El Salat, Colombia – When Elias Torres, 76, roams the almost empty streets of his small town, the bodies that once scattered the dirt roads still haunt him.
Just over 21 years ago, the militias of the United Forces of Self-Defense of Colombia (AUC) uprooted El Salado. There, the right-wing paramilitary gang began terrorizing, torturing and killing residents of the northern city of Colombia.
The militia killed at least 60 people, various reports put the death toll at around 100. Many others were “missing.” After the massacre, the militia forced Torres to clean up the bloody corpses of his friends and family.
“You want to forget it, but you can’t do it because that’s what we lived in the flesh,” Torres recalled. “Imagine being forced to pick up your friends’ bodies because some armed group is telling you, ‘Come here and grab those dogs that are there.’
Thousands fled the city, leaving a mass grave and empty houses to decay with the stifling heat. The decades of conflict in Colombia turned El Salado along with many other cities in the South American country into ghost towns or “ghost towns”.
As the violence slowly subsided from the region, some residents like Torres and his family began to leave home. But now the city fears that history may repeat itself once again with the violence of armed groups in Colombia, a product of the country’s collapsed peace process.
“We still have to carry the weight of everything we’ve lived through here, with that fear,” Torres said. “Your life is not safe anywhere if it is threatened. You’re not safe anywhere. “
When hundreds of people returned home in late 2003, despite the state telling them it could not guarantee their safety, Yirley Velazco, another El Salado survivor, said it looked like a whole new place.
“The day we returned to El Salado we could not find our homes. Because of the weeds … we couldn’t see the houses, “he said.
Some like Velazco said they returned “for the love of the land.” Others like Torres returned because they were freed from society.
The paramilitaries who perpetrated the massacre in 2000 accused many of the civilians they killed of having ties to their opponents, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
After the mass murder, Torres said these accusations followed him everywhere he went and that he and his family were treated as if they had been displaced because they were linked to an armed group.
Many more said fleeing to a new city, jobless and with nothing but clothes on their backs, created a crippling economic burden.
“I barely got through it,” Torres said. “All I brought was my family and my clothes. Nothing more, because we had to leave all our animals here ”.
But in a country like Colombia, where peace has been very fragile at best, returning to communities like El Salado often carries incredible risk. Elizabeth Dickinson, a Colombian researcher with the International Crisis Group, said these places “will always live in the shadow of fear.”
“In one of these ghosts of villages, basically the whole population, at one time or another, was marked as aligned with one group or another or stigmatized,” Dickinson said. “This brand in many ways will never go away because everyone knows who everyone is.”
To this day, it still feels as if peace has never affected the lives of the victims of the massacre. Only 1,200 of the original 4,000 residents returned. The dilapidated facades of the buildings line the small town.
Torres said he and his family never recovered financially.
In 2016, peace agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC caused the bloodshed to decrease briefly.
However, peace has collapsed in recent years and the government has not been able to establish its presence in areas considered strategic for armed groups, prompting a new wave of violence that will develop in much of the country.
The Montes de María region, where El Salado is located, is one of these strategic areas: a key route for drug trafficking, illegal gold and more.
A declining state presence in recent years has paved the way for a shortage of paramilitary groups to take control. The main one in the region is a group called the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), better known as the “Gulf Clan” or “Los Urabeños”. Others are smaller, fractured criminal gangs that have no interest in peace.
“The conclusion of our early warning system is that there has clearly been an increase in the presence of armed and organized groups, and this increased presence obviously translates into a greater risk for people living in the area,” he said. say Luis Andrés Fajardo, Deputy Ombudsman of Colombia, with the government agency in charge of protecting civil and human rights.
An increase in armed group conflict earlier this year caused the number of people fleeing their homes in Colombia to double compared to the same period in 2020, according to recent United Nations data.
Damaris Martínez, a lawyer representing El Salado in the Colombian Legal Commission, echoed her concern about the increase in travel figures and said that the situation in El Salado “has become very difficult again.
[The violence] it became much more visible late last year, “Martinez explained.” And it increased earlier this year, when threatened pamphlets, text messages, WhatsApp messages, phone calls and phone calls began to appear. threats of extortion to intimidate people “.
At least five families have fled El Salado. One of them was Velazco, who has received threats for his work as a community leader.
“They put a pamphlet on my front door and the threats were so serious that I decided to leave El Salado,” Velazco said. “I decided to leave everything for my own safety and that of my family.”
Other civilians in El Salado have decided to stay and face growing security threats, instead of being displaced a second time. Emerson Ramos, 39, was 18 when the massacre took place in 2000.
His family decided to return because of the poverty he experienced after fleeing, even though the paramilitaries had killed his older brother on the city’s football field, not far from where Ramos now lives.
Since 2018, his family is constantly threatened and the family does not know why they have been targeted. But there are signs of tension everywhere. The streets of the city remain strangely empty and the armed soldiers stand at the back of a church service that takes place in a square 20 meters (six meters) away.
Although Ramos said he may leave someday, he doesn’t want to run away like last time.
“What we experienced when we moved was very unpleasant. We couldn’t find a job, we didn’t have stability, “he said. “It was very hard, so we don’t want to have to relive that.”