Femicides in Tibú, Colombia: Cocaine, Gunmen, and a Never-Ending War
This investigation exposes gender-based violence in Tibú, a Colombian town located on the border with Venezuela that serves as a drug trafficking corridor for several illegal armed groups. In 2021, at least 13 women were killed and dozens more were forced to flee the municipality amid one of the worst waves of violence ever seen in the area.
The moment Alexandra* got on her bike and adjusted her helmet, she knew there was no turning back. It was five in the morning and still dark. She turned quickly to check on her passenger, Catalina*, a 14-year-old girl.
Catalina usually dressed in tight-fitting clothes and left her long hair down, but that morning she was wearing an oversized men’s shirt, a cap, and a mask that covered half of her face. To her family and friends, she would have been unrecognizable.
Alexandra wore a jacket to protect herself from the cold and used the motorcycle helmet to hide her hair. Catalina held onto her waist firmly, partly because of her nerves and partly so she didn’t fall off.
Alexandra started the motorcycle, and together they left the town of Tibú towards the road leading to Cúcuta, the capital of the department of Norte de Santander.
It was August 2021, and Catalina was on the run after armed men had attempted to kill her. She escaped, but others were not so fortunate. Between April and June 2021, at least 11 women were murdered in an unprecedented wave of violence in Tibú. Thirteen would be murdered by the end of the year. InSight Crime managed to track down at least 35 other women who had been threatened in various ways. Many had fled the municipality with their families.
The threats began with videos posted online in which women were insulted and attacked for having romantic relationships with members of the security forces. A list was circulated with names of women who were believed to be informants for the authorities. Then, the murders began.
Catalina had already been threatened.
The night before she fled, armed men broke into her house. They told her parents that they were looking for her, alleging that she had been involved with a member of the ex-FARC Mafia, a loosely connected group of armed groups that once belonged to the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). Now she had another partner, and that was not allowed according to the group’s logic.
Catalina was not at home when the men arrived. She was fortunate. But immediately afterward, her mother picked up her cell phone and called Alexandra, who belonged to a group of women human rights defenders and was helping the threat victims to leave the municipality. By this time, Alexandra had received dozens of similar calls.
Through tears, Catalina’s mother pled for help.
“Do you trust me?” Alexandra asked.
“Yes,” said Catalina’s mother.
“Let me take the girl. I’ll find a way to get her out,” Alexandra assured her.
A few hours later, Alexandra and Catalina were disguised and riding away on a motorcycle, moving along the road in the dark. Alexandra’s hands were shaking, but as she gripped the handlebars tightly, she prayed that no one would get in her way. She was determined not to stop. Her goal was clear: to get Catalina out of Tibú.
1. A Wave of Murders
1.A Wave of Murders
Colombia’s armed conflict never ended in Tibú. Although the national government signed a peace agreement with the FARC in 2016, armed groups continue to fight for control of this important criminal territory. Due to the lack of a state presence and its location on the border with Venezuela, Tibú is home to the 33rd Front, one of multiple FARC dissident groups operating in the country. Colombia’s last insurgent guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), and other criminal groups, also have a presence here.
The pressure and influence exerted by these groups are substantial. Local police spend most of their time holed up inside their police station due to constant attacks against them that have only intensified since the beginning of 2021. Attackers have shot at police with rifles, thrown homemade grenades, and used explosives. The municipal government secretary, Leonardo Rodríguez, told InSight Crime that in October 2021, officers had to be pushed to leave the station to patrol the town center.
Security forces are unable to guarantee the safety of the town’s inhabitants, and armed actors have taken over as the de facto authority on the streets. Since the end of 2021, the dissident 33rd Front has been patrolling the streets, dispensing justice, and imposing rules in Tibú.
Dressed in military garb with their faces covered and wearing armbands to identify themselves, armed men have entered bars and pool halls to search for people and ensure public order is kept. On other occasions, they have appeared on the main roads to direct the flow of traffic and to search passing vehicles.
These men have even sent messages to the community addressed from Tibú’s mayor’s office, setting alarm bells ringing among public officials.
“We watch with concern how [the dissidents] assume the role of the police and how this has repercussions on our municipality, one of the hardest hit by violence,” Néstor Leal, the mayor of Tibú, told journalists from the Colombian radio station, Caracol Radio, after videos of dissidents outside the mayor’s office emerged.
Drug trafficking opportunities abound here. Tibú is part of Norte de Santander, a department located on the border with Venezuela, which is recognized as the gateway to a sub-region in Colombia called Catatumbo.
Catatumbo, which encompasses 11 municipalities in Norte Santander, is one of Colombia’s most important regions for cocaine production and export. The 22,000 hectares of coca cultivated in Tibú is the most of any Colombian municipality, according to the latest census conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Cocaine hydrochloride is processed here and moved along exit routes toward Venezuela.
Many families subsist by planting and harvesting coca leaves, collecting the leaves, producing coca paste, and even working in cocaine hydrochloride laboratories. Sometimes this is the only job available, and at other times, it is the only way to protect their lives from armed groups.
Acts of violence have become part of daily life. Villagers suffer confinement, massive displacement, attacks, massacres, and selective killings. Since the signing of the peace agreement in 2016, around 329,000 people in Norte de Santander have been affected by acts of armed violence, according to monitoring by the United Nations. In Tibú alone, approximately 100,000 people have been victims of violence.
Despite this tragic normalization, violence against women has remained largely invisible. They have suffered from different forms of discrimination, threats, sexual violence, displacement, and assassinations. But among all the episodes of violence felt by the women of Tibú, the wave of murders that began in April 2021 has been the worst.
The first woman murdered was Nelly Avendaño, whose body was found in the middle of a road on April 5. Shortly afterward, two more women were murdered. It was not possible to identify them because, according to information obtained by local organizations, the two victims were migrants and their bodies were taken across the border to be buried.
On April 14, the body of a woman was found in the middle of a palm tree plantation in Campo Dos, a village in Tibú. Her throat had been cut.
The fifth murder was that of Geraldine Poveda, a 23-year-old young woman from Venezuela, who was killed in the town of Tibú, and who allegedly appeared in the misogynistic videos that were circulating on social networks. According to residents of Tibú, Poveda had been in a romantic relationship with a soldier.
On April 24, another body was found by the authorities in Campo Dos. Again, it was impossible to identify the victim.
And on April 28, relatives of Ana Julia Calderón found her dead body, riddled with bullets, inside her apartment in Tibú. Calderón also appeared in the videos circulating on social media platforms.
By the end of April alone, seven women had been murdered in Tibú.
2. Women Join Forces
Misogynistic pamphlets sent to the community
2.Women Join Forces
In early May, a group of women decided to hold a sit-in protest with the support of the parish priest of Tibú to demonstrate against the violence that women were suffering.
The leader of the group is Sol*, a woman born and raised in Tibú, who at a very young age understood that her vocation was to help her community. She is a calm woman, and speaks slowly but firmly. Whenever she has the opportunity, she discusses the needs of local people and tells of the abuses they suffer. Her phone does not stop ringing with calls for help.
Sol told InSight Crime that she formed the group four years ago. Since then, many other female leaders from Catatumbo have joined the initiative. The purpose is to speak out against the injustices and human rights violations suffered by the region’s women, youth, boys, and girls because of the war.
Alexandra was one of the women who decided to accompany Sol soon after the group was formed and to help people like Catalina to flee Tibú.
She is friendly and approachable but becomes serious when the situation calls for it.
Both she and Sol have suffered human and material losses due to the armed conflict for as long as they can remember. Alexandra recalled rivers of blood left in the streets when a group of paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), the umbrella organization for all paramilitary groups at the time, attacked guerrillas in Tibú’s town center. She saw her husband on his back, shirtless and with a gun pointed at his head, lying next to seven others as they were killed. Alexandra and her husband escaped unharmed that day, but the trauma of witnessing the massacre still haunts them.
Sol lost her husband and brother in the war. She prefers not to talk about it. Instead, she focuses on the present violence suffered by those around her and how she hopes to leave behind the pain caused by those losses.
Their stories help explain why, when the wave of murders of women began in April 2021, these two women organized the first demonstration against the violence.
Although on that occasion, they were able to count on the participation of the parish priest, the local ombudsman, and the mayor, the fear among attendees was palpable. At the time, in addition to the murders, videos were already circulating on social networks. One of them started with the announcement of “the whores of the town of Tibú,“ while a reggaeton song crudely describing a woman’s infidelity played in the background, and selfies of young women from the town were shown. The photos were accompanied by insults such as “La come policía” (“police slut”), and “La come traqueto“ (“dealer slut”).
Few people attended the demonstration, which included a religious ceremony held in the church in Tibú’s main park and a sit-in in the atrium. The women present were encouraged to shout, “Respect for women’s lives, long live the women of Tibú.”
Their cries were in vain. The next day, another woman was murdered.
Liliana Rincón was driving her vehicle in Tibú when armed men shot her dead. Rincón was the wife of an army soldier. From time to time, she would sell soldiers products and carry packages between Cúcuta and Tibú, according to an acquaintance who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
It is not certain whether Rincón had received threats before, but her acquaintance informed us that she herself had advised her friend to stop running “errands” for the army because it might be frowned upon by criminal groups.
The group of women defenders interpreted Rincón’s murder as another warning — those who were killing women had no intention of stopping.
They devised another plan to halt the murders: they would seek out the women who appeared in the videos, offering to get them out of Tibú or get help from the authorities.
“Here, we can’t even decide who we fall in love with anymore,” Sol told InSight Crime in an interview months later.
3. Trapped in the Middle
3.Trapped in the Middle
During one of InSight Crime’s visits to the area, we met with two international cooperation officers, Carlos and Ramiro*, who stated that a group of women had been recruited by the security forces as informants and that this could have been the trigger for the violence in Tibú.
Both men have worked for decades analyzing security situations and protecting human rights. Before working in Norte de Santander, they were based in other regions of Colombia and have a deep understanding of the complexities of the country’s armed conflict.
An important part of their work in the department is to talk with the communities, accompany them during peace-building processes, and defend their rights. They are in constant communication with the local population, community leaders, international actors, and government institutions. The communities trust them.
Information collected by Carlos and Ramiro during field visits in August 2020 suggested that Colombia’s security and intelligence forces sought and recruited women in Tibú with very specific characteristics: they should be migrants, be young, or possess specific beauty traits.
According to testimonies they collected from the community, these women were summoned by security forces and told that they would have to infiltrate the criminal groups and obtain information.
“They told them they were going to be ‘detectives,’”, said Ramiro, making air quotes with his hands.
According to Ramiro, by December 2020, the group of women had set up shop in bars in rural parts of Tibú and had started talking with members of the armed groups.
But at some point, one woman who became romantically linked to one of the criminals was discovered. This triggered a series of events that was difficult to clarify.
According to Carlos and Ramiro’s sources, the woman managed to warn the other companions that she had been discovered.
“The woman disappeared,” Ramiro said. He added that the other women had sought help from the Catholic Church to leave the territory. Their whereabouts are currently unknown, according to information the two men gathered from speaking with religious institutions.
The murders of women in Tibú began after the armed groups learned of this alleged infiltration, according to the officials. It seems the armed groups became paranoid. In their eyes, any woman with a link to the security forces was a legitimate target.
During our field visit, we heard very similar versions of this story from at least two other sources, including an international aid agency and a human rights organization. However, in a war-torn territory like Tibú, it is difficult to corroborate this information.
Female informants have been used in Colombia as a military tactic by both legal and illegal armed actors. InSight Crime was unable to obtain testimonies from women who were part of the alleged infiltration, however.
InSight Crime sought answers from the police and military about their knowledge of the use of women as informants in Tibú. The Norte de Santander Department Police told us that they had used “a total of 13 women as human sources [informants] who provided information that allowed for relevant results in various areas of Norte de Santander.” The Colombian army did not respond by the time of publication.
For some human rights activists in the area, there is no doubt that the alleged infiltrations triggered the wave of violence.
“The murders were the fault of the security forces,” said an inhabitant of Tibú, who works in human rights protection, but whose name is being withheld for security reasons. “How could they think of bringing women into the territory? They knew they were going to put them in danger.”
4. The People March, but Women Continue to Flee
4.The People March, but Women Continue to Flee
On June 2, 2021, Ludy Vásquez was working at her family’s store in Tibú’s municipal market, where she sold fruits and vegetables.
People who knew Ludy told InSight Crime that she was outgoing and radiated happiness. She always helped those in need, they said. But her life was in danger. Days earlier, her smiling face had been included in a video circulated on social media. Underneath her photo was written “the town whore.”
Ludy was waiting for her next client when two men arrived on a motorcycle, entered the store, and pretended to place an order before pulling out a gun and shooting her four times. Her body was left on the shop floor.
Ludy was the third woman who was murdered after appearing in videos circulated online, and she was the 10th to die in Tibú in just two months. She was 36 years old.
None of the murders caused as big a reaction as Ludy’s. Four days later, on June 6, Sol and her group organized another march to publicly reject the violence women were suffering.
Unlike the sit-in they had organized in May, this time there were plenty of attendees. Although some of the women in the group did not know Ludy personally, they had watched her as she helped out at her parents’ store in the market.
“She was a Tibúyana (a person from Tibú). That’s why she made such an impact. That woman didn’t mess with anyone. One wonders why [she was killed],” an acquaintance told us.
On the morning of the demonstration, the streets of Tibú were filled with hundreds of people dressed in white, carrying purple and white balloons.
Residents of Tibú marching against femicides in the municipality / Photo: Tibú inhabitants
The march began at the airport, then the participants headed towards the main avenue before finally arriving at the municipal palace, where Tibú’s mayor’s office is located. There, the attendees stood holding signs in silence.
The posters written by Sol and the other women were not meant to offend or directly accuse anyone. Onlookers were supposed to perceive the march as an act of peace, not as defiance.
“The women didn’t want to write more than biblical passages about the life of woman, as a complement to a man,” Sol told us. “God made man and woman to take care of each other. Only some dared to write other things, like that they were afraid. But nothing else.”
Although now there was more local support for protesting against the violence, women continued to leave the town. Sol and her group tried to help those they could. In some cases, the municipality’s institutions supported them.
One of those they were able to help was a 40-year-old woman named Ruth.* She and her cousin worked washing clothes for the policemen in town until Vasquez’s death. Ruth and Ludy were friends, and while Ruth was trying to process the news of Ludy’s death, another acquaintance told her that men were looking to kill her for working with the police.
She immediately went to the local Ombudsman’s Office, where officials took her statement and bought her a bus ticket to leave the town.
Ruth left the next day. A few days later, armed men arrived at her house and threatened her cousin.
“We came to tell you and Ruth that if you are going to continue working, helping, and collaborating with [the police], then you better get out of town or figure something out,” one of them told the cousin.
As soon as they left, Ruth’s cousin filled a suitcase with clothes, grabbed some kitchen implements, and left without looking back.
While both women were reunited far from Tibú and began planning how to rebuild their lives, tensions in the town continued to grow.
On June 9, two men entered the home of Esperanza Navas, the Tibú prosecutor who had been in the town for more than 13 years. They found her sitting in front of her computer, working. They shot her nine times, killing her.
5. Prosecutors Set Off Alarm Bells
5.Prosecutors Set Off Alarm Bells.
On the afternoon of June 10, 2021, in Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander, Colombia’s Attorney General Francisco Barbosa addressed a dozen journalists from behind a makeshift lectern.
The Attorney General’s Office had called a last-minute press conference in response to the murder of prosecutor Navas the day before. Barbosa began by stating his office had registered the homicides of eight women in Tibú between April 5 and June 5. He added that a team was working on identifying common patterns behind the violence in terms of wounds, the types of weapons, and the places where the murders occurred. But he did not use the term “femicide,” which carries certain implications in Colombian law.
Colombian lawmakers distinguished femicide from other types of murders in 2015 by passing Law 1761. The bill is better known as the Rosa Elvira Cely Law, in honor of a 35-year-old woman who was brutally abused and murdered in 2012 at a park in Bogotá.
The law sought to prevent and punish the murder of a woman because of her gender identity. It has served to better understand the magnitude and frequency with which this crime occurs. In Colombia, between 2017 and 2021, an average of 553 femicides have been reported per year, according to figures from the Observatorio de Feminicidios de Colombia (Colombia Femicides Observatory), although other organizations have reported different figures. (see graph below).
For legal and women’s rights analysts such as Linda Cabrera, director of Sisma Mujer, a feminist organization that works with women victims of violence, the law has served to show that the violence suffered by women is structural and has deep roots in unequal power relations.
“The important thing about the category of femicide is that it gives visibility to the real problems and the risk scenarios faced by women. Therefore, it allows for a specialized criminal policy intervention that can intervene and prevent the continuation of these types of events,” Cabrera told InSight Crime.
While the law is a step forward in combating these crimes, many factors have hindered its implementation, especially in places like Tibú.
One major problem is a lack of adherence to the protocols for analyzing crime scenes. When a homicide occurs, the National Police refers the case either to the judicial police or to the Technical Investigation Corps (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación – CTI), under the oversight of the Attorney General’s Office. Both entities should then go to the scene to collect the evidence, including the bodies of the victims, and record it.
However, in Tibú, the CTI does not collect victims’ bodies at the crime scenes. This is left to the funeral homes. This practice was established informally several years ago due to a lack of personnel and security guarantees for those performing the procedures, but it has become normalized.
“The security of the officials cannot be guaranteed beyond the town center,” said a public official whose name has been withheld for security reasons. Two other officials also highlighted the difficulties in moving personnel to the scenes of murders.
Even if the crime scenes are carefully analyzed, it is difficult for judicial operators to argue that a murder should be classed as femicide. The law established six circumstances that oblige the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and determine which cases correspond to femicide. For example, any gender or sexual manipulation of the victim by the aggressor should be considered, as should any suggestion that the aggressor took advantage of power relations (economic, military, sexual, etc.) to harm the victim; or if the murder was committed to generating terror or humiliation over an enemy (see diagram below).
Prosecutors also struggle to understand the different forms of violence that often precede a femicide, according to Yamile Roncancio, director of the Feminicides Colombia Foundation.
Getting a grasp on the events leading to a femicide is even more complex in a municipality riven by conflict such as Tibú, with many armed actors, making it more difficult to prove their involvement and motivation. Such conditions require extra effort to investigate these cases and prove them in a justice system where cases of violence against women remain, for the most part, in impunity.
“Prosecutors have a very practical vision, and they don’t want to drop cases because of ‘exotic’ things that women’s organizations come up with,” Cabrera said.
She added that prosecutors also avoid classifying murders as femicides because doing so means extra work, including providing conclusive evidence to justify this declaration and an argumentation phase before a judge.
“In the majority of cases, I can tell you prosecutors are not willing to do that,” Cabrera said.
Such fears seem to have reached the top of the Attorney General’s Office. During the press conference in Cúcuta, besides ignoring the issue of femicides, Barbosa insisted that existing security measures and protocols in Tibú were good enough.
“The staff levels are being maintained. We are not going to worsen our ability to deliver justice and participate in the investigations. In Tibú, we will be and remain as the Attorney General’s Office,” he said at the press conference.
However, when InSight Crime visited Tibú a few months later, officials stated that no permanent staff from the Attorney General’s Office were based there.
InSight Crime formally requested information on the murders of women in Tibú from the Attorney General’s Office, but the response stated that the files were confidential.
Of all the murders of women in Tibú, only two are being considered as possible femicides.
6. The Permanent Wave
ELN statement on femicides in Tibú / Photo: Sources on the ground.
6.The Permanent Wave
It was still dark when Alexandra and Catalina arrived at the border of Tibú. The road was empty, but Alexandra knew that armed groups were guarding the entrances and exits of the municipality, especially the road to Cúcuta.
A toll booth manned by FARC dissidents oversees the entrance to the municipality. Anyone entering the town of Tibú must pass through and pay a fee that allegedly is used to repair the roads, according to several inhabitants of Tibú.
Members of the ELN have also been recorded, dressed as civilians, stopping cars along the main road into town, asking travelers why they are visiting the town, and how long they will stay.
Initially, the ELN did not appear to be involved in the systematic attacks on women in Tibú. On June 3, 2021, an ELN pamphlet circulated on social networks insisting that “our organization is not behind the videos and murders … but our War Front has ordered an investigation to determine who is promoting these murders and smears in order to take corrective action.”
No matter who was watching the road on that early August morning, Alexandra was determined to stop for nobody. She sped up and passed through various checkpoints without much trouble.
After an hour’s ride, they arrived at the sector known as La Y de Astilleros, where the road splits in two: one way goes to Cúcuta and the other to El Zulia, another municipality in Norte de Santander. Alexandra stopped, asked Catalina to get off the motorcycle, and the two of them stood waiting. Alexandra checked her cell phone. She had asked for help delivering Catalia to safety, but her contact hadn’t responded.
Five minutes passed, which seemed like an eternity, when a car finally arrived. Slowly, it approached them, someone rolled down the window and asked Catalina to get in. Alexandra waved discreetly and helped Catalina into the car. When the car started up again, she watched until it disappeared.
Alexandra got on her motorcycle and set off for home, hopeful that if all went well, Catalina would be safe in another municipality.
But Alexandra’s mission did not end with Catalina. It continued. Many women were still in need of help to escape. Almost 20 months after the first murder, that of Nelly Avendaño, the group estimated that it had helped more than 70 women under threat to leave the municipality, many of them with their children, parents, and partners.
Most of them went to nearby towns where they could stay with relatives and wait for the situation to calm down. But others went far away and may never return.
In November 2021, after listening to stories from dozens of women, Sol and Alexandra identified a pattern: The threatened women were young, and many of them had been romantically linked to a member of the security forces or had worked with the security forces. However, they could not establish whether the threatened women had been recruited as informants.
In any case, this was not a requirement to be included in the list of potential victims. It was enough to cook for the armed forces, wash their clothes, or simply sell them fruit and vegetables.
In addition, the threatened women accused the illegal groups, both the ELN and the dissidents of the 33rd Front, of being responsible for most of the killings. But some also accused the police.
“And then the situation is highly complex in the territory … It’s like a fight. You kill one of mine, and I kill one of yours,” concluded one of the women in the group.
While the women’s group continued their work, the armed groups watched. On September 2021, the ELN arrived at Alexandra’s house in the middle of the night and threatened her for “interfering” in their affairs and helping the women to leave.
But Alexandra didn’t go. Even despite the threats, she has stayed in Tibú. She wanted to continue helping victims, she told InSight Crime. And so, the violence against women in Tibú spread to those who decided to help support them. (see explanatory graphic).
In addition to the threats against the women leaders, the murders returned.
In December 2021, Dalgi Liliana Caamaño’s throat was slit in her own home. She also had another deep wound in the back of her neck, apparently caused by a machete. Everything in her house was in disarray, so the authorities declared that it had been “a robbery.” And as on previous occasions, members of the funeral home were in charge of the removal and transfer of the body, according to La Opinión.
In June 2022, Nelly Luna Garcés was murdered by unknown persons and her body was found on a road connecting Tibú to the town of La Gabarra.
In addition, in recent months, other misogynistic videos have been circulated and reprisals have intensified against residents, including children, who do not comply with the armed groups’ rules.
State institutions are not reacting. The Attorney General’s Office claimed to have identified suspects in 81% of the cases after issuing arrest warrants for several members of FARC and ELN dissidents. No arrests or convictions have been made.
And the violence against women continues.
*The names of protagonists have been changed to protect their identity.