Colombia: Abuses Amid Massive Demonstrations

Police detain an anti-government demonstrator during a nationwide strike in Bogota, Colombia, on November 21, 2019.


© 2019 AP Photo/Ivan Valencia

(New York) – The Colombian National Police, in a number of instances, abused the mostly peaceful demonstrators protesting throughout the country in late 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. Efforts to ensure accountability have been limited.

Since November 21, a national strike has mobilized thousands of Colombians to the streets to protest issues ranging from tax reform proposals to the killing of human rights defenders. While the protests were mostly peaceful, some demonstrators committed acts of violence, including attacking police officers with rocks, looting, and burning public and private property, particularly in Bogotá and Cali. In several cases, the police used excessive force against protesters, including beatings and improper use of “less-than-lethal” weapons during crowd-control operations.

“We have gathered worrying accounts and evidence of abuses by Colombia’s police, including arbitrary detention and brutal beatings against peaceful protesters, detainees, and bystanders,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “President Duque should send a clear message that these violations will not be tolerated and the authorities should ensure that those responsible for violations are held to account.”

Between November 2019 and February 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 victims of abuse, their relatives, human rights lawyers, and government officials, corroborated videos published on social media, reviewed medical reports and criminal complaints, and requested information from the Attorney General’s Office, the Defense Ministry, and the Inspector-General’s Office. Human Rights Watch also met in Bogotá with government officials, including Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Police Director Oscar Atehortua Duque, and then-Attorney General Fabio Espitia.

Espitia told Human Rights Watch on January 22, 2020 that his office was investigating 72 cases of possible abuse by police officers during the protests. No one had been charged at the time. The Defense Ministry said that his military justice system was investigating 32 alleged cases of abuses connected to the protests. Under international human rights law, alleged abuses by security officers should instead be investigated by the civilian justice system.

One such case involved the death of Dilan Cruz, 17. On November 23, a member of a special anti-riot police force (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) shot Cruz in the head with a “bean bag round,” intended to be aimed at arms or legs to limit injuries, in downtown Bogotá while he was participating in a demonstration. He died two days later.

On January 14, 2020, the Inspector-General’s Office, an independent body, asked the National Police to suspend the use of the 12-gauge shotguns used when Cruz was killed. The office told Human Rights Watch that policemen have limited training in using the weapon, at times by officers who are not trained to use them. Atehortua Duque said that each officer has to roughly estimate the safe distance to fire. He said in late January that the police still use the shotguns despite the Inspector-General’s Office request.

Human Rights Watch documented six cases in which police brutally beat demonstrators and bystanders, including Carlos Steyler Obregon Ramírez, 24, whom officers attacked as he passed protesters while returning from work.

There is also evidence that police have arbitrarily detained peaceful demonstrators and bystanders, as well as some journalists covering protests. 213 people were detained and 1,662 others were “transferred” to administrative detention centers in connection to the national strike in 2019, the head of the National Police told Human Rights Watch on January 27.

In some cases, police officers misused a provision in Colombian law allowing the police to “transfer” a person to an “assistance or protection center” to “protect” them or others. The law allows for such “transfer” only when it is the “only means available to prevent a risk to life or physical integrity” and requires first contacting relatives of the person or taking them to a health center. Human Rights found no such risk in several cases reviewed.

In a December 7, 2019 case, the police detained a reporter and when she refused to hand over her phone, dragged her by her hair and took her to an administrative detention unit, saying they were detaining her for her “protection.”

Since November 23, Colombian authorities have expelled 61 foreign nationals, including 60 Venezuelans and 1 Peruvian, whom they accused of committing activities that compromise public order and national security, according to Colombia’s Migration Office. The Colombian authorities had repeatedly accused Venezuelans and the government of Nicolás Maduro of instigating the protests, without providing any evidence. Some of these expulsions appear to be arbitrary.

While protests have been mostly peaceful, some protesters engaged in serious acts of violence. According to the police, 76 stations and 69 buses of the public transportation system in Bogota and Cali were vandalized, in addition to 12 ATMs, 4 banks, 5 public facilities, and 7 police stations. The Defense Ministry told Human Rights Watch on March 3, 2020 that 377 police officers had been injured in connection with the protests.

For additional information and selected cases documented by Human Rights Watch, please see below.

Selected Cases

Killing of Dilan Cruz
On November 23, 2019 a member of a special anti-riot police force (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) shot a “bean bag round” at 17-year-old protester, Dilan Cruz, in downtown Bogotá. Cruz was transferred to a hospital, and died two days later.

A bean bag round consists of a small fabric pillow filled with pellets, most commonly made of lead. They are meant to be fired at extremities to reduce injuries. An ESMAD official told the media that the police used 12-gauge shotguns to fire bean-bag-type ammunition that contains 600 to 700 lead pellets. Several videos posted on social media that Human Rights Watch was able to verify, and a witness interviewed, indicated that Cruz was shot from about 20 meters away, which experts consulted by Human Rights Watch say is too far to accurately aim at extremities.

On December 12, the Supreme Judiciary Council sent the case to the military penal system, saying that the events “occurred as part of an act of service being carried out by the ESMAD agent involved.”

On January 14, 2020, the Inspector-General’s Office, an independent body, asked the National Police to suspend the use of the 12-gauge shotguns during protests. The office told Human Rights Watch that policemen only take a 61-hour part-time training on how to use certain weapons, including the 12-gauge shotguns, at times tought by officers who are not trained to use the shotgun.

On February 3, Human Rights Watch asked the Defense Ministry for information on such training. On March 3, the Ministry responded that the ESMAD officers have a 768-hour course on “crowd control and disturbences to security,” but did not clarify how many hours were devoted to training on the use of shotguns. The National Police continues to use the shotgun despite the Inspector-General’s Office request.

On February 16, at about 2 p.m., two men in a motocycle approached one of Cruz’s family members in the streets of Bogotá and told him he should stop seeking justice for Cruz’s death. “Accidents happen and you should worry about your other family members,” the men said, Cruz’s relative told Human Rights Watch.

Beating, Arbitrary Detention of Natalia Gema Racero Cruz

Natalia Gema Racero Cruz, at her home after being beaten by the police on November 22, 2019.


© 2019 Natalia Gema Racero Cruz

On the morning of November 22, 2019, police officers in Bogotá detained and beat Natalia Gema Racero Cruz, 20. She had been trying to get a bus to go to work, but because transportation was not available due to the demonstrations, had decided to return home. On her way, she saw the police firing teargas at protesters so she ran with several others to get away. Six officers grabbed her, saying they were detaining her for “protection,” she said.

The police officers took her inside the bus station, where a policeman felt her breasts twice “to find out if I was hiding something,” she said. Police officers then locked her in a room with other detainees.

Two hours later, they loaded her into a van, she said, then beat her head and back with a baton, telling her she had to sing if she wanted to avoid being beaten. They took her to the Kennedy police station, where authorities released her two hours later. Human Rights Watch saw images of Cruz’s head and back injuries, which are consistent with her account.

Beating, Arbitrary Detention of Cristian Angarita Lizarazo; Beating of Diana Pinzon

On November 21, policemen accosted and beat Diana Pinzon, 23, and Cristian Angarita Lizarazo, 22, who were returning home after covering the protests for a university assignment. The two students said that police officers on motorcycles surrounded them near Los Andes University.

A policeman grabbed Pinzon by her jacket and asked what she was doing. Angarita Lizarazo showed the police a press pass, from a media company he had previously worked for, but an officer kicked him to the ground and beat him with a baton.

When Pinzon tried to stop the police from hitting Angarita Lizarazo, one police officer threw Pinzon to the ground while others beat her with batons and fists. A police officer cut her jacket with scissors to get to her camera. Pinzón later lost consciousness and the officers left her on the street, she said. Bystanders helped take her to a hospital. She said she had bruises in multiple parts of her body and was unable to walk on her own until December 4.

A police officer detained Angarita Lizarazo, without telling him why – or where they were taking him – and then took him to the Candelaria police station in downtown Bogotá. Police officers there asked him to sign a document saying that he was arrested for aggressive behavior. He said he signed under pressure, although he denies engaging in any aggressive behavior. The police released him a few hours later without bringing him before a judicial authority.

Beating, Arbitrary Detention of Carlos Steyler Obregon Ramírez

Carlos Steylei Obregon Ramirez at the Kennedy Hospital on November 27, 2019.


© 2019 Natalia Barrera Cabrera

On November 22, a police officer in Bogotá severely beat Carlos Steyler Obregon Ramírez, 24. Obregon Ramirez was returning home from work, he said, when he saw people running, including protesters and police officers. He ran too, and a policeman chased him, knocked him to the ground, and kicked him in the face. Other officers beat him with their batons in the neck and abdomen.

The officers then handcuffed him and forced him to climb onto the back of a police officer’s motorcycle, he said. They took him to a police station, where officers beat him with a bat multiple times and applied electric shocks from a Taser to his face, abdomen, back, and neck, even though he was not resisting.

Ramirez filed a criminal complaint with the civilian justice system, but the case was transferred to the military system, his lawyer said. Human Rights Watch saw photos of Ramirez’s injuries that were consistent with his description.

Use of Force Against Duvan Villegas Benítez

On November 21, Stuar Duvan Villegas Benítez, 27, left his house in Cali around 2 p.m. to take part in the protest. At around 6:30 p.m., when he was making his way to the Puente de Comercio neighborhood to pick up a bicycle, three police officers on motorbikes followed him. One shot him in the back, a criminal complaint presented by Villegas’s mother says. Residents took him to a clinic. While judicial investigators have yet to determine what type of weapon was used, the medical record, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, indicate that Villegas was injured by a “firearm” and had “metal splinters” in his body. He is under medical observation and doctors told his family that he is unlikely to walk again.

Beating of Jonathan Castellanos Vargas

On November 22 at around 7 p.m., Jonathan Castellanos Vargas, 25, was walking to the Policarpa neighborhood in Bogotá with two friends when local residents armed with sticks and batons shouted at them, calling them Venezuelans, and beat him up on the street. Policemen arrived soon after and took him to a detention site. His friends ran.

There, two officers told him not to look at them, as they beat him with a baton and a rod. They hit him on his left hand, on both arms and both forearms, and on his legs, his lawyer said. Fifteen minutes later, they took him to a police station, where police officers and soldiers beat him again, until he pretended he had fainted. Policemen released him. The next day he went to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a fractured left hand and multiple bruises. Human Rights Watch reviewed the victim’s medical records, which are consistent with the report by his lawyer.

On November 29, Castellano filed a complaint with the National Police. The Attorney General’s Office labeled his complaint an “abuse of authority” and sent it to the military penal system, official documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch show.

Arbitrary Detention of Journalists

On December 7, the police detained three journalists who were covering a peaceful demonstration at the El Dorado airport in Bogotá. One of the reporters, who requested that her name be withheld, said that before she was detained, she had approached policemen detaining two demonstrators and asked why. They told her to leave, but she refused.

Ten minutes later, two policewomen grabbed her by the wrists and tried to take her mobile phone. She refused to give it to them. The officers took her to a police bus, she said, and pulled her aboard by her hair, then took her to an administrative detention unit, saying they were detaining her for her “protection.” Police officers released her five hours later, but gave her a document ordering her to pay a fine, the reporter said. She was not provided a written report detailing the reason for her “transfer,” a requirement under Colombian law.

Arbitrary Expulsion of Miguel Angel Calderón

Police intelligence officers detained Miguel Angel Calderón, 36, a Venezuelan who worked for a food delivery service and had family and legal status in Colombia, on November 22, after he recorded a video on his phone showing a street where President Duque has a house and where protests were taking place that day.

He said that policemen took him to a police command center, where they inspected his phone and asked him “whether [he] had been paid to spy on President Duque” or “worked for Nicolás Maduro.” Human Rights Watch reviewed the 52-second video which was taken from a distance and does not show the president’s home in any detail.

He was later transferred to an administrative detention unit. While he was there, his lawyer tried to submit a power of attorney to legally represent him. But immigration officials rejected it.

While Colombian law provides that immigrants facing expulsion cannot be detained for more than 36 hours, Calderón was detained for 48 hours, his lawyer said. An official of the Colombian immigration agency told him he was being expelled from the country. The document ordering his expulsion, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, states that Calderón “recorded a video in front of the president’s residence and the building’s security installations, presumably putting the president’s security and that of the nation’s capital at risk.”

On November 23, a judge issued provisional measures suspending the expulsion after Calderon’s lawyer filed a request for an injuction. However, on December 3, the judge rejected the complaint, saying the expulsion was for “national security” and there had been no rights violations. Calderón was expelled on December 18, and forbidden from returning to Colombia for five years.

On February 5, 2020, a higher court revoked the ruling, saying the authorities had undermined Calderon’s due process rights by rejecting his lawyer’s power of attorney. The court suspended Calderon’s order to return to Colombia. Prosecutors are investigating immigration officials who rejected the lawyer’s power of attorney, documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch show.

Arbitrary Expulsion of Deivi Javier Wickham Perez

Police intelligence officers detained Deivi Javier Wickham Pérez, 20, a Venezuelan with a family and legal status in Colombia, at his home at noon on November 23, 2019. They arrested and handcuffed him, and took him to a police station in Bogotá, said his partner, who witnessed the arrest. The officers did not show an arrest warrant, the partner said, or tell them why he was being detained.

Later that day, policemen took Wickham to an administrative detention unit in Bogotá. The next day, his partner went to look for him, but an immigration officer told her she could not see him, that he was fine, and he would be released the following day, she said.

The next day, however, family members of other Venezuelans in the same detention unit told her that the Venezuelan detainees had been taken to a military airport and were being expelled back to Venezuela. An immigration officer later confirmed the expulsion, but provided no reason. Fifty-nine Venezuelans were expelled from the country that day, according to Colombia’s Migration Office.

The authorities took Wickham to the border town of Puerto Carreño by plane and later took him by boat to El Burro, in Venezuela’s Apure state. Wickham did not have any money with him but was able to get to a relative’s house roughly 580 kilometers away five days later, thanks to help from strangers, who gave him transport, food, and shelter, his partner said. He walked most of the way, she said.

Authorities never told Wickham why he was being expelled, his partner said. On December 2, she formally requested information about the expulsion from Colombia’s immigration office, but has received no reply.

Under international human rights law, foreign nationals expelled from a country where they are lawfully present should be allowed to appeal their case and have it reviewed by a competent authority, except where “compelling reasons of national security” otherwise require.

Wickham’s lawyer said that at least 3 of the 59 Venezuelans expelled from the country that day had legal status, but were not allowed to have their cases reviewed. Under Colombian law, immigration authorities can summarily expel foreigners who have undermined “national security,” “public order,” “public security,” and “social tranquility.” Such decisions cannot be appealed.

Human Rights Watch also received allegations that other expulsions of Venezuelans in connection to the protests may have been arbitrary. Human Rights Watch has not been able to document the cases, in part because the people were expelled quickly and lacked legal representation.

Beating, Arbitrary Detention of Frank Melo Restrepo

On November 21, at least 10 police officers with batons beat into his head and back, and detained Frank Melo Restrepo, 30, as he peacefully participated in a demonstration in Bogotá, his lawyer said. The officers violently forced Restrepo into a police van, without giving him a reason for his detention, where he was held for four hours, and then taken to a detention unit.

The next day, the lawyer said, a police officer accused him of attacking police at the demonstration and punched and kicked him in the face, bruising his right eye. At 4 p.m., he had a hearing with his lawyer at which the judge informed him that he had been detained for attacking three police officers, which Restrepo denies.

Limited Accountability

Then-Attorney General Espitia said on January 22, 2020, that his office was investigating 72 cases of possible abuse by police officers during the protests. No one had been charged at the time.

The Defense Ministry told Human Rights Watch on March 3 that the military criminal justice system was conducting 32 investigations, including into Cruz’s killing and 18 cases of injuries. No one had been charged.

The Defense Ministry said on March 3 that the National Police had opened 44 disciplinary investigations in connection to the protests, including 27 for “abuse of authority,” 6 for “physical aggression,” 2 for “illegal deprivation of liberty,” and 2 for “homicide.” Six of the 44 cases had been closed and eight had been transferred to the Inspector-General’s Office. No one had been charged. As of February 13, the Inspector-General’s Office was conducting four disciplinary investigations; no one had been charged.

Under international and regional norms, grave human rights violations should not be tried before military courts. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ruled that “military criminal jurisdiction is not the competent jurisdiction to investigate and, if applicable, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of human rights violations.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has held that it is not appropriate to try violations of human rights before military jurisdictions given that “when the State permits investigations to be conducted by the entities with possible involvement, independence and impartiality are clearly compromised.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors implementation of governments’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has said that countries should ensure that military personnel are subject to civilian jurisdiction for any crimes that are not “of an exclusively military nature.”