RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Women have made huge gains across Latin America. There are female presidents, female cabinet ministers and executives. In some countries, there are more women than men in universities. But violence against women is also pervasive. As part of our series on violence in Latin American, NPR's Juan Forero traveled to El Placer, which is a remote hamlet deep in southern Colombia. A warning: this piece contains graphic descriptions that some listeners may find disturbing.

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JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Church bells ring and Brigitte Carreno settles on a park bench. She's 25 years old, but her rape at 12 by a feared local warlord remains vivid.

BRIGITTE CARRENO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He pulled off the shorts I was wearing, she says. Then he tore off my underwear. I said no.

CARRENO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I don't know if it was minutes or hours but it felt like an eternity, Carreno says. Those kind of attacks against women and girls happened repeatedly in Colombia's long civil conflict with Marxist guerrillas. Today, there's a real chance for peace with the state and rebels negotiating what could be an accord for later this year. But as talks progress, investigators from Historic Memory, a state-supported group, are unearthing details of war crimes. Camila Medina is an anthropologist with Historic Memory.

CAMILA MEDINA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Crimes against women have been of a gigantic magnitude, Medina says, but they haven't been visible even though they're national in scope. Perhaps no town endured the wholesale degradation of women as much as this community in the remote south, El Placer - the pleasure.

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FORERO: Getting to El Placer is a bone-jarring journey on rutted dirt roads. This town is a collection of modest cinderblock homes, many of them decaying in the Amazonian sun, overrun with weeds and bugs.

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FORERO: On a recent night, it was quiet - except for music from a pool hall. Fewer than 2,000 people live here now. But it was home to nearly three times as many, bustling with schoolchildren and markets where peasant farmers sold their crops. Maria Estela Guerrero's family was among those that founded El Placer a half century ago. She sings a song she wrote about how the community was altered by the war.

MARIA ESTELA GUERRERO: (Singing in foreign language)

FORERO: One Sunday, she sings, the town heard loud gunfire as paramilitaries came in to take out FARC guerrillas. Allied with the Colombia's army, the paramilitaries were an illegal militia of hardened fighters that used terror to erode support for rebels. Their forte - massacres of villagers.

GUERRERO: (Singing in foreign language)

FORERO: And here, they quickly killed 11 people the day they came in in 1999. With no state presence here, the paramilitaries stayed for seven years, their occupation ending only when the national paramilitary movement disbanded. What really marked the paramilitary occupation of El Placer was how they made women their virtual slaves - forced to cook and clean, forced into prostitution. Some, accused of being rebels, were raped and killed.

JOSE ELIAS BENAVIDES: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: What they wanted to do they did, especially when it came to women, says Jose Elias Benavides, a community leader. If they tried to resist, they'd take them away. And that included the girls.

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FORERO: At El Placer's school, Alba Gelpud, a veteran teacher, remembers how girls as young as 12 became prostitutes and, in some cases, were left pregnant.

ALBA GELPUD: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Gelpud says those girls lost it all. Girls who struggled, like Paula Andrea Caicedo, were no match for violent gunmen.

PAULA ANDREA CAICEDO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: They offered money so the girls would go with them, says Caicedo. But if the girls resisted, then they would rape them, take them away, sometimes make them disappear. Caicedo was just 15 when she was lured into the town's paramilitary headquarters and raped. The ordeal traumatizes her to this day, she says, making her question her self-worth.

CAICEDO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Sometimes I feel I'm not a fit mother, that it's better to be dead, says Caicedo, who now has two children she raises alone. Brigitte Carreno, the young woman who was attacked at age 12, knows all about the trauma. After being raped by a paramilitary commander known to townspeople as Coco, she was attacked by others. All of them told her that her father, a grocer in town, would die if she spoke up.

CARRENO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Carreno's family eventually fled. Today, some things are good. She has a seven-year-old daughter and a close-knit family.

CARRENO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: But the memories remain horrible, she says. And like El Placer itself, she wonders if she'll ever recover. Juan Forero, NPR News.

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