This stranger-than-fiction Colombian story has an unhappy ending. Sometimes, stories do.
Colombia has a notoriously violent past, but its violence has nearly always been linked to organized causes-paramilitary/military units, drug cartels, or gangs. Lone wolf gun violence, carried out by a single unhinged individual00the kind of killing so terrible (and sadly frequent) nowadays in the United States—is extremely rare here.
One particular incident, 30 years ago, stands out. You may not wish to read further.
The story starts in the 1930s in a little village called Durania, near the border with Venezuela. A man and a woman married there. It did not go well. The husband learned somehow, perhaps from chirping birds or whispers in the winds, that his wife was not a virgin on their wedding night.
The whispers sparked jealousy. The man came to believe his wife had lost her maidenhood to a prior suitor beneath a great samán tree in the town plaza.
The husband’s jealousy over his wife’s past became an obsession. Like the samán, it overshadowed all else. He grew depressed. He stood in the door of his shop near the plaza, and each morning cursed the unfaithful leaves that fell from the samán and settled in his doorway. He swept and swept. Still, he could not sweep his bitterness away.
One night, this Señor Delgado hired someone to girdle the tree, killing it. The living symbol of his wife’s past would no longer haunt him, taunt him.
His act outraged the townspeople. Their magnificent tree had been the pride of the village, a feature so grand that visitors journeyed to marvel at its towering crown and spreading branches. Not even a troubled husband had the right to take the tree away. So the Delgado family was driven out.
The man and woman had a child by this time, a boy named Campo Elías Delgado. This story now becomes Campo’s.
The Delgado family resettled. But even in their new village, birds twittered and whispers troubled the jealous father. He did his best. He rose and worked and ate. But finally, unable to forgive, unable to forget, Señor Delgado killed himself.
Some accounts say that young Campo watched his father take his own life.
The mother moved with her son to Bogotá, far from the rural memories of youthful lovers under trees, far from the fresh grave of a man tormented to death by a past not even his own.
The son matured. He resembled his dad in ways. He had an unsettling quietness. He developed quirks.
As Campo grew, he asked more and more questions about his father. His mother must have tried to explain, but who knows what she told? How much should a son know? How much could a son ever understand?
It turned out Bogotá had birds and whispers too. Somehow, the son heard stories, rumors. In time, anger coiling tighter and tighter around his heart, he came to blame his mother for his father’s suicide.
Two pasts, neither his own, clouded young Campo’s mind. To find himself, he joined the military, where he excelled at soldiering. He enlisted twice, a Colombian serving alongside United States soldiers in the Vietnam War. The young Campo mastered deadly force, the use of knives and firearms. He made sergeant. He won brevets for valor.
Then he came home to mama. The demons he’d invented or inherited came too.
Brooding years passed. Campo’s inner clock ticked and ticked. Later, after terrible things had happened, 20/20 hindsight would suggest that some sort of mental illness or PTSD or … what? … possessed Campo Delgado.
He never shook hands, for fear of germs. He never wore long sleeves. He had a hard time making friends. He dried his body after a shower wiith rolls of toilet paper instead of a towel. He taught English to students using The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as his textbook.
Then one day, as with his father, Mr. Hyde took over.
At noon on December 4, 1986, Campo went to a bank and withdrew all his money. When the cashier left 43 cents in the account to keep it active, he waited patiently, insisting on every last cent. A short time after Campo exited the bank, he purchased a .38 caliber pistol and 500 rounds.
He then made a malevolent visit to one of his English students, a female. He bound and gagged the young woman and her mother. He killed both with a hunting knife. He stabbed the student 22 times.
Then Campo went to see his mother.
It may have been one of those late afternoons when, at age 72, Campo’s mom reminisced about being a girl again. Of lying still, innocent no more, under the branches of a great tree as wind ruffled the leaves, ruffled her pulled-up dress, ruffled her fluttering secrets into the future.
For more than an hour that afternoon, neighbors reported Campo argued loudly with her about something. Then the 52-year-old son plunged his hunting knife into his mother’s neck as she sat in a favorite chair, her back turned.
Campo wrapped his mother in newspaper, then set her on fire. (Before he struck the match, according to one story, he performed a purification ritual he’d witnessed in Vietnam.)
His mother’s corpse smoldered. Smoke and the smell of burning hair and flesh filled the apartment building. Campo walked down the corridors, knocking only on the doors of female neighbors, yelling: “Fire! Fire!”
One alarmed woman after another opened doors. Campo shot each in the face.
On the first floor, he slaughtered more women. He then left the building and the neighborhood, visiting a long-time female friend. He talked uncharacteristically loud and long, she said, never barely stopping for breath. He claimed to have a one-way ticket out of Colombia. He didn’t harm this woman.
About 7:15 p.m., Campo walked into Pozzetto, an upscale Italian restaurant in the Chapinero neighborhood. He carried a briefcase. He never drank, but this night he ordered red wine with his spaghetti bolognese. He calmly cleaned his plate.
Campo read a magazine while servers cleared the table. He took his time, finishing two screwdrivers and a vodka before moving to a seat at the bar and ordering yet another drink.
At a quarter after 9 p.m., Campo stood, opened his briefcase, pulled out the pistol and ammunition, and opened fire. He moved through the restaurant methodically, cornering one victim, then another, firing a single bullet at point-blank range through pleading hands and into foreheads. He shot more than two dozen people. He killed a 6-year-old girl.
During the day-long spree, Campo Elías Delgado killed 29 people and wounded 12 more.
The marksman shot back when policemen showed up firing Uzis. A bullet to the temple ended the 52-year-old Campo’s life … and Colombia’s most notorious lone wolf killing spree.
There’s a persistent rumor among bogotanos. They say that in the end, Delgado turned the pistol on himself, dying like his father, a suicide.
Image: Lucho Molina, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.