A groundbreaking investigation into the sordid supply chain that produces gold.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 42

Nadja Drost is a multimedia reporter based in Bogotá, Colombia. Her work has appeared in Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, and Time, and on CBC Radio, the BBC, and Radio Ambulante, among other outlets. She also independently produced the award-winning documentary Between Midnight and the Rooster’s Crow. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and hails from Toronto.

This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional support was provided by the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council. 

Editor:Charles Homans
Nation Institute Editor: Esther Kaplan
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Danielle Mackey
Photography: Stephen Ferry
Other images: Nadja Drost, Getty Images, and courtesy of the Colombian National Police
Video: Courtesy of Hora 13 Noticias

Published in October 2014. Design updated in 2021.


Often, when faced with the specter of imminent death, Victor Meneses, a Colombian journalist, would call me and tell me to publish what he feared he would not live to write himself.

He would speak in exuberant bursts, as rapid-fire as the bullets that he sometimes found himself dodging. “Escriba!”—write!—he would bark, his voice distorting down the phone line. “If they kill me tonight, write!” During other, quieter calls, I could hear the sadness weighing down his voice as he described watching his town slip away in what he called “a slow massacre.”

The town was Segovia, a dusty gold-mining center that is 141 miles northeast of Medellín as the crow flies and about six hours by road, in the department—Colombia’s equivalent of a state—of Antioquia. Victor was the editor of El Nordesteño, a biweekly local newspaper. The short article that was the beginning of Victor’s troubles, published on December 20, 2011 in the paper’s online edition, concerned the killing of four owners of La Roca, a particularly prosperous local mine. The article was simple. It described who was killed, where it had happened, and who Victor believed to be responsible.

That night, three armed men pounded on his door. “We’re going to kill you!” one of them shouted. Victor survived by promising to immediately scrub the article of any mention of the suspected culprits. But he knew that he had crossed a perilous line. Even as the articles he published in El Nordesteño grew more circumspect, he began piecing together a bigger story, one he knew he could never write, and one that stood a good chance of claiming his life.

It was a story about gold—about the gold rush that was rolling through Segovia, less like a wave of opportunity and more like a plague. It was sweeping through Segovia’s narrow streets, barging into homes, and descending mine shafts. It would eventually contort Segovia into a twisted version of the tale of Midas. “Here,” Victor told me one night, “anyone who touches gold converts to dead.”

When people in Segovia talked about what was happening to the town, they often brought up the massacre that Victor had written about as the detonator that had triggered the explosion of violence in their midst. Behind the killings, they pointed to a prominent local figure. He was rarely spoken of in anything much louder than a whisper, and when he was, people often referred to him by his initials alone. They called him JH.

A gold-mining zone in Colombia’s Antioquia department. Photo: Stephen Ferry


I moved to Colombia in 2009, when the country appeared to be undergoing a profound transformation. In the late 1980s and ’90s, Colombia was arguably the most forbidding place in the Western Hemisphere, the heartland of the global cocaine trade. Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín cartel, was the most famous drug kingpin in the world and the prime target of the United States’ counternarcotics efforts abroad. Colombia was also home to one of the world’s longest-running civil wars, dating back to the 1960s, when the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC by its Spanish initials) declared war on the state.

Colombia and its allies eventually responded to both threats with overwhelming force. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operatives worked closely with Colombian forces to break the Medellín and Cali cartels—an effort that reached its climax in 1993, when Escobar was gunned down in a shootout with police commandos in Medellín. In 2000, the Clinton administration began stepping up military aid to the country, which it now considered to be the most important front in the War on Drugs. The support eventually surpassed $8 billion.

The Colombian military, meanwhile, was colluding with a right-wing paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), to fight the FARC—which, by the late 1990s, controlled about a third of rural Colombia—on its own terms. The AUC swiftly grew into a monster, moving into the cocaine business that had been vacated by the splintering cartels and unleashing death squads that proved more terrifying to many civilians than the FARC had ever been. Many feared Colombia was becoming a failed state.

But by the late 2000s, the country seemed to be putting its worst days behind it. The FARC had been greatly weakened, and beginning in 2003, the government demobilized the AUC, offering amnesty to its soldiers and drastically reduced sentences to some top commanders while extraditing others to the United States. Years of a U.S.–backed campaign of coca eradication had cut crops by more than half, and much of the cocaine industry had migrated north to Mexico. Foreign investors and tourists started flocking to regions of Colombia that had been no-go zones just a few years before.

What looked from a distance like an impressive turnaround, however, was less convincing up close. Many of the deep-seated problems that were at the root of Colombia’s half-century-old civil war—the country’s profound economic inequality and the central government’s limited reach—hadn’t gone away. Armed conflict still simmered in many parts of the country, causing hundreds of thousands of Colombians to flee their homes each year. The cocaine cartels were gone, but new criminal organizations made up of former paramilitary fighters had taken control of whole swaths of the country and infiltrated politics at every level. And then came the gold rush.

Since precolonial times, gold has been deeply embedded in Colombian culture. When the Spanish conquistadores first arrived in South America, they heard legends of the Muisca, an indigenous people living in the highlands near present-day Bogotá, who were so rich in the treasured mineral that tribal leaders would paint themselves in gold dust. From these stories grew the legend of El Dorado and the centuries of European exploration and plunder that followed.

Although the mythical city never materialized, Colombia’s gold reserves were still a formidable prize for the Spanish colonists, who eventually imported African slaves to work the colony’s rich gold veins. The slaves’ descendants, along with indigenous peoples and rural mestizos, have continued to work ancestral mining claims ever since. This kind of subsistence-level mining defined the Colombian gold industry through the 20th century. Although Colombia was rich in reserves, guerrillas controlled vast areas of the countryside and jungle, keeping them off-limits to prospectors. By the turn of the 21st century, there were still only a handful of large mining companies at work in the country.

That all changed in the 2000s. The global price of gold began rising steadily in the early years of the new millennium, part of a broader commodity boom driven by growing demand from emerging markets like Brazil, China, and India. Then the global financial crisis hit. As the stock market plummeted, some anxious souls turned to gold as a safe haven for their money. A perfect storm of worries—over rising inflation, U.S. debt, and a weakening dollar—further increased demand. Between 2000 and 2007, the average price of gold more than doubled, from $279 to $695 an ounce. By 2011, it had more than doubled again, to $1,572 an ounce.

By 2012, Colombia’s gold production had more than quadrupled over the previous five years, to 72 tons annually, and 77 percent of the country’s exports were bound for refineries in the United States. The vast majority of this gold—as much as 86 percent, by some estimates—came from operations that were technically illegal.

A decade ago, the Colombian government tried to open up the country’s mining industry to outside investment, granting foreign companies thousands of mining concessions. Many of these concessions were in areas where “traditional” miners—as Colombia’s small-time independent prospectors are called—had long staked a claim. But most of the large-scale projects are still in the exploration stage; only a few major firms are actually hauling any ore out of the ground. Much of the country’s production is still the work of traditional miners—often prospecting without official permission on the margins of big companies’ legal claims. The rest mostly comes from the larger wildcatting outfits that started popping up across the country as the market exploded, dynamiting hillsides, dredging up entire riverbeds, and tearing through pristine landscapes with backhoes, leaving moonscapes in their wake.

These operations are not just illegal, but often intertwined—voluntarily or otherwise—with Colombia’s criminal groups. At the time of the gold rush, Colombia’s organized criminal groups—the depleted FARC guerrillas and the gangs of cartel and paramilitary veterans that had popped up in the country’s increasingly chaotic illicit underground—were still mostly financing themselves through the drug trade, but profits were declining sharply. To replace lost income, the groups turned to gold. In many parts of the country, the mineral became the new cocaine. One rural police official told Bloomberg News last year that armed groups were now raking in five times as much money from gold as they were from the drug.

It wasn’t just the extraordinary value of gold, which sells for 19 times the price by volume that wholesale cocaine commands in the Colombian jungle. Gold also allowed armed groups to sidestep the hazards and inefficiencies of the black market. There is almost no oversight of the supply chain that carries gold from Colombian mines to the global marketplace; shipments’ origins are quickly obscured as the metal moves through a web of independent refineries and buyers on its way to the major exporters in Medellín.

In some cases, armed groups simply extort money from mine and small refinery owners through protection rackets. In others, they finance mining operations themselves. The gold trade has also become a favored channel for laundering money from the drug trade and other black-market enterprises. A 2013 World Bank study found illegal mining behind a quarter of all money laundering in Colombia, possibly to the tune of $4.8 billion a year. Colombian authorities are currently investigating a handful of Colombian gold exporters for their possible role in an $11 billion cocaine money-laundering scheme.

It is no secret to the global gold industry that some of the world’s supply comes from countries with mines in war zones. The London Bullion Market Association—an industry group that represents the market through which most of the world’s gold is traded—requires its members, which include some of the world’s biggest gold refineries, to pass an audit proving that their gold is “conflict-free.” But such audits are no guarantee. I found two companies on the association’s cleared list that were importing the metal as recently as last year from Medellín refineries that were sourcing their gold from Segovia, where armed groups have fully infiltrated the mining industry. A colonel in Colombia’s rural police division told me that the parts of the country where coca crops had been significantly destroyed were often the same areas where gold-mining activity had surged—and the same armed groups were involved in both trades.

In few places was this as true as it was in the northeast of Antioquia department, a region that sat atop a web of rich gold veins. And at its heart was Segovia, the grand prize.

Segovia, Colombia. Photo: Getty Images


Before there was even a town called Segovia there was a mine, carved out of what was at the time an undifferentiated expanse of impenetrable jungle. The mine was established in the mid-19th century by a British company that brought in miners and equipment by mule. For three-quarters of a century, the mining settlement—home to a handful of English, European, and Colombian workers—was hopelessly isolated, surrounded by wilderness and inaccessible by road. The jungle paths that connected the town to civilization were navigable only by pack animal, and the mule drivers who plied them were local legends. (One of them, nicknamed Juan Sin Miedo—Juan Without Fear—earned his sobriquet by singlehandedly fighting off a jaguar and declawing it with a machete.) Then, in 1931, a merger put the mine in the hands of a larger, eventually American-owned company called Frontino Gold Mines. Shovelful by shovelful, Frontino built the Segovia operation into a powerhouse.

Today, Segovia is home to about 38,000 people. From the urban center, the town unravels quickly into the surrounding hill country, with neighborhoods strung out intermittently across ridgelines and inclines, a jumbled patchwork in which a barrio may be interrupted by patches of forest or a mining camp. Segovia’s gold deposits are believed to be some of the richest on the continent, so rich that there are Segovians who make a living simply by sweeping up the gold dust that falls off mining trucks as they pass by. Many of the mines have been excavated, one back-load of rock at a time, directly beneath the town. The biggest mine, El Silencio, is 44 levels deep; Segovia’s underbelly is said to be larger than the town itself.

One of the most striking sights I saw when I first arrived in Segovia was an immense statue of a gilded woman towering over the town plaza. She had shackles around her ankles and wrists and was reaching toward the sky, holding up a gold pan in her cuffed hands like an offering plate. Below her agonized face, a miner was hammering open her womb, and a lode of rocks tumbled out from her torn skin. It was a ruefully accurate self-portrait of Segovia, teetering between the perils and possibilities of gold.

Even at night, Segovia is a riot of noise and light. Motorbikes and one-ton trucks fight for space on the narrow roads, screeching and lurching past the lines of cantinas blasting salsa and vallenato music, the flashing signs of storefront casinos and lottery houses sandwiched between gold-buying shops. Scattered throughout town are small rudimentary mills called entables, where ore is processed before being sent on to a series of refineries. The entables are crude warehouse-like buildings containing reservoirs of gold- and mercury-filled sludge, vats of cyanide, and rows of tumblers called cocos that crush ore, unleashing a racket into Segovia’s streets day and night.

The miners pour water and liquid mercury into the coco to separate the gold from other rock particles. The spinning cocos generate heat, and when they are opened much of the mercury is released as a vapor; the air in the entables is toxic enough that the facilities are officially prohibited in urban areas. But the law does little to snuff Segovia’s entrepreneurial spirit, and there are around a hundred entables in the town.

Once the ore is reduced to a sludge, the miner puts it in a large pan and swirls in more water and mercury. The liquid metal binds to the gold as it dances through the sludge, and as the miner continues swirling the mixture, the water and lighter materials splash over the side, leaving the gold and mercury in the bottom of the pan. The miner strains this amalgam through a cloth, squeezing it into a hard ball as if he were making cheese, and brings it to one of the town’s many small refineries. There the mercury is evaporated in a small furnace or by blowtorch, leaving the miner with a mass of gold. The mercury escapes into the air, wafting through streets, homes, schools. It impregnates clouds, rains down into streams and rooftop water tanks, and clings to clothes left outside to dry.

In 2010, researchers with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization found that the region including Segovia produced the highest levels of mercury pollution per capita in the world. In some of the local entables, the researchers found mercury at 1,000 times the level of exposure deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization. There have been improvements since, but Segovia is still a cesspool by any measure. Many Segovians, particularly those who work in entables and refineries, carry alarmingly high levels of mercury in their urine. Mercury intoxication affects the central nervous system, and symptoms include loss of memory, appetite, and teeth, sleeplessness, shaky hands, impotence, and headaches. In Segovia, there are miners with big, strong hands and tiny signatures because they can’t control a pen.

The miners are tough and proud. Even if they feel symptoms, they often won’t talk about them. Their own fathers and grandfathers, after all, worked with mercury all their lives and still made it to old age, they argue. But the question of the metal’s effects hangs over Segovia. A local teacher told me that her students are more aggressive and undisciplined than those she has taught in other parts of the country. (One study of Segovia’s school population found that, of the 81 percent of children who suffered from language-comprehension problems, 89 percent had mercury in their urine.) A doctor told me that she thinks mercury is behind the anxiety she sees in Segovians and their impatience, their need for everything to happen right away.

Outside Segovia, the town’s inhabitants have a reputation for being crazy. Segovia even has a word for its own subspecies of lunacy: azogado, from an antiquated word for mercury, azogue. Someone who is riding his motorcycle fast and furiously through Segovia traffic is said to be azogado.

Every day, miners walk into Gustavo Arango’s pharmacy in downtown Segovia. “Give me the little blue pill,” they say—a Viagra knockoff. When I met Arango in 2012, he estimated that his sales of the drug had jumped 75 percent in the past five years. Miners are, as you’d expect, reluctant to talk about erectile dysfunction, and the prostitutes of Segovia, who would seem to be experts on the subject, scoff at the idea. “They’re the biggest and the best!” a prostitute who had recently arrived in Segovia told me when I met her at a local cantina. She laughed, went back to dancing with a miner, and then slid behind the dark curtain at the end of the bar. The miners are good spenders and generous; prostitutes say you can always tell a miner because he’s inviting the whole table to drinks. Sometimes they pay for sex with gold.

“The miner never thinks of tomorrow,” Arango told me. When a miner goes down into a tunnel, he does not know if he will come out at the end of the day. (Last year, 89 Colombians died in mining accidents.) Sometimes he goes underground before daybreak and emerges after sunset, moving from one darkness to another. Dubiana Zapata, a psychologist at the local hospital, told me that after weeks or months of grinding away, looking for a vein, finally striking gold can hit the miners with a kind of euphoria. “It detonates,” she said, like a blast of dynamite. They feel “so much happiness, they don’t know what to do with it.” First, they go get drunk, they go find a woman, and then, only then, they might go shopping for the household. “They do everything in reverse,” she said. “It’s because they spend a lot of time in a hole.”

Victor Meneses was once a miner, employed by Frontino. He started his newspaper—the only one in Segovia—in 2006, publishing once every few months while working at the mine. In 2010, Frontino—whose American owner, saddled with unpaid pension obligations, had abandoned the mine in 1976, casting it into legal limbo—was liquidated by the government in a controversial deal with a Canadian company, Gran Colombia. Victor, along with at least 1,500 other miners, lost his job, and he decided to become a full-time newspaperman.

I met Victor on my first trip to Segovia, in April 2012, in Tierradentro, one of the few restaurants in town where it is quiet enough to have a conversation without shouting. Victor is 39 years old, with coffee-dark skin, a buzz cut, and big, brown puppy-dog eyes. His mustache extends into a frown except when he smiles, revealing glistening white teeth. He is a lithe man, without the stocky, solid build typical of Segovia’s miners.

El Nordesteño covers northeastern Antioquia—a region of the state about the size of Delaware—and Victor writes and edits most of the paper himself. His hottest-selling edition featured a story about a local prostitute who claimed to have seen the devil at a Segovia brothel. She told Victor that she had fled the room in a panic after noticing that her client had hoofs instead of feet; the john somehow vanished, she said, leaving behind clouds of sulfurous smoke. “It was tremendous,” Victor told me. “Stores were making photocopies of the paper to sell.”

I had gone to meet Victor because I was looking into the violence that had come to engulf the business of gold mining in Segovia. Victor was pleasant but reserved, and a bit mystified. “Why do you want to do this?” he asked me, repeatedly. No one would want to talk to me about it, he said.

The Segovians I had spoken with, I told him, had invariably brought up the massacre of La Roca’s owners that Victor had written about. It was clear to me that if I wanted to understand what was happening in the town, I had to understand the killings.

Victor turned serious. “Drop it,” he told me. “Don’t get mixed up in this.”

Miners crush rock at La Roca mine in Segovia. Photo: Stephen Ferry


La Roca mine lies underneath a rural neighborhood in Segovia called 20th of July, only a short drive away from the town’s central plaza. One morning in April 2012, I set out with a photographer friend and two drivers on a pair of motorbikes to see it for myself. Our bikes hurtled through potholed streets out of the town center, then dropped down a steep hill into a gulley. Small, brightly painted houses clung to the green hillside. A stream cut through the bottom of the canyon where small groups of gold panners stood knee-deep in the water. Sunshine filtered through the trees, dancing on their shoulders.

A high fence topped with barbed wire ran alongside the stream up to the mine entrance. When we arrived at the gate, three guards emerged with pistols and semiautomatic shotguns. They were clad in the internationally recognized uniform of 21st-century defense contractors: khakis, bulletproof vests, baseball caps, and wraparound sunglasses. The tallest of the men, who introduced himself in New York–accented English as Mauricio, claimed that he had worked for Blackwater in Iraq.

Mauricio led us up a gravel road to the mine’s cantina. We passed dozens of women toiling under sun-faded umbrellas—single mothers, I later learned, abandoned by their husbands or widowed by their husbands’ murders—who were crushing leftover rock from the mine to extract what little gold remained in it. We arrived at the cantina, a small concrete cube with a bare-bones kitchen and a few tables and chairs outside. Nearby stood a second gate, where a guard was patting down miners whose shifts had ended, shaking out their rubber boots to make sure they weren’t taking any gold or dynamite home with them.

Heliodoro Álvarez, one of the mine’s owners, arrived at the cantina, where he offered me ultra-sweet coffee and a seat. Heliodoro was a tall, light-skinned man with eyes that danced and squinted when he smiled. He was 53 years old, and he had spent 30 of them as a miner. “How are you? It’s so good to see you here,” he said rather effusively, seemingly relieved that someone had actually come to visit a mine that many now thought was cursed.

Heliodoro was a cousin to a big mining family—fourteen siblings in all, before the massacre—who were known simply as the Serafines, after the first name of their father, Serafín Taborda. Since the murders, Heliodoro was the only one among the mine’s founders who dared set foot here anymore. “We’re still producing,” he said. “That’s what’s important.” He leaned over in his chair and looked at the ground between his knees.

To reach the vein of gold that had made the Serafines the envy of Segovia, I walked with a pair of miners and a security guard to the mouth of the mine, a hole in a rock wall flanked by wooden pillars. Carved into the rock above the entrance was a shrine to Pope John Paul II, which Heliodoro’s cousin and business partner Saúl Taborda—one of Serafín Taborda’s sons—had built, a framed poster set in the stone and surrounded by flowers. From the mouth of the mine, a steep wooden ladder descended into the earth until, about 150 feet below the surface, the shaft opened up into a cavern with tunnels fanning off into the darkness.

It was warm down there, and the walls were slick with condensation, which gathered in puddles on the ground, the miners sloshing through them in their rubber boots. The job of carrying the broken rock up the ladder to the surface fell on the backs of the catangueros, the mine’s human mules. They came trudging through the tunnel with 150-pound loads slung over their shoulders, T-shirts plastered against their skin with sweat, and knee-high socks soaked through with water. Now and again a rock cutter gouged into the wall with a drill, and plumes of dust mingled with the moisture hanging in the air.

As I walked deeper into the tunnel, it grew harder to breathe; the air felt tight and heavy. Finally, some 500 feet down, we reached the vein. It was about six feet thick, with layers of white quartz, dark gray galena, and pyrite—the last the color of dirty butter—running in ribbons along the wall. The gold was intermingled with all these, difficult to make out except where it was highly concentrated, appearing as a thin thread woven in among the other minerals.

The Serafines were emblematic of the class of smallholding miners who had been excavating the Colombian countryside for generations. Like Victor, some of the family members had worked for Frontino Gold Mines before the company was liquidated, and in late 2009 they pooled their resources with some associates to prospect for gold on the sprawling lease that now belongs to Gran Colombia. In Segovia, miners had historically set up mines on the Frontino land; it was technically illegal, but it was often not worth the trouble for the company to do anything about it. After Gran Colombia took the reins, the company signed contracts with new mining associations representing local independent miners. Even so, more illegal mines—many of them operated by laid-off or otherwise disgruntled ex-Frontino miners—proliferated across the lease. One of them was La Roca.

For 18 months the Serafines dug, blasted, and hauled rock until finally, in the spring of 2011, they struck an incredibly rich vein. When I visited, La Roca was producing about $700,000 worth of gold a month—a fortune by Colombian standards—making it one of the richest independent mines in Segovia. The Serafines went from being poor church mice to kings overnight.

Shortly after the Serafines struck the vein, two armed men showed up at Saúl Taborda’s house. The men, he and his brothers later told me, were members of a local armed group known as the Rastrojos. 

Members of the Rastrojos armed group surrender to the Colombian army in Antioquia department, May 2009. Photo: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images


The end of each era of violence in Colombia contains within it the seeds of the next. The vacuum left by the downfall of the Medellín and Cali cocaine cartels in the 1990s was quickly filled by smaller newcomers, the most prominent among them the Norte del Valle cartel. One of Norte del Valle’s lieutenants was a man who went by the alias Diego Rastrojo, a former butcher who rose through the cartel’s ranks as a hit man. His talents drew the attention of one of the cartel’s leaders, who tasked him with building the organization’s military arm. When Colombia’s paramilitary forces were demobilized in 2006, many of the newly unemployed fighters joined the ranks of Rastrojo’s militia. Soon the Rastrojos, as they were now called, were active in over a third of Colombia’s states.

Norte del Valle’s run was relatively brief; by the late 2000s, most of its leaders had been assassinated—often by each other—or arrested. Rastrojo himself was captured in Venezuela in June 2012 and later extradited to the U.S. But by then, the group that bore his name had taken on a life of its own as a militarized gang.

The Colombian government referred to militias like the Rastrojos as Bacrim, short for “criminal bands.” Following the disbanding of the paramilitaries, they were the dominant criminal presence in Colombia. By 2011, the Rastrojos were the most powerful Bacrim in the country. They were major players in what was left of Colombia’s drug trade, trafficking in cocaine, heroin, and marijuana—and they had also diversified their portfolio to include gold.

Like other Bacrim, the Rastrojos had inserted themselves into the mining industry at many levels. In northeastern Antioquia, they became mine shareholders—often forcibly—and ran protection rackets. They would demand that local mines pay an extortion tax, known as a vacuna (literally, a vaccine) that was typically calculated as a percentage of the mine’s production. Just as guerrillas and paramilitaries had fought over control of drug-trafficking routes in earlier decades, groups like the Rastrojos would war over control of the most lucrative mining regions. As the price of gold climbed, it became their principal source of income in the northeast.

Immediately after the Serafines struck gold at La Roca, members of the Rastrojos approached the family to demand shares in the mine and a vacuna that, at first, was modest. The Serafines had no choice; as Heliodoro told me, “you pay or you die.” But as the Serafines told it, the Rastrojos who came to Saúl’s house about a month later wished to discuss a new problem that had emerged.

There had been a complaint, the Rastrojos said, that La Roca was overstepping underground boundaries and had trespassed into a neighboring mine. One of the owners of that mine felt entitled to La Roca’s gold deposits, the Rastrojos told Saúl. The owner was a powerful figure in the regional mining industry, familiar enough that people did not need to refer to him by his surname. He was known simply as Jairo Hugo.

Many miners in the region had known Jairo Hugo Escobar Cataño since he was a child. He had grown up in Remedios, a small mining town just down the road from Segovia. His family was said to be poor; those who knew him as a child said that he showed up at school in torn shoes.

As Jairo Hugo told his story, he worked for a time as a miner, then served for five years as an auxiliary policeman in La Cruzada, a settlement between Remedios and Segovia. In the 1990s, he made his first foray into the business of gold trading—buying gold directly from mines, then refining and melting it down into bars to sell to the big exporters in Medellín—in one of Segovia’s most established gold-buying businesses. He learned well and branched out on his own with two gold-buying shops. Then, in 2008, he convinced Frontino to lease him an abandoned piece of one of the company’s mining claims. His mine, La Empalizada, quickly became one of the most profitable in Segovia’s history.

A miner drills a hole to place dynamite in La Roca mine. Photo: Stephen Ferry

Jairo Hugo had a shrewd eye for expansion; soon he was invested in every stage of the gold industry, from the mines themselves to the processing mills to the gold-buying shops. He also bought or invested in other businesses: a cafeteria, a motel, a bar, a gas station, and a hotel complex in Remedios. In his hardscrabble hometown, Victor told me, “They saw him as a king, like a god.” But it became harder to get past the bodyguards and access the man who had once, like them, been a poor boy from Remedios.

There had always been questions about how Jairo Hugo gained his power and wealth—at what cost, with whose help, by what means—and as his local empire grew, his reputation became enshrouded in rumor. He was a man who seemed to move between light and shadow.

Late in the summer of 2011, a few months after the Serafines struck the gold vein, the Rastrojos called La Roca’s business partners to a meeting in a rural hamlet outside Segovia. A half-dozen of them, including Saúl, arrived at an abandoned church on a riverbank, where a delegation of Rastrojos was waiting for them. As the Serafines later told the story, the Rastrojos told them that Jairo Hugo was offering the armed group $60,000 to forcibly take over the mine on his behalf. “No one leaves until we settle this,” the Rastrojos’ head commander said.

Still, Saúl refused to budge. In an effort to intimidate him, the Rastrojos pointed their rifles skyward and fired over the church. Finally, the commander offered an alternative: The Serafines could keep their mine if they agreed to pay a vacuna of $40,000 a month, as well as more than half of the money Jairo Hugo had offered them. It was a staggering sum, but the Serafines had little choice.

As La Roca’s representatives trundled out of the canyon in their black Toyota truck, Saúl turned to one of his business partners. “Don’t invite me to a meeting again,” he said. “Because in one of these meetings, they’ll kill us.”


Early on the morning of November 1, 2011, Jairo Hugo was in a park near the bar he owned in Remedios when a motorbike carrying two men pulled up. The passenger pulled out a nine-millimeter Beretta and opened fire, shooting him in the chest and neck. People in the park started to scream, “It’s a duro, it’s a duro!” A man said to be Jairo Hugo’s bodyguard fired back; the assailant shot him in the groin. Then the assassin fled on foot, ducking into a nearby bakery called La Central—owned, as it happened, by Jairo Hugo.

Within minutes the police captured the shooter. He was a young man from Medellín who said he had arrived in Segovia the night before on assignment. All he had been told, he explained to the police, was that his target was a minero duro—a powerful miner—who was in league with the Rastrojos.

Jairo Hugo was airlifted to a hospital in Medellín and narrowly survived his wounds. La Roca’s chief of security heard from his informants that Jairo Hugo was blaming the Serafines for the attack and had sent word from the hospital in Medellín: He would not let the family “pass Christmas Eve.”

It was around this time that Saúl started to feel strange sensations. He told me he felt his beloved Pope John Paul II sending him signals. Then, on December 17, Saúl’s five-year-old son Juan Pablo—named after the Pope—asked his father to take him to the mine.

Papi, get me some markers and pencils, I want to make a drawing,” he told Saúl after they arrived. He drew a picture and handed it to his father. Saúl told him they’d look at it when they got home, folded the paper, and put it in his shoulder bag.

Saúl forgot about the drawing until he discovered it in his bag on Christmas Eve and opened the paper. His son had drawn four figures lying down in the shape of a cross, surrounded by forest.

Ave Maria, Saúl said to himself.

At 8:30 a.m. on the morning of December 20, five of La Roca’s representatives gathered at a gas station in Segovia. Two of them were Serafines brothers, Wilmar and Yeison Taborda. Johan Pareja, an old friend of the family, joined them, as did Jaime Jiménez, a building contractor, and Carlos Mario Salazar, another investor. They were gathering to caravan over by motorbike to a meeting the Rastrojos had called in a tiny hamlet on the rural outskirts of Segovia called Alto de los Muertos—the Heights of the Dead.

The road out of Segovia turned to gravel and rose and fell with the hills, passing pastures and the occasional house. It was a short drive, no more than 15 minutes. When the Serafines and their partners arrived, there were four Rastrojos stationed at the side of the road. They ordered the men to hand over everything they were carrying, then instructed them to walk just up ahead, where about a dozen militiamen were waiting for them at a grassy patch bordered by a line of trees.

Everything up to this point had seemed normal enough. But when the Serafines approached, the mood suddenly shifted. “Get down on the ground!” one of the Rastrojos yelled. Four of the five men obeyed, but Yeison stayed on his feet, looking nervously from side to side; one of the Rastrojos would later tell me he looked like a scared rabbit, searching for an escape route and about to bolt. The Rastrojos opened fire.

Yeison, Johan, and Wilmar were killed immediately in the hail of bullets. Jiménez was wounded. He begged the Rastrojos not to kill him. If it was a matter of money, he said, how much did they want? But it was too late; they had to finish the job.

Now the only one left was Salazar. The Rastrojos told him to go and to never mention their names to anyone. The four bodies were left splayed belly-up on the grass. By the time the police arrived, in the late afternoon, the sun had blistered their skin. A police investigator at the scene described them to his colleague as “re-muerto,” or very, very dead.

Heliodoro Álvarez’s bodyguards leaving La Roca mine. Photo: Stephen Ferry


Later, people in Segovia would refer to the massacre as the origin of all the ills that followed—the incident that sent the town into violent convulsions. News of the murders rippled through Segovia, and the hospital waiting room was soon packed with curious onlookers and mourners.

The surviving Serafines, meanwhile, started seeing their potential killers everywhere. They were circling; Saúl was sure of it. Even gathering the family to bury the dead in Segovia was risky. “Those bandidos,” Eudes Taborda, one of the brothers, later told me, “wanted to finish us all off.” In the end, almost 50 family members flew to Medellín aboard four small chartered planes. A caravan of cars and motorbikes followed the coffins to the airstrip south of Remedios.

Two days earlier, the Serafines had walked through Segovia like rulers in their kingdom. Now they had scattered like a flock of birds frightened by the crack of a hunter’s rifle. The massacre had not been the end of their ordeal but only the beginning. Threats continued to trickle in by phone, text message, and whispered rumor. It was clear that the Serafines could not live in Segovia anymore. But someone had to run the mine. The task fell to Heliodoro.

As he told me this story at La Roca’s cantina, Heliodoro leaned against the wall. He was a ruggedly handsome man, and he recounted his family’s misfortunes with a stoic restraint. But finally he could bear it no longer. Standing there in his bulletproof Kevlar jacket with a nine-millimeter pistol jammed into a holster, his face collapsed into tears. “They tried to kidnap my ten-year-old son,” he sputtered. He lowered his reddened face and held his forehead in his hand. One of the security guards got up and handed him a glass of water.

Later, Heliodoro’s phone rang, and he stepped away to take the call. When he returned, his face was awash in stress. Other associates were calling him, he said, trying to convince him to resume paying the Rastrojos their vacuna; the Serafines had refused to do so since the slaughter of their brothers. The associates wanted it to be over—the killings, the tension, the fear. They wanted Heliodoro to do what every other mine owner in Segovia did: grit his teeth and buy his immunity.

But Heliodoro did not want to pay the Rastrojos any more money. The Serafines had sweated for a year and a half looking for that vein. His cousins had been murdered. His associates had been murdered. Still, everyone knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep their enemies at bay.

That afternoon, I rode with Heliodoro back to his house. His movements were restricted now to just this, his daily commute, accompanied by a convoy of bodyguards on motorbikes. Heliodoro mounted his own bike, a bodyguard perched behind him with a shotgun at the ready. Covered in black Kevlar with his face hidden behind the visor of his helmet, Heliodoro was unrecognizable; the other bikes huddled around him in tight formation as we flew through town. Children jumped out of the way and watched wide-eyed from the sidewalk. The motorcade was not subtle, but it was fast.

Heliodoro’s house was a large three-story building, half of which he had rented out to a hardware store. While a housekeeper prepared guanabana juice for us, Heliodoro proudly showed me around his home. Most of all, he wanted to show me his rock collection, which sprawled across shelves in two rooms. He started taking down some of his specimens, running water over them in the sink. He rested one of the quartzes in his palm, studying its jagged, milky white teeth as though he were admiring a woman. “Bonita, no?” he said.

As we sat on his fake suede couch, Heliodoro fidgeted with the hem of the jeans pocket where he now held his pistol. His forehead was beaded with sweat. About a month ago, he heard that his head had a 50 million peso—$25,000—price on it. His eight bodyguards stayed with him around the clock and slept in his home. Some of them paced the floor now, while others kept watch on the street from the balcony.

It was getting late, and I wanted to leave the house before nightfall. I said goodbye to Heliodoro, surrounded by his beautiful rocks and his bodyguards, a prisoner in his own home.

Javier Carmona, head of security for La Roca mine, stands guard on Heliodoro Álvarez’s balcony. Photo: Stephen Ferry


Three days later, I set out for Jairo Hugo’s hometown of Remedios, half an hour’s drive from Segovia. As I approached the town, signs of Jairo Hugo’s empire were everywhere. At the top of a hill was La Empalizada, the bar named after his mine, overlooking the undulating hills beyond Remedios. At the center of town, just off the quaint town square, was the bakery where his failed assassin had been caught. Several bends in the road later, there was his Palmas del Castillo motel, hidden behind a massive concrete wall, the only sign of life a blinking security camera over the gate.

Jairo Hugo had long wanted to be more than a prominent businessman in Remedios. In 2002, he had run for mayor and lost, which seemed to catch him by surprise. “He said that mayorship was his,” Victor—whose printing press had produced publicity materials for some of Jairo Hugo’s businesses in the past—told me. He and others told me that Jairo Hugo had gone on to finance the current mayor’s campaign and was rumored to have done the same for successful mayoral campaigns in three other towns in the northeast. Soraya Jaramillo, a local lawyer, told me that Jairo Hugo would approach the Remedios town council and say, “‘This needs to happen like this,’ and listo—done.”

We were sitting in Jaramillo’s apartment overlooking one of Remedios’s busier intersections, which was crowded with street vendors and idling motorbike taxis. Jaramillo had until recently served as Remedios’s human rights ombudsman, a job that mostly consisted of addressing denuncias—formal complaints of human rights abuses committed by the Bacrim and other criminals—and assisting citizens threatened by the armed groups. It was a difficult job, as people who feared for their lives were usually less than willing to come forward. Jaramillo understood well enough why—the local criminal groups had thoroughly infiltrated Colombia’s government institutions, including law enforcement. “He who denounces gets killed,” she told me. It was better to stay silent, to act as if nothing had happened. It was a truism that locals called the Law of Silence, and they referred to it as matter-of-factly as if it were inscribed in legislation.

Jairo Hugo, Jaramillo warned me, had managed to infiltrate various agencies from Segovia to Medellín. She was not the only one who thought this. The Serafines told me they believed that on several occasions, statements they had given to the police accusing Jairo Hugo of masterminding the murders of their relatives—which were supposed to be confidential—had made it into Jairo Hugo’s hands. But there were a handful of people Jaramillo said I could trust. One was a former colleague in the ombudsman’s office.

About an hour later, the colleague, a motherly woman in her forties, ushered me into her cubicle, crammed into a windowless corridor in a one-story municipal office building in Remedios. When I mentioned Jairo Hugo, her voice dropped, out of earshot of anyone beyond the flimsy partition. Rain had been coming down all afternoon, and the fluorescent lights flickered on and off as we talked. Finally they went out entirely, and only the light of her cell phone illuminated her face. “He has everything, everything, everything—all the mining around here,” she whispered. “If you value your life, do not, do not, do not get involved.”

It was less than surprising that the most substantial report on Jairo Hugo the police had received came from an anonymous email account. The police in Medellín received the message in October 2011, shortly before the Serafines massacre. The email warned of the emergence of a “small Pablo Escobar,” who “at the end of the day, is not so small.” This person, according to the email, was buying up half of Remedios and buying off everyone who mattered there: the local police, various military officials, even a mayoral candidate who had privately confessed that he wanted to withdraw his candidacy but couldn’t because the man had threatened to have him killed if he tried.

“Perhaps you won’t pay attention to me or this denunciation,” the email’s author continued, “but time will tell if this warning is true or not.” The emailer identified the man in question simply as Jairo Hugo.


One of the email’s eventual recipients was Alejandro Caicedo (not his real name), a police investigator in his early thirties in Medellín. Caicedo was not a born policeman—like many of his colleagues, he had joined the force simply because he felt he had few other opportunities. But he discovered that he liked investigative work, and he earned a reputation for being good at it.

For the past several months, Caicedo had been working with the attorney general’s office in Medellín to map out the Rastrojos’ organization in the northeast of Antioquia. He had first heard Jairo Hugo’s name the previous July, when a Rastrojos deserter told him that a miner by that name was paying money to the group. Caicedo thought little of it; he assumed that Jairo Hugo was, like other successful miners, simply being extorted. But a few months later, Jairo Hugo came up in a conversation Caicedo had with another police officer, who told him that he suspected the man was a figure of greater significance in the northeast than people realized. At that point, Caicedo later told me, “I started to ask, ‘Who is Jairo Hugo?’”

Caicedo started rummaging through criminal case files linked to the Rastrojos. Jairo Hugo’s name, he saw, wafted in and out of testimonies by victims of violence in various cases in the northeast. In a few homicide cases, informants had pointed to him as a possible suspect.

One case was the 2008 murder of a miner who had been killed, a former paramilitary member had told police, because he hadn’t heeded Jairo Hugo’s orders to stop working a mine adjoining one of his own. A year later, a miner who had been a shareholder in a mine that Jairo Hugo also partially owned was murdered on a street corner. Family members told authorities that Jairo Hugo had threatened the man following disagreements over a business deal. When the miner’s relatives decided to file a complaint following his murder, his wife received an anonymous phone call warning her that the family would be killed for talking to the authorities.

Jairo Hugo had not been charged with a crime in either case, but the fact that his name had surfaced repeatedly under similar circumstances piqued Caicedo’s interest. He began interviewing Rastrojos who had deserted or been jailed. The Rastrojos extorted lots of people in the gold business, they said. “But there is one man in particular who is called Jairo Hugo,” Caicedo recalled one of them telling him, “who has been financing the organization for a long time.”

Caicedo grew convinced that Jairo Hugo was a major threat, and one he needed to proceed against with great care. The investigation had to be kept closely guarded and involve as few people as possible. Only three policemen would be tasked with tracking Jairo Hugo on the ground. Caicedo himself steered clear of the northeast and stayed in Medellín. Aside from a few of his superiors, no one would know there was an investigation happening at all.

About a month before the massacre of the Serafines, the Rastrojos’ national commanders had made a deal with the only other Bacrim of national scope. They were a group of ex-paramilitary soldiers called the Urabeños, after the region of Urabá—“promised land,” in one of Colombia’s indigenous languages—which is home to key drug-trafficking corridors. The Urabeños had expanded beyond their base, and in doing so they had come into conflict with the Rastrojos over trafficking routes and territory. After growing weary of bloodshed, the two groups decided to negotiate a truce and swap territories. The agreement handed the Urabeños control of the northeastern gold-mining region in exchange for a reported 6 billion pesos, or $3.3 million.

But just after the Serafines massacre, several dozen local Rastrojos dissenters, distrustful of the deal and wary of the Urabeños’ intentions, broke away to form a new militia. They called themselves the Security Heroes of the Northeast and vowed not to relinquish to the Urabeños the gold-rich territory they had ruled for years. “We’re going to stay, we’re going to arm ourselves, we’re going to fight until the bitter end!” one of the new group’s commanders declared. And they would use gold to do it.

The dissident Rastrojos levied a new tax on the region’s inhabitants and mines and used the proceeds to buy machine guns, mortars, grenades, and grenade launchers through their contacts in the Colombian army. Soon their ranks swelled to almost 200 fighters. The war was on.

Police investigators who were keeping tabs on the Bacrim had wiretaps on many of the dissident Rastrojos’ cell phones, and the calls they recorded between commanders and their subordinates were an education in the grisly vocabulary and rhythm of the killings. First there was the order to “burn his jacket,” “make him travel,” “mark the young bull”— all euphemisms for a kill job. Flurries of calls tracking the target would follow. A final nudge of encouragement from one colleague to another: Do it, do it. Then the go-ahead: The pig’s ready. Silence for 24 minutes. And then the after-action report: Was he the one? The dark-skinned one, wearing boots? Yeah, all good.

As the dissident Rastrojos battled against the Urabeños for control of the northeast, civilians were caught in the middle. The militant groups both demanded absolute loyalty, and assistance, from the people who lived in their territories. The farmer who surrendered a cow to troops passing by his property, the driver who agreed to transport weapons in his garbage truck or bus—if the frontlines shifted, as they regularly did, these people could find themselves branded enemy collaborators by a rival militia. Anyone could be accused of being an informant: a store owner, a lottery vendor, a motorbike-taxi driver, a miner. And anyone could be a victim.


The Serafines remained a major, if not the major, target of the dissident Rastrojos. On several occasions, the Serafines’ security team exchanged gunfire with the new band of outlaws. There was also the constant question of the loyalties of the mine employees. Heliodoro and his security advisers had fired a handful of guards after suspecting they were also working for Jairo Hugo and passing along information.

The mine’s security team was led by Javier Carmona, who had started working for the Serafines shortly before their brothers’ murders and now led a team of 33 men. He was fit and muscular and often hid his eyes behind wraparound sunglasses. In Javier, the Serafines had found a security chief who had practically been engineered to battle the infectious violence of Segovia. He had grown up a self-described delinquent in a rough neighborhood of Medellín, where he was a member of a local gang. When he was 16 years old, his brother was gunned down by criminals who mistook him for Javier. His father, a pastor, encouraged him to put his skills to better use by joining the police, and Javier took his advice. In his years on the force, he admits to having carried out dirty work and extrajudicial killings. He became, in his own words, a sadist.

Eventually, he told me, he was accepted into training for an elite police unit, where he stayed for seven years. Stints with a detective agency, private security companies, and security academies followed. He tried to get away from conflict, and there was a brief period of tranquility involving an empanada business, rotisserie chickens, and intense churchgoing and Bible study. But it didn’t last. Life obliged him to return to fighting, he told me. I asked him why. “Perhaps because of what I know I am,” he said. War was his art, he said. Physically, he was a “monster.” He considered himself good at chess.

He had been drawn to Segovia by its Wild West scene. “There’s gold, there’s money,” he told me. “Where there’s money, there’s violence. This is Sodom: self-indulgence, prostitution, homicides—everything you want.” But now the war had become personal. He had warned the two Serafines brothers who were killed not to go to the meeting with the Rastrojos, he told me, but that didn’t matter. They had been killed, and with that “my image fell to the floor,” Javier said. “They hurt my pride.” Now he was pouring everything he had learned in his years of fighting into a redemptive battle for La Roca.

After the massacre, Javier gave the Serafines two options. They could spend a lot of money waging a war; there would be “a lot of blood,” he told them. Or they could employ a cold war strategy: weakening their enemies not with bullets but with the strategic exchange of intelligence, letting the police and military fight the war for them. The Serafines opted for the latter.

Javier and Heliodoro began cultivating informants, including disgruntled dissident Rastrojos who could pass along information about what Jairo Hugo and his suspected allies were saying about them—or plotting against them. In the Serafines’ strategy, the police, military, and bandidos all became pawns. “What we do, we play them on a chess table,” Javier explained to me.

Although he was the family’s lone representative at the mine, Heliodoro decided that it was wise to leave Segovia for a while. In May 2012, a month after I first visited him at La Roca, he left a handful of security guards in charge of the mine and decamped with Javier to the sleepy town of Cisneros, a few hours’ drive away. He was working a gold-mining claim with his son and a small group of other miners on a hillside outside the town. When I visited him there in July, he looked relaxed, as if in Cisneros he could finally breathe again.

But the tranquility could not conceal the fact that Heliodoro was still a hounded man. The dissident Rastrojos had offered an employee at La Roca 500 million pesos—$244,000—to lead them to Heliodoro and Javier. “You know who our boss is,” the employee said they told him—a reference, he explained, to Jairo Hugo. To show him they meant business, they opened a suitcase containing half the bounty in cash. The man stood his ground and refused to lead them to Cisneros, but Javier knew that he wasn’t the only man to receive such an offer.

A few months earlier, on a street corner in Segovia, Javier had confronted a mine worker whom he had fired for stealing and whom he now suspected was informing to Jairo Hugo and the dissident Rastrojos. Javier demanded to know what he had heard them say about the Serafines. “That’s confidential,” the worker said, over and over again. He did tell Javier, however, that they knew plenty about the Serafines’ whereabouts already. “Those guys are sizing you up,” he warned.

“Tell me who it is who’s giving us up,” Javier said.

“Faggot, I’m not telling you,” the man shot back. But Javier was relentless, hounding him for information. He was also surreptitiously recording the conversation on his cell phone, and he later played it back for me. The recording is in many places obscured by honking horns and revving motorbikes, but the worker’s nervousness cuts through the din. The street corner where they were standing, he says, is getting too “hot” to talk. Javier softens. “Tell me here,” he says, “the wind will take everything away. It will turn into a rumor, whatever you tell me.”

The ex-worker warns that three “ninjas”—slang for hit men—are going to come for the Serafines and that there is a “frightful bounty” of 500 million pesos on their heads. Javier wants to know who is paying it.

“You know who it is,” the former worker says.

“It’s JH, right?” Javier asks. “Si?”

Javier told me the man answered yes. But on the recording, his reply is lost in the clamor of the street corner, taken by the wind and spun into the mass of Segovia’s rumors.


That summer, the dissident Rastrojos’ top commander, who went by the alias Alex 15, gave a new order to his subordinates in Segovia: Kill or expel anyone who wasn’t from the area or who “looked strange,” as one member of the militia later put it to me. Sure, they might appear to be a street vendor or a motorbike-taxi driver, but they could just as easily be an Urabeño in disguise.

With the new mandate, the killings increased and grew more indiscriminate. A 30-year-old woman I met in Segovia told me about a bus ride she took that summer to Medellín. She had a window seat; it was a beautiful afternoon. Then, at a curve in the road after the bus passed Remedios, three armed men appeared on the road and signaled for the driver to stop.

These were not good days to be a bus driver, or a passenger. The armed groups were setting up checkpoints along the roads leading into Segovia. Sometimes they made all the passengers get off the bus, patted them down, and checked their IDs. Sometimes they would take a passenger or two and they would never return.

The armed men climbed onto the bus and told the driver to turn over his keys. They scanned the seats. “They started to look and to look and to look,” the woman remembered. Finally, one of the militiamen grabbed a passenger roughly by the neck and dragged him to the stairs. They asked where he was from. “I am from Medellín,” the man stammered. “I’m returning from Segovia.”

As he reached the first step, he turned to look at his fellow travelers. His face contorted with desperation, and the woman was transfixed by his stare. It was the look of a man who knew he no longer had the same destination as the rest of the passengers. The woman wanted badly to speak out on his behalf, but she didn’t. No one did.

They killed three men in all. The third was sitting in the last row of seats when the militiamen approached him. He took off his shoes and rested his head on his shoulder, as though he was preparing to fall asleep, and waited for the bullet.

When it was done, the killers returned the keys to the bus driver. As they left, they addressed the remaining passengers. “Don’t worry, we don’t harm civilians,” they said. “We are the Heroes of the Northeast.”

The bus rolled on in silence toward the next town, a dead man in the last seat.

There was a Facebook page called Deceased People of Segovia. It was an homage to the fallen, a montage of photographs and remembrances. Most of the deaths were recent; a photo was sometimes posted the day it occurred. And unless otherwise noted, the cause was assumed to be murder.

As the violence picked up, so too did the page’s utility. One photo went up after another—the deceased appearing at their graduations, at family reunions, drinking with friends, lying in bed. The site provided a service that was becoming more important as the sheer volume of killings began to overwhelm questions of where, when, and how many.

Shock often ran through the comments beneath the photos. “Que le pasó?”—What happened to him? “This can’t be.” Sometimes there was denial: “I refuse to accept this, this is absurd that you left us today, in grief.” “This must be a lie.” But there was almost never any discussion of why the person was killed.

Victor was one of the site’s biggest fans. For months now, he had been wrestling with the responsibility of cataloging Segovia’s dead. El Nordesteño was overflowing with them. He had more and more obituaries to fit in amid the news, the sporting events, the scandals of individual lives, the recipes and home remedies. He could not write a story about every murder, and he could not say much about the circumstances of the killings. Inspired by the Facebook page, he started a new section of the paper called Homage to the Deceased. He lifted photos off the Facebook site and presented them on the page in ornate frames. Readers opened up to a two-page spread presented as a wall of portraits.

On occasion, the comments on Facebook spilled over into indignation. “This will be our destiny,” read one post: “to always be the town of massacres, witchcraft and damned gold that only brings pain and suffering.” Ever so tentatively, the page’s visitors began to chip away at the Law of Silence. “It’s always been like the Shakira song, ‘Blind, deaf and mute,’” one woman wrote, “and as long as it stays that way, more will fall.”

Women march in a parade during Segovia’s gold festival, July 2012. Photo: Nadja Drost


Segovia’s annual fiestas de oro—gold festivals—are so legendary that tourists flock to the town from other parts of Antioquia every summer to take in the week of celebrations. In past years, it was tough to get a hotel room, but in 2012, it was no problem. By now, word had gotten around that a slaughter was under way in Segovia. Even some of the Segovians I knew were reluctant to attend the festivities. There had been rumors that one of the militant groups—no one was sure which—was planning an attack.

At 10 a.m. on Friday, the sun was still clearing away the morning haze when I watched about 200 catangueros—the men who carried the rock out of Segovia’s mines on their backs—gather on a gravel road for a race, one of the most anticipated events of the festival. The referee’s pistol fired and a mass of brightly colored T-shirts surged past the starting line and began moving toward the town plaza, the miners’ legs pumping like pistons. Spectators splashed them with buckets of water to cool them off, and their sculpted muscles glistened in the sun. No one had thought to block off La Banca, the main thoroughfare leading up to the plaza, and the catangueros fought their way through the morass of vehicles, diesel fumes, and honking. The lead runner lurched past the finish line, then collapsed beneath the statue of the gilded woman, gasping for breath and curled up in pain.

Standing on the second-floor balcony of a building overlooking the plaza, Segovia’s mayor, Johny Castrillón, was sweating in the heat, his round and ruddy face shining. Castrillón was more of a miner than a politician, a man with big hands and few words. “Segovia is a very good town, and we know how to celebrate!” he bellowed at me. “We want to show our town, our mining, our fiestas, to people like you who have come from afar to discover that Segovia is the best!”

Later that afternoon, Wilson Serna, an employee of the Eden Funeral Home and a friend of Victor’s, got a call from a dissident Rastrojos commander who went by the alias Alfonso. Wilson was no stranger to Segovia’s criminal militias; his job as a collector of the dead—both civilians and combatants—required him to crisscross their territories in and around the town. Now Alfonso told him he should make his way over to a hilltop neighborhood called El Paraíso. As he left the funeral home, he told a colleague that if he wasn’t back in a half-hour, something had happened to him.

Sometime between when he left the funeral home and his arrival in El Paraíso, Wilson picked up a call from Victor. Wilson said he couldn’t talk right then, that he was busy. He spoke quickly and sounded frantic. “They’re going to kill me!” he told Victor. “They’re going to kill me!” And then the call dropped. Victor couldn’t get a signal for another half hour.

I was sipping iced tea at the outdoor cantina in front of the hospital when people started arriving in the parking lot, gathering quietly against the gate near the hospital’s morgue. I asked one of them what had happened. A hearse driver had been shot, the man said. “He went to go pick up a body, but it turns out he was the dead one.” A hearse from the Eden Funeral Home pulled up. “Wilsooooooooon,” his mother cried, clawing at the gate.

The doctors and technicians at the morgue knew Wilson; on his visits, he would often help out with necropsies. But as they unzipped the body bag with the EL PARAÍSO label, not even the morticians could hide their shock. Their blank eyes said what everyone seemed to be thinking: They even whacked the funeral car driver.

About half an hour after Wilson was delivered in his own hearse, a photo of him in a suit jacket and tie surfaced on the Facebook page Deceased People of Segovia.

The next afternoon, hundreds of Segovians, weeping, silent and moaning, shuffled into the municipal cemetery. Having buried so many of the town’s families, Wilson had been like all of Segovia’s son.

But the gold festival rolled on. Within hours the town plaza was filled with partiers. They spilled over onto outdoor tables covered with bottles of beer and aguardiente, a high-octane sugarcane liquor, and swayed their hips to live music. Bars were so packed that the patrons were climbing on the tables. Inside discotecas, mirrored balls whirled and laser beams slashed the dance floor. Segovia was spinning itself into a crazed alegría.

As night gave way to dawn, hundreds of people threw themselves into a Sunday morning festival tradition, smearing each other with a red, viscous liquid that looked remarkably like blood—a representation, Victor told me, of everything the miners sacrificed for gold. The streets leading away from the plaza filled with red, like arteries and veins radiating from a heart. Throngs of bodies, glistening red, careened through the crooked avenues. Casualties of intoxication were splayed on the pavement, sleeping off the festivities.

At the café bar in the plaza, I ran into the mayor, whose face was slathered in fake blood. Castrillón took my head in his big hands and thundered, “Are you happy? Are you happy?”

“Yes,” I said, wearily.

“Because we’re so happy, it’s like we’re exploding with blood!” He roared with laughter and took another swig from a bottle of aguardiente.

A man covered in fake blood carries a cow’s head in the Gigantona Carnaval, part of Segovia’s annual gold festival, July 2012. Photo: Nadja Drost

As the bacchanal wore on, comments piled up beneath Wilson’s photo on the Facebook page. “My God, what is happening in my town, I don’t understand, he was a good person, what happened?” one commenter wrote. “Since when do we celebrate massacres?” fumed another. “They keep killing and ending our tranquility and the rest keep dancing, tossing [fake blood] and guzzling liquor?”

Wilson’s death felt like a turning point in Segovia’s escalating violence. “Until that moment, people were killing each other amongst themselves,” Alejandro Escobar, a doctor at the hospital, told me later. But when Wilson, a man who was known and loved by so many, was murdered, a realization crept up on the town. “People started thinking, ‘If they killed Wilson, they can kill any one of us.’”

In conflict zones across Colombia, there is a refrain that people murmur following murders. Por algo será, they say. It must be for something. It is often referred to as el porqué—the why, the reason. Maybe the victim had some kind of a relationship, willing or otherwise, with an armed group. Maybe she was an informant. Maybe he refused to pay the extortion tax. The reason might be cruel or unfair, but at least it was an explanation. People believe in el porqué not because it is necessarily true, but because they need it to protect themselves. To point at el porqué means they are somehow outside looking in.

But with Wilson’s murder came the realization that those protective walls that el porqué helped people build around themselves were just an illusion. As the battle over the northeast and its hills of gold escalated, el porqué was getting thinner and thinner, to the point where it was difficult to say whether it existed at all.


Back in Medellín, Alejandro Caicedo was struggling to answer the question that had bedeviled him since the beginning of his investigation: What was Jairo Hugo’s relationship to the violence that was whipping across the northeast? A special unit of the attorney general’s office dedicated to disassembling the Bacrim was up and running, and Caicedo and his colleagues were trying to dismantle the dissident Rastrojos by going after the group’s commanders and hit men. But Caicedo was convinced that Jairo Hugo was just as important a target. If his hunch was correct—if Jairo Hugo’s financial support was indeed crucial to the Rastrojos—then taking him down could be a significant step toward breaking the organization’s hold on the northeast. To strike the heart, Caicedo thought, cut off the oxygen supply.

Besides, Jairo Hugo was more interesting to Caicedo than the other targets. Caicedo was intrigued by his twin identities, his public presence as an upstanding local businessman and his suspected role in the criminal underworld of the northeast. Figures like him—“supposedly good, proper people,” he told me—were harder to investigate than the paramilitaries. But he knew he had to try.

In order to charge him with criminal conspiracy, Caicedo needed to be able to show that Jairo Hugo was supporting and benefiting from the Rastrojos. The failed attempt on his life the previous November offered some clues. In the hour after he was shot, police wiretaps picked up a flurry of phone calls between Rastrojos trying to figure out where the motorbike with the accomplice had gone and how to catch him. It was like they were swarming locusts, buzzing madly. Whatever the connection was, Jairo Hugo clearly mattered a lot to the Rastrojos.

In the months following the murders, Caicedo canvased jailed dissident Rastrojos, the group’s deserters, and its victims for information. A man who said he had been forced to work for the Rastrojos for a time and then fled estimated that Jairo Hugo was filling the militia’s coffers to the tune of about $100,000 a month voluntarily—and that in return the Rastrojos protected him. “This man has ordered hits on various people,” the informant told the investigators. “He orders them killed to take away mines from them or because he’s scared and thinks those people want to kill him.”

Although some former Rastrojos told Caicedo that Jairo Hugo’s relationship with the group was limited to paying them to take out his enemies, others said it went much further than that. Former Rastrojos and their accomplices told investigators that Jairo Hugo would meet with the group’s top commanders, had the sway to request a transfer of a Rastrojo foot soldier he found bothersome, would share his intelligence and contacts in law enforcement, and even bought them food and drugs. Within the organization, Jairo Hugo was seen as someone with the ranking of a commander, two ex-Rastrojos said.

That summer, Caicedo finally found someone—a former employee of Jairo Hugo who had recently fled Remedios after escaping an assassination attempt—who claimed to have firsthand information about how Jairo Hugo had conspired with the Rastrojos to arrange the Serafines’ murders. Although Caicedo would later come to doubt elements of the man’s account, at the time it gave him the scrap of eyewitness testimony he needed to begin building his case.

The Rastrojos deserter, meanwhile, said in a deposition that just after the massacre, he had run into a Rastrojo who was involved in the killings, who went by the alias Yordany. “We hunted down four gonorreas up in Alto de los Muertos,” Yordany told him. It was a good trip, he went on; the Rastrojos had been offered 800 million pesos—$400,000—to do the job. The man behind the offer, Yordany told his colleague, was Jairo Hugo. He called him “el patrón.”

The dissident Rastrojos, meanwhile, had stepped up their attacks on La Roca once again. In mid-July, a catanguero at the mine was murdered. In early August, a photo of Alexander Santos, a La Roca administrator and the husband of one of the Serafines sisters, appeared on the Deceased People of Segovia page. Helmer Velásquez, another mine employee, was shot in the head but survived. Someone threw grenades at the entable where the Serafines milled their ore.

In the midst of this renewed onslaught, I returned to La Roca. A lone guard opened the gate for me. On the road in, I passed unattended buckets of rock and closed umbrellas. The women who had worked there the last time I visited were gone. A week and a half earlier, the dissident Rastrojos had warned the mine’s employees that anyone showing up for work would be killed. The miners obeyed, and the operation ground to a halt. Faint music drifted in from somewhere on the hillside. The cantina was shuttered. It was very, very quiet.

On a plastic chair in the middle of a patch of pavement sat the president of the town council, Dairo Rua, flanked by two police officers and a man with a pistol tucked in his belt. Rua was eating lunch out of a Tupperware container and looking bored. He had not left the mine in four days. With the Serafines out of Segovia, someone had to be the face of the operation. The task had fallen to Rua, who was now functioning as the de facto supervisor, although there was nothing much to supervise. Perhaps sensing the vacuum of authority, a rooster strutted around on top of a small pile of rock. It was all that had been lifted out of the mine in three days.

Many Segovians blamed La Roca for the violence that was spiraling outward through the town. They viewed the mine as a prize in the war between the dissident Rastrojos and the Urabeños, a microcosm of the war that was engulfing the northeast. Who won, exactly, was less important than that someone win. Until one side clinched control over the region and all its mines, the killing would not cease.


In the attorney general’s office in Medellín, the task of dismantling the mutating monster of the dissident Rastrojos in the northeast had fallen to a state prosecutor named Francisco Bolívar. Bolívar had been assigned to the regional division of the office’s anti-Bacrim unit several months earlier, in April 2012. Among the pile of ongoing investigations that landed on his desk was the case that Caicedo was building against Jairo Hugo.

Bolivar’s priority was capturing the Rastrojos commanders, but Jairo Hugo was an intriguingly different figure from the others under investigation in Segovia. By late that summer, Bolívar had enough evidence to charge him with criminal conspiracy, but he was wary of requesting an arrest warrant until he was certain police would be able to capture him immediately; he feared Jairo Hugo would be leaked news of the warrant and take flight.

Finally, on November 11, 2012, an arrest warrant for Jairo Hugo was quietly slipped in amid those for 17 dissident Rastrojos that Antioquia’s investigative police were about to take down. Only Bolívar and Caicedo’s team—about five officers in all—knew that Jairo Hugo was a target at all.

Investigators were trying to track Jairo Hugo’s movements on the ground, but the information they were getting was fleeting and unreliable. Then, on Saturday, November 24, Caicedo was fixing his motorbike in a workshop when he got a phone call. The police had traced Jairo Hugo to a Cartagena-bound plane ticket from Medellín. Caicedo picked up the arrest warrant and raced to the airport.

Four of Caicedo’s colleagues stationed near the airport got there first, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying suitcases. They scoured the building for over an hour until one of them, a police lieutenant, spotted Jairo Hugo in the food court with another man and two beautiful young women. As he approached, Jairo Hugo appeared to recognize him—the lieutenant had been stationed in Segovia not long before—and suddenly turned away. The police closed in, and another officer drew her gun. “I knew you were coming for me,” Jairo Hugo told them.

When Caicedo arrived, he immediately recognized his target—a slightly overweight, dark-complexioned man in a black T-shirt and jeans—from the photos he had seen before. He took some satisfaction in the fact that Jairo Hugo seemed to have no idea who he was—that he was not simply the officer who had been sent over to deliver a warrant, but rather the man who had been tracking him for over a year and a half.

Jairo Hugo kept his composure. When he was taken to the Medellín police headquarters, officers who recognized him stopped by to greet him. “He said he was some kind of political figure,” Caicedo told me, “and that the next day he would be free.”

Police officers escorting Jairo Hugo Escobar Cataño following his arrest on November 24, 2012. Photo: Courtesy of the Colombian National Police

At a press conference in Medellín, President Juan Manuel Santos congratulated the police for their work in nabbing the man they were now calling the Gold Czar. Police told reporters that Jairo Hugo had been “the promoter and principal financier and patrón” of the Rastrojos and was believed to be responsible for various homicides committed by the armed group, with the aim of taking over gold mines. Still, Jairo Hugo’s unfamiliarity sat oddly alongside the fanfare with which his capture was announced. Unlike many of the militiamen whose faces were plastered on wanted posters, the patrón had remained faceless. At the press conference, one reporter asked, “Why have we never heard of this man?”

The police press conference announcing Jairo Hugo Escobar Cataño’s arrest. Video: Courtesy of Hora 13 Noticias

The following Monday morning, I went to meet Colonel José Acevedo, Antioquia’s chief of police. The police headquarters in Medellín was buzzing with activity. A public prosecutor from the attorney general’s money-laundering unit had flown in from Bogotá that morning and, with Acevedo’s team, would fly to Segovia the next day to start seizing Jairo Hugo’s assets. They had identified 41 properties worth almost $18 million, including hotels, restaurants, mines and entables, ambulances, trucks, and houses spread between Remedios, Segovia, and Medellín.

The month before, gold spiked to its highest price yet that year, a staggering $1,790 an ounce. Putting a dollar value on how much of this ended up in the coffers of the region’s militias was far from an exact science, but the police estimated that armed groups were taking in between 10 and 20 percent of what mines were producing. In the northeast alone, Acevedo figured the dissident Rastrojos and Urbeños were pulling in a combined $1.7 million to $2.2 million a month from gold. According to Antioquia’s governor’s office, the profit that armed groups were making from Antioquia’s mines was equivalent to between 5 and 15 percent of the department’s gold production—about 30 tons in 2012.

Jairo Hugo’s capture was not the kind of thing people discussed in cafés or on the street in Segovia. Even the joy that many of them privately expressed was tempered with uncertainty. Who knew what would happen next? If the dissident Rastrojos were relying on Jairo Hugo to keep them afloat, would his absence send them into a death spiral of even crueler violence? Would the Urabeños flood the vacuum left by his departure?

Rumors circulated that the dissident Rastrojos were on the hunt for the sapos—snitches—whose information had landed the patrón in jail. I imagined them as hounds: sniffing, circling. Then one evening in early December, a couple of weeks after Jairo Hugo’s capture, I was in my hotel room, a warm breeze and reggaeton beats drifting in the window, when I got a text message from Victor. He was down the street at a cantina. “They are following you,” the message said.

Later that evening, he told me that when he walked into the cantina, he had been asked to take a seat at a table with people who were close to Jairo Hugo. They told him that “Jairo Hugo’s people” had been following me for the past couple of days. Whoever they were, they knew where I was staying, whom I visited, when I had arrived at La Roca mine, and when I had left. And they blamed me for the national media coverage of Jairo Hugo’s capture.

Much of what they thought they knew about me was untrue, but in Segovia, Victor reminded me, perception trumped fact. “It doesn’t matter here if something is true or not,” he told me, “to get you killed.” I left town in a hurry.

On the taxi ride to the airport, I passed by houses with life-size dolls slumped in chairs on their patios. Per local tradition, they would be set alight to celebrate the coming of the New Year, and the old year—this year of death and fear and fury—would go up in flames.

Police on patrol in Segovia. Photo: Stephen Ferry


When I returned to Segovia less than three months later, in February 2013, I found the town under an unofficial state of emergency. The war had raged on without Jairo Hugo. By the end of 2012, Segovia’s gold production had nearly doubled the previous year’s, and its murder rate had quadrupled. Remedios and Segovia now had the highest and second-highest homicide rates, respectively, in the country. Segovia’s was 14 times the national average, eight times Detroit’s, and two and a half times that of the world’s most murderous city, San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

Schools were letting students leave earlier so they could be home by dusk. Mines had changed their shifts because employees were afraid of arriving or leaving after dark. Some of the bars stayed open, but there was hardly anyone in them. Their music wafted through the otherwise silent streets, trying to coax Segovians back into a world that no longer existed. Even the prostitutes wouldn’t come to town anymore. Passengers on motorbikes would look over their shoulders when they heard another engine to see who was approaching them from behind. The town felt inhabited by ghosts in waiting.

The fighting seemed like it would never end—and then, one day, it did. At the beginning of May 2013, copies of a communiqué fluttered down onto Segovia’s streets, announcing “the end of the war” in the northeast. “We sat down at the table,” it read, “with only one intent to stop the barbary of blood, today thanks to GOD we are breathing Peace.” The dissident Rastrojos and Urbeños, the leaflet explained, had decided that they were better off joining forces than fighting each other. The newly unified outlaws invited “everyone who fled their land to return.”

Following the merger, the number of homicides in the northeast dropped like a stone. Police operations continued apace over the next few months, capturing and killing commanders. For Francisco Bolívar, the captured combatants were a windfall. Interviewing them, he began to assemble the crucial testimony he needed to press charges against Jairo Hugo for the murders of the Serafines.

Several of the fighters said they had first gotten to know Jairo Hugo, or know of him, during their days as paramilitary fighters, before they were demobilized in 2006. According to several witnesses—ex-Rastrojos and paramilitaries and a former drug trafficker who had traveled in the same circles as Jairo Hugo—before striking it big in gold mining, Jairo Hugo had been known in the mid-2000s as one of the region’s principal buyers and transporters of coca paste, the base ingredient of cocaine. The work had also brought him into contact with paramilitary commanders.

Other witnesses—Rastrojos, a former drug trafficker, and a miner who once worked with Jairo Hugo—said he had worked alongside the top paramilitary commander of the region, first in the drug trade and later borrowing the muscle of his militia to begin establishing his mining empire. “Jairo Hugo wanted to be the only owner of all the mines,” a former Rastrojo told Bolívar. If someone got in the way, “he’d look for a way to put a yoke on them so they’d back off, and if they didn’t, he’d put a hit on them.”

Several dissident Rastrojos said Jairo Hugo was convinced that the Serafines were behind the attempt on his life and that that was his motive for ordering their deaths. Others pointed to his longstanding desire for La Roca; “He always wanted this mine,” one of the group’s commanders said. Other dissident Rastrojos told prosecutors that shortly after recovering from his assassination attempt, Jairo Hugo had met with several of the group’s commanders and negotiated a price of $400,000 to kill the Serafines.

There were Rastrojos who referred to Jairo Hugo as a species of commander, someone who had decision-making power within the organization. Others said he was simply a significant financial contributor because of his wealth. Whatever the case was, “The order was that no one mess with him,” one former Rastrojo told Bolívar. And if someone did, or got in his way, another ex-militiaman testified, “he would pay la empresa”—the Rastrojos—“to remove or kill him.”

Not long after the merger, the police captured a dissident Rastrojo commander who went by the nom de guerre of Palagua. Palagua had been fighting for almost 20 years, first in the Colombian military as a professional soldier, then as a paramilitary fighter and—following a brief stint in prison—as the Rastrojos’ military commander for northeastern Antioquia. He had been present at nearly every event of consequence in the region’s recent conflict: the formation of the dissident faction, the peace-deal negotiations, and, allegedly, the planning of the Serafines massacre.

Palagua pled guilty to aggravated criminal conspiracy and received a 20-year sentence. Bolívar was also pressing homicide charges, accusing him of helping to orchestrate the Serafines massacre (which Palagua hotly denied). I went to see Palagua a year after his capture, in a maximum-security prison on the southern outskirts of Bogotá called La Picota. It was early on a Sunday morning, and after waiting in the rain outside the prison in a line of mostly mothers, wives, and girlfriends, I found him in the visiting hall, where inmates were queued up in front of large plastic buckets of soup.

It was Mother’s Day, and families were having lunch around tables with built-in stools. Elsewhere, couples cuddled with each other under blankets on the concrete floor. Palagua had carved out his territory against a cinder-block wall, building an improvised napping area for his toddler son with leopard-print blankets surrounded by a barrier of plastic chairs. He introduced me to his wife, an attractive woman with braces, long hair streaked blond and gray and tied back in a high ponytail, and a purple fake-leather jacket. Palagua proudly showed off his son. “He was made during full-out war!” he laughed.

Palagua strongly disputed the claim that Jairo Hugo had ever been a patrón of the organization. He told me that Jairo Hugo was simply a wealthy miner who, apart from ordering the hit on the Serafines, had paid his vacuna like everyone else. The dissident Rastrojos had never had to answer to anyone, he said.

Palagua was more eager to talk about his work as a peacemaker. He told me that in late April 2013, under a cluster of mango trees in a rural hamlet called Aporreado, he and other emissaries of the dissident Rastrojos and Urabeños had signed off on the deal that ended the war—a merger that helped make the Urabeños the largest criminal organization in Colombia save for the FARC. The dissident Rastrojos and Urabeños had met a few times in the preceding months to work out the terms, drawing maps and boundary lines and comparing financial records covering the revenues they were drawing from gold mines.

It was during these discussions that several Urabeños told Palagua and his comrades what they had suspected for months: The Serafines were paying the Urabeños. It was a claim three dissident Rastrojos who were part of the negotiations made to me. The Serafines had told me they were the victims of attacks from the Rastrojos because they had refused to pay the vacuna following the murders of the brothers. Or was it, as Palagua and his jailed colleagues claimed, because they decided to financially support the Urabeños instead?

As we talked, Palagua patted his son on the head. I asked him if he had any regrets. He thought for a while. Indeed, he said, he regretted the decision to create a dissident group, because of all the deaths it had brought. I got the sense that he was searching for what he was supposed to say, and he paused. “He who prays and sins—no, he who sins and prays…” He trailed off.

The expression he was looking for, a common one in Colombia, was “He who sins and prays evens the score.” But he couldn’t remember it.


I sat down to talk with Saúl Taborda for the first time in a shopping mall near the Bogotá airport, where he had just flown in from Medellín. By now I had many questions for him. When I brought up the assassination attempt on Jairo Hugo—which had so often been described as the pivotal event that triggered the attack on his family—Saúl claimed not to have known when it happened. “I don’t know because I was working, you understand me?” he told me brusquely. It was impossible for his family to have hired a hit man, he said; the thwarted assassin was a man he did not know.

So why, I wanted to know, out of all of Jairo Hugo’s plentiful enemies, would he point the finger at the Serafines? “Because they look for people to blame, the one who is most visible,” he said. “Show me the proof!” he shouted. “There is no proof.” When I asked if the Urabeños had offered his mine protection, he bristled. “We don’t have links with criminal groups, nor bandidos—with no one. Erase this question! Don’t ask me this.” The Urabeños had never offered the Serafines protection, he said—“and if they did, we wouldn’t accept it, because we’re a good family, do you understand?”

At the time, Saúl had not returned to Segovia since his brothers were murdered, but he was optimistic about his mine’s future. “God and John Paul II willing,” he said, “there will be La Roca for a long time.” Perhaps the mine wasn’t cursed after all; good things could come of it yet. “After the storm,” he said, “calm will reign.”

Indeed, by the time I returned to La Roca late in the summer of 2013, a few months after the war ended and the Urabeños had comfortably settled into ruling the northeast, many of the Serafines had returned to Segovia. A few of them were there that day as I sipped sweet coffee with Javier at the cantina. Javier had little to worry about anymore. The Urabeños had triumphed, and so, it seemed, had La Roca. Javier had paid his debt to the dead Serafines and finished his job.

“I won the war,” Javier proudly proclaimed—but at first he was circumspect about what winning it had entailed. The information he had passed to police, he said, had been of some use. But Javier eventually told me that he had gone further than that. He assisted the Urabeños, he said, by passing them information through an intermediary about the dissident Rastrojos, including photographs of them to help the Urabeños identify their targets. “I put the information about the bandidos on a plate, and they killed each other,” he said.

When I asked Javier if the Serafines had given money to the Urabeños, he denied it at first. He said that when the family first hired him, he had sworn he would quit if he ever found out they had paid off any of the criminal groups he was fighting. But when I spoke with him again about a year later, he told me that, late in the summer of 2013, he overheard a meeting between Saúl and his brother-in-law in which Saúl had mentioned that they needed to pay the group to the tune of about $50,000.

I thought back to a conversation I had had with Bolívar in June 2012, when his office was in the midst of its all-out campaign to crush the dissident Rastrojos. “They sometimes say that we are useful idiots,” Bolívar told me, a note of sadness in his voice. He was fighting to bring the dissident Rastrojos to justice, but he knew as well as anyone that in Colombia, crime abhors a vacuum. “In a way, you could almost say we are giving this territory to the Urabeños,” he said. “And then we’ll have to fight the Urabeños.”

Perhaps the Serafines were no better than Jairo Hugo, backing a bloodthirsty militia to serve their own ends. Or maybe it was naive to think that anyone in Segovia had the luxury of not choosing sides. Trying to stay above a conflict where power shifted as capriciously and violently as it did in Segovia was an impossible business. At the end of the day, there was only one law that held in the town. As Palagua told me, “The bigger fish eats the smaller fish.”

Police photo of Jairo Hugo Escobar Cataño after his arrest. Photo: Courtesy of the Colombian National Police


I finally met Jairo Hugo face-to-face in October 2013, as he was being escorted by a prison guard out of a small Medellín courtroom. He had just been charged with quadruple homicide in the murder of the Serafines. As the charges were read out to him, he seemed listless, gazing out the window or at the floor but never at the prosecutor or the judge.

As we passed in the hallway, he was smaller than I expected, and he walked with his chest puffed out somewhere between good posture and bravado. He had a round face and full lips, and wore a short-sleeved shirt that fit snugly over a slight belly. As I introduced myself and offered a handshake, he awkwardly raised his cuffed wrists.

Jairo Hugo loudly proclaimed his innocence and expressed his annoyance that I was interested in his case at all. “Do you know how many minutes the press gave Alex 15?” he demanded, referring to the top dissident Rastrojo commander, who was killed in a shootout with the police earlier that year. “Two minutes. And how many when they captured Palagua? Two minutes. And to me? Fifteen days, Miss Journalist, fifteen days!”

He said I should be reporting instead on the multinational mining firm in Segovia, Gran Colombia, which he said had invested nothing in the community. “You’ve seen the poverty in Segovia, you’ve seen the unpaved streets.” The company only exploited and took, he fumed. “But I”—he pointed at his chest with a cuffed hand—“I’ve always invested in el pueblo!”

Standing by his side was his 19-year-old son, Dilan Erney Escobar, dressed in a white jacket and a stylish T-shirt. Fearing he would be kidnapped or otherwise attacked, Jairo Hugo had spirited him out of the country to go study in London a few years before; I had heard police refer to him as Five Languages in a nod to his cosmopolitan education. Dilan had the demeanor of a worldly prep-school kid. “I know you’re Canadian,” he said to me in British-accented English, “so would you like to speak English or French?”

The elevator finally arrived, and as the guard pulled Jairo Hugo in, he told me that if I visited him in jail, he would tell me what was really happening. “You think you know who I am,” he called out as the elevator doors closed on him. “Do you know who I really am?”

In May of this year, I waited for Jairo Hugo in a large room furnished with a few desks and plastic tables in Pedregal prison, on the outskirts of Medellín. A guard brought him in, opening the blue metal gate and taking off his handcuffs. The man I had been waiting two years to interview was dressed in a bright green tracksuit and neon orange running shoes. On his neck, I could see the bumpy mass of the scar left behind by the attempt on his life.

Although he complained about the cascade of extortion demands he was facing, from conversations with people close to his case I had gotten the impression that Jairo Hugo had not been much diminished by prison. Bolívar, who had lined up 60 witnesses to testify for the prosecution, claimed that Jairo Hugo had managed to get three of them—including two top dissident Rastrojos commanders—transferred to his cell block and had offered them money, cell phones, clothes, “whatever they need,” Bolívar said. “He’s exercising his power inside the prison.”

Jairo Hugo’s lawyers had showed me a letter that another inmate had slipped him in prison, from an anonymous sender on the outside. “Mister Jairo,” it began, “unjust what is happening. You are missed here it was you who gave sustenance to many people with the work you gave them.” The letter went on to inform Jairo Hugo of people who had spread rumors about him before his capture, “so that you know what is happening and so that you can defend yourself of the set-up on you.”

The guard shut the gate and closed the padlock. I could hear the jangle of his keys receding down the hallway. Once we were completely alone, Jairo Hugo said, “I know what you’re doing.”

He told me he knew of the other inmates I had been interviewing. He had watched my visits to the prison. He told me I was wrong and misguided to be interested in him—to think that he had anything to do with the Serafines massacre or with the Rastrojos. That I dared address these accusations vexed him. He did not seem accustomed to people questioning him.

He spoke in a mostly unbroken monologue, often referring to himself in the third person. Jairo Hugo had never had a problem with La Roca or the Serafines, he said. Well, yes, in fact, he had, but it wasn’t like people said it was. He wasn’t even interested in La Roca mine, he said. Why would he be? Well, all right, yes, it had enjoyed quite a bonanza, but the richest parts of the claim had already been mined out at the time of their disagreement—supposed disagreement, he corrected himself. Still, he said, he had no need to kill the Serafines for their wealth; he was already plenty rich. He had paid a vacuna a long time ago to the Rastrojos, but I would laugh, he said, if I knew how small it was. Beyond that, he paid them nothing (though some Rastrojos, as well as documents seized by the police, suggested otherwise), and he had never had contact or any dealings with the dissident faction. He had himself been a victim of extortion in earlier years, he said, and reported it to the authorities. (This was true.)

“Jairo Hugo,” he said, “is not a criminal.” He was a legal businessman, one who prided himself on good management, treating workers right, and being one of the few people with money who invested it in the region where he was born. “What I did and what I invested, I did with love,” he said. He gave away houses to poor people. He renovated a neglected school. He maintained a soccer field and looked after municipal parks. He gave jobs to hundreds of people. Where the government had failed, where the community had fallen short, Jairo Hugo had stepped in. But the government needed someone to blame for the epidemic of violence in the northeast, and they found their “false positive,” he said, in Jairo Hugo. “They look for the person who is most representative of the region,” he went on. “In this case, it fell on me.”

Jairo Hugo saw dark forces lurking everywhere in the case against him. False witnesses, he insisted, had been paid to speak against him. When I asked who they were, and who was behind them, he refused to say. The moment to reveal these things had not yet arrived, he said, but it would. All would be unveiled in the trial. At that moment, he warned, the attorney general’s office would have to face its lies, and it would have to face Jairo Hugo.

After we had spoken for close to two hours, the guard returned to inform Jairo Hugo that his lawyer had arrived. “The next time we talk,” Jairo Hugo said as we shook hands, “we’ll have a whiskey. We’ll get drunk, and I’ll show you around my Remedios!” He threw his head back and laughed as the guard led him away. “You think I’m planning on sticking around here?”