under duress, were later rejected by their parents. The killings left the town with dozens of orphans.

“The collapse here was complete,” Gelpud said.

Paula Andrea Caicedo was raped at 15 in the drab three-story paramilitary headquarters. When she told her family, they refused to believe her. Later, she was shunned.

“They used to blame all the women, that we asked for it, that we wanted it,” she said. Now 25 and raising two children alone, Caicedo said her life has been marked by depression.

“Sometimes I feel like I want to kill myself,” she said. “I feel like I’m worthless.”

Speaking on a park bench, tears gently rolling down her cheeks, Brigitte Carreño said she, too, was changed forever after the paramilitary commander known as “Coco” raped her. Told that her family would suffer if she didn’t obey him and other commanders, Carreño was raped repeatedly over several weeks. The ordeal ended only when her family fled.

Carreño, who recently returned to the area and visited close friends, said she remains haunted by what happened, unable to relate to or trust men. She wonders — much as the residents of El Placer wonder — if she’ll ever recover.

“There are things that you never forget,” she said, “traumas that stay with you and that you can never leave behind.”

Left: A list on the wall of a closed store on the main street of El Placer. It lists the documents required when denouncing crimes committed by armed groups as part of the Colombian government’s “Administrative Reparation” of war-affected persons.

The categories: Homicide; Disappearance; Forced Displacement; Kidnap; Terrorist Acts; Crimes against sexual integrity; Personal injuries.

Below: Elizabeth Mueses in the house museum she has founded and filled with paraphernalia from the armed conflict.

The town had returned to some kind of normality when we visited. Elizabeth Mueses had founded her conflict museum of war ordinance and family photos and though they had helped the investigators of the National Centre for Historic Memory to make the report no one had yet read it from cover to cover.

During the paramilitary reign, there had been differing responses to the occupation. Where some established a commercial relationship, friendship and even affective relations with the occupiers, others had this imposed upon them. Young girls were the most vulnerable and many were coerced and terrified into sexual submission and total silence, whilst other women were forced to labour for the occupiers as domestic servants. In one way or another, women were at the complete mercy of the occupiers and could not depend on the State or others to help them out.


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