‘If it doesn’t serve to kill, it serves to die’: the paramilitary schools where even children learned to murder and quarantine

Ramón Isaza was the leader of the Magdalena Medio Peasant Self-Defense Forces Image: Getty Images

The testimony was collected four years ago, more than a decade after the official demobilization of the paramilitaries grouped in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). But its publication in a recent report by the National Center for Historical Memory of Colombia about one of its structures is a powerful reminder of the horror and cruelty of the Colombian armed conflict.

Paramilitaries used to dismember many of their victims. And a former member, who is contributing his memoirs to the Non-Judicial Contribution Mechanism for Truth and Historical Memory on condition of anonymity, gives sinister details about the procedure:

“You could see it anywhere, torture; killing someone, anywhere was done: you took them to those mountains and there, yes, the hole was made and they were covered”, says the former member of the Self-Defense Forces Peasant of Magdalena Medio (ACMM), a paramilitary group led by Ramón Isaza who in 1997 joined the AUC.

“Where did they learn to dismember?”, They ask.

“At school,” he replies.

Schools of death

The school he is referring to is one of the many military training centers used by ACCM to train its recruits, many of them under the age of 18. Although the Colombian paramilitary commanders who used the Justice and Peace Law of 2005 have repeatedly denied it, for the National Center for Historical Memory there is no doubt.

“The techniques of dismemberment were taught in training schools where the victims were taken alive, or already dead, for paramilitary recruits to ‘practice’ with them and to teach them that the bodies that did not disappear should serve as warnings for the other inhabitants “says the report Isaza, the paramilitary clan – Magdalena Medio Peasant Self-Defense Forces.

“I watched a lot of it,” confirms the ACMM recruit.

‘And I also had to help’tener‘when someone was already dead dead, making holes and covering. This is too hard.”

Tener“, he explains, was to hold, for example, the corpse’s hand” while another cut and played in the hole “.

“They were men who took them there, thieves already dead, and buried them there. There were others who killed and left them there to be seen; there were others who had to disappear,” he adds.

The former paramilitary says he is not sure why the treatment is different, but risks an answer. “Some served as a lesson,” he suggests.

Camilo Villamizar, coordinator of the research team and main author of the report, says that “these groups of Magdalena Medio, especially after their reorganization in 1994, were less sadistic (than other paramilitary blocks)”.

“But that only reveals the level of barbarism that the conflict has reached,” says Villamizar. “In comparative terms, I can say that they were less sadistic than the others, but when we read this kind of story, we don’t believe it could be more barbaric than that,” says BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-speaking service. .

‘To taste fineness’

Training schools were also places where crimes were committed or planned on multiple occasions and even became places of criminal experimentation, according to the Commission.

“In the same course, they said: ‘If you don’t serve to kill, you serve to be killed’,” says the former member.

“In training, they would come and bring a stoner, a rapist or whatever. And then, they would say to you in training: ‘Get out of there, kill that man’. You had to get out, kill him. For the other: ‘ You go out and chop it up ‘, “he says.

According to the former paramilitary, whoever did not have the stomach for it “would either go crazy there or kill him”.

But some, like “Melchor”, another former member of ACMM mentioned in the report, even took pride in having been chosen to “prove fineness”.

“Finura was something like you choosing me among the best of the men you have, and saying to me, ‘Do yourself a favor and take that crazy guy down there,’” explains Melchor in a report collected in 2017.


“That’s when I tell you that you do things that are not good,” he admits, but then he boasts that he has passed “finely and with a high degree”.

According to the report, the most important ACMM instructors put Melchor on a test: killing the first homeless person they met on the highway.

“You know that at that time, from Medellín to Bogotá, there were a lot of crazy people around with little bags on their shoulders. Then the man came and handed me a gun. And he told me to hit him,” he says.

“I didn’t even look at him. I didn’t look at him. I closed my eyes,” he says, between laughs. “We were both alone in the truck. And the man said to me, ‘Take it down’. And I: fart, ‘done’.”


Villamizar, however, considers it important to remember that the majority of young people who joined ACMM were not attracted by blood, but for simple economic reasons.

“With so many years of paramilitary activity in the area, that people did not distinguish their illegal character well, because they got used to seeing them, they made them a life option like any other”, he explains.

Many of the members of the “Isaza Clan” were recruited under the age of 18, which makes their blood training even more monstrous.

“I had to see several children … 10, 11 years old, with rifles bigger than them”, says a former member in a testimony collected in 2017.

The practice, however, was not exclusive to paramilitaries.

According to the Observatory of Memory and Conflict, linked to the Center, by 2018 Colombian irregular groups had already recruited 17,775 children under 18 years old, 27% by paramilitary groups.

And, in the case of ACMM, the sentences handed down in the scope of Justice and Peace recognize only the recruitment of 127 minors, the equivalent of 15.5% of its officially demobilized members.

That figure, however, does not include the dead or those who did not surrender their weapons, explains Villamizar.

“And many minors were not presented in the collective demobilization, so that the magnitude of the problem was not known,” says the researcher.

In fact, according to Villamizar, “many demobilized people who informed the National Reincorporation Agency that they were recruited at 20 or 22 years old, confessed to us that they were recruited as minors”.

And it usually resulted in young people killing young people, sometimes in extremely bloody ways.

As the report explains, in the two Justice and Peace judgments against Ramón Isaza and others, between 1991 and 2005, 410 events were recorded that generated 710 direct victims and 1,069 indirect victims, totaling 1,779 victims. And 150 of those victims were under 18.

But the real numbers are certainly much higher.

Source: ‘If it doesn’t serve to kill, it serves to die’: the paramilitary schools where even children learned to murder and quarantine