Colombian police used sexual violence to punish protesters: Amnesty International

Police carried out widespread sexual and gender-based violence, including rape and torture, against girls and women who they detained during massive National Strike protests across Colombia in April-June last year. They also targeted LGBTQ people over their sexual orientation. The findings are laid bare in an extensive investigation by Amnesty International, published in a new report in English entitled The Police Does Not Care for Me (also available in Spanish).

‘Having documented 28 of these incidents in depth, it’s clear that gender-based violence was a tool of repression that the National Police used to punish those who dared to speak out and protest,’ said Amnesty’s Secretary General, Agnes Callamard. The report documents specific cases of people sexually abused by police officers in the cities of Cali, Palmira, Popayan, Soledad, Tunja, Manizales and Bogota.

The abuses occurred during protests against the then-administration of President Iván Duque over inequality, human rights violations and government disregard for the peace process. Faced with the country’s largest mobilisations in decades, coordinated by trade unions and social movements, ministers falsely stigmatised protesters as ‘terrorists’ and ‘vandals.’

According to the National Ombudsman and backed up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, there were at least 112 reports of sexual violence committed by police during the protests. This was intended to punish and humiliate detainees.

These cases occurred alongside other appalling abuses perpetrated by the police. Colombian human rights organisations have documented 44 people killed by police (a figure put at 29 by the Attorney General’s Office), over 100 permanent eye injuries caused by police projectiles and thousands of physical assaults and illegal arrests. Police also attacked journalists, human rights observers and volunteer medics.  

Agents in the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) were behind a high number of the abuses. The ESMAD’s disbandment formed a core demand of the National Strike movement owing to its brutal history of human rights violations and killings of unarmed people, mainly young. The report says that police would detain groups of young people, then separate the women and girls before groping, insulting and raping them.

Victims’ testimonies make for harrowing reading in the report, which uses false names to protect the identities of those affected.

One woman, Rosario, and her daughter, Natalia, were both shot with police projectiles. Then, an ESMAD agent attempted to drown Natalia in a well, while Rosario was kicked and beaten before another agent tried to remove her trousers in order to sexually assault her.

Two young women, Camila and Sofia, reported having suffered police abuse to another ESMAD official. ‘They insulted me, telling me that if I didn’t want these things to happen to me, I had to stay at home,’ said Sofia.

According to Amnesty, police violence sought to ‘punish those who, by deciding to take to the streets to protest, broke with stereotypes and socially assigned gender roles. This violence was also directed against people with diverse gender identity and/or expression and/or sexual orientation, or perceived as such, who during demonstrations found a way to express their dissent.’

Victims detail the emotional consequences of the abuses. A sense of insecurity has affected personal, social and work relationships. Others feel shame or guilt. Low self-esteem has caused some victims to question their social roles. The report registers cases of depression, anxiety and insomnia.

One particular case generated widespread revulsion at the time. Social media footage showed police dragging a 17-year-old away as she shouted that they were removing her trousers. She subsequently reported that they had sexually abused her. The following day, she took her life. Two officers are currently under investigation in that case.

Another protester, identified as Gabriel, was arrested and subjected to verbal abuse by other prisoners over his sexual orientation, which is LGBTQ. He was forced to perform oral sex on two prisoners as police or prison officials looked on. Two of Gabriel’s friends were slapped and sexually assaulted. In the days following his release, pamphlets bearing his face and mocking him over what had occurred were distributed in the town of Pueblo Nuevo, Atlántico, where he lived. He had to leave the area as a result.

Around 90 per cent of cases remain unresolved, with impunity continuing to protect state agents responsible for shocking abuses. In its conclusions, Amnesty International recommends that Colombia’s recently elected government enact policies to suspend any state agent implicated in acts of sexual or gender-based violence in the context of protests. Victims should be compensated and receive guarantees over non-repetition. It also calls on the Attorney General’s Office to undertake more thorough investigations into such cases and to ensure that agents responsible for abuses are publicly held to account.

Download or read the report here