Brigitte Carreño was only 12 when a warlord whose anti-guerrilla fighters had occupied this hamlet decided to make her his own.
So one night, he lured the tiny, effervescent schoolgirl to the dark and dank headquarters he used to plan operations against Marxist rebels.
And then he raped her.
“He tore off my shorts, and he tore off my underwear and I said, ‘No,’ ” Carreño, now 25, said in an interview, speaking on the record because she said she wanted people to know her story. “I don’t know if it lasted minutes or hours, but for me it was an eternity.”
For several weeks, the commander, Fredy Almario Gómez — who was better known as “Coco” — barged into her school to get her, teachers recalled. When he was away, other commanders arrived. In all, she said, 15 men from an illegal paramilitary group raped her, warning that if she ever said a word, her father would pay with his life.
The paramilitary fighters who occupied El Placer, using terror to erode support for the rebels, disbanded, and many are in jail. Others, including Gómez, were shot dead. And the guerrillas they fought for control of this region’s drug crops are negotiating a peace accord with the government to end the 49-year-old conflict by year’s end.
As Colombia struggles to emerge from the shadowy violence, searing stories like Carreño’s are being told by the dozens, putting a spotlight on the rape and degradation of women and girls on a massive scale by gunmen who viewed them as “trophies of war,” as Amnesty International put it.
No one knows how many were victimized. But investigators who are interviewing victims and perpetrators say the illegal armed bands that battled it out — including the rebels, but most notably the paramilitary groups that terrorized small towns such as El Placer — enslaved girls, turned women into porters and housekeepers, carried out rapes and killed those deemed sympathizers of their enemies.
“Gender violence, not just sexual violence or rape, has taken place on a gigantic scale in the armed conflict,” said Camila Medina, an investigator with the Historic Memory Center, a state-supported group that is unearthing details of war crimes and compiling in-depth reports.
Researchers for Historic Memory and local prosecutors who are building cases against paramilitary commanders have uncovered numerous crimes that took place early in the last decade.
In the northeast where he led 1,200 paramilitary fighters, Hernan Giraldo fathered at least 20 children with girls, one of them just 12. Investigators determined that Giraldo, who was later extradited to the United States on drug-trafficking charges, often gave poverty-stricken parents money in exchange for a virgin daughter.
In the Montes de Maria mountain range farther west, investigators say a feared commander, Marco Tulio Perez, nicknamed “The Bear,” forced women in the towns he controlled to have sex with him and organized beauty pageants in which teenage contestants were sexually abused.
And in the far northeast near Venezuela, paramilitary groups targeting the Wayuu Indian tribe went after a group of women in 2004, hacking them to death and cutting off their breasts.
Perhaps no other town, though, saw as many crimes against women over such a long period of time as El Placer — or the Pleasure — just on the edge of Amazonia in the isolated southern state of Putumayo.
“There was suffering, all you could imagine, suffering no person or animal should have to go through,” said Isabel Narvaez, 32, a resident and rape victim who, like others interviewed, said she wanted to be quoted by name.
Here, farmers grew a cash crop like no other, coca, which produces a bright green leaf central to the production of cocaine. The rebels began to tax farmers and traffickers. That brought the paramilitary groups, heavily armed bands numerically inferior to the rebels who undercut the guerrilla’s support by massacring villagers.
The paramilitary fighters in El Placer went further, in what Maria Luisa Moreno, another Historic Memory researcher, called “crimes of opportunity” made possible by the absence of the state.
“All the rapes that happened and that I know of were opportunistic, because these men were armed figures in a war, and through force and through coercion were able to reach these girls,” Moreno said.
Residents speak of the rape, mutilation and murder of women who were believed to be close to the fighters. They say prostitutes who were HIV-positive were shot and dumped in the Guamuez River. They talk of girls barely into their teens enticed with gifts, then forced to have sex and led into prostitution.
“Parents would try to keep their girls indoors,” recounted Elizabeth Mueses, 52, leader of a group representing victims. “They would sleep with their girls in between them in bed to protect them from the paramilitaries.”
Teacher Alba Lucia Gelpud called the violence and oppression that came to El Placer “a virus” that fragmented the town’s social structure. Girls abandoned their homes. Some who wound up dating paramilitary fighters, even if under duress, were later rejected by their parents. The killings left the town with dozens of orphans.
“The collapse here was complete,” Gelpud said.
Paula Andrea Caicedo was raped at 15 in the drab three-story paramilitary headquarters. When she told her family, they refused to believe her. Later, she was shunned.
“They used to blame all the women, that we asked for it, that we wanted it,” she said. Now 25 and raising two children alone, Caicedo said her life has been marked by depression.
“Sometimes I feel like I want to kill myself,” she said. “I feel like I’m worthless.”
Speaking on a park bench, tears gently rolling down her cheeks, Brigitte Carreño said she, too, was changed forever after the paramilitary commander known as “Coco” raped her. Told that her family would suffer if she didn’t obey him and other commanders, Carreño was raped repeatedly over several weeks. The ordeal ended only when her family fled.
Carreño, who recently returned to the area and visited close friends, said she remains haunted by what happened, unable to relate to or trust men. She wonders — much as the residents of El Placer wonder — if she’ll ever recover.
“There are things that you never forget,” she said, “traumas that stay with you and that you can never leave behind.”