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A Criminal Empire that Abused Girls and Women

AUC / 13 APR 2022 BY SARA GARCÍA AND LAURA ÁVILA EN

It was 7:00 at night. Carolina was lying in bed and turned on the TV just as a news reporter announced: “One of the most bloodthirsty paramilitary leaders of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta has arrived, deported from the United States. He just finished serving a 12-year prison sentence for drug trafficking.” 

Carolina was paralyzed. Her heart raced. She wanted to scream but she couldn’t. She put her hands on her mouth to hold back her tears. She could not scream, as just a few meters from her, in the room next door, separated only by a curtain serving as a door, was her daughter putting on her pajamas.

She didn't want to scare her. She didn't know how to explain why she was terrified.

*This is the first 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.

While covering her mouth, she saw the image on the TV of a skinny old man with very gray hair. His figure was lost under a bulletproof vest and a protective helmet. He looked at the cameras with hollow eyes, as two Colombian Migration Officers escorted him off of the plane.

Carolina recognized him immediately. He was the man who had sexually abused her several years earlier. Hernán Giraldo Serna, the former paramilitary commander, alias “El Patrón” of the Sierra Nevada, had returned to Colombia. 

Although he was in Bogotá and she was hundreds of miles away in Santa Marta, a city on Colombia’s north coast, the fear still gripped her.

Source: Associated Press

She regretted turning on the TV. The news set off memories and anxieties that have led her to lose sleep, leading to her take pills on occasion to rest.

A few miles from Carolina's house, Karen was preparing dinner for her family. One of her children was looking for his favorite cartoon program. As he changed channels, Karen asked her son to hold on when she saw the same image that had terrified Carolina. She wanted to make sure that what she was seeing was real.

The emotions were the same: fear, terror, pain. Both were living their worst nightmares.

For Carolina and Karen, the image brought back not only the painful memories of the violence against their bodies, but also the anger, impotence, and frustration hidden somewhere in their memories.

Carolina and Karen were connected through life experiences; both were victims of the armed conflict in the department of Magdalena, in northern Colombia, and were sexually abused by the same man. The two share stories, pain and victimizers.

That night, they both turned off their televisions, but neither could sleep.

A Paradisiacal, But Bloody Mountain Range

Located in Northern Colombia, on the Caribbean Coast, is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Now it's mostly known for white sand beaches, rivers of cold water descending from mountaintops, and a range of wildlife and fauna. Tourists have flocked to the region for years.

Unfortunately, these natural characteristics also attract criminal groups.

Its rugged mountains shelter marijuana and coca crops, and connect the Caribbean Sea with coca growing enclaves, such as the Catatumbo subregion, in the department of Norte de Santander.

From its beaches, large quantities of cocaine are sent in boats and ships to Central America and the United States. Meanwhile, in many of the municipalities along the mountain range, the State has been conspicuously absent and its coexistence and collusion with criminal groups has attracted attention.

SEE ALSO: Los Pachenca Profile

Hernán Giraldo arrived in the city of Santa Marta at the end of the 1960s, accompanied by his parents and siblings. They came from the department of Caldas, in the central western part of the country.

Like many others, they were fleeing the political violence which had been sweeping the country for two decades, sparked by clashes between supporters of Colombia's two traditional parties, conservatives and liberals.

At that time, Colombia was living through a convulsive political situation. Left-wing minority political factions had been suppressed in the democratic arena. Their discontent was manifested in the emergence of two guerrilla movements: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN)

In this context, and unlike other places, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was still considered to be a place with good living conditions. The political violence was not extreme and land prices were low, attracting migration from the center of the country.

Giraldo, then 23 years old, found work collecting coffee and later planting trees for the sale of wood, while his father set up a business in the public market of Santa Marta. There, Giraldo spent his free time observing what was happening.

The public market was an important meeting point at the time. Peasants, laborers, merchants and marijuana growers were there to sell, stock up on food, and do business. If you wanted to know what was happening in any of the territories of the Sierra, that was the place to find answers.

Father and son continued to work, getting to know their surroundings and looking for ways to make money.

Meanwhile, in 1975, US citizens began to arrive in the Sierra Nevada’s territories through the Peace Corps, a project designed by US President John F. Kennedy that consisted of sending volunteers to assist rural communities with agricultural development, construction, education and health projects.

Ironically, it was the Americans, who arrived in Colombia to help, who saw the economic opportunity in the marijuana crops that had been planted in different places around the Sierra since the mid-1950s. Some of the Peace Corps volunteers discovered the properties of marijuana and began trafficking it from northern Colombia to the United States.

US dollars started to enter Magdalena, and the growers, transporters and public officials in the region started to receive their payments.

By that time, Hernan Giraldo had already bought a plot of land in the Sierra and, attracted by the large amount of money changing hands, began to plant marijuana and transport it to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. From there, the Americans sent it to the United States.

With the rise of marijuana, violence in the area also increased. In 1977, common criminals murdered one of Giraldo’s brothers near the market in Santa Marta. Tired of the threats against his family and his businesses, Giraldo formed a protection group.

Giraldo created "Los Chamizos," a protection group for politicians, merchants and mafiosos or “marimberos” – as marijuana growers were known in the region. The group was so effective, that in addition to safeguarding businesses, it began to eliminate existing gangs. In just two years, Giraldo became the only person that bought marijuana in the whole region, according to a former member of the Tayrona Resistance Bloc, commanded by Hernán Giraldo, who spoke with InSight Crime under the condition of anonymity.  

“Giraldo sold himself as a person who could initially offer a mechanism of care and security for [marijuana] crops belonging to some politicians, as well as businessmen that have businesses there in the public market. So, they sponsored it,” assured the former member of the Bloc.

Giraldo’s power started to consolidate, he recruited more men and took over the business almost entirely. But then other armed actors began to arrive in the territory to dispute control.

At the beginning of the 1980s, in the framework of the FARC’s Seventh Conference, the expansion of this guerrilla group to the Colombian Caribbean was proposed. The FARC's 19th and the 59th Fronts were established in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This brought problems to Giraldo and his businesses.   

In the mid-1980s, the FARC tried to kill Giraldo on several occasions. In response, Giraldo expanded Los Chamizos and formed a kind of paramilitary group to defend himself against the guerrillas. He called them the "Self Defense Forces of Mamey," one of the villages of Magdalena where Giraldo had influence. Giraldo wanted to expand his criminal networks beyond the department of Magdalena, and violence became his main tool to achieve this. Meanwhile, the FARC remained in the territory but failed to wrest influence from "El Patrón."

Source: RCN Radio 

At the end of the 1980s, when he had more territory and power, Giraldo renamed his group the Campesino Self Defense Forces of Magdalena and La Guajira (Autodefensas Campesinas del Magdalena y La Guajira - ACMG).

By the start of the 1990s, Giraldo and his Self Defense Forces had managed to establish a presence in Magdalena and La Guajira, a department bordering Venezuela, through violent territorial expansion and alliances with local clans. 

It was in those conflictive territories of Magdalena where the stories of Carolina, Karen and their families intersected with Hernán Giraldo and his paramilitary group. They found themselves at the same place, at the same time, where the fight against the guerrillas was used to justify the worst barbarities.

When Stories Crossed

Carolina and Karen met almost ten years ago at a foundation that accompanied female survivors of the armed conflict in northern Colombia. They have remained close ever since.

Carolina is about 40 years old. She speaks slowly but firmly. Her story is impactful, and she has been a voice of support for other women to feel confident enough to tell their stories. For several years, she has accompanied dozens of female victims of sexual violence, forced displacement and disappearances in their processes of seeking justice. Every day, she tries to transform the scars the violence left on her body and soul, by helping her group of women.

Karen is 35 years old, gregarious and chatty. She speaks softly and slowly, and while doing so, her words reflect the courage of a woman who has taken on different roles within her family despite her challenging story. She enjoys recounting her memories, but avoids revisiting the difficult moments that marked her life. As she speaks of the war, her voice trembles and reflects wounds that have yet to heal.

The two were born in the city of Santa Marta, the capital of the department of Magdalena, in the 1980s. Although they didn't yet know each other, their families lived in similar situations. Life in the city was complicated and their parents earned little. Karen's parents sold lottery tickets on the streets of Santa Marta, earning them little to support their children. Carolina's father sold drinks, but the income was not enough to pay the rent and feed his family. Close friends or acquaintances offered work to both Carolina and Karen's families in municipalities near the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and they decided to move without hesitation.

Carolina does not remember the specific moment she arrived in the small town in the Sierra, but it was during the 1990s, when she was a teenager. When she arrived everything seemed calm. She and her family hoped to find a more inhabited place, but they found a small, poorly urbanized and rather silent town. Carolina remembers feeling disillusioned. She had hoped for a place with opportunities for herself, but embraced what her parents considered to be best.

Carolina's father decided to set up a restaurant, and he set up a deal with a friend where he could pay for a house with the profits generated by the restaurant. Having a house, even a small one, was a dream come true for the family.

Some 70 kilometers from where Carolina settled was a town nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where Karen's family arrived in the mid-1990s, when she was eight years old. The town was lost among the lush vegetation, thick with different shades of green that emerged from the trees in the sunlight. The rivers that came down from the Sierra left behind natural pools as they continued on their way to the Caribbean Sea.

Karen remembers that land and her new home with a nostalgic smile. Her mother and father had agreed to plant crops and take care of the owners’ animals in exchange for lodging. The house was humble, made of mud and wooden slabs, just like those of her neighbors. She does not remember the scarcity, but rather the abundance of animals and fun. The family was in charge of dogs, cows and chickens, and Karen loved to play with the smallest ones, with the chicks.

Every morning before going to study, Karen and her brothers helped their mother feed the animals and collect the eggs from the hens, while her father collected the wood for the fire.

When they arrived from school, children from the surrounding houses gathered to play football and checa, a local baseball-like game in which they had to hit drink lids with broom sticks.

On weekends they went to the river. Karen and her brothers and other children from the village enjoyed playing in the cold water that streamed down from the Sierra while their mothers washed their clothes on the shore, and their fathers talked about what had happened during the week.

Five years passed and the family managed to adapt to the countryside and live a quiet life. However, they began to perceive changes around them.

But such fun could be easily interrupted. "You would hear that the army arrived there, that the paracos arrived, that they were here,” Karen recalled, referring to the nickname used in Colombia to refer to the paramilitaries.

"At six o'clock we were already locked up, in bed, lying down, but awake," Karen told us.

War Enters the Neighborhood

Like Karen, Carolina began to notice that the tranquility that existed when she first moved into town was fading rapidly.

In the 1990s, the village she describes as lonely and "full of mountains" began to fill with armed men, when Giraldo began to consolidate his territorial control along the Sierra Nevada.

Hernán Giraldo’s men sought to charge an extortion fee at her father's restaurant. Carolina remembers they demanded between 20,000 to 50,000 Colombian pesos ($10 to $25) per house. Everyone who received some kind of income, whether from a shop, a trade, livestock, or a crop, had to pay a percentage of what they earned in exchange for “protection” from the guerrillas and other threats.

SEE ALSO: Los Pachenca Seek New Sanctuary for Drug Operations at Colombia's Tip

But the extortions, Carolina remembers bitterly, were just the beginning of other forms of social control. Pamphlets began to appear on the streets and at homes. Those named on the pamphlets were to leave the area. Carolina remembers that they once woke up with white papers stuck on the door.

“They listed what the restrictions would be and who they were looking for. They said that those who did not stay inside were going to be tied up, massacred or something, and that they were looking for the snitches, gossips, who spent their time blabbering, that they were going to round them up,” she recalled.

These restrictions applied for men, women and children. Those who failed to comply with the orders risked being threatened, punished or killed. There were exemplary punishments just for women. Karen remembered seeing women sweeping the court or the village park on three occasions.

"So people knew that they were doing something wrong because they were sent to sweep," she said.

Other people who lived in Sierra Nevada at the time corroborated Carolina and Karen’s recollections. Common criminals were dealt with by Giraldo's men. Others simply were not to Giraldo's liking, including prostitutes and women labelled as unfaithful or as "witches" for allegedly performing esoteric rituals. Others such as those believed to be leftist or homosexual were also targeted for punishment, the residents said.

Hernán Giraldo seemingly viewed anyone who behaved contrary to the orders he imposed or to what he considered good customs and morals as a threat.

But for Carolina and her family, the real terror came from the disappearances. Every time Carolina's father returned from the market, he told them about what he had heard, that armed men came to houses at midnight. They knocked down doors, took young people off to war and left mothers inconsolable.

“They were always killing, always disappearing people. always. There wasn't a day where nobody disappeared,” said Carolina. 

Karen and her siblings heard similar stories. Their parents would lower their voices and send them to play, but she remembers the terror on their faces. They should have hidden but curiosity led the children to listen to those stories, happening around their homes.

“There was one man who was tortured and his arms and head were cut off," Karen told InSight Crime, with her eyes wide open as if she were reliving it. “I heard my mom say that they shot him with a rifle and his head was like a punctured ball and that his head bore signs of torture. And his arms were destroyed, like when one carves up a chicken."

Everything had changed for Carolina and Karen.

Sexual Abuse as a Weapon of War

By the late 1990s, when she was in her 20s, Carolina had become mother to her first daughter. Her days were spent caring for the baby and helping her dad at the restaurant.

It was important for her to help with the business and to contribute financially, despite her father insisting that it was not necessary. “My father said, ‘if women don't work, why are you going to work?'"

I replied that "we all had to work because we were all one family, especially because I had a newborn baby. But he insisted I shouldn't go, because paramilitaries used to come and look at me as if they wanted to devour me,” she remembered.

Deep down, Carolina was afraid. She feared what it might mean for her and her daughter to be the restaurant, when it seemed like the threat of violence was always around.

Her fear was well-founded as the town began to talk about women and girls being sexually abused by Giraldo and his men.

In some cases, Giraldo took girls out of their homes, snatched from the arms of their relatives. In others, he sent his subordinates to pick them up and take them to his estates. In all cases, a refusal meant death.

“There was a lot of rape, physical abuse, kidnappings," commented a woman whose brother was killed by Hernán Giraldo, and whose identity has been protected for security reasons.

And this reality soon reached Carolina’s neighborhood. She remembers one day when she saw her neighbor crying inconsolably at the entrance of her house. She asked her mom what had happened. “They just took her daughter," her mother told her.

"Afterwards they brought them back all battered, beaten, bruised, punched," Carolina said.

Carolina did not want to fall into the hands of Giraldo and his men. She spent her days trying not to catch anyone's attention. By then, it was already known what happened when a girl or woman caught the attention of "El Patrón."

Unfortunately, Carolina was already on Giraldo’s radar. 

The Sentence for Being a Woman

One night in 2000, Carolina and her family were in the restaurant preparing to close. She and her father were doing the accounting and organizing the tables, when Hernán Giraldo arrived, accompanied by two of his men.

Hours earlier, they had passed by to collect the extortion from Carolina's father, but he didn’t have the money to pay it and had promised to collect the money to give it to them later.

Giraldo was angered at this promise. When they realized that Carolina and her dad were about to close the restaurant, one of them screamed: “You are not going to close anything here. We are the ones who rule. This closes when we say so.”

Carolina and her father looked at each other and were paralyzed. Neither of them knew what to do.

Then, one of the men went to Carolina and said: “You stay with me.”

Carolina was motionless. She couldn't speak. She couldn't move.

Her dad pleaded, repeatedly asking why she had to stay, but he was unable to prevent his daughter's assault. Every plea from her father seemed to increase the rage of Giraldo and his henchmen.

Giraldo’s men tied up Carolina's dad and the restaurant staff. They beat and locked up her mother, who had heard the commotion and came to see what was happening.

Carolina was taken to the house, beaten and sexually abused by three men, including Giraldo. She was 21 years old.

Before leaving, they warned that if she or any of them told what had happened, they would be killed.

As soon as the men left, Carolina, her father and the rest of her family left town with just the clothes on their backs. They took no belongings and not even their shoes, for fear that Giraldo's men would return.

Carolina took her daughter in her arms and they all began to go down the mountain towards the road that leads to Santa Marta. They ran and ran, for hours, in the middle of the night, through thick vegetation.

With blisters on their feet and wounds on their bodies, they arrived in Santa Marta to ask a family friend to provide them with a place to stay.

Three years later, in 2003, Karen would share the same fate as Carolina.

The paramilitaries went from time to time to the farm where she and her family lived. “They would arrive and say to my mom: ‘Old woman, wash our clothes or cook us something.’ Out of fear that they would harm her, she had to do their laundry, she had to kill an animal, make soups, cook for them. My dad would look for the supplies for her to cook. He would chase down a chicken, whatever,” recalled Karen. 

Karen had never seen them. She knew they were men in camouflage and black rubber boots because of what their relatives and neighbors said. “They used to arrive and my mother would tell us to get into the house and not to come out.” And of course they obeyed her.

One afternoon, Karen was at the entrance of her house talking to her brothers when she saw men approaching. But they didn't ask her mother to cook for them or for her dad to kill a chicken for them.

They pushed Karen into the house and threw out the rest of her family. Her mother screamed and refused to leave her daughter, while the men shoved her outside. Inside the house, Karen was raped. She was 15 years old.

When they left, they told the family to look away and not dare to follow them or else they would be killed.

The heartbroken family didn't know what to do. Karen's mom hugged her. Her dad shifted on the spot, not knowing what to do. They wanted to flee, but it was already dark. They waited for daylight but nobody could sleep.

In the next morning, they packed a suitcase and left with little else to take the bus to Santa Marta.

They never returned.

*This is the first 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 Florez contributed to this documentary research.  

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