Warning: The following is disturbing and graphic. The facts presented here were gathered by the Group of Historical Memory of Colombia’s National Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation.
Four hundred and fifty paramilitaries arrived in the town of El Salado, located 350 miles northwest of Bogotá in northern Bolivar province, on February 16, 2000. Over the next four days, they looted and burnt down houses. They played drums. They set up speakers and a stereo in a house next to the main plaza. On a nearby soccer field, they tortured victims using knives and stones, and made the majority of the 4000 of El Salado’s residents watch. Sixty people were massacred. Not a shot was fired.
El Salado was a prosperous town whose residents lived from tobacco production and more recently from cattle-raising. El Salado had schools, including a secondary school for nearly 600 teen-agers, as well as youth homes, medical centers with ambulances and nurses, and roads. After the massacre, most of the town’s residents left and joined the ranks of poverty as internal refugees in the cities’ peripheries.
The paramilitaries considered El Salado a town of FARC sympathizers because the FARC settled nearby. Often, the FARC crossed through the town with robbed cattle, robbed cars, kidnapped people, and cars loaded with bombs from gas cylinder tanks. The FARC also came to town to buy groceries, drink in the pubs, and recruit young people.
A victim said, “We were here jodidos because the hijueputa guerrilla came and so immediately it was said we were all guerrilla, and the whole town was not guerrilla. Not all of us were with them.”
Another victim added that either the FARC or the army, “or one did not know even which group it was,” would come and make the townspeople cook for them and give them water, “and one had the obligation to do as told.”
President Juan Manuel Santos recently asked for forgiveness from El Salado’s victims and survivors. The president acknowledged that “there were omissions” by the government that allowed the massacre to happen. There have surfaced reports that government troops stationed in the area didn’t act to stop the massacre.
Santos’s government recently gave about $568,000 dollars to El Salado’s residents to buy about 750 acres of land for 63 families to farm. It is part of reparations from the Victims’ Law, and state efforts to motivate people to return to El Salado and other communities in the region.
Those who have returned, who dream of working the earth again rather than suffering unemployment on city street corners, are saddened that the majority of their town is buried under weeds. The women have formed “Women United for El Salado” and intend to bring back the parties celebrated during religious holidays, such as the day of the Virgen of El Rosario celebrated in October and the day of San Juan marked with horse rides and horse races.
Fifteen of the paramilitaries who participated in the massacre have been convicted. To measure the honesty of Santos’s words, we wait to see how many more will be brought to trial.