Colombia: When the fascists get offended

By David Escobar, translated by Carlos Pedraza, Maya Hernández & James Jordan

“It is the mark of a weak position, not a strong position, that its holder, when challenged, takes offense”. - J.M. Coetzee in Essays on Censorship.

August 4, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — This chronicle tells of aggressions, death threats, armed assaults, harassment, theft of information, and physical and psychological torture that happened to us, a group of activists, health providers and journalists, in the city of Cali, during the coverage of the National Strike in Colombia, in the year 2021.

The stories are narrated sequentially, with some temporal skips, and the common thread is the perspective of the chronicle’s author, who had to abandon the city due to the high risk in which he found himself after investigating and publicizing a short documentary about police brutality, stigmatization, massacres, and disappearances of protestors.

These stories have occurred in the context of a series of systematic aggressions against the exercise of journalism, committed in great scale by the public forces, as documented by the Freedom of Press Foundation (FLIP by its initials in Spanish) and Reporters Without Borders. Since April 28 until May 28, 2021, 179 journalists had been assaulted (by means of beatings, threats, obstruction of work, theft and elimination of material, harassment and arbitrary actions via internet and social networks), not only on the part of the Public Forces, which would already be sufficiently grave, but also by armed civilians escorted by the National Police, who after shooting at protesters, threatened journalists.

You have marked my life with your existence; today I mark my body with your presence

The night of May 3rd, 2021, at the Siloé barrio traffic circle in Cali, a massacre occurred. During the sixth day of the National Strike in Colombia, the neighborhood community organized a memorial vigil to commemorate the people that have had been assassinated by the public forces during the course of the protests. A simple homage of candles, music, and words of grief, brought together families from the area and persons in solidarity from other parts of the city.

Karol Stephanny Betancourth is one of the survivors. When the night fell, the electricity was cut off and communication signals were disrupted. The National Police opened fire against the protestors. ESMAD (the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squad, or “riot police”) launched tear gas. Armed civilians coordinated their attacks with officials from the public forces. Rapidly, the participants in the event found themselves attacked by live fire in the midst of darkness. A bullet perforated Karol’s lung and fractured her shoulder blade. Official counts recognized three persons murdered this night, with at least 24 wounded.

The same night that Karol was a victim of state terrorism, I found myself with a group of lawyers, journalists, people supporting the medical brigades, and a priest of the archdiocese of Cali, in a sector known as La Luna (The Moon).  ESMAD had based itself in a hotel, also named La Luna, and at the pedestrian crossing bridge, there had been forceful confrontations between them and the protestors. Avoiding the shooting, which could be identified by its sound as coming from the public forces, we diverted ourselves by foot by way of the streets of the surrounding neighborhoods to a medical brigade located in the Junín neighborhood, where volunteers received supplies they distributed to attend to the wounded.

The point of resistance known as La Luna comprised different blocks around the bridge of Autopista Sur (South Highway) with Calle 13 (13th Street). After delivering the first supplies, I directed myself to another sector to take photos. Moments later, this brigade was attacked by the public forces and the supplies were destroyed.

The streets were filled to capacity with demonstrators confronting and resisting the brutal ESMAD attacks. (The Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squad is a police force responsible for dozens of killings - the vast majority of them unpunished. It was created by the government of Andrés Pastrana, in the framework of the counterinsurgency struggle known as Plan Colombia, which was financed and supported technologically and militarily by the U.S. government.) That night its targets were unarmed civilians, peaceful sit-ins, rock-throwing demonstrators, medical missions, Human Rights defenders and journalists covering the events. While I was covering a photo shoot, an ESMAD agent pointed a laser at me and fired a blunt object at me with a shotgun, hitting my thorax without major consequences, as I was wearing a bulletproof vest that protected me.

According to a report by the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network (REDDHFIC), in that same sector, at about 8:20 p.m., a group of police officers arrived and fired at the demonstrators all at the same time for more than 5 minutes, advancing towards where most of the people were concentrated and capturing some of them.

In the midst of the stampede and chaos, the National Police attacked two points of the Medical Mission, and the health personnel who were in them. There were live transmissions of the unconscionable police attack. There were reports from sources that mentioned that the police picked up several people wounded by firearms who were taken away with their whereabouts unknown.

A freelance photographer and videographer who for his own safety identifies himself only by the name Jahfrann, and who was broadcasting live some arrests and transfers being carried out by the police, was shot at by police officers. Jahfrann retreated to the house of a neighbor in the sector, who opened the door of his house to protect him. Once on the fourth floor of the house, he tried to continue transmitting and was shot at again, so he had to wait for two hours until Human Rights defenders and lawyers were able to enter the sector to get him out, since every time any organization tried to enter, they were shot at by the police.

After the attacks, the people reorganized two medical attention spaces. A doctor, limping from the blows, walked block by block looking for the new brigade point to continue treating the wounded who continued to be transported by other demonstrators. A motorcyclist picked her up to help facilitate her return and thanked her enthusiastically for her work. Meanwhile, the internal barricades that prevented other cars from entering the sector, had already been shot up by pickup trucks that were circling them.

At the same time, a verification mission composed of a delegate from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), delegates from the Ombudsman's Office, the Attorney General's Office, the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network (REDDHFIC), the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (FCSPP) and the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), arrived at the Fray Damián Police Station to carry out a verification of the people detained there.

The police officers let them enter and the mission's delegates were able to verify that one of the youths, detained in the La Luna sector, "has bruises and an open wound on his leg, due to physical aggressions on the part of the National Police and the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD)", as recorded in the communiqué published by Human Rights organizations.[1]

The same document describes the serious attack suffered by Human Rights defenders while they were carrying out that procedure, an act that constitutes a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law:

"You who are good for nothing, you who do not defend our rights, you are no good, go away, you useless people" shouted a police officer at the human rights defenders James Larrea, Ana Burgos and Darnelly Rodriguez, while the verification of the detainee was terminating. Immediately, the Police officers that were at the police station began to get out.

The communiqué also states that a police officer assaulted James Larrea and, as a result, the blows knocked him to the ground. In addition, "while Darnelly Rodríguez and Ana María Burgos were walking, a plainclothes police officer kicked Ana María Burgos from behind and, without removing his helmet, hit Darnelly Rodríguez in the head."

The aggressions continued against the group of defenders in a state of defenselessness: "About 150 policemen surround them and shout at them ‘go away, go away, you are useless. Our rights, they are killing us, or we have no rights’.” Frightened, the human rights defenders and the official from the Ombudsman's Office left the place, arriving at the corner where some street dwellers joined them, making a human chain to stop the aggressions to which they were subjected.

Startled, Darnelly and Ana Maria run away, but at that moment another stun grenade is thrown at their feet. Darnelly Rodriguez is hit twice with what seems to be a blunt projectile, one of her wounds is on the left side of her breast and the other in the calf of her left leg. In the midst of the attack the two women are helped by a homeless person, who directs them to where the rest of the mission can be found, although on the way, Darnelly Rodriguez receives what she believes a hit to her coccyx.

The mission managed to escape the attack. On the windshield of the armored van in which they were traveling, there was a hole left by one of the shots they received that night. As a result of these aggressions, a homeless woman was killed who provided assistance to the human rights defenders, and appears in the Forensic Medicine report as NN. Also, as a result of the beatings, Human Rights Defender Darnelly Rodriguez had a herniated disc in her back, which was diagnosed by MRI.

Before 8 p.m. the city was already burning at its various points of resistance. The violence deployed against the demonstrators was out of all proportion and did not seem to stop. The massacre at the Glorieta de Siloé had only just begun.

After the photographic coverage in La Luna, I communicated with some colleagues from the Pre-hospital Care at the Universidad del Valle who were in Siloé. I asked them what they needed, whether supplies or a vehicle to transport the wounded, to which they replied that we should, please, not go because the police and the paramilitaries were shooting to kill anyone who entered the sector, and, that the best thing to do, under the circumstances, was to send ambulances directly to the area. Given these conditions, we each returned to our houses.

Activists in the spotlight

"In a world that is divided between collaborationists and resisters, I define myself as a resister"- Paul Virilio in Luisa Futoransky's The Three Bombs of Paul Virilio

In the following days I was doing a campaign to collect medical supplies, with donations from friends. The purpose was to supply the medical brigades located in different parts of the city. The number of patients with trauma and injuries, like the murders, torture, sexual violence and disappearances, were increasing every day, so that every analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, macro-drip equipment, catheter, suture kit, gas mask, was well received by these brave street doctors.

The solidarity was impressive. People arrived at the points of resistance bringing them food, water, protection elements and medicines. It was in this way that the people began to prepare for a battle that would last for weeks. As time went on, the resistance was slowly swelling, filled with expectations for a future with rights. Little by little the people realized how big this struggle was going to be.

The fascists also saw in the effervescence and desperation of the attacks, the opportunity to deliver water with chemicals to harm the medical brigades that were helping the people who were resisting in the streets.

On May 7, a friend who lived in Siloé told me that they were holding a vigil near my house for Kevin Agudelo and Harold Rodríguez, two of the boys who had been killed in the Massacre of Siloé. My friend had spoken to Kevin's family and they were willing to give statements to the media about his case. Around noon I went to the place and joined the funeral caravan that was leaving from there to the cemetery. The route included a stop at Siloé traffic circle, where the marchers delivered a brief tribute to their murdered friends, as well as a message of resistance to those who continued to carry out the blockades.

Luis Carlos Agudelo, Kevin Agudelo's father, gave me a brief interview during the painful funeral of his son, whom his friends called "El Polaco”, because his mother, Angela, was affectionately called "la Polaca". Luis Carlos affirmed that his son's body had been pierced by a rifle bullet, and mentioned that he found it unheard of that someone would think of firing in such a way against a demonstration of young people who were only demanding their rights and undertaking a solemn act in memory of the other demonstrators killed in this wave of repression.

From the top of the Jardines de la Aurora cemetery, words of great sorrow were heard. Harold Rodriguez had recently returned from military service. His mother had overcome the fear that he would die in combat, but on the same night that Kevin was killed,   Harold also died in the midst of an attack by the security forces, when he left the house to buy food with his best friend. The grief flooded his mother's life. That afternoon, after lowering the coffin, her loved ones had the strength to gather around the coffin to shout the promise that there would be justice for the crime committed. These scenes were recorded in the short documentary film "Stop Killing Us "[2] which I posted on social networks in the following days.

On May 7th, armed attacks against the Medical Mission and protesters took place for several hours at La Luna’s resistance point. I published the videos that revealed the crimes via a Twitter thread directed at the secretary of security, Carlos Rojas:

“@SoyCarlosRojas While groups of gunmen attack the Medical Mission and the Human Rights Defenders from motorcycles and trucks, what is the police helicopter doing that is circling the area? Why aren’t they stopping the gunmen? Are they escorting them?”[3]

“Neither @RiascosOrlando, Secretary of the Office of Government, nor the Secretary of Security for the Mayor of Cali @SoyCarlosRojas, respond to the Human Rights organizations, nor do they answer my phone calls. Meanwhile, #NosEstanMatando (#TheyAreKillingUs) in the streets of Cali.”[4]

Five unidentified gunmen were shooting at the peaceful protestors from a white Toyota Prado. Arriving at the place where they found the indigenous minga [an indigenous cooperative effort and important element of Colombia’s popular resistance], they began a persecution in which one of the minga participants was able to capture one of the men, who admitted that he was working for the National Police. According to the Regional Indigenous Counsel of Cauca (CRIC), there were five people who attacked the protestors, leaving three people wounded, one of them badly.[5]

I later found out from a column written by Alfredo Molano Jimeno that “An order arrived at the offices of Cali gunmen, with a million-peso rate of reward for whoever might kill someone giving aid during the protests. This explains the violence that we have been living under (…). The information was corroborated by the same good-old-boys in the offices, who are the guys that live where there are the hardest points of confrontation. One approached where a medical friend and warned her to be careful as they had received an order to attack them.”[6]

The “crime” of protesting

According to the activist James Patrick Jordan, from the Alliance for Global Justice, which is one of the primary organizations that raised funds for medical supplies to support street medics on the ground: “Cali was used as an experiment to rapidly gain total control over an urban area. What was going on seemed to be an attempt to impose a concentrated municipal version of the Pentagon's DIMEFIL strategy for ‘nation-building’. DIMEFIL stands for military coordination of diplomatic, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement components in the invasion, occupation and administration of a targeted country, reconstructed according to the specifications of the U.S. Empire and NATO.”[7]

These governmental operations had left as a balance (up to June 12),  in the Department of  Valle del Cauca alone: 73 killed, 1,512 injured, 25 cases of aggressions against human rights defenders, 306 detentions, 168 reported cases of missing persons (of which 81 were found alive, 1 was found dead, 3 are still missing and 83 have no information).[8] According to the report "Sexual Violence and Other Violence against Women in the Context of the National Strike of Colombia 2021”, delivered to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) by social organizations, from April 28 to June 2, 2021, the police had committed 307 arbitrary and illegal detentions, 48 cases of sexual violence, 32 cases of gender violence, and 491 cases of excessive use of force against women.[9]

On the web page of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission,[10] they published reports of the existence of mass graves in the rural areas of the municipalities of Buga and Yumbo where the bodies of many young men from Cali were being taken, which had been transported in trucks that, apparently, make up part of the fleet used by the police for their mobility. "In some of these, young people were taken at night to the sector known as Mulaló, a district of Yumbo, located 30 minutes from Cali. There, in a previously prepared place they would be unloading bodies of young people from the People’s Barrios that participate in the mobilizations, and who are considered missing (...) They could have installed a Chop House [a place where the bodies of those killed by gunmen and police are dismembered] in the exclusive place of Ciudad Jardín".

From petty-bourgeois, social-democratic sectors, sensational stories began to spread. The networks were filled with warnings, opinion pieces masquerading as analysis[11] and appeals to the Strike Committee, from self-described "moderates" (but with clear conservative positions), proclaiming that any blockade would favor the right-wing. They also called on the young people to withdraw the barricades, arguing that Duque's government would not negotiate or make pacts if the points of resistance in the People’s Barrios and towns continued. In short, that these blockades would be the opportunity dreamed of by the fascists to strike the demonstrators with all the brutality they could muster and prolong the conflict until the people are worn out, with the demonstrations not succeeding in altering the profits of the miners, bankers, and other swamp weeds. So that, by the art of magic, the tool that the working class had at its disposal (the strike), had already been transformed into a weapon of the counterrevolutionaries, who would not fail to take advantage of this popular insurrection in order to drown it in blood and prevent the election of a social-democratic government.

[TRANSLATION OF TWEET] “In the National Strike, so that they UNDERSTAND that the intolerable cannot be more tolerated, the young people imposed the blockade and made their protest UNDERSTANDABLE. But the TOTAL AND PROLONGED BLOCKADE makes the protest intolerable because it violates the rights and vulnerates  the dignity of the multitudes" This message was published in the account of Francisco de Roux, President of the Truth Commission of the Armed Conflict[12]

No more blockades! No more insurrections! Let everyone stay home!

Without doubt, the experiment of total control of the DIMEFIL strategy is coming to pass. However, the balance was not very favorable to the Government (headed by the Centro Democrático party, which manages all the branches of the State): in one month of demonstrations two - the tax and health reforms - had been overturned; Alberto Carrasquilla, the Minister of Finance, and Claudia Blum, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, resigned; the purchase of military airplanes for several million dollars was suspended; a commander at the head of the Cali Police resigned; the Mayor of Cali also asked all his secretaries to resign; that same week in Congress, a Motion of Censure was made against the Minister of Defense, with emphasis on the human rights violations that were occurring against protesters throughout the country. The dream of total control was shattered, and to top it all off, the international community had its eyes on the dictatorship. All this while Uribismo was imploding under the possibility that its beacon, light and guide would be imprisoned. The fascists were desperate. [Uribismo refers to the far right political movement led by former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who is a mentor to current President Iván Duque.]

Kill the messenger

“There are 25,000 weapons here in the ward, and we don't use them to defend ourselves, but if we have to..." shouted Carlos Andrés Betancourt threateningly to a student who was demonstrating in front of the Universidad del Valle. The threat, made on May 4, was filmed and quickly went viral on social networks. Betancourt was a member of the Centro Democrático Party [the Party of Uribe and Duque] and was president of the Local Administration Council (JAL) until February 9, 2021, and was mayor of Cali's Ward 22 (comprising the neighborhoods of Ciudad Jardín and Pance, where politicians, businessmen and drug traffickers[13] reside).

On May 8, I received a death threat in my messenger inbox from an account called "Fabian Ortiz". In his profile it could be seen that he was part of the Public Forces, specifically in a Military Police unit, since in a photo he could be seen wearing military police uniforms. The threat said "the hunt has begun and today I recorded them all. One by one you will fall, I swear to you, no one knows what tail that the other one is carrying".

The following day there was a paramilitary attack in the vicinity of La María church in Ciudad Jardín, against a group of indigenous people who were moving along that road towards the University of Valle. Armed persons, escorted by the police, shot from high-end pickup trucks and also on foot, in broad daylight, against the demonstrators[14] who were traveling in busses from Cauca. During the attack, other "good people" from places nearby hurled racist insults and more threats. Some of the indigenous people threw stones at the pickup trucks the shots were coming from. According to the official communiqué of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), at least 10 people were injured. The blood that was so treacherously spilled stained the whole city and this act was an offense against humanity.

Over the course of that week I was informed of high-end vans that were, strangely, parking in front of my house and staying there for hours keeping watch. Then, after detecting my communications performing unusually, I ran a test with the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) Software, which concluded with a report stating, “Network tampering. On May 11, 2021, 11:02 PM UTC, network traffic was manipulated when contacting our control servers. This means that there might be a middlebox on AS3816 [that's my network number] in Colombia, which could be responsible for censorship and/or surveillance”.

On May 13, I was with Alexander Houghton, a journalist from Channel 4 (England), covering the field reconstruction of the massacre in Siloé, for the international media. While we were recording the street and the place where a homicide attributable to the National Police occurred, I took a video that included the façade of the "El Lido" Police Station building. When they saw us filming, a couple of policemen armed with rifles approached us and told us that we could not take those images, and asked me to present my "journalist's card". When I showed them my journalism graduate's card, they then asked me for other personal information and my phone number, which turned into a registration.

At about 6:00 p.m., a Christian pastor who was on the scene came to intercede for me, telling the policemen that he had heard that we were being held and prevented from doing our journalistic work. His mediation made it possible for us to leave the place. We thanked him and headed for the parking lot a block away where we had our car.

We took the car and drove to the Obelisco Hotel, where we unloaded our luggage and talked about the journalistic work we were doing and the incident described above, while waiting for my taxi. Before the cab arrived, between 9 and 9:30 pm, two men arrived on a motorcycle, the rider got off and came towards us with a gun in his hand, and told us to give him our cell phones and if we didn't, he would kill us. We gave him the phones, but he also took a suitcase full of equipment and a computer. The man went to the motorcycle and returned only to take the hard drive that contained the material we had filmed when we were harassed and obstructed by the National Police in Lido. "don't make yourself be killed for this," he threatened as he held up the disk in his hands. He got on the motorcycle again and left.

That night I spent at the Obelisco Hotel, since the conditions were not safe for me to leave or to move from there. The following day, May 14, Darnelly Rodriguez, the survivor of the police attack against the Human Rights defenders at Fray Damián, arrived to pick me up with a social organization’s security detail. I was being protected by an armored car with the windshield glass broken by the shots they had received a few nights earlier. I moved with my family to a safe place.

When my co-worker, Houghton, asked the workers at the Obelisco hotel for access to the videos of the theft, they told him that the videos had not been recorded. Information that contradicted the version of the hotel workers on the night of May 13, when, after the robbery, they said that the videos were in the recorder and that they would be delivered the next day.

During that week I was informed that on several occasions people in civilian clothes armed with long rifles were observed patrolling the block of my house. I reported these circumstances to the Foundation for Freedom of the Press, who helped me with tickets and travel and per diems to leave the city in the following days, as my journalistic work was still in progress.

On May 22, I was able to interview a colleague, who asked to keep her source confidential, since during the coverage of April 29 she was kidnapped by people dressed in civilian clothes who took her to a police station, tortured her physically and psychologically, and put her in an unmarked car with members of the police. In the vehicle, the police continued to torture her with beatings and taser shocks. They threatened to rape her, murder her and disappear her body, leaving her lying in a ditch on the Cali-Palmira highway, or they would take her to the border in Cúcuta, they repeated. Looking for answers, she said in tears that she thought she had been saved because she had shouted out that her father was a police sergeant. That night she was released her at the People's Coliseum with a summons for not respecting the curfew.

That same day, in the evening hours, a group of journalists, including two journalists from a Swiss media outlet and the videographer Jahfrann, went to cover clashes between demonstrators and the public forces in front of an Éxito warehouse in the east of the city. The disturbances had arisen because the day before local residents declared that they had heard screams coming from the Éxito store, and that these screams sounded like people being tortured. The neighbors also claimed that the following day, trucks without license plates had arrived to take out bags that looked like bodies. On May 21, Human Rights organizations and the corresponding institutions arrived on the scene: Ombudsman's Office and the Secretary of Peace for the Mayor's Office. However, police officers stationed at the site delayed the entry of these organizations and the press for almost half a day. Upon entering, the delegates found that there was blood on various products and in the refrigeration room. In addition, they found evidence that before they entered, a cleaning had been carried out that altered the scene, and that there were no recordings from the security cameras.

The night of the demonstrations, the GOES (Special Operations and Anti-Terrorism Command Unit) and ESMAD were concentrated in the Éxito. The First Line, who were a group of young people wearing construction helmets and tin shields, were protecting the press. A laser from the Éxito aimed at the group, then a shot rang out and hit Felipe Meléndez's head. The young people of the First Line and the reporters had to carry Felipe to a hospital, where he remains in the Intensive Care Unit.

On May 25, due to the increased risk level, I left Cali for the city of Pasto. From there I continued the work of documenting the National Strike, which in that city also had epic dimensions.

On May 26, the short documentary film "Colombia: Young protesters and disappeared"[15] was released on Facebook Watch, Twitter and Instagram, on which I had worked for Channel 4. The posts had around 200,000 views. A small victory for a journalist against brutal censorship.

On May 28, 2021, President Ivan Duque issued decree 575, which ordered "Measures for the preservation and reestablishment of public order (...): Decree a curfew, in the face of any significant alteration of public order and that, by virtue of this, it is necessary (...) to coordinate with the military and police authorities of the department, the military assistance referred to in Article 170 of Law 1801 of 2016, in such a way that the department, the district and the municipalities, put into in execution of this legal instrument to confront and overcome the events that give rise to the serious alteration of security and coexistence in their respective jurisdictions. 2) Adopt the necessary measures, in coordination with the security forces, to lift the internal blockades that are currently occurring on the roads of their in their jurisdictions, as well as to avoid the installation of new blockades.”

The application of this decree would effectively generate a state of internal commotion, in which constitutional norms would be permanently suspended, as explained in the tutela presented by Senator Iván Cepeda of the Polo Democrático: “substituting the sanctioning power of the State and attributes to the Public Forces functions that exceed their competence. This means that in Colombia the possibility is created "in fact" that the military and police authorities co-administer, in matters of public order, with the civilian authorities, and creating a scenario conducive to the occurrence of serious human rights violations.”[16]

That day marked one month since the beginning of the national strike. From the brief exile I saw the videos of a gunman named Fredy Bermudez, who at the La Luna point assassinated two demonstrators: Luis Eduardo Lopez Solano, a security guard at the Cali Municipal Theater, who was in solidarity with the demonstrators; and Juan Pablo Cabrera, who was 18 years old and in his last year of high school. The assassin was lynched to death by a crowd. A video was broadcast on Channel 2 showing that the gunman was carrying identification cards as an active investigator for the CTI of the Attorney General's Office, also of the Armed Forces, and of the now defunct Administrative Department of Security (DAS). In the video that was disseminated via social networks, it can be seen that someone spat on the corpse of the Public Forces assassin.

On Sunday, May 30, the mayor of Cali, Jorge Iván Ospina, appointed the retired colonel, Carlos Javier Soler Parra as the new Secretary of Security. The position had not been held by a military officer since the time of General Rojas Pinilla's dictatorship.[17] This authoritarian measure reinforced the path that the Mayor had taken days before the strike began, when he posted on twitter the following message: "We must act differently, the criminals gain strength and the capacity for resolve is limited. It is necessary to create Brigades and Citizen Security Networks."[18] The militarization of the city had been justified by Mayor Ospina on May 4, in an interview broadcast by Caracol Radio, in which he stated that:

"We are under the most vile attack since August 7 of ‘56, the most painful and tragic event of our city (...) a conflict of vile attack, nightly, that mobilizes and has a dynamic of a wasp operation, in diverse sectors of the city (...). I believe that we are facing a new doctrine of conflict in Colombia. A doctrine oriented to provoke anarchy, to fracture the institutionality (...). When you ask me who is behind it, this is the question I have asked the Attorney General's Office on several occasions, I have asked the same question to the Colombian Army, to the National Police, and even today I am asking the same question to international organizations (...). I believe that the solution is an effort of all of us, of all, and it is not to blame each other. Now, there are indeed some calls to the National Government, and we need to have intelligence. Do not tell me that we do not know who is artfully financing the motorcyclists who are causing damage. Do not tell me that you do not know yet why they have detailed plans of Cali, and act over commercial centers at night, when we constantly insist that they should be protected. And do not tell me that there is not a very organized action, I would even dare to say driven by international networks, taking the fire to the city of Cali. I invite you all to be very calm: to the national government, to President Duque, to the Ministers, to the military, to the police officers(...) they are coming for our institutionality. They are coming to break our Constitution and look for a supra-constitutional way out and that cannot be. We need to unite, we cannot spend one more minute without having the intelligence of this new type of doctrine that leads Cali to violence and war ".[19]

On the passion to silence

On the afternoon of June 3, I landed in Cali and headed straight to a meeting with UN Human Rights Office, the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) and journalists who had been victims of attacks during the National Strike. Before the meeting began, I spoke with one of the people from FLIP, to whom I mentioned a bit about what had happened to me, and that it reminded me of the context of the murder of Julio Daniel Chaparro. By a wonderful coincidence of life, the person I was talking to was Daniel Chaparro, son of the great journalist and poet Julio Daniel Chaparro (RIP), murdered in 1991 during a journalistic work called "Lo que la Violencia Se Llevó" (What the Violence Took Away). Journalist Claudia Julieta Duque described his death as follows: "you were killed in Segovia, a mining town where you traveled to report on a massacre, two years earlier, of more than 40 people at the hands of paramilitaries. You were killed minutes after a patrol with four National Army soldiers intercepted you and Jorge to ask who you were and what you were doing in that town nestled in the mountains of the Central Mountains where a couple of tourists hardly ever get to. You identified yourselves and revealed that you were going to the cemetery. It was almost 6:00 p.m., and the soldiers were suspicious about it, but they let you go.”

I didn't miss the opportunity to tell Daniel how much I admired his father. Julio Daniel's journalistic style was a poetic prose that transgressed the dryness of news in its denunciations. The words of his essay "Generation Ambushed" have full validity today: "ambushed in a territory where pain is easy and multiplies daily, our young poets also suffer from the country that corresponded to us, and they have suffered it in many ways over the last few years, which have been, by the way, a succession of days and hours full of cruelty and horror”.

During the meeting with UN Human Rights Office, each journalist explained what had happened to him or her. I remember that a photographer named Juan Cedeño mentioned the assassination attempt he suffered at the hands of paramilitaries while covering the May 28 demonstrations in Ciudad Jardín. He showed a video he filmed in which bullets whistled past him. I had seen videos on social networks that had recorded paramilitaries armed with rifles and escorted by police, shooting at demonstrators that day.

I was able to interview Jahfrann about the gunmen’s attacks against the press on the 28th following the march that had passed peacefully from Siloé to the University of Valle, in commemoration of the month-long strike. Jahfrann, who had been shot at least twelve times during the strike, confirmed that on that day the police and paramilitaries fired directly at the journalists present, clarifying that the reporters were wearing clothing that clearly identified them as press. He himself published a video in which he shouted at the attackers "we are press! We are press!", and it can be seen how they continued firing. That day, while Jahfrann filmed the paramilitaries acting hand in hand with the police, they tried to kidnap a woman from a medical brigade. With his camera still rolling, Jahfrann questioned the police about the legality of what was happening; in another segment of his recording, a police officer stated that the armed civilians were not part of that institution. Despite this, the police and paramilitary groups detained him and the group of journalists he was with and threatened to steal their equipment, kidnap them and torture them. In an interview that I conducted with Cristhian Echeverry, leader of the Medical Mission, Echeverry stated that in the context of the demonstrations of that day, 11 people were killed in Cali, 964 wounded were treated (counting all types of serious injuries), and that 25 people wounded by firearms were treated at the health brigade located at the University of Valle alone.

On June 4, while covering the Paso del Aguante neighborhood, in the eastern part of the city, the journalist Alberto Tejada of Channel 2 was broadcasting live, when a policeman who was inside the local post told him "it bears to shoot him with a bullet”[20] Tejada went to question the person who made this threat, but the policeman hid. According to Tejada in another transmission, "these were the exact words heard by the lawyers who were present here. The guy hides. The commander does not force him to get out, but he tells us that we must leave.” During the transmission, while Tejada complained to the other police about these serious acts, one of the uniformed men wearing a hood was filming him. 

In the evening hours of June 4, my colleague Juan Cedeño, who works for an independent media outlet called Catarsis, was covering the night hours in Paso del Aguante, in the Chiminangos sector. In an interview he told me that he was transmitting the activities of ESMAD live who had captured a journalist from the group Univalle Unida, "they were beating him, they beat him and they knocked down his cell phone. Cedeño approached while he continued with the transmission and ESMAD began to harass him. Cedeño asked them why they were attacking someone who was identified as Press, and he showed them that the journalist’s vest said FLIP (Freedom of the Press Foundation). The police began to throw stones at Cedeño, trying to knock down his phone. In the transmission he shouts that he is being assaulted, and the police grab him and try to kidnap him, taking him from the units in the Chiminangos sector to Carrera Primera, while they beat him. Nevertheless he was wearing a Reporters Without Borders bullet-proof vest from Paris, and was protected from the blows. Finally, when the police realized that another reporter from the same media was filming them, they released him.

That night a video was broadcast in which a French journalist named Charles Gross-Shelton, who was covering the events in Paso del Comercio, was injured by a blunt object thrown by the police. The object broke his gas mask and hit his septum. His helmet was also destroyed.

That night, videos were released showing the health volunteers insistently resuscitating a wounded man, while others from the brigade held up tables as shields to cover them from the gunfire that rang out in the background. According to what I was told by a leader of the Medical Brigade, in the latest report that includes the three Medical Mission points in the sector, that night they registered 118 wounded and two people were killed by firearms as part of the repression of the protest.

On June 9, Jairo Restrepo Cáceres, President of the Administrative Court of Cauca, revealed that the Tenth Administrative Judge of the Popayán Circuit, Yenny Ximena Cuetia Fernández, had received personal threats and threats to her family after she ordered the high command of the police to "immediately suspend the use of the electric multiple launcher called ‘Venom’ in the city of Popayán, in any place”.[21] Venom is a potentially lethal multiple projectile weapon, which the police had used to attack protesters.

That day I attended a meeting with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), for a working session with the Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. The lobby of the Hotel Torre de Cali was full of people who in one way or another had been victimized. The IACHR rapporteur was Pedro Vaca, who, along with one of the commissioners, listened attentively to the multiple cases of violations of press freedom. Among them, I would like to highlight the case of Gustavo Adolfo Flores, a journalist from Andalucía who recounted the following facts:

"Last May 30, I was the victim of an arbitrary retention by the Commander of the Local Police Station, Lieutenant John Porras. The gentleman asked me for a search, asked me for my documents, made me get into the patrol car and took me to the police station. There they take away my phone, they make me unblock it in a way... well, they force me, they threaten to beat me. They search my phone for about 40 minutes, then they make me get into a patrol car. In the cell of the patrol car they tell me that they are going to prosecute me. They then take me back to the office and start to reproach me for why I am doing this kind of coverage, why I don't emphasize the vandals. They start to check my phone in more detail, they tell me that as in previous days I had been covering the a mountainous area of Tuluá, which is an area of guerrilla influence called Santa Lucía, they ask me what I was doing around there. They make me lift up the sleeve of my jeans, they tell me that they are checking me to see if I have boot marks. They tell me that I was the commander of the resistance at the Y point, which is a point where a blockade was carried out between the municipality of Andalucía and Bugalagrande, where young people from the two municipalities and all the demonstrators joined together. They tell me that I am the leader there, that I am alias 'El Profe' [‘The Teacher’]. They tell me that I commanded an attack that they carried out or a detention that they did to some plainclothes policemen who shot at the demonstrators. They tell me that I am responsible for all of that. Then after about 3 hours of being in that detention they tell me that they are going to give me a summons for not wearing a mask. Then the Commander of the police station, when they force me to sign a report saying that I was treated correctly, that I was not beaten, he comes up to me and shows me a picture of my house, from outside my house, he says the following words to me: "see you dog, son of a whore, when all this is over you are going to be the first one we are going to look for". Immediately they let me go, I went to the park where the mayor is, her name is Giselle Arcila Poso, I tell her about the case, she tells me not to give it my attention, that he threatened me in a moment of anger.”

That day, while we were giving our statements to the IACHR, my colleague who had been kidnapped and tortured by the police received a phone call declaring her a "military target”.

That night, a colleague from Channel 2, who was also among the people who gave their testimony before the IACHR, was covering an attack by the police against demonstrators in the Andrés Sanín sector. As part of the coverage, Channel 2 journalists, together with filmmaker Emanuel Giraldo, were attacked by ESMAD shots of tear gas, which also attacked homes in the neighborhood, even firing directly at a pregnant woman who was fleeing from her home due to the gas and who was protected by members of the front line with homemade shields.

I met with Emanuel the next day to provide him with an armored helmet, a gas mask and a salbutamol (in case he was suffocating in the upcoming coverage). At the meeting he told me details of what happened. That night the power and internet signal was cut, so the live transmission of Channel 2 was interrupted. I had received through social networks a video of the murder of a protester whose name I could only establish hours later, due to signal blockages. His name was Elkin Andres Fernandez, and according to versions that I gathered, Elkin had a laser pointed at his head and then he died from a police bullet that entered through his septum.

Elkin lived with his mother and drove a motorcycle. His family, who depended on him, had no money to pay for the burial. Through a small campaign, in which I participated, we were able to raise some funds for them, which were gratefully received by his brother Alexander. The closer I got to the victims, the more I stood up for those at the bottom. It is unheard of that any little officer considers himself an unappealable judge and shoots anyone in a poor neighborhood. Melany Vallejo, a paramedic who was at the scene, confirmed to me that that night there were 2 dead and 35 wounded as a result of the police attack.

I found out through a group of journalists on WhatsApp about a news story that said that the judge in Bucaramanga, Ramiro Andrés Rivero Álvarez, had stated that: "in recent months we have been seeing how the police have become a terrorist force", and that the Police would initiate legal actions against him in criminal and disciplinary matters.[22]

On June 21 I posted on my Facebook profile a video showing the presence of army snipers, with long-range rifles, located in Puerto Resistencia. The uniformed men were aiming from behind a tree at the demonstrators there. The video went viral and had more than 700.000 views and was shared 96,000 times. The following day I published images of military encampments in the La Nueva base neighborhood, as well as of military personnel on the terraces of the houses in that neighborhood, close to the Thousand Struggles Bridge, where there was a concentration of demonstrators. Moments later I received in my Messenger mailbox a cordial greeting from a profile named Breyner Andres, who said: "keep defending these vandals and we'll make y run away like the son of a bitch toad of Alarcon you toad son of a bitch" (SIC).

The events narrated here occurred during the dictatorial regime of Uribismo, which had been in power for two decades: Eight years under Álvaro Uribe, eight under his successor Juan Manuel Santos, and almost three under his puppet, President Iván Duque, who came to office with the electoral support of the dead, the vote of the registry office, and the power and arrogance of the drug traffickers. Only a faker would respect what is not respectable.

One afternoon of one of those days in June, the date of which I do not want to remember, I passed again through the La Luna sector, which was completely militarized. At a wall of a gas pump graffiti could be read:  THE PEOPLE ARE HUNGRY".


[1] Report “Agresiones contra defensores y defensoras de DDHH en el marco del Paro Nacional” Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network and Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners. June 1, 2021.

[2] Documentary “Paren de Matarnos”. Directed by David Escobar.



[5] The new was published in the magazines Pulzo, Semana and on the Twitter account of CRIC:

[6] e-los-violentos-column/

[7] “Winners, Losers, and Human Rights Abusers in Colombia’s National Strike”. James Patrick Jordan. May 29, 2021.

[8] Statistics from the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network.

[9] The organisations: Casa de la Mujer, Comunitar -Corporación de Mujeres Ecofeministas, Corporación Humanas, Corporación Jurídica Libertad, Defender la Libertad Asunto de Todas, Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos, Proceso Social de Garantías para la Labor de los Líderes y Lideresas SocialesComunales, Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos de Antioquia, Instituto Internacional sobre Raza, Igualdad y Derechos Humanos, Ruta Pacífica de Mujeres, Sisma Mujer, Vamos Mujer, Women’s Link Worldwide.

[10] Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace (2021) Available at: as-de-pique/

[11] See "Un mundo sin análisis o la opinión mimetizada" de Hernán Toro. Revista Nexus, 2008, p. 37.




[15] 474111/


[17] ronel/



[20] distas-de-canal-2