HomeInvestigationsA Desperate Effort to Rebuild Lives

A Desperate Effort to Rebuild Lives


After running for hours, Carolina, 21, arrived in the city of Santa Marta with her family in 2000. Their feet were full of blisters and they had nothing but the clothes on their back.

One night, Hernán Giraldo, a feared paramilitary commander from northern Colombia, accompanied by armed men, had arrived at the family's restaurant to collect extortion money. Carolina's father had no money to pay. So, after beating and separating the family, they sexually abused her.

*This is the second part of a three-chapter series on the sexual violence committed by Hernán Giraldo, a paramilitary leader that operated in the north of Colombia. While he was jailed in the United States, Giraldo started to speak about the hundreds of rapes he committed in Santa Marta’s Sierra Nevada region. Meanwhile, two women who suffered from his abuse, Carolina and Karen, are trying to rebuild their lives. Great lengths have been taken to protect those whose stories are told here, including changing names, dates and some personal details.

In 2003, Karen also arrived in Santa Marta, running from the paramilitaries after they broke into her house and abused her. She was only 15.

Both families arrived to Santa Marta without any money. They had to restart their lives from scratch. But Giraldo’s power stretched to Santa Marta as well, a coastal city and tourism jewel near the mountains.

From Marijuana to Cocaine – Following the Money

While Carolina and her family were rebuilding their life in the city, in the early 2000s, Hernán Giraldo was at the height of his criminal power.

Giraldo had moved from the marijuana business to cocaine. It made sense financially. He had about 300 people under his command, he ran extortion in Santa Marta, and he controlled the coca crops in the Sierra Nevada.

Fighting between Colombian armed forceds and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) was at its peak. But war was business. Giraldo’s men protected the Sierra, its crops and the exit of drugs through the northern departments of Magdalena and La Guajira. The logistics networks and infrastructure Giraldo had set up in his marijuana business had allowed him to fully appropriate cocaine trafficking in the area.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños vs. Pachenca - The Fight for Colombia's Port of Santa Marta

But local residents lived in fear of violence and coercion. Girls and women were routinely raped and sexual abuse in the region peaked during the 2000s.

Carolina and her family knew the power that man had. They prayed that the violence would not reach them in the city. In Santa Marta, they settled in a small and modest house. Seeing her father and her brothers, who witnessed her rape, was difficult for her. She felt a mixture of shame and guilt. Carolina couldn’t shake the idea she was to blame for her family having to leave everything they had built behind and start from scratch.  

She wasn’t the only one. Her dad spent his days in sullen silence, trying to hide his own frustrations. He hadn’t been able to pay the vacuna (vaccine, a term for extortion payments) that day. He wondered if he was to blame for what happened to his daughter.

Carolina spiralled. "My mind was lost, I felt there was no way out, I didn’t know what to do with my life after what happened," she told InSight Crime.

That first year, she couldn’t sleep and cried day or night. Seeing a man on the street terrified her. She feared being abused again. She went to see a doctor but being examined by a man was traumatic.

Carolina did not feel capable of taking care of others and made the most difficult decision of her life. She gave up her first daughter, the same child which she had carried in her arms as they ran through the night fleeing from home.

“I gave her to her father. She always tells me that I'm not a good mom because I gave her up. But I gave her up, because I just couldn't, I couldn't raise someone. I was mentally and psychologically ill,” a distraught Carolina recalled. "But I call her, we talk by video about her and I tell her to forgive me."

To this day, Carolina has not had the strength to tell her eldest daughter, nor her former partner, what she experienced that night.

Giraldo's Reputation

In 2001, Hernán Giraldo was one of the largest drug traffickers in Colombia.

“Giraldo is the head of a thriving drug syndicate that accounts for $1.2 billion in annual shipments to the United States and Europe. That places him among the top five cocaine traffickers in the country,” Newsweek wrote in 2001. “Colombian intelligence officials believe that Giraldo, the son of a poor rancher, could one day compare to the late Medellín cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar in both wealth and power.”

“I don't have the luck, the money, the goods, or the people that Escobar had. My fight is different," Giraldo commented in May 2001 to a local news outlet.

But his influence in the drug trade was colossal. As the kingpin of the Sierra Nevada, 40 percent of cocaine in Colombia passed through Giraldo’s territory, according to Colombian intelligence sources.

And he wasn't alone. He could count on his partner and right-hand man, Jairo Musso Torres, alias “Pacho Musso.”

Pacho Musso was in charge of coordinating and sending large quantities of drugs that left for the United States and Central America in speedboats through the mouths of the rivers that descended from the Sierra Nevada to the Caribbean. This vast operation involved hundreds of people, and Pacho Musso brought in hundreds of millions of pesos each month, according to Colombian authorities.

The Colombian and US governments were after both men.

On October 9, 2001, a group of Colombian anti-drug police officers, who were cooperating with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), were in Santa Marta investigating Hernán Giraldo. That evening, they entered El Pechiche, a restaurant on the main road running along the Caribbean coast. While they were waiting for their drinks, a group of Pacho Musso’s men arrived and opened fire. Two police officers, two tourists and a hotel employee were shot dead. A third officer was left alive, brought to Musso for questioning and later killed.

In response to this attack, the Colombian authorities sent more than 200 agents to the Sierra Nevada and confiscated 16 tons of cocaine. These drugs belonged to the Castaño brothers, who used Hernán Giraldo's Caribbean routes to move their cocaine.

Carlos and Vicente Castaño were the main commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), an infamous paramilitary network which was waging a bloody war against the FARC guerrillas and financing themselves through drug trafficking.

The Castaños had cultivated strong relationships with the Colombian authorities and were seeking to clean up their image with the Americans. The deaths of these police officers infuriated them.

Carlos Castano, the top leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, stands in front of some of his men in an undisclosed are in northern Colombia, in Feb. 2001. Human rights groups accuse elements in the Colombia's military to work hand-in-hand with paramilitary groups led by Castano who are responsible for numerous massacres. (AP Photo/File)

In a statement to Giraldo, Carlos Castaño, the main leader of the AUC, demanded Musso’s head. Giraldo responded that “a father does not give up his children.” This answer was essentially a declaration of war between the AUC and Hernán Giraldo. 

In late 2001, the Castaños sent some 1,200 men, led by the AUC’s Northern Bloc commander, Rodrigo Tovar, alias “Jorge 40,” to confront Giraldo's approximately 300 men throughout the Sierra.

The Castaños had a legacy of shocking violence. In the early 1990s, they had created a private security group, known as Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar - PEPES). The PEPES included some of Escobar’s former associates and wanted to corner Colombia’s most famous capo. The PEPES murdered anyone connected to Escobar: lawyers, drivers, accountants and more besides.

This same tactic was implemented with Giraldo, but the man known as El Patrón was no easy target. In early 2002, after four of his men were killed near Santa Marta, Giraldo ordered a paro armado (armed strike). From January 18 to February 8, 2002, nobody was able to leave Santa Marta. All shops were closed, transportation was stopped and Giraldo’s men patrolled the streets.

The civilian population was caught in the middle and many fled. Colombian authorities registered 8,000 displaced persons in Magdalena between December 2001 and February 2002, but other estimates put the number at 14,000.

After some four months of fighting, the AUC men reached Quebrada del Sol, Giraldo's stronghold, and fought him for 72 hours. Giraldo had no chance but to surrender and negotiate.

Giraldo was a valuable asset to the AUC, due to his local control, knowledge of trafficking routes and existing network. As a result, Giraldo agreed to join the AUC under the command of Jorge 40, the commander sent to hunt him. His men were renamed the Tayrona Resistance Bloc (Bloque Resistencia Tayrona), taking the name of the Tayrona National Park near Santa Marta.

But while Giraldo was officially no longer the commander of the Sierra, he was effectively still in charge.

Women Fight Their Own Battles

Carolina knew about the violence that was taking place in Santa Marta, but she was fighting her own internal battles.

She felt guilty about her family’s poverty and emotional loss after the displacement.

"I feel that they treat us women as if we were only meat. It is as if women were made to be violated and mistreated. Sometimes, I wish I wasn't a woman so this would not have happened to me," said Carolina.

She told InSight Crime how, at night, she closes her eyes and feels the weight of the men on top of her. She looks at the ceiling, the windows, and wonders from where they could come in again to abuse her.
She sees her abusers in any man who approaches her.

Despite these constant thoughts, she gradually found the strength to carry on. She enrolled in a night school to finish high school and worked in a supermarket by day. She graduated in 2001.

However, she barely spoke to anyone. Her classmates shunned her for being quiet but she didn’t want their attention. Carolina was afraid someone would find out what had happened to her.

“Here (in Santa Marta), I have found a little peace, we have gotten away from everything. Here, nobody knows what happened to us," she explained.

She wanted to go to university and study to be a physical therapist. But the only option for that career was in Barranquilla, a coastal city two hours away. The fear of being alone in an unknown place and being abused again discouraged her.

"I feel that, if that had not happened to me, if these things had not happened to me, I would have been someone in life," reflected Carolina. "I would have been a happy woman."

The trauma also affected the rest of her family. Her two younger brothers were children when the paramilitaries abused their sister and never went back to school for fear of being forced to join their ranks, a problem that still exists in Colombia.

Carolina's mother spent her days in silence and began to fall sick. The night the paramilitaries entered her house, she was beaten so violently that she bled from one ear. In Santa Marta, Carolina and her father wanted to take her to the doctor but she refused. She didn’t want to tell the doctor why her ear hurt.

When they finally convinced her to go, it was too late. The beating had damaged one of her ears and Carolina’s mother had become partially deaf.

To overcome the pain and the economic crisis, Carolina's father decided to rent a place and open a small shop in the city. For several years, the business went well and supported the family.

However, the fears of that night caught up with him. Carolina’s father decided to close the profitable business, out of fear that it would attract attention from criminals and lead to more abuse in his family. Since then he has never worked. Carolina would like take care of him and the rest of the family.

Carolina and her father, although close, have had a complex relationship. She feels that her father blames her for her abuse. “I feel that my father blames me, asking why I went out? Why did I go to the restaurant? Why did I go to where he was?" she said, distraught.

Winds of Change 

Hernán Giraldo actually abided by the agreement and remained under the orders of the Castaño brothers of the AUC.

At that time, in 2002, the paramilitary group was looking for a negotiated solution with the Colombian government. The brothers saw this as an opportunity to avoid extradition to the United States and to launder their drug trafficking profits. In July 2002, Carlos Castaño resigned as the political leader of the AUC and, shortly thereafter, formal talks began with the authorities.  

Some of the points up for discussion included reduced sentences in exchange for collaboration, major revelations and reparations towards victims. As negotiations went on, however, the United States filed extradition requests for Carlos Castaño and his main lieutenant, Salvatore Mancuso, to face drug trafficking chances. This made the paramilitary leaders nervous, including Giraldo who faced his own extradition order.

It was time to make alternative plans.

In 2003, Giraldo met with Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” a seasoned drug trafficker from the Medellín Cartel, to form a criminal structure to that which Berna had set up in Medellin, the Oficina de Envigado.

The Office was a debt collection agency for Escobar but also acted as a referee in the underworld, with Don Berna mediating conflicts between leaders and gangs in Medellin and also participated in lavish drug trafficking deals. The Office was originally created by Escobar in the 1980s as a debt collection agency, tracking payments owed by other traffickers. Don Berna took it over after Escobar died and Giraldo wanted to build a similar structure.

Giraldo wanted to do the same in his area of ​​influence.

With the advice of Don Berna, "El Patrón" created the Oficina del Caribe (Caribbean Office) to administer his territory and criminal income. They would also serve as his backup once the Tayrona Resistance Block had fully disarmed due to peace talks with the government.  

In July 2003, the paramilitaries and the government signed a pact for the AUC’s disarmament and reintegration

A few weeks later, the government began to hand down sentences specifically designed for paramilitary leaders signed up to the deal. Colombia’s 2005 Justice and Peace Law stated that paramilitary leaders who fully admitted their crimes, including sexual violence, would receive maximum sentences of eight years in prison.

On February 3, 2006, Hernán Giraldo Serna, wearing a hat and poncho, met with representatives of the Colombian government at a village in the Sierra Nevada to hand over the weapons of the Tayrona Resistance Bloc.

Colombia's Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, right, receives a pistol from Hernan Giraldo, left, commander of the Tayrona Resistance Bloc in Quebrada del Sol near Santa Martha, Friday, Feb. 3, 2006. More than 1,200 fighters from the Tayrona Resistance Bloc faction of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC, gathered in this remote hamlet to lay down their arms as part of an ongoing disarmament process. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez)

As songs were sung in his honor and in front of the cameras, Giraldo demobilized with more than 1,100 combatants and surrendered over 500 weapons.

After demobilization, Giraldo was held at the maximum security prison in Itagüí, Antioquia, while judicial proceedings continued at the Justice and Peace courts.

But before being imprisoned, according to what El Tiempo published at the time, Giraldo had planned his next step. In exchange for $5 million, he had sold access to a percentage of his criminal network to the Mejía Múnera brothers, hardened drug traffickers that collaborated with the AUC.

Source: El País.

Miguel and Victor Mejía Múnera arrived in the Sierra Nevada and founded a new group, the Nevados, to exercise control over part of the Giraldo territory. One of Giraldo's sons, Hernán Giraldo Ochoa, became part of the group, along with 400 others who refused to demobilize.   

However, the brothers soon became a headache for authorities. In 2008, after the brothers reportedly killed an investigator from the Attorney General’s Office in Magdalena, authorities made bringing them down a priority.

In April 2008, Víctor Manuel Mejía Múnera was shot dead. Less than 72 hours later, Miguel was captured.

Giraldo’s carefully built criminal empire was at risk of crumbling. And he was soon going to have to start talking about his crimes as part of his demobilization agreement.

The Price of Silence 

By early 2006, just as Giraldo demobilized, Karen was welcoming the arrival of her first child with great joy.

The families of Karen and her partner could not contain their emotion or happiness. “I always wanted a son, and thank God, I had him first. It was a very happy moment for me and my parents. My mom called him the king of the house,” Karen recalled, smiling.

Since arriving in Santa Marta, in 2003, she has worked hard to rebuild her life. Three years later, she had graduated high school with the hope of further education. She wanted to work on occupational health issues, helping to protect people at work. But her family did not have the money to support her.

Instead, she devoted herself to her family, taking care of her children while her husband worked in construction. Despite this, after years with her husband, she has still not told him the full experience. He knows she was displaced due to violence but not the details. When he asks, she changes the topic.

Her body, however, still suffers. She has had health problems linked to her womb, and although there is no medical proof this stemmed from the abuse, Karen believes it did.

Her silence was shared. It was difficult to talk about what happened. Karen’s father sold lottery tickets on the streets to put money on the table. He began drinking.

Her younger brother started taking drugs at 13, an addiction from which he has never recovered.

Her mother lived in constant sadness. She had a special affection for Karen, and she felt deep pain at her daughter having been sexually abused, the whole family being displaced and living in difficult conditions.

There was no money for rent, no money for food.

But, when Karen and her mother got together, alone, they could share and release their burdens. But after her mother got sick, those conversations became less and less frequent.

By 2007, demobilized paramilitary commanders were ordered to testify about war crimes in public hearings. Carolina and Karen were just two among thousands of women who had been victims of sexual abuse during armed conflict. According to the Colombian government’s unit for victims’ reparations (Unidad de Atención y Reparación a Víctimas), more than 31,000 people suffered sexual crimes. Ninety percent of them were women.  

The northern department of Magdalena, where Giraldo and his paramilitary group held sway, was the second worst affected, accounting for more than 10 percent of all reported cases of sexual abuse. In 2002 and 2003, the cases there were the worst in the country.

A Revealing Omission

On June 5, 2007, Hernán Giraldo, wearing a black shirt and his traditional hat, appeared in the city of Barranquilla to testify. People from across the Sierra Nevada waited outside. They held a banner, expressing their unconditional support for "El Patrón."

Just after 10.30 a.m., Giraldo sat down next to his lawyer. The judge explained to Giraldo that he should first discuss the structure of his paramilitary group and the crimes they committed.

Giraldo in the Court in his first free version. Source: Semana 

"I came to try to tell the truth about everything I know. I tell the victims not to be afraid, because I am here to clarify everything and what they know will help," Giraldo replied in court.

It was almost theatrical. Giraldo addressed the victims, with no apparent guilt, casting himself as someone who was to bring them long-awaited help.  

Between 2007 and May 2008, Giraldo attended 16 hearings where he had to answer for homicides, massacres, forced displacement and forced disappearances. But, like other prosecuted paramilitary commanders, he did not speak about the sexual violence he and his men used for decades.

SEE ALSO: Los Pachenca Emerge After Return of Paramilitary Boss to Colombia

It was not until 2009 that the Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into sexual crimes by Giraldo, after realizing mothers of many of the children he had recognized as being his were minors at the time of conception.

This is not surprising. Acts of sexual violence are among the least-discussed and most stigmatized crimes during armed conflict. According to Amnesty International, victims rarely come forward, and when they do, crimes are often only partially investigated. Furthermore, no criminal elements have openly confessed their role in this crime.

With Giraldo, the situation was particularly perverse. He did not reveal the extent of sexual violence perpetrated by him and his men on Karen and Carolina, and others in the Sierra Nevada.

The women he abused found no justice, no peace, no reparations.

And, despite being behind bars, he reportedly continued to abuse minors, even while seemingly cooperating with investigators.

The Abuse Doesn’t Stop

While Giraldo was giving statements in Barranquilla, Ana Milena, a 15-year-old girl, moved to the city in early January 2008.

She made the difficult decision to leave her family because she wanted to pursue a career while working as a nanny. But when she arrived in the huge city, she found out that the job offer she had traveled long hours for was no longer open. However, she decided to stay, according to what she told El Espectador.

That is when she met a women, who offered her a place to stay in exchange for help with the housework. Ana did not know it but the woman worked for Hernán Giraldo.

One day, while Ana was cleaning, the phone rang. and Hernán Giraldo was on the other end of the line. "He started asking me about myself, how old I was, what I was like physically," Ana recalled.

From that day on, Giraldo sent her his regards each time he called the house. But she was not interested in receiving any messages from him or having anything to do with him, she said in her statement.

One Sunday, the woman told Ana Milena that "Maria is not going to go (to the prison) today, it's your turn." She immediately understood that she had to go to the Barranquilla prison to which Giraldo had been transferred, instead of the girl who usually visited him. She had no choice.

Ana arrived later that day at the jail, carrying a bundle of money hidden inside a sanitary napkin. She was taken to a comfortable cell, with a refrigerator, television, bed and private bathroom. That day, her name was added to the long list of women to be sexually abused by Giraldo.

But unlike the abuses which took place in the Sierra Nevada, the assault on Ana Milena took place in a prison cell, with the complicity of staff from Colombia’s prison institute (INPEC).

She was not the only one. According to investigations by the Attorney General's Office which were made public years later, Giraldo abused at least four other minors while in prison in Antioquia and Barranquilla.

 It was not the only time. She was told that she had to visit Giraldo one more time. And when she was waiting to go on a third occasion, Hernán Giraldo was extradited to the United States.

The Extradited Truth

On May 13, 2008, in the early hours of the morning, the Colombian police escorted 13 paramilitary commanders, including Giraldo, to an air base in Bogotá.

Dressed in a leather jacket, black pants and with a serious expression, Giraldo was escorted by Colombian police onto the plane that would take him to the United States. His worst fear had come true.

Hernán Giraldo accompanied by members of the Colombian national police in 2008. Source: Presidencia de Colombia 

That day, Carolina turned on her television in the afternoon. She remembers seeing a man with black hair, a black mustache, handcuffed and accompanied by DEA agents. Giraldo had already arrived in the United States.

She felt an inner peace that she still cannot explain.  

That night, then-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez appeared on television, announcing that the decision to extradite Giraldo because members of his paramilitary group had committed new crimes since their demobilization while others were not cooperating with judicial authorities. Furthermore, the group had not complied with their obligation to pay reparations to victims, either by hiding assets or delaying their delivery.  

At that moment, Carolina did not think about what Giraldo’s extradition meant for her case, that it could seriously delay finding out the truth that she and hundreds of other victims were waiting for.

She just thought that for now, he was far away and could never hurt her or her family again.

However, Giraldo had already left everything in place for his criminal empire to thrive through his brothers, nephews and children.  

Giraldo had left Colombia but his criminal legacy was far from over.

*This is the second part of a three-chapter series on the sexual violence committed by Hernán Giraldo, a paramilitary leader that operated in the north of Colombia. While he was jailed in the United States, Giraldo started to speak about the hundreds of rapes he committed in Santa Marta’s Sierra Nevada region. Meanwhile, two women who suffered from his abuse, Carolina and Karen, are trying to rebuild their lives. Great lengths have been taken to protect those whose stories are told here, including changing names, dates and some personal details.

*Mark Wilson, Olivia de Gaudemar, Camila Montoya and Alicia Flórez contributed to this article.

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