Latin America

Where Colombia’s paramilitaries watched their victims go up in smoke

Journalist gathers testimonies about the 500 people who were incinerated near Cúcuta

Journalist and author Javier Osuna.
Journalist and author Javier Osuna.Brenda Gutiérrez

At an abandoned brickworks near the Colombian city of Cúcuta, on the Venezuelan border, old shoes and pieces of tattered cloth can still be seen scattered across the area.

To some, they are signs of life, while for others they are visions of the horror that took place at this location nearly 15 years ago.

In Colombia’s Norte de Santander department, paramilitaries built huge ovens to incinerate the bodies of at least 500 people who were executed for allegedly being members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla insurgency. Many of the victims were also killed just because they had been witnesses to crimes committed by the paramilitaries.

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Last year, Bogota journalist Javier Osuna inspected the site about two hours outside of Cúcuta, where between 2001 and 2003 the paramilitaries secretly cremated their victims. Many signs remain of the atrocities that took place in the last years before the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) were officially demobilized by the government of President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010).

“The ovens began to appear when the government was holding discussions with the AUC,” explained Osuna. “At that time, there were about 45 murders a day committed by this group in Cúcuta alone.

At first, the AUC buried the bodies of their victims in common graves. But as talks between the AUC and Colombian government were reaching their final stage, the paramilitaries needed a quicker and more efficient way to get rid of the cadavers.

AUC paramilitary commander Iván Laverde Zapata, known as El Iguano, decided to set up the ovens in the Juan Frío region near the Venezuelan border. At an abandoned mill, where the first ovens were built, the paramilitaries would use coal for the bonfires, according to Zapata, who later gave testimony to investigators.

Osuna decided to collect the testimonies of the victims and witnesses for his book Me hablarás del fuego, los hornos de la infamia (or, Speak to me about fire: the ovens of infamy).

“In the way that the law allowed the AUC to demobilized, the media grew accustomed to reporting what happened as told by the victimizers,” the journalist explained.

During investigative hearings, the paramilitary commanders and soldiers would candidly reveal how they would capture and execute people they believed were members of the insurgency. It was through these testimonies that families first learned that their loved ones had been thrown in a river or cremated in one of the ovens.

“The voices of those who disappeared will never be silenced. We need to put names to those who appear to be invisible – the more than 500 people who were incinerated,” Osuna said.

For two years, Osuna searched for the families of three young men whose names appear on the list of the more than 500 people who met similar destinies in Colombia’s violent northeast region.

These families need genuine compensation and guarantees that this will never happen again” Author Javier Osuna

Luis was 17 years old when the paramilitaries took him. His mother later heard from the same armed men who came for her son that they had killed Luis and later incinerated his body in the ovens, according to the author.

“These families need genuine compensation and guarantees that this will never happen again,” Osuna said.

After the journalist came under threat during his research, he decided to speak with Zapata to find out who was behind the harassment.

Zapata, who was sentenced to the maximum of eight years under Uribe’s Justice and Peace Law, is soon to be released from prison.

“He told me that he had brothers who are still missing; that he didn’t know the exact number of how many people were thrown in the fire; that he assumed all responsibility; and he is very embarrassed by this crime he has committed,” Osuna said.

“He also said he was sorry.”

English version by Martin Delfín.