There Are No Dead Here

A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia


By Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno

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The bloody story of the rise of paramilitaries in Colombia, told through three characters — a fearless activist, a dogged journalist, and a relentless investigator — whose lives intersected in the midst of unspeakable terror.

Colombia’s drug-fueled cycle of terror, corruption, and tragedy did not end with Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993. Just when Colombians were ready to move past the murderous legacy of the country’s cartels, a new, bloody chapter unfolded. In the late 1990s, right-wing paramilitary groups with close ties to the cocaine business carried out a violent expansion campaign, massacring, raping, and torturing thousands.

There Are No Dead Here is the harrowing story of three ordinary Colombians who risked everything to reveal the collusion between the new mafia and much of the country’s military and political establishment: JesúríValle, a human rights activist who was murdered for exposing a dark secret; IváVeláuez, a quiet prosecutor who took up Valle’s cause and became an unlikely hero; and Ricardo Calderóa dogged journalist who is still being targeted for his revelations. Their groundbreaking investigations landed a third of the country’s Congress in prison and fed new demands for justice and peace that Colombia’s leaders could not ignore.

Taking readers from the sweltering Medellístreets where criminal investigators were hunted by assassins, through the countryside where paramilitaries wiped out entire towns, and into the corridors of the presidential palace in BogotáThere Are No Dead Here is an unforgettable portrait of the valiant men and women who dared to stand up to the tide of greed, rage, and bloodlust that threatened to engulf their country.







“BLOODY EVENTS HAVE BEEN TAKING place in the Municipality of Ituango,” Jesús María Valle began his letter to Álvaro Uribe, then governor of the Colombian state of Antioquia, as Valle’s sister and receptionist, Nelly, punched the words into his worn Olivetti typewriter. “Numerous people have been murdered and disappeared, with no action being taken by the army, police, or attorney general’s office to defend the population.”

Valle had been growing increasingly alarmed about the situation in Ituango, a remote rural municipality in the north of Antioquia, where he had spent his early childhood working the land alongside his father. The now well-known lawyer and activist had never lost sight of his humble Ituango roots, and he had represented the region as a councilman for over a decade.

On many weekends, after five busy days of teaching law school classes, making court appearances, giving speeches, and drafting endless letters and briefs, Valle would slip out of his suit and tie and hop on a bus or drive the 120 miles on dirt mountain roads from bustling Medellín to Ituango. He would roam through the region’s small towns, chatting with people who had lived there since he was small, or offering little treats to the children playing in the paths between houses.

Recently, his constituents, mostly impoverished peasants, had been telling him stories of groups of armed men in military camouflage, whom they called “paramilitaries,” brazenly walking through their land, threatening them, and even killing people. The paramilitaries claimed to be fighting Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla groups, but from what Valle was hearing, their victims were usually just ordinary community members whom the paramilitaries accused of having aided the guerrillas in some way, such as shopkeepers who might have sold food to them.

Valle had heard that the paramilitaries were working closely with the military and police in Ituango. In fact, several dozen of them were said to be based right outside the perimeter of Ituango’s municipal capital, very close to where the Girardot Battalion, part of the Fourth Brigade of the army, was headquartered.

An especially violent attack happened on June 11, 1996, when about two dozen paramilitary troops descended in a couple of large trucks on the tiny Ituango town of La Granja and killed a string of locals—a construction worker, a mentally disabled farmworker, a housewife, and the coordinator of a technical training center. Valle heard about the massacre soon afterward, as La Granja was his birthplace and he was close to many of its people. He soon learned that the day before the massacre, the Girardot Battalion had inexplicably ordered most of its units operating in the area to relocate, giving the paramilitaries free rein. Thousands began to flee the region in fear.

Now, Valle was sounding all the alarm bells. He had little hope that Governor Uribe or the military would reply: for years he had been hearing stories and seeing evidence indicating that sectors of Colombia’s military were colluding with the paramilitary groups. And Valle didn’t trust Uribe. A young, stiff, fiercely intelligent lawyer from an affluent Antioquia family, Uribe sold himself as a progressive but seemed to have a single-minded fixation on pursuit of the guerrillas that translated into unquestioning support for the military. Valle feared that some of the policies Uribe backed—such as arming civilians—would allow for covert assistance to the paramilitaries.

Still, Valle knew that the only hope for Ituango’s population was for the authorities to step in and protect them. He had to do everything he could to make that happen. That included creating a paper trail showing that the authorities were on notice of the bloodshed, which might make it harder for them to ignore their obligations.

Like other letters Valle sent to officials that year and the next, his November 20, 1996, missive to Uribe was a plea for help: “The anguish being experienced by the people—especially women, children, and the elderly—force me to request, very respectfully, your immediate intervention to protect the lives of the defenseless civilian population.”

MOST COLOMBIANS PAID little attention to what was happening in Ituango—a mountainous region that, like much of rural Colombia, is still barely connected to the rest of the country by roads. Some parts of Ituango are entirely inaccessible except by boat and footpaths, or on muleback. Most of its residents were peasants who didn’t have telephones in their homes. Some didn’t even have electricity. Many never finished high school. Some were members of the Catío or Embera indigenous tribes. Few people moved there from elsewhere, and people from Ituango usually did not venture far from home.

But to Valle, Ituango was special: it was the region where, fifty-three years earlier, he had been born. It was where he had spent his early childhood, surrounded by green, orchid-dotted slopes and farms, as one of eleven siblings in a family that worked the land. The robust lawyer, with a broad, easy smile, strong brows, and a full head of dark hair, often spoke proudly to his friends of his rural heritage. And decades after having left Ituango, he retained a gentle, almost sweet accent that set him apart from others in the city. To him, Ituango was home. It was also the place where life, for a few years at least, had been peaceful.

Not that Colombia has ever known much peace: in just the one hundred years after it declared its independence from Spain in 1810, the country had lived through six civil wars, as well as multiple conflicts involving its neighbors. It was a starkly divided country—not only politically, between traditional Liberal and Conservative forces—but also, and more importantly, socially and geographically. For most of its history, the country’s overwhelmingly poor peasant population had been scattered across different regions, each group with its own customs, economy, and power brokers. The Andes mountain chain that sliced the country’s halves was at a low enough altitude to support vibrant agriculture, but it made travel and communication between communities difficult. The same was true for the rainforest covering much of the country’s south and east, as well as the marshlands spread out along parts of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Meanwhile, the political class that governed the country from the mountainous capital of Bogotá consisted largely of city elites who, in many cases, had built their wealth as large landowners and industrialists, and had historically shown little interest in the plight of small landholders, peasants, and laborers, or in the country’s varied indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations. These unresolved divisions, along with the exclusion of large majorities from power, set the stage for renewed brutality in the mid-1900s.

War took its first steps toward Valle on April 9, 1948, when he was five years old. Around noon that day, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán and a couple of his colleagues ambled out of his Bogotá office on their way to lunch. It had been an eventful couple of days for the charismatic politician, who was actively participating in the Pan-American Conference, which had brought together the United States and most of the countries in the region. These were the early days of the Cold War, and US officials had high hopes of using the conference to consolidate regional alliances, including through the establishment of the Organization of American States, nipping in the bud the Soviet influence in the Americas. Gaitán was not a communist, but he had earned wide acclaim with his calls for land reform and a reduction in the yawning gulf between the nation’s rich and poor. A member of Colombia’s Liberal Party, he was viewed with suspicion by his own party members, as he was an outsider to the political establishment that had ruled the country—through the Liberals or Conservatives—practically since its inception. But with popular support, he was gaining increasing prominence and power within the party, and he seemed on track to run for president that year.

As soon as the three men stepped out of the office building, an unknown assailant intercepted them, shooting Gaitán once in the head and twice in the back. Police quickly grabbed a man they identified as the killer, while Gaitán was rushed off to a clinic. The leader, beyond saving, died shortly afterward.

Colombians would never know what motivated the assassin, or whether others were involved in the murder. On the streets, rage and speculation as to the role of the political establishment in the killing swiftly mounted, and within minutes after his arrest, a mob had seized the suspected murderer from police custody. His lifeless, mutilated corpse was later found on a plaza, on the way to the presidential palace. Gaitán’s murder unleashed El Bogotazo, several hours of intense rioting, looting, and burning of public buildings that left several hundred, possibly even thousands, dead and many others injured. In the aftermath of the murder, Liberals and Conservatives in Bogotá engaged in an intense scramble for power, tensions mounting to the point that on November 9, 1949, the president of Colombia, Maríano Ospina Pérez, a Conservative, declared a state of siege and shut down the Congress. In elections that December, another Conservative, Laureano Gómez, known for his radical right-wing views, won the presidency unopposed after the Liberal candidate withdrew out of concern for his own security. Gómez kept the state of siege in place.

Outside the capital, these events opened the door to nine years of uncontrolled carnage, a period now known simply as “La Violencia,” The Violence. In town after town, particularly in rural Colombia, members of the Liberal and Conservative parties shot, throttled, and stabbed each other, devising ever more sophisticated and grisly ways of murdering their neighbors. There were few ideological differences between the two political parties—the Conservatives traditionally believed in a stronger role for the Catholic Church in the state, and a more centralized government, and the Liberals were for decentralization and separation between church and state. But bodies piled up as political differences became the cover for personal feuds, score settling, and land disputes.

A WORLD AWAY from the high politics of Bogotá, in rural Antioquia, La Violencia quickly spread. When Valle was still a small child, his family, at the insistence of his mother, had traveled for several days on muleback to move from Ituango to Medellín. A Medellín native who valued a good education, his mother had wanted her children to be able to attend school and have the other advantages of city life. But his father, a peasant from Ituango who had always worked the land, found it impossible to make a living in Medellín. Soon, he jumped at a job as a caretaker for someone else’s land in Puerto Berrío, on the eastern fringes of Antioquia, while Valle and his mother and siblings stayed in Medellín. Every week, they would go to the train station in neighboring Envigado to pick up the bundles of food that Valle’s father shipped to them.

His father’s timing could not have been worse. In the early 1950s, Puerto Berrío was a major hub for La Violencia: between 1949 and mid-1953, official records suggest, Puerto Berrío lost 6 percent of its population to inter-party killings, with nearly five hundred deaths in 1952 alone.

One day, a family friend called Valle’s mother to tell her that armed men had slowly tortured and killed a man they knew, the caretaker for a farm near the one where her husband was working: first they peeled off pieces of his skin, then they sliced off his ears, and then his nose, before finally murdering him. In a letter, Valle’s father urged his wife not to visit, assuring her that everything would be okay. But fearing for her husband’s life, she boarded a train to Puerto Berrío, accompanied only by the seven- or eight-year-old Valle. She gave her son strict instructions: “If we run into any armed men, on the train or anywhere, don’t speak. Pretend you’re a mute child.”

They got to the farm where Valle’s father was working by around 6 p.m. without incident. But two hours later, two hundred armed Liberals came to their door and demanded to be fed. Valle’s Conservative parents feigned support for their cause and, by candlelight, cooked up chickens and served the men fresh juice from the farm. Valle’s young mother charmed them with her stories and singing, while his father chatted amiably with the men about their weapons. Both of them braced for an attack. Some of the men tried talking to Valle, but, following his mother’s orders, he stared silently, pretending to be mute.

The men finally left, well past midnight, and the family immediately fled Puerto Berrío, never to return. Two days later, Valle’s father heard that the armed men had been back at the farm looking for him, saying that the only reason they hadn’t killed him before was that his wife and child were there.

With their father now unemployed, Valle’s family struggled to get by alongside the city’s desplazados, the thousands of rural people who were increasingly flocking to poor neighborhoods in Medellín, Bogotá, Cartagena, and other major cities, forced to flee their homes and land, often losing all they had to La Violencia. Most were barely able to scrape by in these urban environments, where they were not welcome in any case. As an eight-year-old, Valle went to school, but he spent much of his free time working, running errands for a small grocery store in their neighborhood in exchange for rice, beans, or other items he could take home.

Within a couple of years, Valle was back in Ituango, where his father was running a ranch for a local landowner. The family’s plan had been to keep the kids in Medellín, but Valle had started skipping school and ignoring his homework. When he wasn’t working, he sat in the park and read—poring over anything he could get his hands on, from comic books and adventure stories to bits and pieces of the newspaper. His sister Magdalena later said she thought Valle simply didn’t find the classes in school challenging enough, and he was so excited about learning to read that he just plowed ahead on his own. But his lack of interest in school angered his mother, who decided to send him to his father. Valle spent the next year of his life doing hard physical labor—waking up at the crack of dawn, herding cattle, planting and picking beans and fruit. The year left a deep mark on him, both because it was so difficult and because it helped to cement his strong bond with Ituango.

When he finally got back to Medellín in 1955 or 1956, things were a little easier financially for the family, as his older brother Octavio was now working and helping to support the family. Valle, who no longer had to work, was better able to focus on school, and he began to excel academically. During his junior year of high school, when he learned how to play chess, he became obsessed with the game, once again ignoring his schoolwork. But his mother made him give up chess, and Valle went on to finish school with top grades. He was a leader among his classmates. While he tended to be reserved and did not have a lot of friends, he had strong views about right and wrong that his fellow students admired, and that would eventually lead him to law school and a career of activism.

LA VIOLENCIA FINALLY ended in 1957, when the Liberals and Conservatives made a pact to establish a system of joint government known as the National Front. By then, more than 200,000 people out of a population of around 12 million had died.

The end of La Violencia offered a brief respite from the carnage of the previous decade, though a number of individuals and groups involved in the slaughter continued operating as “bandits” in rural regions. It also, however, contained the seeds of the next war, which started up just a few years later, with the rise of several left-wing guerrilla groups that took up arms against the government. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, one of the most prominent of these groups, had its roots in smaller groups affiliated with the Communist Party, which even before La Violencia had been protesting what they viewed as the unjust appropriation of land by wealthy landowners, oppressive public policies on land, and the exploitation of workers by business. During La Violencia, some of them had armed themselves and formed what they called “self-defense groups”; at the end of La Violencia, they refused to lay down their arms, instead asserting control of municipalities in several parts of Colombia, which the government then labeled “independent republics.” In May 1964, the Conservative government of Colombian president Guillermo León Valencia, said to be under pressure from the United States to stamp out any revolutionary activity in the country—launched a military assault on the republics, beginning with one in the area known as Marquetalia in the mountainous state of Tolima, not far from Bogotá. More than 1,000 (and possibly as many as 16,000, according to the FARC) Colombian troops, which were being advised by the United States, descended upon the area, backed by airplanes that dropped bombs and, according to several accounts, used napalm. Over the next months, the army seized the area. But several members of the armed group there, led by Pedro Antonio Marín (later better known by his aliases, “Manuel Marulanda” or “Tirofijo” [Sureshot]), escaped, and in 1966 they formally established the FARC.

By the mid-1980s, the FARC had become active around the country, “taxing” (that is, extorting funds from) individuals and businesses, kidnapping citizens, and killing those who didn’t comply with their orders. Other groups, such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN) and the M-19 guerrillas, which were popular among urban, middle-class youth, were also active. The Colombian security forces responded savagely, arresting large numbers of people, often on flimsy evidence, and in some cases executing and torturing people whom they viewed as guerrilla sympathizers.

Meanwhile, shadowy groups commonly known as paramilitaries began to crop up—seemingly spontaneously—in different parts of the country. While also describing themselves as “self-defense” groups organized to protect their communities from guerrillas, the paramilitaries were hard to distinguish from death squads for the military, or private armies for wealthy landowners and drug lords.

When Colombia’s government tried to negotiate a peace deal with the FARC in 1985, a political party known as the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica, or UP) formed to be a democratic, civilian arm of the guerrillas, roughly equivalent to Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. But no sooner had the party been established than paramilitaries or other assassins linked to the security forces began to systematically murder UP politicians. Over the course of the next few years, they would kill two presidential candidates, scores of mayors, city council members, and members of Congress, and thousands of party members.

BY THE MID-1980S, Valle had become a respected lawyer in Medellín, a professor of ethics, and a founding member of the Permanent Human Rights Committee of Antioquia, an all-volunteer collection of lawyers, doctors, academics, and others who were troubled by the social injustices around them. Valle had tried his hand at politics, serving as a state assemblyman for the Conservative Party, but he had grown disgusted at the corruption he observed and quit. The human rights community, with its focus on pushing for social change peacefully, on the basis of universal principles rather than ideology, was a better fit for him. But it was a challenging time for human rights activists: as Valle soon learned, UP members were far from being the paramilitaries’ only targets. In those years, anyone who was viewed as close to the political left, or as threatening to the interests of the military or business establishment—including labor union or community leaders, as well as social activists—was courting death.

On August 25, 1987, Valle’s dear friend Héctor Abad, a renowned physician, university professor, and advocate for public health services for the poor, decided to end his workday by attending a wake for Luis Felipe Vélez. Vélez, the president of the local teacher’s union, had been assassinated by shooters in a Mazda sedan as he had entered his office that morning. Abad was then serving as the president of the human rights committee, and he knew he might be next.

Several days earlier, another doctor and university professor, Senator Pedro Luis Valencia of the UP, had also been killed. Abad organized a march to protest Valencia’s murder, and in an op-ed he wrote that paramilitaries were behind the killings. On August 24, a radio station contacted Abad—who was also running to become the mayoral candidate for the Liberal Party—to tell him that his name had appeared on an anonymous list of people to be killed—the list called him a “medic to guerrillas, false democrat, dangerous.… Useful idiot of the Communist Party.” But the news, the following day, of Vélez’s killing had enraged Abad, and when, that evening, a woman he had never seen before came to his office and urged him to attend the wake, he agreed. Doctor Leonardo Betancur, another committee member and a favorite student of Abad’s, went with him.

As they greeted other mourners at the entrance to the union offices—the same spot where the union leader had been shot—a pair of young men leapt off a motorcycle at the door. Before anyone could react, one of them gunned down Abad, shooting him first in the chest, then several times in the head, and then the neck and chest again. The other chased Leonardo Betancur into the union building, killing him as well.

In those days, the members of the Permanent Human Rights Committee didn’t know who the paramilitaries were, exactly. As Carlos Gaviria, another cofounder of the committee in Antioquia and—decades later—a justice on Colombia’s Constitutional Court, recalled, “We knew that around the military there was an extreme right-wing group that did a sort of ‘cleansing’ job, in the sense that they viewed anyone who disagreed [with them] as a representative of the left. Héctor [Abad] was a liberal doctrinarian, someone incapable of having a weapon[,]… yet [to the extreme right], anyone who disagrees is the enemy and must be destroyed.”

Abad’s death was only the beginning. In December, Abad’s successor as president of the committee, Luis Fernando Vélez, was kidnapped, tortured, and also murdered. Another senior committee member, Carlos Gónima, was shot to death in February 1988.

The killings sparked a large exodus from the committee. Some of those who quit, such as Carlos Gaviria, left the country under threat. Others simply resigned. “There was a huge and widespread fear, because in that environment, the committee was being portrayed as a communist stronghold,” Gaviria later said.

But Valle, then forty-four years old, refused to leave. He was grieving—that was evident to his family, from his stony silence—but he was also unwilling to be cowed. The group decided not to name a new president, so they wouldn’t have a visible head to be targeted, but in practice, Valle took on the committee’s leadership. Along with a few remaining members—mostly women who volunteered their time, including a lawyer, María Victoria Fallon; an insurance agent, Patricia Fuenmayor; and Beatriz Jaramillo, a teacher whose family Valle had helped when Jaramillo’s cousin, Luis Fernando Lalinde, had been forcibly “disappeared” a few years earlier—Valle brought the group back to life. He poured himself into causes large and small, from fighting for justice for the police murder of nine children in the neighborhood of Villatina in 1992, to organizing protests over forced evictions of displaced persons in the most miserable parts of Medellín, to providing free legal representation to low-income persons he believed were wrongfully accused. And while he was sympathetic to many of the concerns of the political left, he was fiercely independent, refusing to join any political organization.

Jesús María Valle receiving a document honoring him at an Antioquia Bar Association event, 1993. © Jairo León Cano.

In Valle’s view, the mission of a lawyer should be to serve the poor. Even though he could have made large sums of money as a defense attorney, he spent much of his time on his activism and working for the people of Ituango. He lived extremely frugally—that was why he had never bothered to update or replace the manual typewriter in his office, or to install a security camera outside its door, even when there were threats against him. He gave most of his money to his family, buying a house where he lived with many of his siblings, and, once his parents retired, a plot of land near Medellín, where they could grow some of their own food and raise animals, more for fun than out of need. He had a habit of giving money and things away—once in a while, decorative items around the house would disappear. His sister Magdalena would ask Valle about them and he would explain: “Oh, so-and-so was here and really admired it, and she’s very poor, while you have lots of things, so I gave it to her.” Another time, he organized and paid for festivities in Ituango to celebrate International Women’s Day, arranging for several women professionals to travel from Medellín to Ituango to give Ituango’s women classes on their rights.


  • "This well-researched and beautifully told history explains how three civilians rewrote Colombian history."—Booklist
  • "A deeply informed account of Colombia's decades long civil war and the many figures who profited from it... An admirable work of journalism in the interest of human rights."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "In her masterful work, Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno unravels the intrigue, politics, and history between Colombia's government and its paramilitaries. Through her precise reporting and elegant prose, There Are No DeadHere paints a vivid and harrowing portrait of three brave individuals who, despite death threats and great risk to themselves and their families, expose some of their country's darkest secrets. This book is a must for anyone fascinated by Colombia's complex history."—Melissa del Bosque, author of Bloodlines
  • "The horrific violence in Colombia during the 1990s and 2000s is made painfully palpable in this account of three men who risked their lives to make public the atrocities committed by paramilitary forces and the Colombian government.... A necessarily grim narrative about the effects of government corruption in Colombia, with rays of hope to be found in Calderón's, Valle's, and Velásquez's impressive achievements against formidable odds."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A gripping and illuminating portrait of three far from ordinary Colombian whose courage, leadership, and perseverance continue to influence and inspire the fight for justice throughout Latin America. In a way, this story provides a roadmap of the hard, daring journey toward hope."—Francisco Goldman, author of The Interior Circuit
  • "Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno has written an important, gripping account of how three individuals heroically risked their lives to fight terror and corruption in their country. The violent dramas and acts of human bravery that are told in There Are No Dead Here unfold in Colombia, but also offer lucid insights into the fragility of civil society-and of rule of law-anywhere. At a time when the boundaries between tyranny and democracy, truth and falsehood, become increasingly opaque, McFarland's book offers a narrative that is unerring in its moral clarity."
    Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
  • "Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno has woven together a remarkable tale about drugs, violence, greed, corruption and -- far above all else -- human courage. A deep knowledge of Colombia and the people who live there is threaded through every page of the story, yet the book's relevance reaches far beyond that country's borders."—Monte Reel, author of Between Man and Beast

On Sale
Feb 27, 2018
Page Count
336 pages
Bold Type Books

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno

About the Author

Maria McFarland Sáhez-Moreno is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Previously, she held several positions at Human Rights Watch, including as the organization’s senior Americas researcher, covering Colombia and Peru, and as the co-director of its US program. She grew up in Lima, Peru, and now lives in Brooklyn.

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