Would you trust a man who was nicknamed “Goofy,” after the Disney character? What about someone who was nicknamed “the Beast”?
One nickname definitely sounds more intimidating than the other, but they were both given to one man: Luis Garavito. Luis Garavito isn’t the most well-known name in the true crime world, which is surprising. “Goofy,” or “Tribilín,” is one of the most prolific serial killers in world history. (Experts put him just behind Harold Shipman, also known as “Doctor Death.”) Garavito is linked to a minimum of over 100 young boys between the ages of 6 and 16. That number is just a lower estimate - the real count could be closer to 300 victims. The investigation of his crimes, which largely took place between 1992 and 1997, is still ongoing today.
This case is one of the more unsettling stories you might hear in the true crime universe; Garavito sexually assaulted, beat, tortured, and killed so many young children. But it is also one of the most notable, just on the sheer number of victims alone.
Colombia in the 1990s
It’s hard to imagine that 300 child murders go unnoticed for so long. One explanation requires an understanding of Colombia’s state of unrest at the time that Garavito was at large.
Throughout most of recent history, Colombia was in a state of unrest. Conflicts that were entwined with both the Cold War and the War on Drugs put the country in constant conflict, with government agencies, drug traffickers, guerilla groups, and other organizations at odds for decades. In the height of Garavito’s murder spree, Medellin, Colombia was named “The Murder Capital of the World.” It had the highest murder rate per capita out of anywhere in the world. Pablo Escobar was one of the most notable murder victims during this time. (Nowadays, Medellin is considered more of a “hipster” spot for digital nomads and tourists.)
At the time, most of these murders were linked to the drug trade. This even explained the high murder rates of children throughout the city. Children were used to transport drugs and often got caught in the cross-fire of many murders. But murders, disappearances, and displacements were also linked to state and military violence. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, went unaccounted for throughout the 50s through the 90s. On top of that, cults and other violence groups were responsible for many murders throughout the country. In some of his murders, Garavito would inflict similar torture as to make his victims look like they were victims of gang and cult violence. (This torture included cutting off fingers and toes.)
In losing hundreds of thousands to various forms of violence throughout a country, it’s not as hard to imagine the loss of 300 children slipping through law enforcements’ hands. Plus, Garavito was more likely to choose victims who were not likely to be “missed” or followed up on when they went missing. In this chaos, he was able to get away with horrendous crimes for a very long time.
Colombia was in a state of unrest even when Garavito was first born in January 25, 1957. In fact, violence started to pick up rapidly a few months after Garavito’s birth, as Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was overthrown.
Garavito was born to an abusive set of parents. His father was known to beat his mother, even while pregnant. It is rumored that Garavito was sexually abused by both parents, and may have sexually abused his younger siblings. Garavito may have also been beaten by teachers at school, as this was a legal practice at the time. He dropped out at the age of 11. In later interviews, Garavito said that he both had his first sexual experience at 12 and was also raped and tortured that same year. Garavito may also have been the victim of rape again at age 15.
At 16, Garavito was arrested for the first time. He was accused of molesting a young boy, but was released from custody after he claimed that he did not intend to commit any crimes. Garavito had already been kicked out of the house at that time, so he became sort of a nomad. He tried to hold down a job and start a family, but for most of the 1970s, he kept coming back to areas of Colombia known for child sex trafficking. In the 1980s, the nature of his sexual addiction intensified. Not only did he go out of his way to sexually assault children, but he also found himself torturing them.
Garavito did not feel great about these crimes. He even put himself into a psychiatric hospital for a month. Although he neglected to admit to any of his crimes, he did seek help for depression. He was prescribed medication for depression and psychosis over multiple hospital stays. Obviously, none of these visits prevented him from committing more heinous crimes.
Garavito’s victims were typically young boys with lighter skin and eyes. His victims ranged between the ages of 6 and 16. Sometimes, Garavito would approach them dressed as a vendor, or a priest, or another type of authority figure. He would seek his victims out in the daylight, always wearing a different disguise. Luring the child with money, food, or jobs, Garavito would bring the child to the outskirts of town where no one could witness his crimes. The child was typically bound, sexually assaulted, and harmed in other ways. Children were bit, burned, and tortured in other ways.
Garavito picked up this practice in frequency and intensity. At one point, experts believe that he was luring and harming a child at least once a month. Between the years of 1986 and 1992, he started to become more and more interested in mass murders, including Hitler. This fascination with murderers may have tipped him over the edge. Garavito has also claimed that a “demonic voice” influenced his first murder, which took place in 1992.
The victim, whose name was Juan Carlos, was first spotted by Garavito as he drank in a bar. Garavito followed the boy in the night, purchased a butcher knife along the way, and lured him as he lured his other victims. This time, however, was different. When police found Juan Carlos’s body, they saw that his genitals were cut off and his front teeth were knocked out.
Six days later, Garavito struck again. The victim was 12 years old.
A few months later, Garavito moved to Bogota and killed another eight boys. He started to document his kills in a journal and also keep mementos from his crimes. Frequency increased once again, and it is believed that Garavito murdered multiple victims in a day. He would stab some of the victims as he was sexually assaulting them, and then he moved on to decapitating his victims. As the months wore on, his murders became increasingly heinous.
It is around this time that Garavito developed the nickname Tribilín, or “Goofy.” He moved to his own place in Bogota, although he continued to commit murders throughout Colombia and possibly northern Ecuador. All of the murders were committed on the outskirts of towns.
There were periods of time when Garavito would stop murdering boys. Sometimes, this was after a victim fought back or after Garavito sustained an injury. But from 1992 to 1997, he always went back to this murderous habit. He would travel throughout Colombia committing these crimes, filling up a bag of “trophies” that he would eventually drop off at a relative or girlfriend’s house when the bag got too full.
Garavito had multiple run-ins with the police. He would be brought in for questioning in relation to the disappearance of a young boy. In some cases, he was able to say that he simply left the boy alone, or he accused the police of profiling him because he had a limp. He would be let go, and hours later, the police would find the mutilated or decapitated body of the boy who disappeared. By the time this discovery was made, Garavito was on the way to the next town.
Caught and Arrested
In 1998, police discovered the mutilated bodies of three children on one hillside in the span of two days. All of the children appeared to have been sexually abused in the same way by the same person. Upon further investigation, the police discovered a note at the crime scene that brought them to the house of Garavito’s girlfriend.
Garavito’s girlfriend, when approached by police, turned over one of Garavito’s bags of trophies and documentation. The police waited for Garavito to show up at his Bogota residence. But they didn’t need to wait long. Shortly after pinning Garavito to this massive list of murders, Garavito was arrested for an attempted sexual assault. The assault had not gone as planned by Garavito, and an eyewitness connected Garavito to the incident. He was taken into custody on April 22, 1999.
While he was in custody, police used various methods to link him to dozens of children who were found dead and mutilated throughout the country. They referenced his journals and trophies. They matched his DNA to empty liquor bottles and other forms of evidence found at various crime scenes. Garavito had a specific eye condition that required a certain type of glasses, and after a prison-wide eye examination, they linked glasses found at specific crime sites to him. There was nowhere for Garavito to run. He confessed to killing 140 children. Investigators continue to look for evidence that might pin him to an additional 32 or more victims.
When a serial killer in the United States is finally caught and sentenced for their crimes, they may serve life in prison or be sentenced to the death penalty. Sentences in the United States are normally very long for all crimes, regardless of severity. Other countries, including Colombia, don’t exactly allow people to serve multiple life sentences or even one life sentence.
Although Luis Garavito was sentenced to 1,853 years and 9 days in prison for his crimes, he won’t actually serve the full sentence. This isn’t because he will die before that time is up. At the time of his sentencing, Colombian law only allowed criminals to serve up to 40 years behind bars. Furthermore, in both the United States and Colombia, criminals may be given a lighter sentence if they cooperate with police. Garavito, in his confession, helped lead police to the bodies of many victims. This reduced his sentence even further to 22 years. Although he is kept isolated from all other prisoners, Garavito was set to be eligible for parole as early as 2023.
In 2020, Garavito was put on medical discharge after being diagnosed with leukemia. He continued to be transferred back and forth from hospitals to maximum security prisons throughout the year, and continues to serve his sentence to this day.
As one might imagine, the possibility of Garavito’s parole doesn’t sit well with many people in Colombia, despite his declining health. Garavito initially received the longest prison sentence in Colombian history. To only have to serve 25 out of 1,853 years feels a little odd, especially considering that Garavito’s victims have reached triple digits. Since Garavito’s original sentencing, Colombian law has increased its maximum prison sentence from 40 to 60 years.
When we think of modern-day serial killers, we often think of American men. Killers in California and the Pacific Northwest often come to mind. But if you want to expand your knowledge of true crime outside of the United States of America, Colombia is a good place to start. Garavito is one of a handful of Colombia’s most prolific serial killers, although he certainly tops the list for most victims. Pedro López claimed over 100 victims as well. (His whereabouts are still currently unknown.) Daniel Camargo Barbosa claimed just over 70. These men might not be as well known as Ted Bundy, but they consistently top the lists of most prolific serial killers.