Interview with Wilder Andrey Téllez Gonzalez, Colombian teacher, union member, eco-defender, and human rights defender

Police, Repression, and Popular Movements in Colombia: Webinar this Thursday, September 15, 8p ET, 7pm CT and Colombia, 6p MT, and 5p PT.

Featuring presentations by Colombian Congressperson Alirio Uribe, Juan Esteban Martínez (Campaña Libertad Ya), Camille Landry (AFGJ), Alberto Bejarano (Trabajo y Justicia—Grupo Jurídico), and Stephanie Ortiz (Fundación Lazos de Dignidad). Moderated by Nina Lendal of Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance

“Please, I’m choking….” These were the last words of Javier Ordoñez, beaten to death two years ago by Bogotá police just after midnight on September 9, 2020 for a curfew violation. Protests would break out across the city and before the day was done, the ESMAD riot and other city police would kill another 13 people.

Ordoñez words were all too reminiscent of the last words of George Floyd earlier that year in May in Minneapolis: “I can’t breathe,” as he was choked to death by local police. Sadly, the similarities and links go beyond the final pleas of these two men. ESMAD was a co-creation of the US and Colombian governments, based on a US style of policing. In turn, ESMAD developed new methods of repression that were brought to the US and used against protesters in the 2020 Uprising. Both US and Colombian police used “non-lethal” weapons bought mainly from US corporations, that maimed and even killed protesters. The Colombian prisons where protesters and social movement leaders are incarcerated, are funded by the US and built on our mass incarceration model. And while US protesters have been less knowledgeable about sister movements in Colombia, on September 9, 2020, Colombians in the streets were highly aware of the earlier US Uprising, and borrowed many of our tactics and slogans. Our US movements can learn much from Colombian activists. What are the lessons for us?

With the election of Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro, the struggle against police militarization and brutality in Colombia enters a new phase. President Petro has spoken of a desire to dismantle ESMAD and de-link the police from the military (which the police are subject to). Will he follow through on these changes? Will a Petro administration reject plans to “reform” the Colombian police with alleged human rights training from US police? Will Petro take swift action to release social movement leaders and protesters who have been imprisoned during the two big national strikes of 2019 and 2021, and the Bogotá protests of September 2020? Will he likewise free political prisoners and prisoners of war who should have been released as part of the 2016 Peace Accord? What will be the role of solidarity movements, especially in the US, where so much funding for the Colombian police and military originates?

Please join us for Thursday’s webinar and we will discuss how to build on these links of struggle both in the US and in Colombia.

Interview with Wilder Andrey Téllez Gonzalez, Colombian teacher, union member, eco-defender, and human rights defender

Following is an interview with Andrey Tellez from last Summer, 2021. We are publishing it here on the occasion of the second anniversary of the 2020 Bogotá police massacre that left 14 people dead in one day. Andrey was illegally detained and tortured that day. He is a popular educator and eco-defender from one of Bogotá’s poorest neighborhoods, Ciudad Bolívar.  The following interview was arranged by then-Bogotá City Councilor Susana Muhamad, along with her Aide, Alejandro Mazuera. It was conducted by AFGJ National Co-Coordinator James Patrick Jordan. Muhamad recently assumed the position of Minister of the Environment in President Petro’s cabinet. The interview took place at the municipal complex where Councilor Muhamad’s office was located.

JPJ: Could you briefly tell me your name, where you come from, what is your profession, and talk a little about your activism as an eco-defender, to give us some context about who we are talking to?

AT: I am Wilder Andrey Tellez Gonzalez, professional educator. I am a teacher in the district, officially linked to the Capitol District (Bogotá D.C.), that is to say I am a public functionary. At the same time, I work as an educator in a private school called “Cerros del Sur” (Hills of the South), in popular community education. For this reason, I say I am a popular educator.

I wasn’t born in Bogotá. I am from Acacías-Meta. I was born in 1987. My mother was the head of the family. I am a product of the historic displacement in Colombia, the economic displacement that has made it so that historically families have had to migrate to the big capitals in search of a different future. I arrived in Bogota when I was 7 years old, and the south of the city welcomed me.

The “Cerros del Sur” school, unlike all the schools in the district, does not have fences that divide the community from the campus. This school was built and is directly managed by the communities. It has eleven work themes with the community, such as: community mothers, youth, recreation, sports, arts, environment, neighborhood improvement, housing improvement. It is ocused on Ciudad Bolivar [an underdeveloped neighborhood in Bogotá].

I am part of a community garden called “The environmental school.” We work on food sovereignty issues, seed conservation, seed propagation, and native species — a relationship from the heart with Mother Earth. And we have “Monta Tu Ambiente” [Ready Your Environment], part of a network of collective work neighborhoods that defend a unique ecosystem, which is the Andean subxerophytic, which is like a semi-desert in the high mountains. These ecosystems are very difficult to find, and it is a priority to protect them.

The support network is called “The Friends of Cerro Seco Network”. The mountain is called Cerro Seco and it is 358 hectares. That is where most of the problems I have had during all this time come from, because the threats that have arrived are because of defending Cerro Seco. This means fighting against miners of dubious origin with links with criminal gangs, and also against informal settlements, that is, urbanization, housing construction, on this mountain.

These are more or less the security problems I have had, and since I am a teacher, we work with young people in a very marginalized locality, which is a breeding ground for involvement in illegal groups, criminal gangs, narco-trafficking. So, we try with all the actions we do to guide these kids so that they take the path of study, art, sports. That is why we have problems with these people who like to fill our territories with war and poison, that is to say, with drugs.

SM: Are you a high school teacher?

AT: Yes, I teach social sciences, geography, philosophy, ethics.

JPJ: Are you part of a union?

AT: I am part of the District Association of Educators-ADE Bogota. I am a union member.

We are working hand in hand with the union, but in Colombia there is also the targeting of trade unionists, persecutions, and assassinations, so we protect each other.

JPJ: Can you describe a little of what happened on the day of your arrest?

AT: We learned the fateful news of the law student Javier Ordoñez who was brutally beaten by the National Police and who died. There was a call through social networks, and we decided to go to that CAI to show our dissatisfaction with everything that had been happening, because two events came together, the murder of Ordoñez, but above all the police abuse that occurred in front of that CAI. Particularly 20 days before I had had an encounter with the police officers of this CAI who were carrying out an irregular procedure. I recorded them–here in Colombia it is legal to record a police intervention, and it is protected under article 21 of the National Police Code.

They give me a summons, a ticket, and I leave upset with this attitude because I was not doing anything wrong. So, in response to this, we held this sit-in, this rally in front of the CAI, demonstrating what was going on there. The call was a wake for the memory of Javier Ordoñez and a “cacerolazo”[a form of protest in Latin America where people take to the streets beating pots and pans]. Boys, girls, older adults, many young people, came to this event. They effectively see what is being done at this CAI. After what happened with Ordoñez, the district wanted to show their dissatisfaction. We arrived at 6 o’clock. There was a police officer inside the CAI, and he was never physically assaulted, and neither was the CAI assaulted.

JPJ: Was there any warning to vacate?

AT: Approximately half an hour later, the commander of that CAI, Portilla, arrived along with 8 or 10 police motorcycles, with a violent and aggressive attitude, trying to remove the people who were near the CAI. At that time, I acted as a human rights defender with another local teacher. We identified ourselves. The same commander, Portilla, knows me because I am a leader of that community. We had already worked together. When something happened in the mountain, I called him for security issues, and he collaborated. That is to say he knew me very well. The two of us introduced ourselves (the teacher and I). We tried to calm down the police and the community because there was a lot of friction and at any moment a confrontation could happen. We managed to calm them down, but the attitude of the police was very hostile towards the community. The community was only chanting slogans and making noise.

At some point, around 7 p.m., a person in civilian clothes arrived who we believe to be a policeman. I say we believe because we could not identify him. He came with a helmet characteristic of the police, which is green, to pick up a motorcycle that was in the CAI, so he was probably a policeman. He arrived very anxious about his motorcycle. He arrived running, and his attitude was not in keeping with what was happening, which was a peaceful protest. Surely, he believed that we were burning the CAI or that we were going to burn his motorcycle. We never acted against the public good that was the CAI or the private good, the motorcycles. When he arrives like that, [the crowd] makes fun of this attitude, they start to whistle, to shout at him, to harangue him, and then he goes to turn on the motorcycle. I does not start. People start to make fun. There were some young people there very upset about what was happening. Then the confrontation began.

JPJ: Is this when you were arrested? Were you formally arrested?

AT: When the confrontation begins, the community throws rocks and sticks at the CAI, and they [the police] return these to the community. Several begin to pull out weapons. We don’t know if they are their firearms or blanks. We believe they are blanks because a young woman put her hand on her face to protect it and one of her fingers was hit by a projectile which left her with a huge scar because the impact was strong, but it was not from a firearm.

I started to record, although I had withdrawn a little because they were shooting in the air and also at people’s bodies and I got really scared. A policeman approaches me, points a gun at me. I tell him that I am a Human Rights Defender and that I am recording. He threatens to shoot, but fortunately he does not fire his gun. He turns around and goes down towards the avenue, takes off his helmet, and I try to record his face since he threatened me. When I try to do this, I am stopped by a police officer who tells me that he is going to take me to the CAI. I tell him that I am not causing a problem, that I am not doing anything wrong.

At that moment the police officer who had threatened me tries to take my cell phone and I do not allow it. He almost ripped off my finger, the nail was completely black, and another police officer had me from the back, and another one hit me with his knife in my abdomen. They couldn’t take my cell phone, but in the struggle, I damaged my shoulder because another policeman hit me with a stout Billy club in the right side. I was left unconscious just because I was recording. I fell to the ground and the policemen kept hitting me. My glasses fell and a policeman stepped on them and broke them completely. He stole my cell phone so I have no proof of what I am saying, although there are some cameras around that can verify everything.

The commander of the CAI arrives, removes the agents, lifts me up, and one of the agents tells him that I was trying to take the weapon from them. Then Agent Portilla rebukes me and says why I am doing that, to which I respond that he knows me and that I would not be able to do that. Then he takes me to the CAI, hands me over to some agents who are there. I go to the CAI desk asking to talk to Portilla. An agent grabs me by the jacket and before taking me in he grabs me by the hair. I feel that the same thing that happened to Mr. Javier Ordoñez is going to happen to me, and when I try to get up and let go, someone breaks my 4 front teeth with a fist, one of them is completely knocked out.

I immediately enter the cell, and I start to see how young people steam in, approximately 12 people in full pandemic, in a space of 2 meters by 1.5 meters, crammed together, sprayed with pepper spray. They beat us with stones, with sticks, they soaked us, they treated us as terrorists, as guerrillas, all the bad words you can imagine. When there was no more room inside the cell, they entered with a girl and beat her brutally. A young man convulsed because of the pepper gas in his face. It was terrible to be living that at that moment, brutality at its maximum expression.

Outside the confrontation became more complicated and more difficult. We never knew that several CAIs had been set on fire (since in all of Bogotá there were protests outside  the CAIs.) We did not know about the dead [there were 13 more people killed by police in Bogotá that day, in addition to Ordoñez]. We left almost at 12:15 in the morning, that is to say from 7:15 to 12:15, we were being tortured in the CAI.

Before leaving they write me a ticket to appear in court. One of the policemen did not want to do it because he knew that many irregularities had been committed in that CAI. He records how he makes the tickets because he knows that what is coming in terms of complaints and lawsuits was important. They make me sign a book where it says that we were treated in accordance with human rights. All the families signed that they had been treated in accordance with human rights. I realize that a patrolwoman has her hands covering the text. I manage to read “human rights”. I tell her to let me read. She tells me to sign, that I should not be tiresome.

JPJ: Why did they let you go?

AT: Because several human rights organizations pressured to let us leave. In the midst of the chaos in the district, people who know me asked about me and the police commander said that I was perfectly fine in there, that I had no complications, that I was completely fine. Then people concentrated on other scenarios, where there were already deaths, there were already CAI’s on fire, wounded all over the district.

JPJ: There weren’t any deaths in this CAI, right?

AT: No, fortunately there were no deaths in the CAI. The District Human Rights Director Andres Idarraga arrived at the CAI to check what is going on.

JPJ (to SM and AM): How did you know about his detention?

AM: We also had information that in all the CAI’S this situation is occurring, of detainees. At 11 o’clock at night they call the secretary of government and tell him that Andrey is detained in the CAI, to please go and take him out, to which they respond that they will immediately look into the situation.

Andres Idarraga, who is quite progressive and was the Human Rights leader at the time, is given the order to go specifically to the CAI where Andrey is being held, but this was happening in many CAIs in the city. Another councilman goes to another CAI and makes them release the people they are holding. That day in Bogota it was as if there was no God and no law.

When Andrey was detained the CAI, the police refused to let them go. When they finally did, that’s when Andrey came out and we saw him in those conditions. We immediately made the denouncement, because he is a known leader and many people made the alert, otherwise nobody would have known about it.

JPJ: Who are the police assigned locally to the CAI?

AT: They are surveillance and control police. What we realized is that they are police who have a whole rhetoric about the internal enemy, of the guerrillas, of the terrorists. That is, a young person is not a student, is not a protester with his legitimate right to protest but a guerrilla. That logic is held by many of them who have been linked to the groups and the special forces that have fought the insurgency, and it seems that this is the same way they are acting towards the citizens in this city, I think that is where we have to focus a lot of attention because what one hears in other CAIs is that they are calling us guerrillas, terrorists, and always the same. That is why we believe that in their heads there is a threat of a possible assassination towards them and those who ended up killing people were the public forces, because there was no policeman killed.

In the CAI many things happen that have to do with police abuse, but to the most vulnerable young people, who are in the street, who have very difficult security conditions or who generate difficult security conditions for the communities, kids who are in the parks playing, smoking, talking to each other and the police, the police come to them, take them to the CAI, beat them, give them electric shocks, throw water on them, spray them with pepper spray, steal their belongings. There is an overflow of police control and action in the neighborhoods, especially in the working class and poor neighborhoods.

JPJ: More or less how many people were outside the CAI protesting when you were arrested?

AT: Between 200 and 300 people were initiating the rally, but when it broke out.

JPJ: What was the previous relationship of the community with that CAI?

AT: The motivation for going to the CAI that day was twofold: the first was the murder of Ordoñez, we had to make visible that the police are killers. But there were other violations of young people’s rights there, so the unhappiness with that CAI was widespread.

20 days before I had been detained, young people were on the sidewalk, some of them my students. A patrol car and some police motorcycles arrived, they searched them, they found no weapons or drugs. I went in to get my cell phone to record and when I came out, I saw one of my students lying on the ground with his hands behind his back, I got worried and went to see what was going on. I realize that they throw them to the ground after not finding anything, acting with them as if they were criminals when they were not doing anything. Just because I was recording the kids, they handcuff them and put them in a patrol car, in a police car. I ask why they do that; they push me to leave, and I continue recording, and a policeman puts me in the patrol car with the kids. They took us to the CAI and we were there for about 2 hours. Again, human rights defenders, councilors, congressmen pressured them and they released us, but they still gave us tickets. So, there is a whole accumulation of all the arbitrary acts committed in this CAI. Instead of counteracting the thieves, the police become the ones who steal from the citizens.

JPJ: Commander Portilla and all the policemen who acted in this, where are they now? Are there any kind of repercussions for them?

AT: None, Portilla is still commander of the CAI and many patrolmen are still in that CAI. When we make the complaint, I only denounce Portilla because he is the only one I can identify, and the process is against him, but he is exonerated of all responsibility. As far as I know there are four patrolmen linked to an investigation, but the police, the prosecutor’s office, the attorney general’s office have not made any investigation of this case.

JPJ: We have been reading about cases of young people accused, investigated, and detained for attacking police officers.

AT: Yes, In Soacha it happened. There was a policeman in civilian clothes who was doing intelligence on the boys. They detained him and a few hours later he was handed over to a humanitarian commission safe and sound. For this action there is a charge for kidnapping an agent and four youths.

JPJ: And how many police officers of the strike of 2019, of the actions of September 9 and the strike of April 28, 2021, have been investigated, brought to justice for abuses?

SM: The most visible are those who killed Javier Ordoñez, who are both sentenced, because it was a very visible case. And one in the case of Dilan Cruz. The police asked to pass the case to the military criminal justice, but the court denied it and it is in the ordinary justice system.

AM: And in the national strike of 2021, there is a policeman accused in Ibagué for the death of Lucas Villa. There are other cases of policemen who are in the military criminal justice system.

AT: We do not believe that there is true justice in the military criminal justice system. There is a complaint in the prosecutor’s office that was made, and due to pressure from the José Alvear Restrepo lawyers’ collective, it was reactivated and now it has been passed to a specialized human rights judge. But the investigation has not advanced. As for the CAI, of the 15 people who were detained with me, none of them filed a complaint.

JPJ: What is the role of the international community, especially the U.S., with respect to your case, and with respect to the Colombian situation?

AT: Three things. One has to do with pressure on the U.S. government to review the aid that is being processed for a murderous and genocidal police force. It is fundamental that this be discussed in the U.S. What is the role that the police really play in Colombia? Does the support that the U.S. is sending make human rights violations and the murder of defenseless civilians possible in this country? This would be the first task.

The second has to do with important legal pressure, so that all these cases do not go unpunished. One of the necessary things is that denounced cases go to judges specialized in human rights. It is a specific request that we have as victims, so that the investigations are thorough. So, international pressure should be directed to the prosecutor’s office to make a timely and real investigation.

Finally, in my case, I am interested in the possibility of some kind of protection scenario for the district and national entities for real guarantees for the work we do. We are not only at risk because of the police officers, but also because of the environmental struggle against dangerous people who are allied with armed groups and criminal gangs, who at any moment could attempt against our lives.

Yes, these are some of the requests we can make.