How paramilitary violence turned Colombian town into a prison

Residents were used as hospital guinea pigs and girls were forced into prostitution

Paramilitaries train in Antioquia in northern Colombia.
Paramilitaries train in Antioquia in northern Colombia.R. MAZALAN (AP)

In the first row of seats at a small theater in downtown Bogota, four women, three men and a boy sit quietly. They are all wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a map of Putumayo, a territory in southern Colombia where coca - a prized crop for drug traffickers and illegal armed groups - has been grown for decades.

They are not just spectators. When the lights of the theater dim, they appear on the screen as the main protagonists in a new documentary about El Placer, a small Colombian village just two hours from the border with Ecuador, where a horror story took place.

"Seeing these images makes my heart skip a beat," says one young man of El Placer, who is on his first visit to Bogota. Next to him is a woman who witnessed the seven years of terror inflicted on this population by paramilitaries, who accused all the residents of collaborating with leftist rebels.

Rosa (not her real name) ran away - like many on that same day - when 38 paramilitaries from the Putumayo Southern Bloc arrived in El Placer and killed 11 people on November 17, 1999, accusing them of being guerrillas.

The war taught us that to remain alive one had to remain quiet"

But contrary to what had often happened in other towns, this time the executioners did not drive out the rest of the inhabitants. They took over the town to control the coca trade and punish all of those considered to have any connection with the guerrillas. An estimated 200 men were put in charge to watch over the residents as if they were their prisoners.

Rosa had the courage to return, and recalls that the first thing the paramilitaries took over was a four-story building - the most elegant edifice in El Placer - which they simply called El Edificio (The Building). "A man accused of running errands for the guerrillas and another one who helped him were tied up in chains and taken away by car to be killed. Others were killed in The Building while many remained there for up to three days in chains," said Rosa.

Even some men who were identified as guerrillas ended up as guinea pigs for the paramilitaries so they could practice their nursing skills. "In three cases, with the victims still alive, the nurses subjected them to cuts and punctures. Later they were asphyxiated and their bodies were used in autopsy lessons," according to a report entitled El Placer: mujeres, coca y guerra en el Bajo Putumayo (El Placer: women, coca and war in the Lower Putumayo), published by the Historical Memory Center, an institution created by the Colombian government to collect victims' testimonies.

"The war taught us that to remain alive one had to remain quiet, so in El Placer, the law of silence reigned," said another woman who attended the screening. The paramilitaries would often stop residents on the street and ask them to recite their national identity card number backwards. Those who couldn't were labeled as "civilian guerrillas" and were punished. Women, for example, were forced to pick up trash.

El Indio put me in another house and raped me with a gun next to the bed"

But the biggest humiliation endured by women was the sexual abuse. Rosa and Matilda, their faces darkened in the film, recall their own person horrors.

"They took me to someone called El Indio, who put me in a room of another house and raped me with a gun next to the bed. Then I went back to my house but did not tell anyone what had happened; not even my husband. After a few days, El Indio said that if I didn't go with him, he would kill my family. My family sent me away saying I was a slut for having fallen in love with a paramilitary. I never told them the truth," she recalls.

The victim was kidnapped for a year along with four others, who were all constantly raped. According to the accounts, the paramilitaries would arrive drunk or drugged, and point their handguns and rifles at the women. None of the women could go out, and they spent their days washing uniforms, cleaning the house and cooking.

But sexual slavery was just the tip of the iceberg. Paramilitaries also controlled prostitution and opened 12 brothels. Working as a prostitute was profitable, but women with sexually transmitted diseases were subjected to public ridicule. "The bars had to have their health controls and they also forced schoolgirls to work. They [the paramilitaries] called them 'silent prostitutes'," Rosa recalls. These controls were often made public and if a girl became infected with HIV, she was murdered and thrown into the Guamuez river.

The terror continued until 2006 when the Southern Bloc demobilized Putumayo. Still, many of the women who were victims in El Placer remained silent. Only now, Rosa, Matilde and dozens more want to talk about their pain as a tribute to the strength of a people who had to bear the stigma of being a "coca grower," "guerrilla," and later a "paramilitary."

Today, El Placer is a quieter place; the police have taken over The Building and now stand guard. But the guerrillas want to return and have launched several attacks. On January 5, a 40-minute shootout broke out leaving two soldiers wounded. "We are not safe yet," one woman says.

It is known that during the paramilitary expansion throughout Colombia, violence against women was a common strategy used to control communities. However, the paramilitaries have confessed to only 89 incidents of sexual violence throughout the entire country.

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