By Eunice Escobar and James Patrick Jordan
Colombia’s national Human Rights Day began with the brutal pre-sunrise killing of Javier Ordoñez, a 46-year-old lawyer and taxi driver. In the early morning hours of September 9, 2020, bystanders recorded police who beat and repeatedly tasered Ordoñez. He was arrested while going to the store with friends. His crime was that he had violated curfew and social distancing regulations. He pled for his life: “Please…. Officer, I beg you….”, and, again, “Please, I’m choking!” With his last words, he implored, “Give me the fine.” But the only fine he was given was the one he would pay with his life.
Before the day was done, the ESMAD riot police and city police would kill at least eleven more [NOTE: later reports would put the final death toll at 13, in addition to Ordoñez], young people from 17 to 27 in age (two are age unknown), in protests that swept Bogota’s metropolitan area. They are:
*Andrés Felipe Rodríguez, 23, Bogotá.
*Fredy Alexander Mahecha, 20, Bogotá.
*Julián Mauricio Gonzalez, 27, Bogotá.
*Angie Paola Baquero, 19, Bogotá.
*Germán Smith Fuentes, 25, Suba La Gaitana neighborhood, Bogotá.
*Julieth Ramírez Mesa, 18, Suba La Gaitana neighborhood, Bogotá.
*Jaider Alexander Fonseca, 17, Verbenal neighborhood, Bogotá.
*Christian Camilo Hernández, 24, Verbenal neighborhood, Bogotá.
*Christian Andres Hurtado Menecé, 27, Soacha, Bogotá suburb.
*Larwan Estiben Mendoza, age unknown, Soacha, Bogotá suburb
*Unidentified youth, Soacha, Soacha, Bogotá suburb
Even now, protests persist, while the city is essentially under a state of siege. Human rights defenders have been detained by members of ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squad) and intimidated with force. Another five protesters have disappeared. There have been several people arrested and, in many places, the electricity has been shut off. As with the repression of the uprising against racism and police brutality in Portland, Oregon and throughout the United States, there is a high number of unmarked black cars surrounding the areas where protesters are located.
Protests and marches also took place in the nearby working-class suburb of Soacha, where three of the victims of police violence lost their lives. Earlier in the day, residents had been greeted with flyers distributed by the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras) paramilitary group. The flyers threatened:
“Under our fire, we declare as military objects all the collaborators with guerrillas who call themselves social leaders, labor leaders, victims’ commissions and all these petristas [supporters of the center-left Colombia Humana party]…. This national campaign we have is going to begin now in Soacha…We find it necessary to declare as immediate military objects all the organizations of homosexuals and lesbians, human rights and petrista organizations, organizations of street vendors of Soacha…. You are all warned, if the coronavirus does not kill you, we will kill you.”
Last month the Alliance for Global Justice sent an alert regarding the increased
violence in Colombia. We were concerned that the escalation of massacres and assassinations of social leaders, human rights defenders, or peace signatories are occurring at a rate of more than one victim per day, the highest rate since the beginning of the peace process negotiations in 2012. Detentions and forced disappearances have likewise increased. Sadly, this situation is not new to Colombia, a country considered the worst for human rights defenders and social leaders.
Prior to the 2020 COVID Pandemic, millions of Colombians participated in national civil strikes, the largest popular mobilizations in Colombia since the 1970s, to reject the policies of President Ivan Duque. The national strike was in reaction to the elimination of workers’ right to a pension and to a 25% cut in the minimum wage of young workers. The people also demand the government comply with the 2016 peace accords. They are fed up with state and paramilitary violence against social movement and peace process leaders. This national strike was stopped due to the restrictions imposed by the government as a preventive measure against the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, violence against social leaders did not stop. So far in 2020, there have been 43 massacres, a rate that significantly rose in August after the Colombia Supreme Court ordered the house arrest of Ex-President Álvaro Uribe because of his links with private death squads. Uribe is the leader of the far-Right Democratic Center Party. He was once listed by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency as one of Colombia’s top 100 narco-traffickers. He is widely regarded as the “father of Colombia’s modern paramilitaries”. During the month of August, there were six massacres, with a total of 24 victims. Since the last AfGJ alert on this terrible situation, another massacre happened in Nariño, where four peasants were assassinated by armed groups.
The killing of Ordóñez by the police and the brutal repression of the subsequent social protest is a troubling indication of the lack of guarantees under which the Colombian masses are now living. The use of lethal weapons to repress public discontent is a violation of international human rights.
The repression of Colombian popular movements by ESMAD is truly “made in the USA”. ESMAD was created via the initiative of the Colombian and U.S. governments in 1999 as part of Plan Colombia. Since that time, the U.S. has been a major source of weapons and training for ESMAD. During last year’s national strike, and, again, in the current protests, one of the main demands has been for ESMAD to be dismantled. According to a 2019 report by Colombian NGO Temblores, at least 34 persons have been killed by ESMAD since its formation. Hundreds, if not thousands, have been injured or arbitrarily detained by them.
According to Gustavo Gallardo, a human rights lawyer and president of the Fundación Lazos de Dignidad (Links of Dignity Foundation), “All the practices of repression by the ‘authorities’ in Colombia are an extension of North American training and funding, used to attack the opposition and social movements in different ways.”
Maria Cardona Mejía, from Colombia’s Permanent Committee for Human Rights (CPDH), notes, “ESMAD was created as part of Plan Colombia as a temporary measure, but it has been maintained.”
Colombia, the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, is considered a democracy model in Latin-America, even though the government is heavily involved with death squads and drug smuggling. An unconditional partner in the implementation of U.S. foreign policies, the Colombian government, has allowed the presence of U.S. military forces in its territory to “combat Narco-trafficking”, (an excuse to displace Colombians from areas wanted for private development), and to intimidate the Venezuelan government.
While Colombia is considered the U.S.’ most important partner in Latin America, it’s human rights violations are of grave concern. Continued support for the Colombian government while it suppresses the Colombian masses and their demands for justice is unacceptable.
We contacted Nury Martinez, the president of FENSUAGRO (The National Unified Federation of Agricultural Workers Unions), whose office is based in Bogotá, and who lives in Soacha. She told us,
“In Soacha, the people are frightened by the various threats, but they are also outraged by what is happening. Since the police killed Javier Ordoñez, since he was tortured and beaten to death, it is total indignation. Yesterday, the people left for the streets to show their discontent. However, these threats keep coming to the leaders, to the people organized, to the people who in some manner demonstrate their dissent, and, yes, it is very concerning, above all, because there is no response whatsoever on the part of the local governments and the national government. And we also consider that what has happened in Bogotá and other cities has been a massacre because, after the killing of Javier Ordoñez, and after many people went out angrily to demonstrate, ESMAD and the police killed many other people who were protesting. We believe that we must reflect on the function, the guidance, the conception of what police work means in relation to the people because we are truly very worried by this, and by the actions of the police, so aggressive against the people. I believe that the people have every right to turn out in response to the outrage that these atrocities cause.”
We spoke again to Maria Cardona Mejía from CPDH, who made this appeal to U.S. popular movements:
“Greetings from Bogotá, with a heart exhausted before so much violence, so many young lives snatched away by police violence, by ESMAD, created as part of Plan Colombia and sponsored by the United States. We make this call to the social movements and civil society of the U.S. people, that you strengthen your solidarity with this Colombia that lives with so much spilled blood, caught between the effects of the pandemic, state violence, state terrorism, and the repression of the public forces that have pitted ESMAD against the youth who take the streets to attain the basic right to life, to a dignified life, free from violence. Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, all of Colombia is flooded in blood by massacres, by savage repression, and by the government of Ivan Duque disguising reality, denying the reality of the violence. As a defender of human rights, as a woman, as a mother, as a grandmother in tears who unites with all the Colombian women crying for their children, to the people of the United States, I ask that you do not leave us alone, that you accompany us in this struggle to defend life, to guarantee democracy, to guarantee a lawful state in Colombia. I thank you so much and send an embrace of hope and resistance.”