At the start of 2010, the former Colombian paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo Serna was awaiting his sentence for drug trafficking in a US prison.
*This article is 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. Read the full report.
When he was extradited from Colombia years earlier, he left without speaking of the systematic sexual abuses he had committed against hundreds of women and girls in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta in northern Colombia.
In 2011, he broke his silence.
“There are no forced rapes. In the countryside, it’s normal for 13- and 14-year-old girls to have sexual relations … I had kids with an underage girl, but it wasn’t out of bad faith… I’m a campesino (farmer) and not aware of the laws,” Giraldo reasoned when he was investigated by the Justice and Peace Unit of Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office.
Despite the fact that Giraldo swore his innocence, prosecutors spent two years investigating the sexual abuses Giraldo committed. The victims of that violence also broke their silence. After years and years of being suppressed by the fear and the shame, they found their voice.
A Pandora’s Box of Abuse
More than 3,000 people suffered crimes against their individual freedoms and sexual integrity in the Magdalena department between 1990 and 2006, according to data requested by InSight Crime from Colombia’s Victims’ Attention and Reparations Unit. Of these victims, at least 200 women and girls were sexually assaulted by Giraldo, according to data provided by investigator and ex-senate candidate Norma Vera Salazar.
Just like Carolina and Karen, whom Giraldo abused when they were just 21 and 15 years old, respectively, Gladys was another of Giraldo’s child victims. Almost two decades after he abused her, she formally reported him to prosecutors.
In March 1996, when Gladys was just 13, her mother became sick. She left Gladys with her one-year-old brother while she made the long trip to the doctor. Medical centers are few and far between in the Sierra.
For three days, the children were alone. When her mother returned from the hospital, she found Gladys acting strange. She asked the young girl what happened. Gladys told her that Giraldo had found out she was alone and came to the home to assault her.
Days after he raped her, Giraldo came back to the house to speak with Gladys’ mother. “He told me not to get mad at him, that he was going to take care of my daughter,” she told the Attorney General’s Office, after staying silent out of fear of reprisal.
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Many other victims’ parents also chose not to contact authorities due to the fear and vulnerability they felt amid the power Giraldo wielded in this area.
Giraldo also offered money, property, cattle and jewelry to his young victims and their families, looking to buy his way into continuing on as he pleased with his widespread sexual abuse. According to Corporación Humanas, a Colombian human rights group, some of the families may have even encouraged the sexual abuse in exchange for some type of reward.
“I heard that some fathers handed their daughters to Giraldo themselves in exchange for a house. But for me and my story, that’s not true, no father would want to hurt their daughter like that,” said Carolina.
But the reality was more complex. “When El Patrón arrived, people gave him the prettiest girl. I don’t think he was a genius, but he had the power,” said a Colombian government official who spoke with InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
In 2011, prosecutors discovered that the mothers of 19 of the 38 children Giraldo recognized as being fathered by him were younger than 14 years old at the time of birth.
Gladys was one of them. As a girl, she had two children as a result of being raped on multiple occasions. Both were legally registered as Giraldo’s children.
This legal link that’s created when a child is registered in Colombia discouraged the girls, women and families from reporting the crimes. Giraldo didn’t just have control via the weapons he wielded, but also through these family ties.
“He didn’t just rape girls because he was a pedophile. He wanted fertile, healthy girls, with specific characteristics, to bear him boys that would grow up and assume military and political control of his organization, maintaining the network he set up in this area during the war,” Norma Vera told InSight Crime.
A Troubled Criminal Lineage
When Giraldo demobilized in 2006, he left everything in place so that his criminal operations were handled by some of his sons and nephews in his absence. However, things started to crumble without the family patriarch.
Giraldo sold part of the territory under his control to the Mejía Múnera brothers, a couple of hardened drug traffickers close to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). After Giraldo and his bloc demobilized, the brothers moved into his territory and formed a criminal group known as the Nevados. Giraldo’s son, Hernán Giraldo Ochoa, alias “Rambo,” was designated second-in-command.
But Rambo had bigger ambitions. In addition to being part of the Nevados, he was supposed to be coordinating all of his father’s criminal operations. However, it was his older half-brother, Daniel Giraldo Contreras, alias “Grillo,” that took control of Giraldo’s criminal domain. This enraged Rambo and some of his other brothers.
What they didn’t know is that Grillo wasn’t alone. He had looked for protection from the Urabeños, a criminal group that emerged out of the AUC’s demobilization and that was in the middle of expanding its presence.
In 2009, the Nevados and the Urabeños were battling it out. The Urabeños eventually came out victorious and expelled the Nevados. As a result, they asked Grillo to share some of Giraldo’s criminal proceeds, primarily those derived from charging extortion fees, and his control of drug trafficking and gasoline smuggling. Giraldo’s heirs had no choice but to accept the request from what was now a major criminal group – much larger than theirs – despite not being very happy about the situation.
They’d have to wait three years before they could start trying to regain some of their control. To do so, Rubén Giraldo aligned himself with Elkin Javier López Torres, alias “La Silla,” a powerful drug trafficker in Colombia’s Caribbean region.
While Giraldo’s heirs had spent decades in this territory, the Urabeños had more weapons and resources on their side. When the fighting started, violence increased exponentially in Magdalena. In just two months, the fight between the Urabeños and Giraldo’s troops saw 150 murders committed in the city of Santa Marta alone.
Amid the total chaos, the government targeted several leaders from both factions. In September 2012, Colombian authorities captured the Urabeños’ leader in Magdalena. Two months after that, they captured La Silla.
By the middle of 2013, more than six of Giraldo’s family members were in jail. Meanwhile, three of his cousins, a son-in-law and one of his fathers-in-law had all been assassinated during these disputes.
These blows, combined with continued pressure from security forces, forced Giraldo’s heirs to pause their fight against the Urabeños and forge an alliance with their rival. Those on Giraldo’s side regained their power in the Sierra Nevada, serving as logistical intermediaries for the Urabeños and their drug trafficking activities through the north of the country.
Back in control, those that managed to avoid being captured by authorities came to be known as the Pachenca. The name emerged from the group’s new leader, Jesús María Aguirre, alias “Chucho Mercancía” or “Chucho Pachenca,” one of Giraldo’s former lieutenants.
With Chucho Mercancía at the helm, the Pachenca took charge as the armed wing that would protect Giraldo’s economic and criminal interests.
Report At Your Own Risk
While the Pachenca were busy extorting, murdering and trafficking drugs, Colombian prosecutors were calling on Giraldo’s victims to report the abuses they had suffered years ago.
But the victims were filled with distress. Giraldo had eyes and ears all over Magdalena, and many of those who survived the sexual abuse feared that reporting those crimes would put them in danger.
By 2013, more than 10 years after being sexually assaulted, Carolina had spent a year receiving help from a foundation that accompanied female victims of the armed conflict in Magdalena. She had been invited by a relative who Giraldo also raped.
The foundation provided her with psychological care and direction and talking helped her slowly feel the pressure lessen.
The woman who ran the foundation encouraged her to report the crime. Carolina hadn’t because her father insisted that to do so put her life at risk. But the testimonies of other women compelled her to go to the authorities.
Around this time, the Colombian government passed Law 1448 on Victims and Land Restitution, which laid out regulations for how victims of the armed conflict were to be cared for. Carolina had to provide testimony to be included in the registry for victims. And if her testimony was accepted, only then would she be able to finally gain access to financial reparations but also see the truth come out about what she, and many others, had undergone.
But as she would later find out, the system had many flaws.
One morning in 2013, Carolina went to the Ombudsman’s Office, the agency in charge of overseeing the protection of human rights. The headquarters was located in a small, white, colonial-style house situated along a busy avenue. The security guard let her in and Carolina sat on a small wall in the garden while an official tended to her.
Minutes later, a psychologist welcomed her. She told her that another administrative official would be taking her case, and she accompanied Carolina to her desk. The office was dark, lit only by a single neon lamp hanging from the ceiling. It was hot, and there wasn’t any ventilation.
Carolina sat down at the desk in front of the official. She was nervous. It was the first time she was going to tell a stranger about the times in which Giraldo and his men raped her in front of her family and a few workers from her father’s restaurant.
The official didn’t seem particularly concerned, looking at her phone. Carolina waited for a minute. The silence seemed to alert the official, who asked that Carolina begin making her statement. While she typed, her gaze went from the computer screen to her cell phone. She didn’t once look up at Carolina, who had to recall the hardest moment of her life to a person that wouldn’t even look her in the eyes.
Carolina doesn’t believe even 10 minutes passed before the woman said: “That’ll be everything then.” Stunned by her coldness and the quickness of the entire process, Carolina responded by saying, “already?” The official responded yes and dismissed her.
Carolina left the office disconcerted, but that wasn’t the worst of it. When she got home, she realized that the certificate the woman gave her had incorrect dates. Carolina was raped in the 2000s, but the officials marked that it had occurred 10 years later. This made the statement different from what she had said, which complicated everything and made her entry into the victims’ registry even harder, as well jeopardizing her access to reparations.
As she suspected, Carolina received a notice from Bogotá five days later that said she wasn’t eligible for reparations due to the official’s error. In addition to having to find enough money for food and rent, she now had to ask for a loan so a lawyer would help her correct the mistake.
This wasn’t the only time that Carolina had to make a statement either. She also had to go to the prosecutor’s office in Santa Marta to give a statement before the Justice and Peace Unit, which was in charge of criminal investigations against armed actors. To formally file her complaint, she had to deliver the certificate they had given her at the Ombudsman’s Office.
This time she was accompanied by three other women, also victims of sexual violence at the hands of Giraldo.
A man received them at the entrance. He took the paper that had been given to Carolina and asked her to follow him. While entering the headquarters, Carolina noticed that one of her friends was visibly shaken, and had turned back halfway. Carolina asked her what happened. Her friend said that she’d seen one of Giraldo’s men entering the building. According to her, he was one of those in charge of collecting extortion payments in her town.
Fear gripped the three women, and they left without ever giving their statements.
Two years later, in 2015, Carolina again gathered the courage to return to the prosecutor’s office and finish filing her complaint. Months earlier, in 2014, prosecutors had announced Giraldo would return to Colombia after finishing his sentence in the United States. Carolina preferred to finish the process while Giraldo was still out of the country. You never know what could happen with his return, she thought. She made her way to the headquarters once more and finally made her statement.
That same year, Carolina began weaving and embroidering for a living, which also helped calm her mind.
Everyone Loses Their Battles
In 2015, Giraldo was in the middle of his legal proceedings for drug trafficking in the United States. But the story US prosecutors told was very different from the reality of things in Colombia.
“I want to inform you that I will plead guilty to the drug trafficking charges in my case because I was guilty,” Giraldo wrote in a hand-written letter to Judge Reggie Walton, who presided over his trial. “My reason for taxing drug traffickers was to help my community fight against the FARC guerrillas.”
Giraldo and his legal team spent years looking for ways to reduce his sentence, arguing that he hadn’t directly participated in drug trafficking, but only taxed farmers and traffickers.
“I have a responsibility to raise my children. They’ve been separated from me for many years and have grown up while I’m here in the United States,” Giraldo wrote in his letter.
What US prosecutors either ignored or failed to recognize was that dozens of the children Giraldo referenced were the product of him raping young girls. In his absence, some of his children also helped him maintain his drug trafficking empire on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
But Giraldo’s efforts were in vain. In 2017, a US judge sentenced him to more than 16 years in prison.
A year after her rapist was convicted, Karen, whom Girado and his men sexually abused in 2003, felt that it was the right moment to continue with her studies.
She’d wake up at 4 in the morning to leave breakfast and lunch ready for her entire family. After studying, she’d return home to help her kids with their homework while she also did her own schoolwork. Later she’d prepare dinner and clean the house before heading off to sleep.
It took a lot of effort, but she managed to graduate as a kindergarten teacher. She found work a short time later as a preschool teacher. During the day she spent her time teaching dozens of boys and girls, and in the evening she looked after her own children and took care of things around the house. But there came a time when she found it too hard to balance her family and work life, and she left her job.
A year later, in 2019, the death of her mother rocked her foundation. Her mother spent various months in the hospital due to a liver illness. Karen would never forget what it was like to see her mom in those final moments of her life through the glass window of the hospital’s intensive care unit. She was closest to her mom. Her mom was the only person she felt confident enough to talk about her past with.
The Boss Arrives
On the morning of January 25, 2021, Carolina woke up at 5:30 am, fixed her coffee and after drinking it, went to tidy up the front of her house. She swept up the leaves and pulled out the weeds that had grown in some of her plants. She went back inside to start breakfast for her daughter, making the sign of the cross over her chest as she passed the sacred heart of Jesus that hangs on her wall.
Carolina worked for a bit, prepared lunch and then let her daughter leave to go play with a neighbor outside. When it was around 6 pm, she asked her daughter to come back inside. The little girl pleaded with her mother to let her play for just a little while longer. Nighttime always brings back the worst memories of Carolina’s life. So as soon as the sun goes down, she hides in the privacy of her own home.
Ever since she was raped, Carolina has taken additional precautions to protect herself and her daughter. She chose her gray house, for example, because the neighbors couldn’t see her. To reach her house, you have to go through a set of doors, and the entrance to her house sits at the end of an alley behind another set of doors. She feels safer this way.
That night in late January, she ate dinner with her daughter before they each went to their bedrooms. She laid down in her bed and turned on the television right as an image of Giraldo deboarding a plane in Bogotá was shown on the news.
Giraldo, now more than 70 years old, had been deported back to Colombia after serving 12 years of his drug trafficking sentence in the United States. The man who returned did not look anything like the man who had boarded the plane to leave years ago, wearing a leather jacket and an arrogant expression.
The next day, Carolina went to buy the ingredients she needed for breakfast. She ran into a neighbor that had also seen the news the night before. She told Carolina that Giraldo was looking for all the people who had reported him.
“Look, he’s back for all of us,” Carolina’s neighbor said. This left her feeling unsettled as if she needed to explain herself. “Why? Why would he come for us if we haven’t done anything wrong? They were the ones that made me suffer and scarred me for the rest of my life,” she responded.
Karen also felt her worst fears resurfacing with Giraldo’s return. After seeing the news that morning of January 26, she woke up earlier than usual to grab breakfast. A neighbor of hers, whom Giraldo had also raped, approached her. “Didn’t you hear that Giraldo is going to be released? I’m scared, really scared,” the neighbor said.
“That makes two of us,” Karen replied.
But not everyone felt this way. In other places in Magdalena, people celebrated. On social media, some even posted messages expressing their happiness with Giraldo’s arrival, hoping that he’d bring some sense of security to the region, according to one government official who spoke to InSight Crime but who didn’t want to be named for security reasons.
The government was also standing by anxiously, waiting to see what Giraldo’s return would mean. They suspected Giraldo was going to take a backseat role in the Pachenca, so he could work on his image, make public apologies and try to maintain his communal roots, the same government official said.
Meanwhile, for the Pachenca, it was hoped Giraldo’s return to Colombia could give them a much-needed shot in the arm. The loss of many of their top leaders and a costly war waged against their fomer ally, the Urabeños, had left them in a sorry condition.
Despite this the Pachenca had maintained influence in certain areas that were historically under Giraldo’s control, like the municipality of Guachaca, according to officials. There, just like in other parts of the Sierra Nevada, Giraldo had established an extortion system that had been around since before he abandoned the area.
“When I get back to Colombia I want to work,” Giraldo wrote to the judge that heard his case in the United States. “I’m going to raise cattle, harvest crops, and wake up with the sunrise. If I have to, I’ll clean floors, wash dishes, work as a taxi driver or however else I can, but I’ll never be involved with drugs.”
Giraldo hoped to return to Colombia and remain free. While he had a pending sentence of eight years to serve with the Peace and Justice Tribunal, the sentence he served in the United States was longer. As such, he’d be free after certifying his contribution to the truth and reparations for victims.
A Criminal Empire in Ruins
Giraldo’s hopes of freedom seemed to ignore the many complaints that surfaced against him for rape while he was in various prisons — complaints that had long sat in a dusty filing cabinet in the prosecutor’s office.
The first one came to light in February 2021, six days after Giraldo arrived in Colombia, from a woman who had gone to the prosecutor’s office years earlier.
Soon four other women came forward with accusations that Giraldo raped them as minors in different prisons around the country before he was extradited. Despite the fact that two of the complaints had been sitting in the Attorney General’s Office’s archives for years, it wasn’t until April 2021 that they officially opened an investigation.
This was something Giraldo hadn’t expected. After years of trying to clear his name, he was now at risk of spending the rest of his life behind bars. If prosecutors could corroborate the allegations against him, Giraldo could lose all of the benefits afforded to him by the Justice and Peace tribunal and face a 40-year prison sentence, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, Karen and Carolina have decided to move on with their lives.
In the middle of 2021, Carolina went back to the place where the rape occurred, hoping to turn the page. A friend offered to join her. They took the bus to the town, and after arriving, they approached the area where her father’s restaurant was. Everything had changed: her family’s house was no longer there, and the vast green spaces were now replaced by homes.
Her friend asked how she felt, but Carolina couldn’t find the words. She could feel the hair on her arms stand on end. The weight of the emotional impact made her feel like this was a necessary step to close this chapter of her life, which had stalked her for years.
After returning to town, Carolina wanted to make a change that would symbolize the new life she wanted to live. She cut her hair and dyed it. This strengthened her, she said. “Now I feel so much stronger than who I was. Before I couldn’t even go out because I was afraid this man would send his men after me. Now I have a foundation of women who were victims of this same abuse, and they’ve helped me move forward.”
In September 2021, Carolina received the good news she had hoped for: her request for reparations was accepted after so many years of fighting. But due to the slow administrative process, it’ll be years before she can access any of the money.
Carolina will be one of just a few victims of sexual violence to receive them. Despite there being more than around 30,000 registered victims due to the armed conflict, only some 8,000 have received some form of reparations.
The money she’ll get will be used to find her own home. While she waits, she dreams of how her new house will look, and of a better future for her and her children. Karen has these same dreams. If given the choice and the chance to go back to the countryside, she would. In the garden she made at her house she has tomatoes, aloe vera and some flowers. Her children play there while she waters her plants.
Even though she’s happy, Karen would like to study again, have a home with a terrace and a patio to garden. She hopes to have lemongrass, lemon balm and other medicinal plants. Despite the fact that she saves her money and watches her finances, it’s still not enough. She too hopes for reparations.
She hasn’t received any word from the government. When she goes to the appropriate offices, they brush her off and tell her that victims of sexual violence aren’t the priority when it comes to reparations.
Currently, Hernán Giraldo remains in prison in Itagüí, Antioquia, awaiting a decision by the Justice and Peace courts that will determine if he will spend the rest of his life in prison, due to acts of sexual abuse which he allegedly committed after demobilizing.
For Carolina and Karen, who for so many years have fought through their worst traumas in a country where their rapist still wields influence, this is one step closer to becoming whole again.
They find comfort hoping that Giraldo will never come back to the Sierra Nevada, despite the fact that his heirs now occupy this territory. At the same time, they continue to wait for the government to guarantee their fundamental human rights and pay them back for at least part of the horrors their rapist committed.
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