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Living in Spain after surviving 24 years in prison. Here I will be sharing my experiences as a writer and journalist, travelling all over the world interviewing dangerous people in dangerous places.

The Number of the Beast
30 November 2012 @ 10:50

As a child I was afraid of the dark. The margins of my nights were always peopled with werewolves, vampires and demons. But we grow out of these things, don’t we? With adulthood comes the realisation that such intangible creatures have no basis in reality. With the advent of day they melt away like the early morning mist.

  Shortly before my nineteenth birthday I was sentenced to six years imprisonment. I was sent to Wakefield Prison in Yorkshire, a top security jail the local people call ‘The House of Horrors’. Amongst the 700 adult prisoners, there were men like beasts. Multiple murderers, serial rapists, torturers, their crimes almost defied belief. To my horror I discovered that vampires, werewolves and demons do exist.

  No, not in actual physical form. The appearance of these men never changed one iota. But when they slaughtered and mutilated humans, sometimes drinking their blood and devouring their flesh, their psychological persona was identical to that of the vampire or werewolf. Who could say that they weren’t possessed by the demon spirit? 

    It isn’t known if little Luis Alberto Garavito was afraid of the dark. However, what we do know is that he certainly had enough horror to deal with in broad daylight.  He was born, the first of seven children, to a poor family in Quindio province, Colombia on the 25th of January 1957. There is evidence that his father was a brute who regularly beat him, to such an extent that the boy would literally shake in his presence. At age 13 he was raped by a male, family friend. In view of what was to follow, one can only conclude that, although not rigidly deterministic factors in their own right, these events must have played a part in his later development.

  At age 25 he started raping young boys. They were all ‘street kids’, children of the very poor. Their ages ranged from 6 up to 15 and they were invariably good looking boys with light complexions.

  Garavito’s approach was far from haphazard. Often he would spend days befriending the boys. To aid him in this and to lower their suspicion he used a variety of props and disguises. Sometimes he would dress and pass himself off as a priest. At others he would pretend he was a teacher, a seller of lottery tickets, a vendor of religious artifacts and a tramp. Part of the subterfuge were the wigs, beards, walking sticks, plastered arms, neck braces, crutches and glasses he used. A naïve, unsuspecting child would be taken right in.

  Then he would get them to walk with him into the vast sugar cane fields that were everywhere in that region. Here he would bind their hands and rape them. Between 1982 and 1993 he raped over 300 young boys.

  Although his modus operandi always remained the same, after 1993 there was a development that was pure fiend. He still disguised himself and lured the boys in the same way. Their hands were still tied behind their backs, with the same coloured string each time. But now he would slash them with knives and burn them with lighted cigarettes. The more they fought and screamed the more he tortured them. Garavito reveled in their agony.

  He would force them to kiss him, then he would rape them. In a penultimate act of savagery he would cut their throats with such force as to virtually decapitate them. Finally he would cut off the penis and place it in the boy’s mouth.

  Garavito was so prolific that bodies were soon found all over, not only in Quindio, but also in the surrounding provinces. If the crimes themselves weren’t unique enough, he ‘hallmarked’ them further by using the same coloured string each time and he always left an empty bottle of Cacique rum at the scene. Yet no one realised that it was the work of one man. 

  To put these events into context though, Colombia is a country racked by a 35 year long civil war. Every single day there is widespread murder and destruction; every day a massacre somewhere of innocent civilians, caught up in the battle between the guerillas and the Government. In the midst of such mayhem, civilised governance has gone by the board. ‘Street kids’ as a class are not well looked after anyway. In many cases Garavito’s victims weren’t even reported missing, so many children just run away from home. Often they become an urban menace, robbing and stealing at will. In Bogota, death squads calling themselves ‘limpiadores’ or cleaners, try to solve this problem by murdering ‘street kids’ wholesale. The police are even suspected of involvement. It is a national scandal that there isn’t more of an outcry about it.

  Locally though, in Quindio Province, some of the kids were missed. Protest marches were organized, calling on the authorities to do something about the disappearances. There were headlines in local newspapers calling for an enquiry. Amongst the suspects were child prostitution rings, limpiadores, drug traffickers, paedophiles, organ traffickers and Black Magic groups. To try to calm public anger the police actually arrested and framed several tramps and drifters. However, the murders still continued.

  By all other indicators, Garavito’s life was unremarkable throughout this period. He worked as an accountant in Bogota, a handyman, then as an employee in a fast food restaurant. He was living platonically with two women, both of whom had young sons, without ever molesting the boys in any way. He was viewed as unusual by some though, being nicknamed ‘Goofy’ and ‘El Loco’.     

  By now the murders had mounted into the hundreds, but still the authorities didn’t realise that they were looking for one man. The official view was that the murders were too many and too widespread. Incompetence at the top was more than matched by incompetence at the bottom. They actually had Garavito, sometimes using false names, in custody several times before releasing him for lack of evidence. In June 1996 he was arrested under his own name at Tunja, Boyaca following the disappearance of a young boy. They released him for lack of evidence the following day. The next day they found the boy’s body, but Garavito was long gone.

  Finally, in 1997 the Colombian authorities grasped the enormity of the horror they were faced with. Literally hundreds and hundreds of young boys had gone missing, with most turning up murdered in the most horrible way. However, they still didn’t accept that they were dealing with the work of one man. After some investigation they came up with a list of ten suspects. Garavito’s name wasn’t on it! In November 1998 25 bodies were found in one month, all killed in exactly the same way.

  Invariably though, those who serve evil are subject to a quirk of fate that is instrumental in bringing about their downfall. It is almost as if nature itself cries out for justice, which then comes in the form of peculiar misfortune. In February 1999, at the scene of his latest crime, Garavito fell asleep, drunk. (he was later to claim that he was drunk during all his  crimes). As he slept, somehow he set himself alight, burning his left arm severely. In a drunken panic he ran off, leaving behind his shoes, glasses, pants, a sum of money and, of course, the usual coloured string and empty Cacique bottle. The police traced the money to where it was issued, forging a positive link to Garavito.

  At long last, in March 1999 the authorities finally acknowledged that the killings were all the work of one man and that the man was Garavito. They formed a special task force to look for him.

  Fortunately, fate intervened again. On the 22nd of April 1999 Garavito was at the scene of his latest crime. He had lured a boy of 12 into the sugar cane fields near Villavicencio. As Garavito tortured him, the boy’s screams alerted a man who was sitting in a nearby field, smoking some of the local ‘grass’. He ran to investigate and detained Garavito after a brief struggle. 

  The police arrived just as the crowd that had gathered was about to lynch him. He was arrested under the name of Bonifacio Morera Lizcano and charged with the attempted sexual abuse of the boy. They sent details of the case to the central police authority, as they were required to do by a circular that had been issued ordering them to report all sexual attacks on young boys. They were in the process of releasing him when the special task force got to hear of the case.

  For the next six months, Garavito’s arrest was kept a closely guarded secret.  Enough mistakes had been made already and the authorities were preparing their case carefully. Then, in October 1999, Garavito was charged with multiple murder.

  For seven hours he protested his innocence. Suddenly he vomited, fell on his knees and begged God’s forgiveness. Then, in a confession eight hours long, he admitted to murdering 192 young boys in the seven years from 1993. At his lodgings, the police found newspaper cuttings concerning each murder and bus tickets placing him in the area at the time of the crime. Most importantly, they found a secret diary that Garavito had kept, recording in gruesome detail exactly what he did to each boy!

  A further, remarkable aspect of the case has been his memory. With amazing accuracy he has produced detailed drawings of the scene of each crime, leading the police to recover a total of 157 bodies. He says that his sole aim now is to reunite the grieving parents with the bodies of their children.

  Naturally enough the authorities were eager to learn what manner of man could carry out such a widespread slaughter of the innocents. On careful examination, Garavito proved to be singularly unimpressive. Barely 1.65 metres tall, he has a metal plate in his right leg which causes him to walk with a limp. His left eye is noticeably smaller than his right. Dr Oscar Diaz, the examining psychiatrist, found no trace of any recognizable mental illness and therefore declared him to be, from a psychiatric point of view, quite normal!

  Amongst his confessions, Garavito did put forward some kind of explanation for his actions. He said that, at the time of each offence, he felt himself overwhelmed by a ‘strange force’, which he found impossible to resist. He readily admitted that, should he be released, he would not be able to stop himself from doing the same things again. 

  After his confession Garavito embraced religion and he regularly prays with a priest. His sense of guilt seems to be real, for he has twice tried to kill himself.  In the absence of a death penalty in Colombia he has so far been sentenced to 1,200 years in jail, with many more cases still pending.

  This much I had learned from reading press reports about the case. As I was visiting Colombia anyway, I wanted to have alternative stories I could turn to in the event that the actual story I was working on couldn’t be done. In the present case, it was the ‘cocaine factory’ story and, not only had I done it, I had done it in just over five days. This left me with a further seven days ‘in country’ before my return flight. Rather than sit about partying with Dan I resolved to try to find out where Garavito was being held.

  It was remarkably easy. Jorge’s girlfriend, Anna Santa-Maria, was in the fortunate position of being a Government civil servant, working in a Ministry in Bogota. The ‘fortunate’ part was that, of all the other sectors of the Colombian workforce, the civil service stood the best chance of being regularly paid their wages. This gave them a social status over and above what it would have been otherwise. 

  Amongst her friends, Anna Santa-Maria numbered a presenter and Director of News at State television called Julia Navarette.  Julia was regularly to be seen reading the nightly news. She had covered the story for the network of all the young boys being murdered and of Garavito’s arrest. A quick phone call was made and I was told that we would be meeting Julia that evening for drinks.

  Julia was an attractive, dark-haired woman in her thirties, whose photogenic looks and articulateness lent themselves perfectly to her chosen profession. Unfortunately, like the overwhelming majority of Colombians, she spoke little or no English. However, she was very friendly and consummately professional. She had presented many of the reports about Garavito and his crimes and had always felt that more should have been done on the subject.

  Danny introduced me to her both as a magazine journalist and someone with contacts at the BBC. I stated that I was interested in Garavito with a view to doing a documentary for the BBC. This, in fact, wasn’t too far from the truth. For many years I had been friends with the noted Panorama journalist, Tom Mangold. We had met whilst he was doing a documentary on prisons and had corresponded and remained friends ever since. After my release I had regularly consulted with him and his colleague at the BBC, Toby, regarding various TV projects. They were always on the lookout for suitable material.

  The ‘BBC’ word was like uttering a magic incantation. In a world of rapidly deteriorating standards, they seemed to stand out as a beacon of fairness, accuracy and professionalism. Without ever having to prove a connection in any way, or even having to show my NUJ card, it opened doors that otherwise would have remained firmly closed.

  We spent a delightful evening with Julia and members of her extended family at a restaurant in the suburbs of Bogota. Seated around several tables in the cooler evening air, both the company and the food was extremely good. The subject of Garavito seemed to fascinate and repulse the average Colombian in equal measure. They were only too well aware that, as a country, they held the dubious distinction of coming first on all the major crime and violence indicators. They took no pride whatsoever in the fact that now they had the world’s worst serial killer.

  Julia knew more about the subject than most. She had covered the growing outcry over the disappearances, then the manhunt and, finally, the arrest and trial. This had added to her already impressive list of contacts amongst Colombia’s police and judiciary. As we parted she announced that she had arranged a meeting for Danny and myself in the morning with the National Director of the Fiscalia.

  I was immediately both impressed and concerned. If I hadn’t already known then Danny would have soon told me, the Fiscalia was the premier law enforcement agency in Colombia. It was a cross between the American FBI and our own Crown Prosecution Service, with an emphasis on the former. All the rest of Colombia’s law enforcement might be something of a Mickey Mouse operation, but not the Fiscalia. Rumour had it that they had been trained by the CIA.

  As one can imagine, I wasn’t only concerned about my journalistic antecedents, or rather, the lack of them. There was always the small matter of my extremely serious criminal antecedents. These would certainly be held by Interpol and thus be only the click of a computer button away. Even with the most cursory of checks the game would be up. It might not be enough to get me deported, but it would attract a lot of attention to me. I still had to get back to the UK with all the crucial photos for my ‘cocaine kitchen’ story. I didn’t want to jeopardise that in any way.

  Danny thought that it was all hugely amusing, just another interesting episode in that spaced out reality that passed for his daily life. I did manage to force one major concession out of him though. For the duration of our visit to the Fiscalia, he would leave his little tin and its powdery, white contents at home!   

  Noon the following day saw Danny, Julia and myself seated around a table in the fortress-like building that housed Bogota’s Fiscalia. As someone with vast experience of top security set-ups I was duly impressed. The high, concrete walls with state-of-the-art electronic surveillance paraphernalia draped everywhere, spoke of an organization that was very much 21st Century. My passport sufficed to get me through all the identity checks and screenings. Secretly I prayed that it would be enough to get me out again. 

  Pablo Elias Gonzalez was the National Director of the entire Colombian Fiscalia. With him was his Head of Press, Alexandra Buitrago, and the forensic scientist who had investigated every scene of crime in the Garavito case. Dr Helga Quevedo. It could hardly have been a more high-powered meeting. I truly was flying by the seat of my pants.

  Danny was introduced as our interpreter and it was certainly the universal lack of English that saved me. All questions were routed through him and any that could have been even slightly compromising were duly ignored and put down to having been lost in translation. Anyway, the Colombian tradition of politeness and good manners prevailed throughout. I further noticed that there was a healthy degree of openness in the way they conducted their business of governance, an object lesson to our own secrecy-obsessed Home Office.   

  There was another factor, of course, that of politics. It seemed that the National Directorship was an elected post and that Senor Gonzalez was soon to stand for election again. Cleary, he felt that a prestigious documentary by the BBC, featuring himself prominently, would do his chances no harm whatsoever. However, there was also a genuine belief that this was an important case, with strong implications for other cases of its ilk, and that not enough had been done on it. 

  An animated discussion followed. They showed me a computerized file comprising their entire records on the Garavito case and printed me off a copy! They also gave me an ‘in house’ video showing, amongst other things, scenes of crimes, Garavito in custody, mutilated bodies and arresting officers. Most importantly, Dr Queveco was due to visit Garavito at the prison where he was being held at Villavincencio in two days time. Arrangements were being made for us to visit Garavito with her.

  An amazing relationship had sprung up between Garavito and Helga, a shy girl barely out of her teens. Since his confession, Garavito had turned his back on the world, refusing to meet with anyone but Helga and the priest. He was especially incensed by Colombian journalists, who had referred to him as a monster. Helga regularly visited to try to determine the location of further bodies. Garavito would hug her to him and cry. It was Helga who would ask Garavito to see us and to take part in the documentary.

  Early Thursday morning, Danny, Julia and myself set out on the three-hour drive to Viilavicencio. Helga was going by plane. As with any road outside Bogota, we could expect to be stopped not only by police and Army checkpoints, but also by guerilla ones. The latter eventuality would mean certain death for Helga. The guerillas always shoot members of the Fiscalia on sight. 

  We descended from the chilly heights of Bogota, through stunningly beautiful mountain gorges, to the tropical plains on which Villavicencio lay. Everywhere a confusion of greenery thrust itself skywards in an explosion of fecundity. In a country so blighted by human death it was as if nature itself was showing that it had the power to regenerate.

  Villavicencio was hot. As long as the car was moving, cool air poured in through the windows. But as soon as we stopped, however fleetingly, sweat would spring wherever cloth met flesh. We quickly found the local Fiscalia building and were instantly grateful for its efficient air-conditioning.

  The local Director, Carlos Arturo Torres, had obviously been briefed by his National Director. He assured us that we were to be afforded every assistance. He informed us that Helga was arriving shortly and that we were all expected at the prison at 2pm.

  Shortly after, Helga arrived with the local Chief of Detectives. He was a short, stocky, tough-looking guy in his late thirties who had obviously been around. He had that naturally suspicious nature that, no doubt, makes for a good detective, coupled with something of a sixth sense. He picked up on me immediately. A couple of times I caught him looking at me thoughtfully whilst I was talking to someone else. Mentally I made a note to be careful around this guy, lest I raise his suspicions further........

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