Background Placental malaria is the predominant pathology secondary to malaria in pregnancy, causing substantial maternal and infant morbidity and mortality in tropical areas. While it is clear that placental parasites are phenotypically different from those in the peripheral circulation, it is not known whether unique genotypes are associated specifically with placental infection or perhaps more generally with pregnancy. In this study, genetic analysis was performed on Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum parasites isolated from peripheral and placental blood in pregnant women living in North-west Colombia, and compared with parasites causing acute malaria in non-pregnant populations. Methods A total of 57 pregnant women at delivery with malaria infection confirmed by real-time PCR in peripheral or placental blood were included, as well as 50 pregnant women in antenatal care and 80 men or non-pregnant women with acute malaria confirmed by a positive thick smear for P. vivax or P. falciparum. Five molecular markers per species were genotyped by nested PCR and capillary electrophoresis. Genetic diversity and the fixation index FST per species and study group were calculated and compared. Results Almost all infections at delivery were asymptomatic with significantly lower levels of infection compared with the groups with acute malaria. Expected heterozygosity for P. vivax molecular markers ranged from 0.765 to 0.928 and for P. falciparum markers ranged from 0.331 to 0.604. For P. vivax infections, the genetic diversity was similar amongst the four study groups and the fixation index from each pairwise comparison failed to show significant genetic differentiation. For P. falciparum, no genetic differentiation was observed between placental and peripheral parasites from the same woman at delivery, but the parasites isolated at delivery showed significant genetic differentiation compared with parasites isolated from subjects with acute malaria. Conclusions In North-west Colombia, P. vivax parasites have high genetic diversity that is equivalent in pregnant and non-pregnant populations as well as in symptomatic and asymptomatic infections. For P. falciparum, the overall genetic diversity is lower, with specific genotypes associated with asymptomatic infections at delivery.