The Colombian government is under pressure to investigate allegations of police sexual violence and excessive use of force against demonstrators. Colombian prosecutors and the ombudsman’s office have confirmed 23 reports of sexual violence committed by ESMAD, or Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron — out of 106 reports of violence against women and people with diverse sexual orientation and gender identity. The United Nations and the European Union warned of the violent militarized response and urged calm. An EU spokesperson said, “We condemn the deaths of all the people who have been killed during those protests.”
Nationwide anti-government protests were ignited in Colombia by a reform bill that would raise taxes on low income workers and increase privatization of the healthcare system. Since then, President Iván Duque has withdrawn his controversial tax and healthcare proposals — which came during a time when Colombians were already suffering with unemployment, poverty and a lack of hospital beds during a third wave of Covid-19.
Although the protests were intended to draw attention to extreme poverty and economic inequality, they expanded to demand an end to police violence after protesters were beaten, detained and killed in recent weeks. The riot police unit ESMAD, has been tied to reports of police terror and human rights abuses since the National Strike began on April 28th.
A recent case to shake the country was in Popayan city — where Alison Meléndez, a 17-year-old, claimed she was raped by four ESMAD agents and committed suicide two days later. A local journalist recorded a Facebook livestream to show Meléndez being dragged on the street by a large group of ESMAD officers. However, once the video went viral, the regional commander of police publicly responded to the accusations by calling them “fake and vile.”
A post on Meléndez’s Facebook page from May 13, denounced the sexual violence committed by the officers, “They pulled down my pants and groped me to my soul. I asked them to let go of me several times.” The post also clarified that she was walking to a friend’s house where she planned to sleep over that night — not protesting. “When I least expected it they were on top of me, I did not even run because it would be worse,” the teenager wrote. “All I did was hide behind a wall, and just because I was recording they grabbed me.”
The violent uprising demanding justice for Meléndez in Popayan resulted in one person dead and 35 injured. The local police detention center — shown in the video as Meléndez was arbitrarily detained — was destroyed with words like “rapists” and “murderers” spray painted on the outer walls. After backlash and human rights complaints, the police commander agreed to an investigation of the four ESMAD officers, who were temporarily removed from their position.
Diana Fernanda Diaz, a woman who peacefully demonstrated in the western city of Cali, reported being sexually abused by ESMAD security forces on April 30th. “I was not demonstrating in a violent way,” said Diaz, “Even during our first contact, we surrendered to them with our hands up.”
Diaz was forcedly separated from her group and grabbed without her consent. In an attempt to livestream what was happening shortly after, she received a phone call from her father — who is also a police officer.
While her father was on speaker phone, he helped her search for names and badge numbers in order to identify the officers who abused her and press charges. “What is evident is how bad things were handled and how they violated my fundamental rights and my integrity as a person and as a woman,” the victim stated.
Throughout a month of unrest, President Duque called for maximum deployment of security forces, which has resulted in 42 deaths in the country including one police officer, and hundreds of people have gone missing. He acknowledged that there has been an abuse of force, but he does not consider the issue to be systemic. President Duque has said his government will draw up another proposal after consultations with lawmakers, civil society and businesses — but the timeline to predict how long the protests will continue for is uncertain.
From Europe to the United States, cities all around the world have also gathered in peaceful demonstrations to show solidarity with Colombia. “Our sisters, brothers, friends and neighbors, have lost their lives fighting for the future of our country,” mentioned Sara Londoño, a migrant from the city of Medellin. “We are tired of the government’s corruption, they want to silence us,” Londoño added in despair. She has been present throughout protests in Boston, Massachusetts, where she now lives. For every protest, Londoño paints her face with red paint — symbolizing the bloodshed — and displays herself in a coffin surrounded by candles as a way to honor the lives lost at the hands of the police. Londoño added, “So many of us are begging for an end to this bloodshed, we just want our family members to be okay.”
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