Police officers at the 2021 National Strike in Colombia
Police officers at the 2021 National Strike in Colombia / © Santiago Sanchez

Introduction

Throughout the 2021 National Strike, Colombia witnessed mass demonstrations across the country. The protests made visible the historical claims of marginalized populations in the country.  Inequality, racism, violence and the consequences of the internal armed conflict were key structural causes of the social explosion.

The demands of protesters reflect broad social grievances based on the state’s failure to guarantee basic economic and social rights such as education and health, as well as failure of the state to implement measures to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, in one of the most unequal countries in the region.

Instead of listening to the demands of the thousands of people who demonstrated, the government of Iván Duque responded with repression and violence to discourage the peaceful protests and ultimately to punish those who were demanding change in the country.

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Agents of the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) 
© SOS Colombia Canción Paro Nacional

Who was punished for speaking up?

Repression and Violence in the city of Cali: Kevin Agudelo 

The gravest violations committed by the security forces during this period were concentrated in the city of Cali. In collaboration with SITU Research, Amnesty International reconstructed the violent incursion called “Operation Siloé” that took place on May 3rd, when National Police officers, in conjunction with agents of the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) and the Special Operations Group of the Colombian National Police (GOES), used lethal weapons, such as Tavor 5.56 mm rifles, against peaceful protestors.

At least three people were killed that night from gunshot wounds, including Kevin Agudelo, a young amateur football player with Siloé FC, hundreds of people were injured and many were arbitrarily detained. The reconstruction uses more than 200 audiovisual assets analysed by Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab and SITU Research, as well as witness testimony to verify and illustrate the details of the incursion and the events leading to Kevin’s death.

Reconstruction of Operation Siloé

Based on the analysis of audiovisual evidence and numerous witness testimonies, Amnesty International concludes that the evidence indicates there was no imminent threat of violence that could not reasonably have been addressed by more proportionate measures on the part of the security forces. The use of force and lethal weapons against peaceful protestors by ESMAD and GOES was unjustified and violated the human rights of the protestors on May 3rd, in Siloé, a neighborhood in the city of Cali.

Losing your eyes to raise your voice

Gareth Sella & Leidy Cadena

We documented 13 cases of eye injuries, including the case of Gareth Sella and Leidy Cardenas and analysed more than 300 audio-visual pieces. Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab and the Digital Verification Corps (DVC) verified that that there were disproportionate and repressive actions committed by the mobile anti-riot Squad (ESMAD) from 28 April to 20 October 2021; and concluded that, in the context of the national strike, agents of the mobile anti-riot Squad (ESMAD) violated the human rights of the demonstrators by inflicting eye injuries as a result of the disproportionate use of potentially lethal weapons.

© Alexa Rochi / Amnesty International

Arm yourself with your dreams so you don’t lose your sight

Gareth Sella: The consequences of the stigmatization of protest.

Gareth Sella is a young 24-year-old filmmaker who is recognized for his human rights activism and his critical stance on police violence, which he transmits through his work in the production company La Resistencia.

On 24 February 2021, within the framework of the National Week against Police Brutality, convened by victims’ organizations, in which dozens of demonstrators called for the dissolution of the ESMAD and protested against repression and impunity, Gareth along with his colleagues “Escudos Azules” a collective that aims to ensure that social protest is carried out in a peaceful manner and to that end, they act as mediators between protesters and the police, went out to march peacefully, days before senior public officials had made stigmatizing statements of those who demonstrated.

On 22 February 2021, the Criminal Analysis Center of the Criminal Investigation Directorate (DIJIN) of the National Police, issued an alert entitled “Call for violent social mobilization 24 February-24F” and the convening groups were classified as “radical”, including the Blue Shields collective.

On 24 February, Gareth was hit in the face by an artifact that, according to his statement and that of several witnesses, was launched at close range by an agent of the mobile anti-riot Squad, the consequence of this impact was the partial loss of sight. Despite facing the wounds and damage caused, his desire to fight impunity is stronger. His public statements are powerful and reflect the story of a young artist who was injured by ESMAD agents, in retaliation for his activism and with the intention of inflicting pain and silencing his voice

Gareth Sella, Victim of eye trauma in the context of pacific demonstration in Bogotá Colombia. 
© vmly&r / Amnesty International

Leidy Cadena: The price of being a young woman and raising your voice.

Leidy is a young student of political science, passionate about human rights and photography. Together with her partner and hundreds of Colombian people who wanted a change in the country, she went out to march. Once the protest turned violent due to the presence of the ESMAD, Leidy and others tried to return home. While they were going for their bicycles, an ESMAD agent shot Leidy directly and she  lost the sight of her right eye.

I lost my eye but I swear I feel like I have ten thousand out there, let’s keep fighting that this doesn’t end here (…) I think it is very nice to be able to tell people that yes we can, that we can get out of these things and that, although it is very sad and painful, we have to go ahead and show the country that we are still here ready to fight”.

Due to her fight against impunity and her search for justice, Leidy received death threats, as a result of which she had to leave Colombia and seek asylum abroad.

Leidy Cadena. Victim of Eye Trauma on the 28th of Abril 2021, in the context of the national Strike. Bogotá Colombia.

They took away an eye, but we still have our voice

© vmly&r / Amnesty International

What human rights violations occurred? 

Throughout the national strike Amnesty International verified excessive use of force, disappearances, sexual abuse and targeting of Indigenous Peoples, urban paramilitarism, illegal detentions and torture against peaceful demonstrators in Cali, among other human right violations

Protesters demonstrate in a peaceful manner at the 2021 National Strike in Colombia
Protesters demonstrate in a peaceful manner at the 2021 National Strike in Colombia / © Natalia Pedraza Bravo / Amnesty International

Repression and violence against those who hope for a better future in Colombia MUST stop!

  • The Colombian president and congress must take action to prevent the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, initiating the process of police reform. 
  • The mayors of the cities of Bogotá, Popayán, Cali, Manizales and Medellín must put forward clear plans of actions for victims of illegal repression and violence that include prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and pyscho-social care.
  • Ordinary civilian courts must investigate agents suspected of criminal responsibility in fair proceedings. The investigation must include all chain of command responsibilities within the state authorities.
  • The prosecutor's office should refrain from referring cases of possible human rights violations in the context of social protest to the military justice system. All cases should be handled by a specialized human rights unit and prosecutors with the proper training.

WHAT CAN I DO TO STOP THE REPRESSION?

Help stop the repression and human rights violations by signing the petition

Download our reports

In the epicenter of repression: Human rights violations during the 2021 national strike in Cali, Colombia.
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Colombia: Shoots on sight: eye trauma in the context of the National Strike.
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