The phrase “serial killer” is, historically, a relatively recent term. Although there have been serial killers throughout the ages (Jack the Ripper, active in 1888, is usually seen as the grandfather of all serial killers, although others handily predate him, some going back to ancient China), the actual codification of the phenomenon didn’t begin until the as late as the 1970s, although I know the Germans had a word for the phenomenon — serienmörder — before that. (Germans have a word for everything.)
In recent years, the uptick of that term has led to an increased social anxiety about serial killers. Whether or not the number of serial killers is actually on the rise, the reportage of them — and the subsequent fear of them — has exploded since the 1970s, and people like The Zodiac Killer captured the imagination of the nation. Heck, most of the horror films and thrillers from the 1990s involved serial killers of some stripe, including a somewhat notable studio film about Jack the Ripper called FROM HELL. We, as a nation, have had serial killers on the brain since the term made its way here, and some of us live in fear that some mid-30s white male will abduct us, murder us, and — in keeping with the narrative attached to the average cinematic serial killer — do horrible things to our corpses.
And while America has produced some rather colorful characters in its murderous underbelly (who can forget the merry antics of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, or Ed Gein?), there is one nation that seems to have produced a variety of serial killer far more dangerous, and with a higher body count: that country is Colombia.
To offer some perspective: the deadliest serial killer in American history was likely Gary Ridgway, also known as The Green River Killer, who confessed to killing 71 people over the course of the 1980s, and who was convicted for 49 of them. He may have killed as many as 90. Ted Bundy only killed about 35.
Colombia, meanwhile, has produced Luis Garavito, a.k.a. “La Bestia” (The Beast), the deadliest serial killer in all of history, who confessed to raping and killing nearly 147 children over the course of the 1990s. His number of confirmed victims is 138 — although he is connected to over 300 deaths.
La Bestia was, it shouldn’t need mention, a sick man. Colombia has an enormous problem with homelessness, and many of the nation’s children live on the street. Garavito’s MO was simple: tempt children (ages 6 to 16) with candy and money, then take them to a private spot where they could be assaulted and tortured to death.
Garavito was apprehended in 1999, and started to draw maps of where he buried his victims. When the skeletons were exhumed, police found more than the 147 he confessed to. The chilling part: maximum prison sentences in Colombia are limited by law, and criminals can be kept confined for 30 years (life sentences and capital punishment are illegal in Colombia). Because he cooperated with the police, he could be released after only 22 years… which means he could be out in 2021. Garavito has expressed a great deal of remorse, and wants to start legislation to help street children.
There was a documentary made about Garavito, which you can watch here:
The second deadliest serial killer in history is also Colombian: Pedro Alonso López, over the course of the 1970s, stalked and killed many, many young women throughout Colombia, but also in Peru and Ecuador.
Also known as “The Monster of the Andes,” López is a killer whose story only gets more horrifying the more he was investigated. He initially confessed to killing 80 girls (between 9 and 16). López, already in prison, agreed to an interview with a journalist named Ron Laytner, and in the interviews, began to confess to more and more. The confessions led to post-conviction police investigations that led to 53 graves in Ecuador… then more. He was eventually, in 1983, convicted of 110 murders in Ecuador. Between Colombia and Peru, however, he claimed to have taken 240 other lives.
I’m not sure whether to be horrified or impressed — López’s activity averages out to three victims per week. He was apprehended and released several times by local police, and he killed in between each arrest. He was blasé in interviews, and unrepentant. Somehow, he also keeps getting out of prison. He was released in 1994, but was immediately re-arrested for being an undocumented immigrant. He was most recently released in 2002, but has already been connected to another murder. Some people just can’t give up the habit.
A&E did a BIOGRAPHY episode about López, which you can watch below:
The third deadliest serial killer in history also hails from Colombia: Daniel Camargo operated at the same time as Pedro López, and had a similar MO — raping and strangling young girls across the Colombian and Ecuadorian countryside. He had a more rigid method of luring his victims, however, usually posing as a traveling foreigner looking for a local church. His victims would be happy to accompany the innocent-looking man through the woods, only to be killed and left for scavengers. When he was finally apprehended, he was found, sickeningly, with a body part of his latest victim… and ironically, a copy of Dostoyevsky’s novel CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
Camargo, unlike many serial killers, was an intellectual, having read many works of world literature. He was said to be well-spoken, clean, and polite. Unlike López and Garavito, Camargo didn’t behave like an angry jackal, randomly feeding on victims; he seemed to have a clear path in his head of what he wanted to do. Of all real-life serial killers, he was, in character, most like what Americans picture serial killers to be — like, for example, Hannibal Lecter. Camargo’s number of victims was confessed at 72, but is likely closer to 150.
Strangely enough, there haven’t been any documentaries about him yet.
What is it about Colombia that it produced the three deadliest men in history? I wish I could say. A deeper understanding of Colombian history, as well as social and economic factors, would likely reveal a lot about what sort of milieu would produce such people… but such studies could only ever prove to be speculative. It’s more likely that the geography of Colombia itself is more conducive to perpetrating horrific acts in secret… and hiding victims may be simply more practical there.