The Trail of Death: 30 Years of Massacres in Colombia

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Throughout decades of armed conflict and organized crime, Colombia has become tragically associated with the brutal terror tactic of the massacre. A new investigation tracing the history of massacres offers a vision of its evolving use by armed groups, reflecting changes in the nature and motivations of violence in the country.

The project “Rutas de Conflicto” (Routes of Conflict) is the result of work carried out by the Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica (National Center of Historical Memory), a body dedicated to the right to truth of victims of the armed conflict, and investigative website Verdad Abierta.

Although Colombia has a long history of massacres dating as far back of the 1899 – 1902 Thousand Day War, the project focuses on the period 1982 to 2013. It documents fully 728 massacres that took place in that time, although this only represents around a third of the total massacres covered in the statistical database, which includes hundreds of massacres for which complete details have yet to be collated.

Over the total time period covered in the database, paramilitary groups were responsible for the overwhelming majority of deaths — committing 1,166 massacres in total. This was followed by 295 massacres at the hands of unidentified groups, 238 by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and 139 by the security forces (see below).


The Aftermath of Colombia’s Bipartisan Political Violence

Between the early 1980s and the mid 1990s most massacres in Colombia had an almost exclusively political motivation after the violence between the Conservative and Liberal parties of the first half of the 20th century evolved into leftist guerrillas pitted against right wing paramilitaries and the state.

The paramilitaries slaughtered union leaders, peasants, and the indigenous, as well as targeting militants or sympathizers of political parties with origins in the insurgency, especially the Patriotic Union (UP), which was born out of a peace process with the FARC, and Hope, Peace and Liberty, formed after the demobilization of the Popular People’s Army (EPL). Paramilitary massacres and assassinations exterminated leftist groups such as the Independent and Revolutionary Workers Movement (MOIR), and severely weakened others, such as the Colombian Communist Party (PPC). The guerrillas meanwhile killed those suspected of being army informants, collaborators with the paramilitaries, or traitors to their cause.

New Actors Seek Territorial Control

Between the mid 1990s and the early 2000s, the number of massacres increased dramatically (see graph below). Although they retained the political tint of the preceding years, they also began to be marked by economic interests.


Initially, the paramilitary movement began as the private armies of drug traffickers, land owners and powerful economic interests such as emerald mining dons, but these armies, which in 1997 would group together as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), began to become ever more involved in drug trafficking as well as land grabs and other criminal activities such as illegal mining. Soon, they began to expand their territorial control throughout regions occupied by the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), using massacres committed under the military-political banner to seize control of areas of key strategic significance to the drug trade and other criminal interests.

By 2006, the AUC had demobilized, leaving a legacy of criminalized neo-paramilitary groups that would be go on to be known as the BACRIM (from the abbreviation of “bandas criminales” or “criminal bands”). From this time onwards, these groups became the principal perpetrators of massacres, followed by the guerrillas of the FARC.


In this time, the majority of massacres were committed for purely economical reasons. The BACRIM and the guerrillas formed alliances around shared criminal interests — predominantly in the drug trade — diminishing political rivalries. Massacres became a tool to take control of criminal revenues, especially in zones with drug crops, and strategic trafficking corridors.

Antioquia: The Epicenter of Colombian Massacres

The region of Colombia most affected by massacres has been the north western department of Antioquia, which has long been a key strategic point for armed groups for political, military and criminal reasons. In total 598 massacres were committed in Antioquia over the period — the next highest figures were recorded in Santander, which saw 146.massacres2

Many of these massacres were concentrated in the northern region of Uraba. In the 1970s and the 1980s, Uraba was an important territorial enclave for the guerrillas of the FARC and the EPL. By the late 1980s, a steady stream of massacres announced the arrival of the paramilitaries, and the slaughter continued throughout the 1990s as they waged their counter-insurgency campaign.

After the formation of the AUC, Uraba became one of the principal launching points for the paramilitary expansion as they marched south both in the east and the west, By the 2000s, Uraba was firmly under paramilitary control, and the frequency of massacres decreased, while increasing exponentially elsewhere as they created a strategic corridor uniting the region with the north coast and the east, leaving a trail of massacres in their wake.

The municipality with the highest number of massacres over the period was also to be found in Antioquia — its capital city, Medellin, which registered 48. The massacres in Medellin reflect a complex interaction between gangs, paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking, which together have created several cycles of extreme violence.

Several massacres were committed by security forces and paramilitary groups, which waged a counter-insurgency campaign against the guerrilla militias that controlled many of the cities outlying neighborhoods until they were driven out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, more recent massacres were committed by BACRIM and mafia groups, and their street gang proxies, which continue to fight for control of drug trafficking and criminal revenues. The line between the paramilitaries and criminals has often been blurred, with their leadership, interests and personnel overlapping and at times interchangeable.

SEE ALSO: Oficina de Envigado Profile

The End of Massacres in Colombia?

Since the demobilization of the AUC, the number of massacres has dropped to the lowest sustained numbers in the time period examined. The fragmented and criminalized remains of the paramilitaries have shorn their political façade, and lost much of their military structure and ability to control territory, all of which heavily influenced their use of massacres as a tactic.

The guerrillas too are weakened, and have lost much of the territory they once controlled, and, crucially, are no longer engaged in a struggle with the paramilitaries. They are also closer than they have ever been to laying down their arms and abandoning the armed conflict that has been at the root of so many massacres.

However, criminal economic interests continue to drive high levels violence, and Colombia is still some distance from leaving behind the horrors of the massacre. The spoils on offer from drug trafficking and other criminal activities are high, and even if the FARC demobilize, criminalized elements are likely to join the fray. Until these economic incentives are removed, the massacre is likely to remain a tragic and brutal part of Colombian life.

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