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Colombia’s “ghost town” is threatened by a new wave of violence | Conflict News

El Salado, Colombia- When 76-year-old Elias Torres walked down the almost empty streets of the town, the dead bodies that were once scattered on the dirt road still haunt him.

More than 21 years ago, militias from the Colombian United Self-Defense Force (AUC) broke into El Salado. There, right-wing paramilitary groups began to intimidate, torture and massacre residents of northern Colombian towns.

Militia killed at least 60 people, and some reports said the death toll was around 100. Many more people are “missing”. After the massacre, the militia forced Torres to clean up the bloody bodies of his friends and family.

“You want to forget it, but you can’t because it is what we experienced in the flesh,” Torres recalled. “Imagine that because an armed group told you,’Come over and pick up the dog lying there, so it was forced to pick up your friend’s body.'”

Thousands of people fled the town, leaving a mass grave and empty houses, rotting in the suffocating heat. The decades of conflict in Colombia have turned El Salado and many other towns in South American countries into Gensokyo or “ghost cities.”

Although many residents returned after the 2000 massacre, most of El Salado remains empty [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera]

As the violence subsided in the area, Torres and his family and other residents began to return home one after another. But the town is now worried that history may repeat itself again, and violence by armed groups in Colombia has surged, a product of the shaky peace process in the country.

Torres said: “We still have to bear everything we have experienced here, with this fear.” “If you are threatened, your life is not safe anywhere. You are not safe anywhere.”

When hundreds of people returned home at the end of 2003, even though the state told them that they could not guarantee their safety, another survivor from El Salado, Yirley Velazco, said it looked like a brand new place.

“The day we returned to El Salado, we couldn’t find the house. Because of the overgrown weeds…we couldn’t see the house,” she said.

Some people like Velazco said they returned “out of love for this land”. Others like Torres came back because they were ostracized by society.

The paramilitary group that carried out the massacre in 2000 accused many of the civilians they killed for being linked to their rival, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

On July 11, 2021, Yirley Velazco walks through an old building bombed by FARC fighters in El Salado, Colombia. ruins [Kiran Stallone/Al Jazeera]

After the massacre, Torres said these allegations have been with him, and that he and his family were treated as displaced persons because of their ties to armed groups.

Many more people said that they fled to a new city and were unemployed with only clothes on their backs, which caused a serious economic burden.

“I barely tried it,” Torres said. “All I brought was my family and my clothes. Nothing else, because we had to keep all the animals here.”

But in a country like Colombia, peace has been fragile at best for a long time, and returning to a community like El Salado often comes with incredible risks. Elizabeth Dickinson, a Colombian researcher at the International Crisis Group, said these places “will always live in the shadow of fear.”

Dickinson said: “In one of these Pueblo fantasies, basically the entire population, at some point, was marked as consistent with or stigmatized by one group or another.” “This imprint is on Many aspects will never disappear, because everyone knows who everyone is.”

To this day, people still feel that peace has never really touched the lives of the victims of the Holocaust. Only 1,200 of the original 4,000 residents returned. The outer walls of the dilapidated buildings are shining brightly in the town.

Elias Torres, one of the 1,200 residents who returned to El Salado, said his family has never recovered from the displacement [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera]

Torres said he and his family never recovered financially.

In 2016, the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia caused the bloodshed to temporarily cease.

However, in recent years peace has collapsed, and the government’s failure to establish its presence in areas deemed strategic for armed groups has led to a new wave of violence erupting in most of the country.

The Montes de María area, where El Salado is located, is one of these strategic areas-the main trafficking route for drugs, illegal gold, etc.

The decline in state presence in recent years has paved the way for a few paramilitary groups to seize control. The main members of the area are the group that calls itself Colombia’s Getanista Self-Defense Force (AGC), often referred to as the “Gulf Tribe” or “Los Urabeños. Others are smaller, fragmented criminal groups that have no interest in peace.

“Our early warning system concluded that there has been a clear increase in the presence of armed and organized groups, and this increase in presence clearly means that people living in the area are at greater risk,” Deputy Inspector Luiz Said Luis Andrés Fajardo. In Colombia, government agencies are responsible for protecting citizens and human rights.

According to recent data from the United Nations, the increase in armed group conflicts earlier this year caused the number of people fleeing their homes in Colombia to more than double compared to the same period in 2020.

Emerson Ramos took pictures near the place where paramilitary militia slaughtered his community and left a mass grave in El Salado, Colombia [Kiran Stallone/Al Jazeera]

Damaris Martínez, a lawyer representing El Salado of the Colombian Law Commission, expressed her concern about the increase in the number of displaced persons, saying that the situation in El Salado “has become very difficult again.

[The violence] It became more obvious at the end of last year,” Martinez explained. “And it increased at the beginning of the year, when threatening written pamphlets, text messages, WhatsApp messages, phone calls and blackmail threats began to reappear to intimidate people. “

At least five families have fled El Salado. One of them is Velazco, whose work as a community leader has been threatened.

“They posted a brochure at my door. The threat was very serious and I decided to leave El Salado,” Velazco said. “For the safety of me and my family, I decided to leave everything behind.”

Other civilians from El Salado decided to stay where they were and bravely face the increasing security threats instead of being displaced again. When the 2000 massacre occurred, 39-year-old Emerson Ramos was only 18 years old.

Although paramilitary personnel killed his brother on a football field in a town not far from where Ramos currently lives, his family decided to return because of the poverty they experienced after escaping.

Since 2018, his family has been threatened and they are not sure why they were targeted. But signs of tension are everywhere. The streets of the town were still empty, and armed soldiers stood behind the church service in the square 20 feet (6 meters) away.

Although Ramos said he might leave one day, he didn’t want to run away like last time.

“What we experienced when we were displaced was very unpleasant. We couldn’t find any jobs, we didn’t have stability,” he said. “It’s very difficult, so we don’t want to relive that experience.”



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