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date: 29 March 2023

Digital Resources: Massacres and the Evolution of the Colombian Warfree

Digital Resources: Massacres and the Evolution of the Colombian Warfree

  • Óscar ParraÓscar ParraJournalism and Public Opinion Program, University of Rosario


Since 1982 there have been at least 2,000 massacres in Colombia committed by different illegal groups and by members of the Colombian army and police. The development of the conflict in Colombia has a direct relation with the causes and consequences of these crimes, perpetrated in most cases by paramilitary armies, associated to varying degrees with the cocaine trade. Paramilitary groups were a counterinsurgency force organized by the State, or independent, and supported economically by drug cartels and some landowners and businessmen.

Although guerrilla armies, insurgency, and communist groups created mostly in the 1960s perpetrated several massacres, these crimes were systematically used primarily by paramilitary groups to terrorize people in places where they had a particular interest, such as drug trafficking or vying for political power. In its book ¡Basta ya!, the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica has documented that 59% of the massacres were committed by paramilitary groups and 17% by guerrillas.

Rutas del Conflicto is a project created by journalists that marks the evolution of these groups through more than 30 years of war. Using mapping and timeline tools developed especially for the project, it has documented more than 700 of these crimes, displaying the degree to which the tragedy has affected the lives of millions of people in Colombia.


  • History of Northern and Andean Spanish America
  • Digital Innovations, Sources, and Interdisciplinary Approaches
  • Military History

In March of 2013, the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (National Center for Historic Memory), a Colombian government agency, was created to conduct research on the violence in all regions of the country and to pay tribute to the victims, and, an independent journalistic webpage, created, a database with information on more than 700 massacres committed in Colombia. The Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica obtained international funding and was responsible for the content produced in Rutas del Conflicto.

No database existed to show the facts of the war in Colombia built by a journalistic website that concentrated on standardized information, meaning well structured and organised data in order to obtain more precise search results and statistics. This problem was the starting point of a team of journalists from the website, which has followed the process of Justice and Peace since 2008, with the intention of creating the project Rutas del Conflicto. This digital media tool is intended to be a source for journalists, teachers, students, families of the victims, and anyone interested in the causes, consequences, and evolution of the Colombian conflict from the perspective of data journalism.

Sources Used to Create Rutas del Conflicto

This project has drawn from three different information sources to document more than seven hundred massacres committed by different war actors since 1982:

Government sources: These include research conducted by many Colombian government offices in charge of human rights issues and by the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica.

Judicial sources: These include the convictions handed down by different courts and investigations conducted by the Attorney General’s office.

Academic research: This encompasses papers and books by many professors at different universities who have investigated massacres during committed certain periods of time or in particular regions of the country. There is also the database of the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (Center for Investigation and Popular Education), CINEP, a center for research at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, which has registered thousands of crimes since the 1970s, but which lacks a tool for filtering specific types of crimes.

News and journalistic research: The project’s main source was the content produced by over five years of work documenting the process of justice and peace. Moreover, numerous national and local newspapers and magazines, such as Semana, El Tiempo, El Espectador, El Colombiano, El País, and La Opinión have reported hundreds of massacres over the past thirty years.

Direct witnesses: In some cases, the project cross-checked their sources by interviewing people who had survived the crimes of the conflict.

Reported Information

The project documented 730 massacres in all regions of the country, out of some 2,000 committed since 1982, according to the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (CNMH).1 This start date was chosen because it was the beginning of the expansion of the paramilitary phenomenon of using massacres to tighten their control of drug trafficking. Although guerrilla groups were created in the 1960s and committed some massacres in the intervening period, paramilitary groups were the ones which used this crime systematically in their expansion of illegal activities beginning in about 1982.

Although the Colombian judicial system considers a massacre to be defined as a multiple murder of three or more people, many social scientists, such as Suárez2 and Uribe,3 used the criteria of four victims. However, the issue is not just a matter of number; there are different circumstances related to the intentions of the assassins, such as the time and the place that the crimes occurred, that help define the term massacre.

According to Suárez a massacre is an intentional multiple murder of defenseless people, sometimes with cruelty, that occurs in a single place and at a single moment. However, the word massacre is commonly used to describe multiple assassinations. For example, the so-called massacre of Trujillo, in the Valle del Cauca, a region in western Colombia, is actually a series of killings that did not take place at a particular time, but rather over a period of more than seven years.

The term massacre is also wielded in the context of propaganda used to demonstrate the cruelty of the enemies in the conflict. Semelin argues that the use of the word may draw public attention to one of the actors in war, such as with the intention to expose the cruelty of the enemy and the condition of the victim.4

This project adopts the criteria described by Suárez, but also considers other multiple crimes committed in different particular situations like the case in Trujillo, because in general, the word massacre as it is used in media and Colombian society includes the common motivation and the organization that perpetrates the killings, excluding, in some cases, conditions of time and places.

Database Design

As information concerning many of the massacres documented is limited, the project must focus research on basic information: who are the assassins and the victims, what happened, when, where, and why, or at least a possible motivation. Moreover, the project seeks information to define the condition of the victims and to describe cruelty in cases where it was present.

Criteria Selected to Document the Massacres

Geographic reference: Besides the name of the town and the state, the project uses the geographic coordinates to create maps using tools such as Google Fusion Tables. This information allows you to construct the path of the paramilitary and guerrilla expansion, and it is also a key element for use on tablet computers to show users like academic researchers which massacres were committed close to where they are located.

Date: The project investigates the month and the year when massacres first began. In some cases the crimes were committed over a period of many days, months, or even years. For this reason it is often difficult to define an exact range of specific dates. The details with the exact dates related to the crimes are described in the narrations of the events. These dates are a key element for creating timelines that show the evolution of the phenomenon of massacres over the last three decades.

Group that committed the massacre: The project has a special table with information about the victimizer groups, briefly describing their histories and leaders. Rutas del Conflicto has identified more than 35 paramilitary groups existing at different times since 1982. To show how these illegal structures accused of collaborating with the guerrilla groups, as well as of producing and trafficking of cocaine, had evolved the project created a timeline, connecting each of them with the violence against the civil population. Most of these groups were created by the state, local politicians, drug cartels, and certain rich businessmen, which forcibly recruited thousands of young people all over the country.

In addition to the large number of massacres committed by the paramilitary groups, four groups of guerrillas were found to have a connection to more than one hundred massacres perpetrated against those who they considered enemy collaborators: Colombian Official Forces and paramilitary groups. Members of the Colombian army, the police, or any other official of the armed forces were identified as a group responsible for at least “dozens” of massacres. It is worth clarifying that the entries where these military forces appear as victimizers are just the cases in which judicial sentences exist against them, despite the fact that there are hundreds of cases where there is evidence of collaboration with the paramilitary groups on the part of Colombian government forces. In several entries concerning massacres there are descriptions of this situation.

Obtaining information from the transitional justice process that FARC has been negotiating with the Colombian government since 2012 will be an important step, because it will allow clarification of who is the victimizer in massacres that Colombian official forces used to blame to insurgent groups. The project also identifies groups of former members of the paramilitary groups who have continued committing crimes under the general name of BACRIM, a Spanish acronym for ‘bandas criminales’ (criminal bands). In the narrations of the events, the general information about each group includes the zone where they committed the massacres.

Details of the events: Every massacre in the database has a narrative account of the events, including specific dates and places, previous events, descriptions of acts of cruelty, interests of the victimizers in the area, and possible collaboration of members of the Colombian army or police in the action.

In cases where victims’ names were identified in the press, such information is included in the database. Whenever possible, the special conditions of the people killed are also documented, such as pregnant women, children, social leaders, members of an indigenous community, and left-wing activists.

Finally, the project sought to learn the consequences of the massacres, such as forced displacement of entire towns, the destruction of a village, land thefts, the expansion of coca fields, and indications of genocide against a particular political or ethnic group.

Development of the Web Tool and the App for Mobile Phones and Tablets

The information way the contained in the database is standardized allows it to be displayed using a variety of formats and combinations of criteria. The web version is basically a group of advanced search tools to find information about massacres by prioritizing particular features. The site was developed using a variety of sophisticated web technologies, including algorithms in PHP and a design tool built in JavaScript and HTML 5 working with Google Fusion Tables.

The first tool is a keyword search, to find registered massacres related to a particular term, such as the name of a victimizer, the place where the crimes were committed, or the name given to the massacre by the community.

The project also offers a timeline that shows information about massacres committed every year between 1982 and 2013, with a short contextual description of the situation that the country was going through in every given moment.

The third element on the Rutas del Conflicto home page is a series of interactive maps that can show the distribution of the victimizers, their location in each year, and a time range. Points on the map take the users directly to all the information documented for each massacre.

Finally, the page also has an advanced search tool that mixes criteria such as the name of the group that committed the crime, the year, the state, and the specific conditions of the victims.

The app for tablets and smart mobile phones is smaller than the web version. Users can see entries for massacres committed with a customized range of distance from the location where they are using the app. In addition, they can search for information by state and keyword.

A third element that also appears on the website is Tu Memoria Cuenta (Your memory counts), a form where users can send information to be added to the database. Families of the victims, academic researchers, and anybody who has additional massacre-related data not already included in the project can send content to a group of journalists who will check its veracity.

Reconstruction the Colombia War History by Mapping Massacres

Putting all the information documented into the database allowed the team to create a series of maps and timelines that prove how massacres have been employed as a tactic or strategy in the evolution of the conflict in Colombia. Rutas del Conflicto classified the history of the war into four major periods in line with the number of these massacres, demonstrating that this was a method used systematically by the criminal groups, especially paramilitary, to terrorize populations and take control of zones, usually coinciding with the main centers of cocaine production.

The Beginning of the Paramilitary Horror (1982–1987)

Although paramilitary groups first appeared in the late 1970s, it was in 1982 that these criminal structures first started using massacres as a method to kill leftist leaders and displace farmers. This year marked a special moment in Colombian war history, owing to various circumstances. First of all, Communist guerrillas had entered an offensive phase, after almost two decades of defending their positions in the face of military pressure. Groups such as FARC and M-19 began kidnapping wealthy landowners and taking resources, such as food and money, from small farmers in places where guerrilla groups and farmers had coexisted for years without any significant violence between them. In some areas, farmers created self-defense groups.

At the same time, drug cartels, created a few years before, had increased their economic and political power. They started taking huge landed properties to process cocaine and move the drug to the north coast of the country, from where it would be sent to the United States. When cartels started to “colonize” areas with guerrilla presence, they first had to pay off the guerrilla groups in exchange for building their laboratories to produce cocaine.

Problems quickly arose between the cartels and the guerrillas, and the former used the self-defense groups to take on their new enemies. Drug traffickers converted these groups into large armies—sometimes even trained by international mercenaries brought in from Israel and Europe—not just to combat guerrilla groups, but all the leftist leaders in these regions.

In the midst of this complex situation, members of the Colombian army, most of them educated by Cold War doctrine, gave support to the new paramilitary groups and collaborated with them to destroy what they considered the common enemy. These particular circumstances, described in detail in the book Guerras recicladas, written by Colombian journalist María Teresa Ronderos, marked the beginning of the intensive paramilitary violence that employed massacres as a weapon to terrorize huge swaths of the country.5

The two main paramilitary groups in 1982 were located in Amalfi (a town in the Northwest of Colombia, in the department of Antioquia, 150 kilometers from Medellín) and Puerto Boyacá (a small city in the middle of the country, 250 kilometers northwest from Bogotá). Puerto Boyacá was also a harbor on the Magdalena River, the largest in Colombia, and the center of a region called Magdalena Medio, a large humid forest with huge farms and very bad transportation infrastructure.

Fig. 1. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing the places where two massacres were committed in 1982. The point more to the north marks the first massacre perpetrated by the group in Amalfi and the other one by the group in Puerto Boyacá.

The group in Amalfi, led by Fidel Castaño, a drug trafficker in the Medellín Cartel, was the first to massacre dozens of farmers and leftist leaders in 19826 and 1983.7 Castaño said “the war started against communism” because members of the guerrilla group FARC had killed his father after kidnapping him in 1981. The circumstances of the death of Castaño´s father are still a mystery, and yet this story was used as the foundational myth of the Colombian paramilitary group. In her book Guerras recicladas, María Teresa Ronderos explores some of the many contradicting accounts of that death.8

During these two years, Castaño killed more than 40 people in at least four massacres, in which several members of the Communist Party and the Movimiento Independiente Revolucionario died, the two main leftist movements in the zone.

The other group, in Puerto Boyacá was led by Henry and Gonzalo Pérez, a couple of farmers who had founded a self-defense gang that became an army under the command of the Medellín Cartel. The Pérez men, father and son, also committed their first massacre in 1982 against a family of farmers, accusing them of helping the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the second largest Communist guerrilla group in Colombia.

The maps of Rutas del Conflicto provide evidence of how little information is available related to the crimes committed by the two main paramilitary forces between 1984 and 1987. There are no entries for massacres committed by these two groups that can be geographically pinpointed. In the Magdalena Medio region, the men led by the Pérez family had expelled all the leftist movements following several individual murders. So, Pablo Escobar and his main lieutenant, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, took control this region. They controlled both the economy and political power, owing to an alliance with the old local ruling class. Members of the Colombian army worked openly with these groups and prevented any kind of guerrilla foothold from returning to the region.

While there is a fair amount of information about the groups operating in Puerto Boyacá, the evolution of Fidel Castaño’s group has huge gaps. Castaño increased his power as a drug trafficker and created a more independent criminal career than the other paramilitary group, but there are not so many entries related to his crimes. The journalist María Teresa Ronderos has documented how the paramilitary leader left his town and went to the department of Córdoba on the Caribbean Coast, where he stole huge farms but stopped committing massacres.

The main massacres registered in this period were committed by the FARC, which entered into conflict with indigenous communities in Cauca, a department in the southwest of the country, on the Pacific coast. Members of the FARC killed several people of the Nasa ethnic group.

Fig. 2. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing massacres committed between 1984 and 1987. There are no entries for massacres perpetrated by the groups of Fidel Castaño and the Pérez family in these years. In the cases documented in this period, victimizers were FARC guerrilla groups and a new paramilitary group, independent from those previously mentioned in the southwest of the country in towns such as Trujillo.

North of this region, in 1986 a small paramilitary group, created by members of Colombian army and drug traffickers, began killing social leftist leaders in the town of Trujillo in the department of Valle del Cauca. They murdered 245 people over the course of eight years, and although academic researchers apply the term massacre, as a multiple homicide occurring within a specific short period of time, in general, Colombian society considers this to be a massacre as well.

The paramilitary group that committed these crimes was the first to use an array of methods to torture and kill, such as employing chainsaws to cut up bodies while the victims were still alive. In Trujillo, for example, the priest of the town, a recognized leftist leader, was castrated and decapitated, and his body was hurled into a river.

These practices were used by paramilitary groups again, all over the country and for a decade afterwards, to terrorize communities and force them to leave their land. Details of these methods were documented in depth in the book La masacre de Trujillo: Una tragedia que no cesa.9

The Upsurge of Violence against Leftist Groups (1988–1993)

In 1985, the government of President Berlisario Betancourt entered into a peace process with the FARC guerrilla group. Although talks later broke down, the two sides signed a partial agreement to create a leftist political party called Unión Patriótica (UP), which was seen by them as the only political alternative to all the traditional parties. In many towns in the country, UP candidates won the local elections held in 1986, but at the same time they became the main target of paramilitary groups allied with old political structure of local power.

In 1988, Fidel Castaño’s group, which had remained on his huge farms in the department of Córdoba, on the Caribbean coast in the northwest of the country, started a long series of massacres against leftist leaders. Exploring the map produced by Rutas del Conflicto that shows the entries of massacres year by year, it is clear to see how Castaño’s men terrorized the Urabá area, on the border with Panamá.10

Fig. 3. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing massacres committed in 1988. Fidel Castaño’s group committed at least eight massacres in the Urabá region, close to the border with Panamá.

The stark dimension of cruelty in these massacres is easy to see in the case of La Mejor Esquina, a multiple crime committed in April of 1988. Castaño’s paramilitary group killed 27 people, including a 10-year-old child in a small town in the department of Córdoba, accusing its victims of aiding the guerrilla group FARC. Castaño’s group called itself “Los Magníficos,” the name given in South America to the American television series The A-team, whose storyline revolved around a group of former US army soldiers defending people from criminal elements.

Another case was the massacre of Segovia, a small town in the southwestern part of the department of Antioquia, about 300 kilometers from Urabá.11 This area was the origin of the Communist Party in Antioquia, and in the elections of 1986 it elected a government from the new leftist new UP party. Castaño’s men allied with Cesar Pérez, a traditional politician in the Liberal Party, and with the other biggest paramilitary group in Colombia (from Puerto Boyacá), to commit the massacre. Forty-six people were murdered on the night of November 11, 1988, including four children. Although there were dozens of police officers and soldiers of the Colombian army in the area, nobody stopped the massacre. Pérez was found guilty of these crimes in 2013 by the Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia.

The other main paramilitary group in the country, which also participated in this massacre, the men of Pérez’s family, were at this time the private army of the Cartel of Medellín. Pablo Escobar’s biggest partner was Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, alias “El Mexicano,” who became the real power behind of the group that was created at the beginning of the 1980s in the town of Puerto Boyacá. Rodríguez Gacha hated leftist groups and had started a systematic series of murders of leaders of the UP party in 1987.

The paramilitary model created in Puerto Boyacá, which defeated guerrilla groups there and controlled the political power in these regions, was exported to the eastern plains of the country and to the middle of the Amazon jungle, sparsely populated areas where drug trafficking leaders stole huge farms. There, they built their cocaine laboratories and runways for sending drugs directly to the United States.

Drug traffickers also occupied these areas of Puerto Boyacá in order to develop their new landholdings. Dozens of new paramilitary groups known as “Masetos” were born in these zones, which started to kill members of the leftist movements. They committed several massacres in the eastern departments of Meta and Vichada on the border with Venezuela, and in the Amazonian departments of Guaviare and Putumayo, which became the main zones of cocaine production.

Fig. 4. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing massacres committed in 1991. Paramilitary groups known as “Masetos” committed several massacres in the eastern area of the country, in a large region called Llanos Orientales, a key place for controlling the drug trafficking.

Although the “Masetos” and other small paramilitary groups committed several additional massacres, the number of these crimes committed by Castaño and the Pérez family group decreased across the entire country in 1993, as can be seen in the chronological Rutas del Conflicto map. During these years the two main paramilitary groups in the country entered into war with the head of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

Fig. 5. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing massacres committed in 1993. During this year, the number of massacres decreased at the same time that illegal groups and some members of Colombian government forces made a deal to hunt down Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

At the end of 1989, the Colombian Army killed Escobar’s lieutenant, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, the bridge between the cartel and the paramilitary groups. Under pursuit by both the Colombian Police and the Drug Enforcement Administration of the United States (DEA), and after the murders of national leaders of leftist parties committed by Castaño´s men and the Pérez family, Escobar declared war against his old allies. Paramilitary gangs then focused their attention on killing Escobar, working with some members of the Colombian police in a secret plan, the details of which have been partially revealed over the last two decades.

Escobar died in December of 1993, a moment that marked a breaking point in the history of the Colombian conflict. After three years of war, the Pérez family and its supporters were exterminated, while Castaño and his men survived, owing to the impressive power and relevance afforded him by his role in hunting down Escobar. However, Fidel Castaño was killed just a month after Escobar, and it was his brothers Carlos and Vicente who took advantage of the position they had gained and, in the following years, they unleashed the worst violence ever experienced in the conflict.

Expansion and Consolidation (1994–2005)

After the death of Fidel Castaño in January of 1994, paramilitary groups reorganized and began a process of expansion to take control of cocaine production across the entire country. This process can be seen in the evolution of the massacres in the territories where these groups arrived and began to dispute drug trafficking with guerrilla groups.

Early in 1994, most of the massacres were concentrated again in the zone of Urabá, close to the border with Panama, but this time the perpetrators were not the paramilitary groups. In this zone, starting in the final years of the 1970s, the guerrilla groups of FARC and the Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL, created a strong military presence and established relations with the union organizers among the foreign banana producers.

Fig. 6. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing massacres committed in 1994–1995. Close to the border with Panama, paramilitary groups incorporated former members of the guerrilla group EPL and unleashed a war against the FARC guerrilla that caused several massacres, killing more than a hundred members of different banana plantation workers’ unions.

In 1991, the EPL signed an agreement with the government and disarmed. In Urabá, the former members of this guerrilla group created a new political party called Esperanza, Paz y Libertad (Hope, Peace, and Freedom, abbreviated as EPL), but their former allies of the FARC accused them of being traitors and began targeting them systematically. In 1994, the FARC committed several massacres against the demobilized EPL members. The biggest of these crimes was the massacre of La Chinita on January 23, 1994, when a FARC faction killed 35 people.12 Several former EPL members went on to join paramilitary groups in this region.

Meanwhile, Vicente Castaño, the brother of the killed former leader of the main paramilitary group in Colombia, started a process of expansion all over the country. As can be seen on the chronological map of Rutas del Conflicto, by 1996, the documented massacres point to the arrival of the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, ACCU, as the Castaño group was known, to the rest of the Caribbean coast and almost all the department of Antioquia.

Fig. 7. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing massacres committed in 1996. The map evidence the process of expansion of the paramilitary group of the Castaño family, taking over old paramilitary structures in the whole department of Antioquia and the north coast of Colombia.

María Teresa Ronderos explains in her book that, although Vicente, a drug trafficker with several years of experience, was one of the biggest powers behind the organization, the more prominent face of the paramilitary group was Carlos Castaño, his younger brother, who started to appear frequently in the Colombia media, as they were looking for ways to show a political anti-guerrilla side of the organization.13 In a persistent pattern, men of the Castaño family would arrive in a region and absorb the small paramilitary groups, usually with the support of the rich farmers, thus creating a “franchise” of the criminal model that would also control the drug traffic.

In 1997, the Castaños sent their men to the border between the eastern plains of the country and the Amazonian jungle, where FARC controlled huge expansions of land planted with coca. Judicial court proceedings have proved that about 120 members of the paramilitary group, with help from members of the Colombian army, travelled in a plane more than 700 kilometres from Urabá to the south of the country and committed the massacre of Mapiripan.14 Castaño’s men arrived in the area and killed more than 40 people, accusing them of helping the FARC. Several were decapitated, and some of the bodies were thrown into the Guaviare River. The horror of the massacre produced a massive displacement of the inhabitants, who abandoned their landholdings and belongings to go to the closest cities in pursuit of safety.

Fig. 8. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing massacres committed in 1997. In that year, paramilitary groups of the Castaño family had its biggest period of expansion, frequently using massacres, especially in key places for coca plant harvesting and processing.

Paramilitary groups repeated this story hundreds of times all over the country. In 1999, the Castaños sent their men to the region of Catatumbo, in the department of Norte de Santander on the border with Venezuela, another zone with a large coca plantation. For months, dozens of massacres, involving cruel torture and assassination techniques, spread an extreme terror among the population.

Fig. 9. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing massacres committed in 1998–1999. On the map it is easy to see the location of massacres that coincide with the expansion of paramilitary group of the Castaño family to key areas for cocaine production like Catatumbo on the border with Venezuela and Putumayo on the border with Ecuador.

In the same year, this story was repeated in Putumayo, in the jungle close to the border with Ecuador, with crimes such as the massacre of El Placer, where sexual violence against young women was the preferred method to terrorize those communities, as documented by the Centro de Memoria Histórica in their book El Placer.15

In the region with a strong presence by the FARC guerrilla group, the population suffered more from the use of systematic massacres as weapons of terror. In the small town of San Carlos, on the eastern side of the department of Antioquia, paramilitary groups and FARC guerrillas committed more than 30 massacres between 1996 and 2004.16

The number of massacres increased in 2000, 2001, and 2002 on the Caribbean coast, especially in the departments of Magdalena, Bolívar, and Cesar. Paramilitary groups made an alliance with a large portion of the traditional political class to help them to win the 2001 and 2002 elections, committing dozens of massacres against their opponents. The Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia found more than 60 congressmen of such these alliances, and in some cases, they found that some senators were the masterminds the massacres. For example, congressman Alvaro García was sentenced to 40 years in prison for ordering the homicide of 15 people in the massacre of Macayepo in October of 2000.

In several places, massacres were also related to the process of land dispossession targeting poor farmers. Paramilitary groups were seizing farms to force the displacement of thousands of people, and then the illegal groups somehow legalized their rights to the properties. Most of this land has been transferred to the hands of large companies, as figureheads and intermediary businesses took advantage of the situation. This fact has been documented in detail in books such as Guerreros y campesinos17 and La tierra en disputa.18

The frequency of massacres documented by Rutas del Conflicto are shown to have decreased starting in 2002, the year when paramilitary groups started a process of consolidation and began to talk with the government of then president Alvaro Uribe Vélez. Talks ended in 2006 with a demobilization of a large percentage of the paramilitary groups, but to this date, those who remain have continued to commit massive homicides, especially on the Pacific coast and along the border with Venezuela.

Fig. 10. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s section maps showing massacres committed in 2006. This year marked the end of the demobilization process of the paramilitary groups, but some formers members of these groups continued to commit massacres, especially in the southwest of the country. Since this time, these criminal bands have been known as BACRIM.

It is worth clarifying that the details on how the war evolved vary depending on the region and the interests of the illegal groups. Rutas del Conflicto’s maps and search tools show the level of violence experienced in some places during the period of expansion of the paramilitary phenomenon. Putting all the information together in the database made it easy to see that in towns such as San Carlos in Antioquia, paramilitary and guerrilla groups committed at least 29 massacres in a period of less than ten years, between 1995 and 2005.

Fig. 11. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’ section maps showing massacres San Carlos, in Antioquia. Paramilitary and guerrilla groups perpetrated more than 29 massacres in this town located 120 km east of the city of Medellín.

Fig. 12. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’s search tool showing 12 of 29 entries for massacres committed in San Carlos Antioquia.

Another case of a local process of violence shown by Rutas del Conflicto during these years is the town of Armero-Guayabal in the departament of Tolima in the center of the country. There is not much information in the media and academics reports about how the war developed in this area, where illegal groups have perpetrated at least five massacres, and more than 10 in the surrounding area in less than four years, between 1999 and 2003.

Fig. 13. Screenshot of Rutas del Conflicto’ searching tool showing five entries for massacres perpetrated by paramilitary and guerrilla groups in Armero, a town located to 170 km west of the city of Bogotá.

The Reorganization of Crime after the Paramilitary Groups (2006–2015)

Although the number of massacres has dramatically decreased since 2006, these tragedies have not disappeared from the ongoing conflict in Colombia. Small paramilitary groups remain in operation as criminal organizations, which the government refers to with the generic term BACRIM. They continue controlling drug trafficking and killing the civil population, especially in the immense jungle that surrounds the Colombian Pacific Coast and in the region of Urabá on the border with Panamá and Venezuela.

In these areas, FARC guerrillas also had a strong presence and controlled drug trafficking, and some of them still do so. In some cases, the interests of the community have clashed with the interests of these groups, and so the guerrilla members have once again used massacres to terrorize populations and control these areas. In 2009, for example, BACRIM and FARC groups committed several massacres against towns of the indigenous Awa people in the extreme southwest of the country.

Since 2009, unidentified groups have committed massacres in which victims were relatives of former paramilitary leaders or people related with the local mafia. In December of 2014, a group of armed men killed seven people in the town of Amalfi, the place where the first paramilitary massacre took place in 1982. One of the victims was a relative of a former paramilitary leader Diego Rendón Herrera, known as “Don Mario.” Colombian authorities have investigated to see whether these crimes are related to lingering feuds between long-time criminals or if they signal a reorganization of the illegal groups.

General Conclusions

Besides of the chronological classification of massacres in periods that show the evolution of the conflict in Colombia, the database documented in Rutas del Conflicto supports the following conclusions:

Most of the massacres committed in Colombia between 1982 and 2014 were the responsibility of paramilitary groups. About 80% of the entries in the database document crimes perpetrated by these groups.

There is no precise information about participation by members of the Colombian army or police in many of these massacres. In many cases, statements made by witnesses blame soldiers and policemen, but there are no legal investigations that prove the participation of state forces in many of these crimes. Only in 14 cases documented by the project do we have judicial decisions that implicate members of Colombian army or police. Further research might explore the reliability of impartiality in the press during the period under investigation.

There are periods of time when the number of massacres increased dramatically. The map, in combination with the timeline, shows peaks that have coincided with the moments of expansion of paramilitary power.

Places where there are more massacres coincide with large areas of cocaine production, such as the Catatumbo region in the department of Norte de Santander on the border with Venezuela and the regions close to the Caribbean and Pacific Coast, all basically drug exportation ports.

There is a lower concentration of massacres in the Cordillera Oriental, a zone where almost a third of the population lives, including the country’s largest city, Bogotá. This high-altitude area has not had large coca plantations, which seems to explain the lesser prominence of the war in this region.

We lack public information concerning details of the events involving hundreds of massacres. In some cases, even different government agencies have conflicting data concerning the number of the victims and their names. The project has received more than three hundred messages with information from relatives of the victims correcting data from official sources. In at least 10% of the massacres registered in the project, there were people missing, as many bodies were hurled into rivers or even burned in ad hoc crematoria. In some places, there are mass graves containing unidentified corpses. With a bit of will on the part of the government and financial support, forensic archeology could help uncover some answers in these mass graves.

Although most of the massacres were committed by paramilitary groups, guerrilla forces also used this criminal technique to terrify its enemies, especially in areas like the border with Panamá and the state of Cauca, where there was a complex conflict situation involving the population of this area. In several cases, victims of the insurgent forces were indigenous groups in the southwest of the country.

Discussion of the Literature

Colombia has been going through a complex war since the 1960s. Besides the Communist guerrilla groups that have contributed to the violence, human rights abuses and atrocities in this country have involved counterinsurgency forces, including paramilitary groups supported largely by drug cartels, members of the Colombian army, and businessmen. These irregular groups and members of Colombian military forces have committed a variety of crimes against thousands of people. Each one has used a particular method to terrify entire towns and get rid of its enemies and, typically, has vied to gain the control over cocaine trafficking.

In its book ¡Basta ya!, the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica has documented that while the more recurrent crime of the guerrilla groups was kidnapping and enforced disappearance, in the case of some members of Colombian army and right-wing militias massacres were the preferred method used systematically against people in small towns to take control of drug trafficking or to establish political alliances in order to control public resources in vast territories.

Since the 1980s, journalists, universities, and the justice system in Colombia have documented war-related events, but there were no databases for establishing relations between the crimes, the context where they happened, and the perpetrators. The attorney general’s office of Colombia and government-created commissions of social scientists have written different papers with statistical information about the conflict as a whole, but without providing details of the crimes, such as the names of the victims or the local context.

Most of crimes documented until now were those committed by paramilitary groups. The negotiation between the Colombian government and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia ended with the so-called process of Justice and Peace, a process of transitional justice that gave just eight years of jail time to the paramilitary leaders in exchange for telling the truth about their murders and paying monetary compensation to the victims. Although the process has failed to bring many of its targets to justice, the paramilitary leaders confessed to details of hundreds of massacres committed since 1982 that show how this group especially has used massacres as the spearhead of its expansion efforts and as a systematic weapon to terrorize regions where they have interests.

Social scientist Andrés Suárez has studied the phenomenon of massacres in Colombia, focusing on the motivation of illegal groups, the brutality of their methods, and the consequences for the population. Several journalists and academic researchers have worked on particular periods and regions, such as María Victoria Uribe, whose work has targeted violence perpetrated in the department of Antioqua.

The most thorough reconstruction of a history of paramilitary activities in Colombia has been made by the journalist María Teresa Ronderos, the former director of the website, which has documented the process of transitional justice since 2008. Ronderos wrote Guerras recicladas, published in 2014, a book considered by human rights experts as the most complete investigation of the evolution of the paramilitary groups. In some of its chapters, the events documented clearly illuminate several massacres and their victims for the first time and in a most thorough way. Rondero’s book contradicts many elements described in the book Mi confesión, an autobiographic text on the life of paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño, written by journalist Mauricio Aranguren in 2001, three years before death Castaño’s death. Social scientists and even Colombian justices had accepted the story around this criminal confession as true fact, but Ronderos’s investigative work suggests a predetermined intent on the part of Castaño to construct a version of the events that would politically justify his crimes.

Primary Sources

Although the Colombian media has reported a large number of crimes related to the conflict in Colombia, there have been huge gaps in the history of the evolution of the illegal groups. Until a few years ago no significant journalistic or academic investigations had attempted to document the origin, development, and expansion of the paramilitary phenomenon.

The peace process between the government of the former president Alvaro Uribe Vélez and the paramilitary groups concluded in 2006 with the passing of a law of transitional justice called Justicia y Paz. Although, in general, this process did not serve its purpose, such as material reparation for victims, since 2008 more than a thousand former members of these illegal groups have given details of their crimes, including information on over a thousand massacres.

The process was covered by Colombia media, but more notably, the independent web site has written more than five thousand journalistic articles and a dozen special multimedia reports disseminating and analyzing the information made public by the demobilized paramilitary forces.

Many documents are also available at the Attorney General’s office, which is guiding the process and which has obtained a few judicial sentences in special justice tribunals using testimonies of the victimizers. Unfortunately, there is no unique place online to find this information; most of the files can be located by searching using the names of the former paramilitary leaders.

Some initiatives have tried to involve victims in process of reconstructing historic memories, such as the Rutas del Conflicto tool Tu Memoria Cuenta.

There are some academic studies related to specific moments and places, such as the books of social scientists Alejandro Reyes and María Victoria Uribe. There are several books about some of the cruellest massacres, written by the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (CNMH), all of them available on its website in PDF format. The CNMH is the author of the biggest investigation of the general dimension of the conflict, which is entitled ¡Basta Ya!, containing statistical and general information about the origins, causes, and consequences of the war in Colombia.

One of the social scientists affiliated with the CNMH is Andrés Suárez, who works extensively on documenting data related to massacres in Colombia. Suárez has written several papers on this subject and has created his own database, available in an Excel file on the Internet.

The other large public database with information about the war in Colombia is that of the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP), which has more than fifty thousand entries concerning crimes since 1985 from all over the country. The database is public, with a search system that filters the information by certain classification criteria.

Although there are still many unanswered questions in the documentation of the process of the development of paramilitary groups, there are even more questions concerning their relation to the members of the Colombian army and police and their role in several crimes. If talks between the Colombian government and FARC guerrilla were to end with a peace agreement, this group could give also essential information about the evolution and crimes of the war in Colombia.

Further Reading

  • Aranguren, Mauricio. Mi confesión. Bogotá: Oveja Negra, 2001.
  • Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. San Carlos: Memorias del éxodo en la guerra. Bogotá: Taurus, 2011.
  • Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. El Placer: Mujeres, coca y guerra en el Bajo Putumayo. Bogotá: Taurus, 2012.
  • Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. La Masacre de Trujillo, una tragedia que no cesa. Bogotá: Taurus, 2012.
  • Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. ¡Basta ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad. Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional de Colombia, 2013.
  • Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, La Tierra en Disputa: Memorias del despojo y resistencias campesinas en la costa Caribe, 1960–2010. Bogotá: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2014.
  • Reyes, Alejandro. Guerreros y campesinos. Bogotá: Norma/Fescol, 2009.
  • Ronderos, María Teresa. Guerras recicladas. Bogotá: Aguilar, 2014.
  • Semelin, Jacques (2004) ‘Pensar las masacres’. In Memorias en Conflicto. Edited by Institut français d’études andine. Lima: Institut français d’études andines.
  • Suárez, Andrés. “Saevitia in the Massacres of the Colombian War.” Analisis Político 21.63 (2008). Last accessed August 2008.
  • Uribe, María Victoria, and Teófilo Vásques. Enterrar y callar. Bogotá: Editorial Presencia Ltda., (1995), v. 1, 37.


  • 1. Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, ¡Basta ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad (Bogota: Imprenta Nacional de Colombia, 2013), 36–44.

  • 2. Andrés Suarez, “Saevitia in the Massacres of the Colombian War,”Analisis Político 21.63 (2008). Last accessed August 2008.

  • 3. María Victoria Uribe and Vásquez Teófilo, Enterrar y callar (Editorial Presencia Ltda., 1995), v. 1, 37.

  • 4. Semelin, Jacques (2004) ‘Pensar las masacres’, in Memorias en Conflicto, ed. Institut français d’études andine (Lima: Institut français d’études andines), 11–15.

  • 5. Maria Teresa Ronderos, Guerras recicladas (Bogota: Aguilar, 2014).

  • 6. Rutas del Conflicto: Masacre de El Tigre—Lagartos,” last modified March 2014.

  • 7. Rutas del Conflicto: Masacre de Cañaveral y Altos de Manila,” last modified March 2014.

  • 8. María Teresa Ronderos, Guerras recicladas (Bogotá: Aguilar, 2014), 166–172.

  • 9. Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, La masacre de Trujillo: Una tragedia que no cesa (Bogotá: Taurus, 2012).

  • 10. Rutas del Conflicto: Geografía del Terror,” last modified March 2014.

  • 11. Rutas del Conflicto: Masacre de Segovia,” last modified March 2014.

  • 12. Rutas del Conflicto: Masacre de La Chinita,” last modified March 2014.

  • 13. María Teresa Ronderos, Guerras recicladas (Bogotá: Aguilar, 2014), 241–250.

  • 14. Rutas del Conflicto: Masacre de Mapiripán,” last modified March, 2014.

  • 15. Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, El Placer: Mujeres, coca y guerra en el Bajo Putumayo (Bogotá: Taurus, 2012).

  • 16. Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, San Carlos, Memorias del éxodo en la guerra (Bogotá: Taurus, 2011).

  • 17. Alejandro Reyes, Guerreros y campesinos (Bogotá: Norma/Fescol, 2009).

  • 18. Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, La tierra en disputa: Memorias del despojo y resistencias campesinas en la costa Caribe, 1960–2010 (Bogotá: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2014).