On the morning of July 15, 1997, approximately 200 paramilitaries identifying themselves as members of ACCU, the Peasant Self-Defense groups of Cordoba and Uraba, entered the urban center of Mapiripan, in the department of Meta. For the next five days the armed men took control and allegedly killed a total of 30 people.
When the paramilitaries arrived in Mapiripan, they found a town that had essentially been abandoned by authorities: the police station was closed in 1996 after the FARC guerrillas attacked the town and the Army had not maintained a presence in the area for several years. Witnesses claim that paramilitaries arrived at the airport in San Jose del Guaviare, then proceeded to make their way down the Guaviare River to Mapiripan, staying in the police station in Charras before their initial attack on the 15th.
Between July 15 and July 20, paramilitaries took total control of the town, dividing themselves into groups of 20 to 30 and dispersing into the community. With lists in hand, they asked for the victims by name. All individuals on the list were people who had been present at town meetings with the guerrillas, who had participated in the peasant marches in 1996 or who were community leaders. The paramilitaries allegedly carried their victims to the slaughterhouse, tied them up and killed them at night, later throwing the bodies into the Guaviare River. Most victims were tortured and the majority were also decapitated. The brutal attack on Mapiripan caused hundreds of terrorized villagers to flee to the capital of Meta, Villavicencio.
During the bloodshed, Ivan Cortes Novoa, a municipal judge in Mapiripan, claims he notified Army Major Hernan Orozco, of the Joaquin Paris Battalion, several times about the massacres and asked for help from officials. Judge Cortes remembers sitting in his office typing his testimony in secret. "Every night," he wrote, "they kill a group of five or six defenseless people, who are cruelly and monstrously killed.... I want to leave everything written in case they kill me, too."
The judge says he told Orozco on July 17 that sixteen people had already died. One of the victims, he explained, was hung from a hook, carved up like a bird, and his chopped up body thrown into the river. According to the judge, Orozco responded that the situation seemed very serious, and that he was sorry, but that he couldn't help. Major Orozco later admitted that during the time the paramilitaries rampaged the area the judge had called him eight times. Still, no authorities ever intervened during the attack.
In October 1997, the State Attorney General's Office announced that it would begin a formal investigation into the actions of four Army officials, including Major Orozco, and five civil servants who are accused of failing to provide any assistance to the local population during the bloody massacre.
What happened in Mapiripan is part of a greater paramilitary offensive aimed at acquiring territory in areas where guerrillas dominated and paramilitary groups had no previous presence. Similar attacks are sure to happen again, a fear underscored by the declaration of Carlos Castano, leader of the ACCU, that "There will be many more Mapiripans."