Author: Lisa Haugaard
Teenagers and young men and women in their twenties showed me the scars where the bullets had shot through their arms, legs, and bodies. And told me about the young people who were killed.
Was this in a war zone? No, I was visiting the city of Cali, Colombia, where Colombian police and the ESMAD riot squad had fired live bullets and shot tear gas, rubber bullets, and other projectiles directly at young protesters as well as at the first aid medics treating the wounded, the human rights defenders accompanying the young people, and the journalists trying to cover the protests. We interviewed dozens of protesters, medics, human rights defenders, church leaders, and victims of police brutality. I was there as part of an international verification mission on the right to protest in Colombia.
We visited the poor community of Siloé, where witnesses told us how on May 3, as community members were gathered at the vigil of a young man killed the day before, the lights went out, a helicopter flew directly overhead and cast light down on the crowd, and sharpshooters aimed at those assembled for the vigil. Six people were killed that day and almost two dozen were wounded—according to witnesses, by the police and ESMAD.
During the two months of protests, the longest and most widespread in Colombia’s history, at least 44 people have been killed by Colombian security forces, according to the NGO Temblores. They started out protesting against government policies that left them hungry and unemployed—and then they kept the rallies going to protest police brutality.
Despite the massive security aid the U.S. government supplies to Colombia, our government has barely managed to say a few words about respecting the right to peaceful protest.
How You Can Help
Here’s my report, Protests and Police Brutality, on what I saw in Cali. Please send a link of the report to your members of Congress and ask them to: 1) urge the Colombian government to respect the right to peaceful protest and release persons arbitrarily detained; 2) tell the Secretary of State to freeze police assistance to Colombia until human rights violations against protesters stop, human rights violations by police and ESMAD are being effectively investigated and prosecuted in civilian courts, and a serious police reform is being instituted that includes moving the police under a civilian agency, dismantling the ESMAD, revising use of force protocols, and addressing discrimination and abuses against women, LGBTQ persons, indigenous and Afro Colombian groups, and youth.
Fill out this form to send our message to your representative. We’ve already written it for you (though feel free to edit)! All you have to do is enter your contact information.
Find your representative here. Call their office and read the script below!
“My name is [First and Last Name] and I’m a constituent calling from [City, State, Zip Code]. Since April 28, there has been massive police brutality against protesters in Colombia—including at least 44 protesters and bystanders killed by police, mostly young people, many of them members of Colombia’s indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. The U.S. plays a role in this violence as our government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year in U.S. taxpayer aid for Colombia, including for the police and military. Please read the Latin America Working Group’s memo on police brutality in Cali by visiting lawg.org/police-brutality-cali.
I’m calling you to urge you to sign on to Rep. Hank Johnson’s Dear Colleague letter to Secretary Blinken, which calls on the U.S. government to place police assistance to Colombia on hold until police brutality stops, victims receive justice, and a thorough police reform is carried out. The letter also calls on the U.S. government to urge the Colombian government to prioritize the rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples in Colombia and fully implement the ethnic chapter of the peace accords.
With the massive aid the United States provides to Colombia, our government bears responsibility for this police brutality. Please ask your boss to sign Rep. Johnson’s letter by Friday, August 6.”
On my trip I also saw signs of hope. The young people, who call themselves la primera línea (the frontline), who are protesting and organizing because they need food, they need jobs, they need access to education. But also because they have a vision of improving their communities and building a more caring Colombia. They were forging new alliances between city and country, between poor and better-off youth, between indigenous, Afro, and other young Colombians. I left inspired by their creativity, their daring, and their strong bonds of solidarity. Let’s do all we can for them.