When they ventured back into El Salado in November 2001, 21 months after the massacre, residents found their houses completely overgrown with vegetation. (Photo from the report of the Historical Memory Group of the CNRR.)
Ten years ago yesterday, paramilitaries finished a four-day massacre in the village of El Salado, in the Montes de MarÃa region near Colombia’s Caribbean coast. About 450 paramilitaries, unchallenged by the security forces, took control of the town and killed more than 60 of its residents. They did so without firing a shot, torturing their victims and using implements like knives and stones.
The massacre was one of the worst in Colombian history, though only one of 42 that the paramilitaries carried out in the tiny Montes de MarÃa region in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Of the 450 paramilitary fighters who participated in this act of extreme cruelty, only 15 have ever been condemned by Colombia’s justice system. Of the military personnel who allowed it to happen and possibly aided and abetted it, only four have been punished, with disciplinary sanctions.
Here is a translation of a column about El Salado by El Tiempo columnist Daniel Samper, which appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Colombian daily. Also recommended is the excellent report published last September by the Historical Memory Group of the Colombian government’s National Commission for Reconciliation and Reparations.
Colombia, an unlucky country
Daniel Samper Pizano
El Tiempo (Colombia), February 21, 2010
El Salado is a two-hundred-year-old village located in the Montes de MarÃa. 18 kilometers away is Carmen de BolÃvar, which inspired the famous porro (folksong) of its most beloved son, the composer Lucho BermÃºdez. At other times, El Salado was a prosperous town, known as the “tobacco capital of the [Caribbean] coast” and celebrated for its vegetables. 20 years ago it had large storehouses, good public and health services, a high school and 33 stores.
Now it is famous as the scene of one of the cruelest massacres in our history. Ten years ago today was the final day of an orgy of blood that had begun on February 16, 2000 in some nearby hamlets and, starting on the 17th, began on the streets of El Salado. During more than 70 hours, three paramilitary groups set up a machine of death in the town without being bothered by any authority. They had fought the guerrillas previously, and ended up fleeing, and so they fell upon the civilian population.
The Historical Memory Group’s report about these crimes (La masacre de El Salado: esa guerra no era nuestra, ediciones Taurus-Semana, 2009) affirms that the first troops, made up of marines, appeared on the 19th at 5 PM, “three days after the massacre had begun, and they only came by land, without air support, while two paramilitary helicopters overflew the territory of the massacre during at least three days.” While 450 men commanded by Salvatore Mancuso, “Jorge 40″ and Carlos CastaÃ±o committed all kinds of atrocities in El Salado, the Marine Brigade was off looking for guerrillas and cattle thieves in other zones. According to the Inspector-General [ProcuradurÃa], the police and military “omitted the compliance of their functions.”
El Salado’s was a foretold massacre. Two months before, a helicopter scattered flyers over the town warning the inhabitants to eat, drink and celebrate the New Year because they had few days left. For years the town was a victim of the guerrillas’ merciless attacks and extortions, and now came the paramilitaries’ threats for supposed complicity with the FARC. Few inhabitants thought that the threats would be carried out. But in the course of four days the paramilitaries killed 61 citizens, among them three minors under 18 years old and ten elderly people.
Out of respect for our Sunday readers, I will abstain from describing the cruelties that were committed: from women impaled through the vagina to men beheaded with knives. At the end, 4,000 people abandoned the area, and only a few hundred remained in what became a ghost town. Thus began the interminable history of those displaced by violence in BolÃvar. Many ended up begging on the street corners of the coastal cities.
15 paramilitaries â€” none of them of any importance in the hierarchy â€” were found guilty in trials related to the massacre, and four marine officers received disciplinary sanctions.
A few years ago, numerous displaced people decided to return to El Salado. They had, and continue to have, the generous support of several foundations, NGOs, authorities and private businesses. But upon returning, they discovered that the region’s lands, which had provided them with food, had suffered a reverse land reform: large investors controlled them, and a hectare [2.5 acres] that was worth 300,000 pesos (US$150) today costs ten times as much.
The case of El Salado was dramatic, and is still more so because it is a metaphor for what happens in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians get caught in between the opposing forces, and on occasion do not even have the authorities’ protection. The justice that comes later is slow and mean. And someone is growing rich through this war. The rebuilding of El Salado could be a note of optimism in a depressing panorama.