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Colombia: La Gabarra, a massacre foretold, profits guaranteed

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

Published in Revista CEPA 29 Vol III Sept-Dec. 2019

17 October 2019

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the La Gabarra massacre.  The community organised an event to remember the most well known of the horrendous heart-breaking events that befell the communities of this area of the municipality of Tibú: the massacre  carried out on August 21st 1999.  That massacre was not an isolated event, it has to be seen not just in the context of the Catatumbo region the municipality is part of, but rather in the context of conflict at a national level.  The two things are inseparable and today, 20 years later, we have to ask as to why that massacre was carried out and what the results have been.

However, before we do so, it is worth going over the facts.  In the current period, many aspects of that massacre are denied by the state and various sectors of the left that prefer to look the other way when faced with the reality of the conflict that Colombia lived through then and still does, the intensity of the conflict and the modus operandi of the paramilitary groups has changed but the state's responsibility back then is undeniable just as it is today.  In relation to the murders of social leaders, some ask, who is killing them and why?, they vacillate on the state's responsibility, though the angry reaction of the people of the city of Cartagena when Duque tried to commander the protest march against the murders and had to withdraw in the midst of cries of , murderer! murderer! that not everyone has swallowed that tale hook, line and sinker; they are clear about it, in La Gabarra the state did it and today the state continues to do so.

The events

One of the most famous novels by Gabriel García Márquez is Chronicle of a Death Foretold.  The novel states from the beginning that Santiago Nasar is going to die.  Everyone knows he is going to die, the only one who doesn't is the victim.  The murderers shout from the rooftops their intentions but however, no one intervenes or quirks of fate play against poor Santiago Nasar.

The title of the book could by the headline on any article about almost any massacre in Colombia, but unlike the novel, the paramilitaries' announcements that were going to massacre the defenceless inhabitants of La Gabarra, do not lend themselves to interpretations like those of the novel that they wanted someone to stop their plan but rather they were sending out a clear signal that they could do what they wanted and when they announced a massacre they were serious about it.  It was a war strategy, that the simple announcement caused terror and instilled panic in the populace in face of the passive complicit gaze of the state's repressive forces that did nothing to avert the events but rather took part and facilitated the route of death.

The reality of the Colombian conflict outdoes surpasses any attempt of fiction.  As the newspaper El Espectador reported:

The massacre had been announced. At the end of May, in a visit that various public figures had made to Mr Castaño Gil to seek the freedom of Piedad Córdoba, the paramilitary leader had announced his grim plans.  He said that he would send a large group to corner the ELN guerrillas and push them towards Venezuela in order to provoke binational incidents.

Upon returning from that interview the Public Defender, José Fernando Castro made widely known what he had heard.  He even did it on national television and both himself and the regional defender in Norte de Santander had, through letters and official correspondence informed the relevant authorities; the Governor, the Minister of the Interior and the head of the Armed Forces.  On June 4th, General Alberto Bravo Silva, commander of the Fifth Brigade replied to an NGO that had also warned about the sinister plans of the paras that situation was under control that a massacre was impossible.(1)

However, not only was it possible, but moreover soldiers played an important role in the events.  Following his announcement, Castaño sent the paramilitaries to the municipality of Tibú.  The Public Defender reported that between May 23rd and August 21st 1999, the paramilitaries had carried out 14 massacres in the Catatumbo region, most of them in Tibú.  On May 28th he denounced that 500 paramilitaries were moving from southern Bolívar to the region.  On the 17th of July, in an operation that lasted two hours, the paramilitaries entered Tibú and murdered 13 people, seven of them in the municipal capital and they also took 15 other people, killing six of them and disappearing nine.  On July 31st they went into the rural areas of La Gabarra and murdered 15 people and disappeared eight.  On August 21st they entered the urban area and murdered 21 people and a further eight people in a rural area of Caño Lapa at Kilometre 42.

The army lifted the checkpoint they had at the entrance to the town and withdrew to barracks in order not to hamper the paramilitary operation.  There can be no doubt as to the participation of state forces in the massacres, Major Llorente and other soldiers were convicted for their role in massacre of July 17th and neither can we forget that paramilitary operation was under the command of a retired army captain, Armando Alberto Pérez, alias Camilo.  The way he operated in the assault on La Gabarra, brings to mind more recent events.  In order to reach La Gabarra the paramilitaries had to pass through many checkpoints and they moved about in lorries completely at ease.  Years later the army would kidnap youths from Soacha and take to the Catatumbo region in lorries passing through checkpoints without any problems.  They would then murder them and present as guerrillas killed in combat.  The way of operating and moving about the same region is striking, as they have a lot of practice and practice makes perfect.

By the end of the year the paramilitaries had taken control of Tibú, although guerrillas maintained a presence in the zone.  The years 1998 -2002 correspond with the government of Andrés Pastrana who at that time was negotiating with the FARC in the dimilitarised zone of El Caguán.  Pastrana was praised as a man of peace back then, foreign governments, NGOs and some sectors of the left were effusive in their praise for the man.  However, it is in his government that the paramilitary project underwent its greatest expansion and, wherever we look that expansion had the support and collaboration of the state's armed forces at all times.

In 2000, the paramilitaries took over the city of Barrancabermeja after Castaño had announced that he would sling his hammock and sip coffee in the northeast of the city.  He said he would and he did.  They also took over other cities such as the port of Buenaventura and in Cúcuta, the capital of the department of Norte de Santander they took over the working class neighbourhoods.  The massacre of La Gabarra should be looked at in the national context of paramilitary expansion.  Back then the FARC was negotiating with the government of Pastrana in the demilitarised zone and the state, regardless of the results of the negotiations needed to guarantee greater control over the country once the negotiations had ended.  It must be borne in mind that the FARC guerrillas were, at the time, much stronger militarily and less decrepit than the organisation that  under the leadership of Timochenko and Iván Márquez sat down to negotiate with the state in 2012.  As far as the state was concerned it was Heads I Win, Tails You Lose.

The massacre also met a military objective, as the entry to the Catatumbo region was easier through the relatively flat lands of Tibú than through the mountainous areas.  Once they took over the municipality, the paramilitaries expanded into the rest of the Catatumbo region.  They carried out a major massacre in Filogringo on February 16th of the following year which opened the path to the rest of the region.  Such was the level of cruelty that even the Vice-presidency of the Republic had to acknowledge the events, although it refers to the murderers as self defence groups and not as paramilitaries thus disguising their real nature and the role of the state.  They stated:
The events that happened on February 16th 200 in Filogringo had a huge impact, when members of the self defence groups under the command of alias Mauricio tortured and murdered 20 peasants, whose identities are unknown: their corpses were quartered and thrown into the River Catatumbo.  At the same time, they threatened the communities in the area causing the displacement of 117 families from the urban area and from 22 rural areas where almost 5,000 people lived.(2)
From there they spread out to El Tarra and other parts of the region.  They tried to take the rural areas of the municipalities of Teorama, Convención and El Carmen, but the paramilitaries found in the ELN strong resistance, although they did manage to control the roads that lead to those municipalities and thus could exercise control over the civilian population in areas they did not occupy.  The state's troops true to their commitment to the paramilitaries did little or nothing to combat these groups in their bloody expansion through the region.  One part of the significance of the massacre of August 21st 1999 in La Gabarra is that is showed that the paramilitaries had arrived in order to stay and expand through the rest of the territory from their base in that area of Tibú.

The economic spoils

As with all wars, the real motive is economic, both in terms of the profits that can be made in the course of the war and afterwards once it has been won.  When it came to talking about the economic aspects, the press and the state talked of a war for coca and in so doing do they tried to dodge any accusation of a state strategy to take control of the zone.  It is beyond doubt, Tibú was a coca municipality.  On more than one occasion Castaño spoke about the profits from coca production and explicitly mentioned La Gabarra.  But coca was not the motive behind the massacre, but rather extra booty for them.  They didn't arrive in search of coca, although once installed they controlled it, just like they took control of bars, brothels and imposed taxes on activities such as transport and other sectors of the economy.  But those activities are short term and are of no structural importance to the state. It was in the ceremony where the paramilitaries demobilised that the real motive behind the violence in the area was revealed.

The then governor of Norte de Santander, Luís Miguel Morelli, in his speech at the demobilisation ceremony that Catatumbo "is a symbol of the enormous opportunities of oil coal, African palm, cocoa, the most biodiverse forests of the planet."(3)  And in his Development Plan he made it clear that it was not a slip up.

The Norte de Santander will be the best border region a special competitive regime, a pole of production and exportation of goods and services with ethical entrepreneurial business people, with a sense of social responsibility and risk taking and an export culture; it will be a consolidated logistical centre for international business for the Andean Community and the rest of the world.(4)
There is a certain amount of hyperbole, typical of development plans, when he talks of social responsibility and entrepreneurs but the document itself does confirm what everyone knew, the massacre was to smooth the path for the exploitation of the lands of the Catatumbo by large companies.  Initially, Morelli spoke of increasing coal production from two to eight million tonnes per year and he even dared to propose a 71,000 hectare open cast mine in La Gabarra.  A mixture of hyperbole with a large dose of mediocrity en incompetence prevented his wishes from becoming reality.  However, the peace process introduced a new dynamic to La Gabarra and with the subsequent demobilisation of the FARC, the companies and the state feel more sure of their plans for the region.  They are not in the order of 71,000 hectares, but there are already two open cast mining licences awarded for La Gabarra.

They amount to just 6,461 hectares but alongside those that are pending we will soon have a figure of 37,177, more than half of those in Morelli's delirious dream.  In addition, certain roads that lead to areas with a mining interest are being improved, ignoring the demands of the communities for roads in rural areas where the peasants work the land.

On the issue of African palm, Morelli had better luck, partly because Fedepalma (palm growers' association) is a serious outfit, it is relatively efficient and they know what they want.  So, even though Morelli announced the palm as a proposal for after the demobilisation, the reality was that in 2003 there were already some 750 hectares in Tibú and the rest of the region of Catatumbo.  That is what they came for and that is why they killed and displaced so many people.  In 2000, the year following the massacre, there was no palm in Tibú, only the municipality of Zulia had palm and very little at that, barely 500 hectares, now six municipalities in the area have palm crops, but Tibú is by far the main producer.  Nowadays there are some 23,322  hectares in Tibú out of a total 33,244 in the region.  It is not by chance that Tibú has so much palm, as on the one hand it has relatively flat lands which facilitate the monoculture and on the other hand the displacement of the people and the sale of their lands favoured the crop:

In the period between 2002-2009, important transformations in the use of the land took place in Tibú, as seen in the natural and anthropogenic vegetation cover.  In eight years the forest cover decreased by 14,056 hectares whilst short cycle crops and coca decreased by 2,172 and 2,520 hectares, respectively; in contrast the managed pasture agroindustrial African palm crop increased by 30,012 and 6,077 hectares respectively.(5)
In her study of the transformation in land use in Tibú Uribe Kaffure has no qualms in pointing to the cause of it and states that "in Tibú, between 2000 and 2010 there was a massive transformation in the concentration of rural property, as shown by the reconfiguration of the local agrarian structure and a dizzying increase in the GINI index on both the concentration of land and landowners."(6)[ Ibíd., pp. 247 & 248]  This concentration is due in part to the paramilitary violence on the one hand and on the other a...
... an apparently non coercive route operated by businesspeople and and commission agents that on the basis of de facto transformations resulting from the paramilitary activity put in train an anomalous and deregulated land market, despite the existence of important regulations aimed at protecting the peasantry's land and preventing its  theft (Law 387 of 1997; Law 160 of 1994).(7)
The first palm crops in Tibú were financed by the supposedly anti-narcotics plan, Plan Colombia which had the support of the ex-minister for agriculture Carlos Murgas, a palm businessman from the neighbouring department of Cesar and pioneer in the industry.  Murgas came along to guarantee the purchase of the palm fruit from the peasants.  Now, Murgas has his own extractive mill, near Campo Dos, the place where the paramilitaries came through in order to carry out the massacre and the place where they demobilised and the place where under paramilitary rule, Murgas and foreign bodies such as Plan Colombia experienced no problems when it came to setting up their projects.  To make matters worse, Murgas' plant alone is a Free Port and not the general area, and the tax benefits only apply to Murgas.  Thus he doesn't even contribute to the municipal, departmental or national exchequer.

The paramilitary onslaught hit the guerrillas hard in that area, but caused greater damage to the social organisations weakening them, murdering their leaders and displacing them.  Following the demobilisation, a long recovery of the organisations began, which has yet to be culminated.  But massacres, such as the one in La Gabarra served well the interests of the national and foreign bourgeoisie.

Now after the demobilisation of the FARC, the state in partial compliance with Point No. 4 of the Havana Accord on drugs proposes that the peasants that want to take advantage of the crop substitution projects and leave the coca behind that they plant more palm and other so called cash crops, not just in Tibú but in the whole region i.e. they want to deepen the changes that paramilitaries began and turn the zone in a territory for the business class and not for the peasants.  That is why in the recent strike in the region the peasant organisations stipulated in their demands that they did not want more palm crops.  The struggle against the legacy of the paras and the La Gabarra massacre continues.

It the 20th anniversary of a vile massacre, 20 years of a socio-economic plan with a bloody component.  The rural landscape of Tibú, the social composition of the region, the forms of peasant, business and economic organisation were all impacted by the massacre.  Without the La Gabarra massacre there would be no palm in Tibú and the mining companies would have much greater difficulties in opening their mines and destroying the area.  The socio-economic reality of the region is the result of the massacre, because you can't talk about the thriving palm industry, nor of the mining projects without mentioning the massacre.  The mining and palm companies needed that massacre and others that the peasants suffered.  Accordingly, without the massacre there would be no palm companies and so it follows that their profits feed off the blood spilt on August 21st 1999.


(1) El Espectador (25/08/1999) “Una mezcla explosiva: coca, 'paras' y guerrilla”. Available at:

(2) Vicepresidencia de la República (2006)  Dinámica reciente de la confrontación armada en el Catatumbo, Bogotá,  p. 19, footnote  19.

(3) Luís Miguel Morelli, speech cited in Ó Loingsigh, G. (2008) El Catatumbo: Un reto por la verdad, Cisca: Bogotá p.136

(4) Gobernación de Norte de Santander (2005) Agenda Interna de Competitividad, Norte de Santander, Cúcuta p.5

(5) Uribe Kaffure, S. (2014) “Transformaciones de tenencia y uso de la tierra en zonas del ámbito rural colombiano afectos por el conflicto armado.  Aproximaciones desde un estudio de caso”,  Estudios Socio-Jurídicos, No. 16,  enero-junio de 2014,  pp. 245-287 & 260.

(6) Ibíd., pp. 247 & 248

(7) Ibíd., p. 248

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