Ten years ago today – July 15, 1997 – over 100 paramilitary fighters arrived in MapiripÃ¡n, a riverfront market town in southern Meta department, about 175 miles southeast of BogotÃ¡. Many had come through a military-controlled airport upriver, where they arrived on two airplanes chartered from a paramilitary stronghold in Antioquia, in Colombia’s far northwest, whose governor at the time was Ãlvaro Uribe. The grisly massacre that took place over the next five days in MapiripÃ¡n would be the AUC’s first in southern Colombia.
Estimates of the number of dead in MapiripÃ¡n run from about thirty to forty-nine. The paramilitaries were able to take their time, surrounding the town for nearly a week and torturing their victims in horrifying ways, even though MapiripÃ¡n was less than 2 hours’ travel from significant-sized military bases, and even though town leaders appealed to the authorities for help.
Ten years later, very few people have been punished for what happened in MapiripÃ¡n. Nearly all of those who tortured civilians, chopped up their bodies and threw them in the Guaviare river are free, living among their fellow Colombians at this very moment. One colonel was jailed for allowing the massacre to happen. Another was jailed for the same reason, although he in fact tried to blow the whistle on his superiors. The trial of a general who allowed MapiripÃ¡n to take place continues to drag on, with the case’s judge in no apparent hurry to issue a verdict.
The Inter-American system has worked better than Colombia’s. In September 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San JosÃ©, Costa Rica, found the Colombian government responsible for the massacre and ordered it to compensate the victims.
An early-2005 post detailing what happened in MapiripÃ¡n is here. A harrowing account in English by journalist MarÃa Cristina Caballero is here. And below is our translation of an essay by the daughter of Antonio MarÃa Calle (nicknamed Catumare), one of the town’s founders and one of the paramilitaries’ first victims. Calle was a local leader of the Patriotic Union, a leftist political party originally founded by the FARC guerrillas during a 1980s cease-fire, and systematically exterminated over the next decade. The essay was posted on Friday to the website of Colombia’s JosÃ© Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective.
According to what I heard, those gentlemen appeared at six in the morning on Monday, dressed like soldiers, so the town thought that the Army had arrived. They banged on the door looking for him by his nickname, “Catumare.” He didn’t want to open the door for them, and even tried to escape through the water tank in the bathroom. He had just bathed, he wasn’t wearing sandals or a shirt. They got him in his shop on the corner, while they looted everything there. They flipped over the sofa and turned everything upside down. Later they let him come in so he could put on his shirt and shoes – but not his sandals, because they were going to have to walk far. When he asked them to give back what they had taken, they told him that he wouldn’t need anything where he was going, not to worry, he should leave all that to the poor. That is how they took him away.
My father had bought me a house, so that I could be there with my children. After all, they were his grandchildren, and he wanted to have them near. He had even spoken with the school, and everything was ready for that week. But I called Monday, and nobody answered, the same as Tuesday and Wednesday. The next day the news was on the radio. There had been a massacre in MapiripÃ¡n, and he was among the victims.
Tuesday, it is said, they walked him all over the town. With his arms behind him, he watched everyone out of the corners of his eyes, under his hat. When they came to the “El Ganadero” billiard hall, they asked him where he kept the rest of his money, that he was the richest old man in town. When they got to the place, they took away everything. They were so brazen that they even took away a chess set that my son had given him the previous Christmas. After that day, they spent their time in there, from morning to night. What they didn’t spend, they threw away.
My old man was the only one who legally raised us. He sent me bananas and other groceries from MapiripÃ¡n. He also sent money to pay for my children’s school. Every month he gave me 200 or 300 thousand pesos [at the time, US$130-200], and in addition to that, for example every two months, he would come to town and give me another remittance – so that the children don’t go hungry, he said. He bought milk and baby food for the newborn baby. Later he would tell me not to worry, that he was putting together a little house in town, so that I could live there with my children and they could play in the yard.
Wednesday night, the town could feel it. After the power was cut off, they heard how he was martyred. “Kill me if you are going to, but don’t do all this to me,” he apparently said. He was the only person they heard crying out that night.
My father was like a culebrero [roughly, "medicine man"]. If you told him you needed a pill, he would ask, “What [illness] do you have?” And right there, he would have the drug. He sold everything there is. There was nothing you could ask for that he would not have. He went up and down the whole Guaviare River with that boat full of any kind of thing. Upriver, downriver, he was sometimes gone for fifteen days taking cheap clothes, food, panela [solid raw sugar], all kinds of food.
That Saturday, the town awoke in silence. Some curious boys who happened near the Guaviare River saw him. They had cut his testicles off, they had cut him into pieces, everything was all lying there. But nobody could do anything, because the order was that whoever touched him would be killed.
Once, while chatting at the dinner table, my oldest child told him that he wanted to be a soldier. Then my papa said to him, “Not by the son of a pig are you going to be that. Are you stupid, are you going to give yourself to the government? Don’t you see that the government is the biggest thief!!! Be an architect instead.” He was so intent that my children stay with him, that in those days we went to speak with a guy – he was the director of the hospital – about giving them computer classes. “I may have to buy the computers, but here my kids are going to have everything.” He also bought them two motor scooters, so that they could go from here to school, because it was very far and so that they did not have to bother with so much walking.
At dawn on Sunday, when all those people had finally gone, some people from the town went to see if they could retrieve the bodies from the river. They tried to pull them in with sticks, trying to reach them… but they could not. My papa was among them. But those people returned, and asked whether those gathered there wanted the same thing to happen to them. Then they cut open his stomach – he was already dead – and filled it with stones. They picked him up like a colt and threw him again, this time far into the river, apparently because “We don’t even want you to bury this one…” I don’t know why they were so especially merciless toward him.
As far as I know, my old man was the only one they robbed. As far as I know, my father’s properties were the only ones that they practically destroyed. As far as I know, all their hatred fell on my papa. He was the first person they took when they arrived in the town, asking for “Catumare,” because they didn’t even know his real name.
All this, because he was a leader of the Patriotic Union. And I knew nothing about this. I still remember like it was yesterday, one day, when I was a girl, he told me that when I turned fifteen he would buy me a big house, so that when I got married or went to live with a man, I would always be able to throw him away.