In March, after a violent weekend likely caused by a secret truce’s breakdown, El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele declared all-out war on the country’s MS-13 gang.
This isn’t the first time a Salvadoran president has announced a “mano dura” (iron fist) policy against MS-13, Barrio 18 and other gangs that have made daily life in El Salvador dangerous for a generation. But Bukele’s campaign is the broadest and most indiscriminate.
As of late August, over 51,800 people had been arrested and jailed since March 26 when, in a 3:00 AM meeting with security officials, Bukele gave an order for sweeping arrests. Every day, families surround one of the country’s main prisons, awaiting news about loved ones seized off the streets or even from their homes, as Jonathan Blitzer detailed in a September 5 New Yorkerprofile of Bukele.
A September 12 investigation by the Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica includes new information about the draconian policy’s origins. “They told us to go that very day and capture all the MS gang members that were identified. They told us: you have to bring in the heads of the gang; you have to touch the gang’s finances. The order was to surround them, to surround their family members, their acquaintances,” an official present at the March 26 meeting said.
The police chiefs were told that they would not have to “worry about the Attorney General’s Office.” According to the sources, the instruction, which was later passed on to all active police officers in the country, was that “the Attorney General’s Office is going to receive the MS gang members that we send them. Without much proof.”
“There was no officer or anyone in that room who did not know that they were asking us to go against the law, but that was the order: to bring this to an end,” said one of the sources.
This is not entirely a police operation. El Salvador’s military, a significant recipient of U.S. military aid, plays a robust role as well. The initial 3:00AM meeting “was not attended by Armed Forces commanders,” La Prensa Gráfica reported, but “military and police officials consulted said that they received orders at another meeting called by Minister Merino Monroy,” referring to the country’s defense minister, René Francis Merino Monroy, an active-duty vice-admiral.
A veteran police agent told La Prensa Gráfica:
This state of emergency has been the first time that he has seen, for example, soldiers patrolling on their own, soldiers detaining civilians, with the freedom to act as if they knew anything about public security tasks. The Minister of Defense has assured that some 18,000 military operatives are carrying out tasks that the Salvadoran Constitution entrusts to the PNC [Civilian National Police].
The newspaper’s investigation continues:
To date, human rights organizations in El Salvador have counted more than 3,000 complaints of human rights violations for the same number of detainees under the state of emergency. The cases analyzed for this investigation confirm a common denominator: the Attorney General’s Office, more than 150 days later, is still unable to prove the gang membership of hundreds of detainees, and in dozens of cases the link between the detainees and these structures is based on informants, the “public voice,” or supposed police records of the detainees, about whom the same arrest records indicate that they had no criminal record or records in databases.
Today, “In El Salvador, having tattoos, being drunk, acting nervous or just looking suspicious are enough reason for police to arrest people.”
U.S. Southern Command, which manages U.S. military activity in most of the Americas, manages a “digital magazine,” called Diálogo. It has some degree of editorial freedom from Southcom itself—an arrangement unusual outside the U.S. Agency for Global Media. That thin editorial line between the U.S. military and Diálogo’s writers, who are opinionated and amplify strongly conservative political views, probably isn’t evident to most of its readers in Latin America.
Often, Diálogo’s writers get things wrong. Sometimes, they get things dangerously wrong. Here’s a big example in an April 27 piece about the March 30 arrest of Sergei Vagin, an alleged Russian spy, in Bogotá.
To remain undetected, Vagin was steadily flowing small amounts from Russia — between $2,000 and $4,000. In addition, he sent detailed reports to various contacts in Moscow about activities in Colombia, especially during the social protests, Semana reported. He also allegedly tried to bribe a Colombian Army officer to obtain “top secret reports,” reported El Colombiano.
The money is believed to have ended up in the coffers of the criminal group Primera Línea, reported Argentine news site Infobae. This group has links to dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) and the ELN, and uses terrorism to cause systematic and collateral damage, Semana said.
The government of Iván Duque has been casting about for evidence that participants in last year’s mass protests were useful idiots inflamed by outside forces like Russian propaganda, rather than an organic response to social exclusion, a deep economic crisis, hunger, and an un-empathetic government.
This is stigmatization based on the thinnest of allegations, and should not have made it past Diálogo’s editors. Worse, it may be self-fulfilling. As the Police continue rounding upPrimera Línea members, leaving them and their relatives unprotected, Cali’s young protest participants may be pushed toward armed groups’ embrace—both out of frustration with peaceful tactics and for their own protection.
Here, Southcom’s “digital magazine” lends itself to the “Russian dupes” narrative by citing the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. This is sad and cynical. Until 2020, Semana was one of Latin America’s premier, and bravest, investigative journalism outlets. But its principal owners sold to one of Colombia’s richest men, Gabriel Gilinski, who set about turning the magazine and its Internet properties into a Colombian “Fox News.” Semana today regularly publishes information fed to it by the armed forces.
And in this case, Semana‘s “reporting” launders this smear into a form that Diálogo can cite, which endangers the kids in the Primera Linea even more.
This article, or at least the above-cited segment with the unfounded allegations against the Primera Línea kids, really needs to come down now.
In our work at the U.S.-Mexico border, we regularly hear about abuses or improper law enforcement behavior by U.S. security agencies. But so often, whatever happens gets overtaken by the next events, forgotten.
I wanted to start damming up this steady, alarming stream going by us all the time. So, many months ago, I set up a new WordPress install, and my staff and I started throwing into it everything we’ve seen and heard since 2020 about abuses committed at the border.
The result is a database that we’re hosting at borderoversight.org. It has more than 220 entries so far, fully cited. We’ve captured these events and allegations, and organized them by category, place, agency, victim, and “accountability status.”
I’m not exactly “proud” of what we’ve created here. Actually, trying to read through it is a monstrous experience. There’s only so many use-of-force incidents, high-speed vehicle pursuits, spied-on U.S. citizens, Facebook slurs, non-return of belongings, dangerous deportations, and timid oversight that one can take in a single sitting. The picture is grim.
I don’t want this to be viewed, though, as an attack on the individuals who’ve chosen to build a career as a Border Patrol agent or CBP officer. I have met many agents and officers, and found nearly all to be decent and honorable people. But take CBP and Border Patrol as a whole, and something changes. Organizational cultures are powerful.
Our maintenance of borderoversight.org will be continuous: a database is never “done,” but we’ll use it to spin off a lot of other materials and carry out further work on what’s causing this problem and how to reform it.
I hope you find it useful as we work for greater accountability and cultural change at these agencies.
Of course, I get that nobody wants to read through a database. Here’s a 2,100-word commentary giving an overview of what the project is about and what we’re finding (español).
We added a page with links to reports about the border: from WOLA, from the U.S. and other governments, from non-governmental colleagues, and from the media. Organized by category. More than 270 of them so far are at borderoversight.org/reports.
A new analysis at colombiapeace.org tries to explain in English what looks like a serious case of human rights abuse committed by a U.S.-aided military unit in the part of Colombia where “Plan Colombia” began 21 years ago.
The Guardiancalled it a “botched army raid.” An Indigenous group called it a “massacre.” The commander of Colombia’s army insisted that it took place “with strictest observance of human rights and international humanitarian law.”
Early on the morning of March 28, dozens of people were gathered in a communal space in the town of Alto Remanso, near the Ecuador border in Colombia’s southern department of Putumayo. They had been partying all night, the ground littered with beer cans. Speakers were still blasting music. It was the third day of a community “bazaar,” a festival to raise money to pave a nearby stretch of dirt road.
Just after 7:00 AM, shots rang out. Community members say that men dressed in black, shouting “we’re not the security forces,” fired at the gathering. Some people at the bazaar—almost certainly members of an ex-FARC dissident group active in the area—returned fire. Shooting continued for at least an hour and a half. At that point, helicopters arrived, and the townspeople were shocked to find out that the black-clad invaders were Colombian soldiers.
During the 3 months ending March 28, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Colombia Field Office “received information about killings of 43 human rights defenders and social leaders, including four women (7 documented, 35 under verification and 1 inconclusive or not verifiable).”
This from the latest quarterly report from the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, always a useful document:
During Colombia’s April-June 2021 Paro Nacional protests, human rights advocates documented 82 cases of protesters who suffered severe eye damage, often resulting from Colombian National Police agents’ misuse of “less-lethal” weapons, like improperly fired tear gas canisters.
Some of the victims have not only lost their eyes or their eyesight: they are now being hounded out of the country by constant death threats. An article by José David Escobar in today’s El Especatador profiles two young women who have had to leave Colombia, their families selling all of their belongings in order to buy the plane tickets out. At least two more victims, Escobar adds, are trying to get out of Colombia for the same reasons.
This is why my colleagues and I get so stridently angry every time we see Biden administration officials offer unalloyed praise for Colombia’s National Police force. This is a really troubled institution, and the U.S. posture toward it is disastrous.
A few translated excerpts from Escobar’s article:
Sandra Pérez, mother of Sara Cárdenas, who was also attacked on May 5, 2021 by the Esmad [riot police squadron], says that they received messages and calls warning them that they were going to kill them or that “they were going to take out her daughter’s other eye”. Even, a week after leaving the country, her neighbors told her that the windows of their apartment had been broken.
”After receiving the attack, we denounced everything that happened that day. From then on we started receiving calls and messages from unknown people threatening us. …I had to hide my other daughter with a relative in another area of the city. We were very scared. Also, before they broke the windows of where we lived, they pointed a laser at the windows of the apartment three times.”
…In the case of Leidy Cadena, she also said that in the months after her attack, she and her boyfriend were searched for no reason. “When I was attacked by the Esmad, there was even a policeman who went to the San Ignacio hospital to make me testify, hours after I had lost my right eye, something inexplicable. But the event that forced us to leave the country was when, in October 2021, we found that they had put gunpowder tubes under the door of my house. That’s when I felt that my life was really in danger.”
…While this article was being written, El Espectador learned of complaints filed last December and April 6, 2022 by one of Sara Cardenas’ aunts, who lives in Colombia and has been in charge of closely following the investigations of her niece’s case. The documents show that, since December 2021, she has been receiving calls and that she was approached by a stranger who told her: “You look better when you are quiet”, “Do you want to die? Stop investigating”, among other phrases.
I’ve sort of neglected this website for the past two weeks. It was for a good reason, I think.
I’d been resolving for a while to write a big report evaluating, with as much hard data as possible, how Colombia’s peace accord is going. Like a lot of people who supported the peace accord, I had a strong and urgent feeling that things are going badly: that the government was falling ever further behind on its commitments. But a lot of the current information to support that feeling was either dispersed, or not available to English-speaking audiences.
I’d been working on the report in a piecemeal way for a while, but by early November I realized I had to dive in completely in order to have it ready by the peace accord’s fifth anniversary, which was today (November 24). So my website updates here largely stopped and I went into a sort of research and writing fugue state. I logged 83 hours last week, making the cursor go from left to right as fast as I could.
I’ve emerged from all of that now, and I’m very happy with the result. The report that we dropped late yesterday, “A Long Way to Go,” is 28,000 words divided into 19 sections (counting the intro), with twentysomething graphics and like 320 footnotes. It’s a beast—almost certainly the heaviest thing I’ve written since I joined WOLA. But it’s my beast and I’m proud of it because it has a lot of information that you won’t find all in one place, especially not in English, about the urgent state of Colombia’s peace process. I’m glad it’s out there.
November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.
The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.
For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.
Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.
It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.
That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.
10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost. 2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate. 3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021. 4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011. 5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits. 6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.” 7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020. 8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups. 9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women. 10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.
In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”
The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.
The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.
Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.
Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.
The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.
A CNN story published yesterday sounds like something a high school student would learn about in a U.S. history unit about Jim Crow in the 1950s or labor crackdowns in the 1880s. But it’s apparently business as usual in Texas in the 2020s.
Seven months ago Gov. Greg Abbott (R) inaugurated “Operation Lone Star,” a $3 billion crackdown at the Texas-Mexico border that he portrayed as a response to Joe Biden’s non-continuation of some of Donald Trump’s hardline border policies. Since then, Texas state police and National Guardsmen have built fences, patrolled border towns, and arrested at least 1,300 migrants.
States can’t enforce federal immigration law, so Abbott has sent cops out to arrest migrants for trespassing on private property: a crime that, in the border counties where he has declared a “state of emergency,” is punishable by months in prison. Abbott ordered the conversion of two border-zone prisons to hold migrants.
Once thrown in jail, though, some migrants are practically disappearing. In a blatant violation of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. constitution, hundreds are going weeks or months without being charged and without any access to attorneys.
The examples CNN cites are horrifying.
The man was held in jail for 52 days before he was charged with the misdemeanor offense of criminal trespass, his attorney says. For 43 of those days — more than six weeks — he had no access to a lawyer, he told CNN. And the man said there were long gaps, sometimes two weeks, when he was not allowed to make any phone call to tell his wife how he was.
…two migrants who talked to CNN last week said they knew several men in their jail pods who had been waiting up to three months to talk to a lawyer. One said the unrepresented men begged the others to raise their cases. “‘Ask about us. Tell them we have 90 days, 80 days and we haven’t seen an attorney. We don’t know anything and here we are,'” he says he is told. CNN raised the concerns with the TIDC [Texas Indigent Defense Commission]. The commission said it then located at least one person arrested in May and held in jail who did not have a lawyer. That person was assigned counsel Thursday night.
Some of those being arrested for trespassing weren’t even on private property until Texas state police forced them to step on private property.
He replays the video that, Martinez [David Martinez, the Val Verde County Attorney in charge of prosecuting misdemeanors] says, appears to show a Texas state trooper directing the migrants onto the private property before arresting one of them for trespass. Martinez said he rejected the case. …Martinez has more. He pulls a file he says contains the cases of 11 other migrants who alleged that law enforcement zip-tied them in pairs, walked them about 20 minutes and made them scale a 10-foot fence. They were later arrested by state troopers for criminal trespassing, documents show.
Many of those being arrested and jailed are asylum seekers. Right now, because the Biden administration continues to use the pandemic to justify maintaining Steven Miller’s policy (“Title 42”) of expelling migrants who come to ports of entry seeking asylum, the only way to ask for asylum is to cross the border between the ports of entry—which according to Gov. Abbott is an act deserving of months in prison.
Many are actually asylum seekers, according to an attorney whose legal aid group represents more than 500 of the total 1,300 people reported arrested on suspicion of criminal trespass by the Texas Department of Public Safety. “Many of them are here seeking asylum. They are educated. I have had a constitutional law professor from Venezuela. I’ve had a professional baseball player from Venezuela. We have journalists, political activists, [and] university students,” Kristin Etter of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid told a Texas legislative committee this month.
In the end, a large number of Gov. Abbott’s prisoners are being let go with charges dropped. In many cases, because by the time they’re let go they’re no longer recent border crossers, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) doesn’t take them into custody, they just get released into Texas.
Many cases are not being prosecuted. David Martinez, the Val Verde County Attorney in charge of prosecuting misdemeanors, says from June to September he rejected or dismissed about 40% of Operation Lone Star cases. In about 70% of those cases, he did so because the migrants were seeking asylum. In other cases, he has been troubled by the circumstances of the arrests themselves.
This is outrageous and disgusting, and the U.S. Justice Department must get involved.
But even beyond that, it‘s dismaying that this treatment of human beings—of people in a position of weakness—is something that Greg Abbott calculates will help him win re-election in the 2022 Texas governor’s race. The idea behind this is that Texans crave this kind of barbarity, and it’s a political winner for Abbott.
Texas is a conservative state (though seemingly less so every year). Still, I can’t help but think that these mass imprisonings-disappearances wouldn’t have happened under governors George W. Bush or even Rick Perry. It feels like lights keep going out in many parts of the United States right now.
At the beginning of the month, I recorded a reflective podcast with WOLA’s outgoing president, Geoff Thale. As a counterpart to that, here’s a conversation with our incoming president, Carolina Jiménez. We talk about her past work as a human rights advocate in Venezuela and Mexico, how civil society has evolved throughout Latin America, the threat of authoritarianism, opportunities in US policy, and her next (or first) steps at WOLA.
The conversation addresses Carolina’s Venezuelan roots and the international experience that led her to pursuing a career in human rights, concerning trends across the Latin America, and the United States’ complicated legacy and present role in supporting positive initiatives in the region.
They also discuss WOLA’s upcoming Human Rights Awards ceremony and the Colombian groups that will be honored. The discussion paints a picture of what organizations working for human rights are doing to collaborate in a new era, and what the future of advocacy for human rights in Latin America may hold.
A stunning 90,000 people have disappeared in Mexico. In a new WOLA podcast, our director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, Stephanie Brewer, emphasizes that the situation isn’t hopeless. She offers a really clear explanation of steps Mexico’s justice system can take, now.
This week, Adam is talking with Stephanie Brewer, WOLA Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, about our latest campaign: For Disappearances to End, Justice Must Begin. The campaign addresses the more than 90,000 people disappeared in Mexico (mostly since 2006) and the challenges to stopping disappearances.
In this conversation, Adam and Stephanie discuss how the crisis grew to today’s tragic scale, what has worked and has not worked for investigations into disappearances in the country, and some of the major findings of the campaign. Please visit the campaign’s website to see the in-depth findings and learn what you can do to support victims and family members of the disappeared in Mexico.
Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés were mainstays of Cuba’s “Nueva Trova” folk-pop musical movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Their melodies were influenced by the Beatles, but their lyrics and political positions were solidly supportive of the Castro regime. Rodríguez (who had a 1991 greatest hits album compiled by David Byrne), in particular, has staunchly supported the Cuban government’s policies over the years.
It’s notable, then, to see both of them used their Facebook accounts to criticize the government’s crackdown on the young people who went out to protest since July 11. Silvio Rodríguez called for the release of non-violent protesters, and more dialogue and “listening.” Milanés posted: “It is irresponsible and absurd to blame and repress a people who have sacrificed and given their all for decades to sustain a regime that in the end only imprisons them.”
On July 7 the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a report about the weeks of social protest that began in Colombia on April 28. The report extensively documents the Colombian security forces’ harsh and abusive response.
That same day, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry—less than delighted with the Commission’s report—published its response. That document claims:
the Colombian State has a solid democratic, participatory and pluralistic institutional framework, with a balanced institutional architecture between public authorities and autonomous bodies, with specific control functions and with the capacity to deal with events related to protests.
The country’s human rights community certainly disputes this, since Colombia’s institutions have usually had a hard time bringing serious abusers to justice, even when prosecutors and investigators have made good-faith efforts. But if it’s true, then recent moves in the U.S. Congress should be of no concern to the Colombian government.
The House of Representatives’ version of the 2022 foreign aid appropriations bill, which goes before the full House this week, would freeze 30 percent of aid to Colombia’s police through the largest police aid account, until the State Department certifies that the force is punishing serious human rights abusers among its ranks. This is the first time Colombia-specific human rights conditions have applied to police aid in many years.
If what the Foreign Ministry says here is true, then Colombia’s government should have no problem with this. If the country’s well-functioning, autonomous “institutional framework” punishes those responsible for massive abuses committed during the 2021 Paro Nacional protests, then the U.S. conditions will be met. They should be a non-issue, and the Colombian government should have no complaints here in Washington.
From Colombia’s El Espectador, here’s English of the story of Álvaro Herrera, a French horn player who had been playing in a “symphony” at some of the protest marches in Cali. Herrera became sadly famous on May 28, when he appeared all over Colombian social media in a video, dazed and bleeding in police custody, strangely confessing to being a “vandal.”
What was done to Herrera needs to be told in English because it casts severe doubt on the Colombian government’s narrative that the-police-force’s-“excesses”-are-just-a-few-bad-apples-who’ll-be-investigated-so-don’t-worry. A whole unexamined side of Colombia’s state—one probably familiar to poorer Colombians—seems to be revealed here:
Alvaro Herrera Melo, 25, says his greatest wish in life is to study music and conducting in Germany. He dreams of perfecting his technique on the French horn and learning to sing. …[On May 28 in Cali] the two most heated spots were La Luna, in the center, and Ciudad Jardín, an exclusive sector to the south, adjacent to the Universidad del Valle, where a symphonic cacerolazo was being held by music students, among them Álvaro.
…In an interview with El Espectador, Alvaro Herrera Melo narrated the moments of terror he experienced while he was detained, according to him, by civilians who later handed him over to the police at the La María station, south of the city.
“When the shooting started, I ran out towards 16th Street, there I saw that there were civilians with weapons and I took out my cell phone to record. At that moment a civilian grabbed me from behind and began to choke me, they beat me on the ground and destroyed my cell phone (…) then they took me to the police station”, said the musician.
Afterwards, he said that he saw a white van right in front of the police patrol car in the sector. “One of the civilians said why don’t they put me in that van, and then a policeman said why don’t they disappear me,” he said, his voice cracking. Alvaro recalled that he managed to scream and beg not to be taken in the white private vehicle.
It was at that station where a uniformed officer, after beating him against a white wall along with other officers, intimidated him so that he would talk. “They asked me where I was and what I was doing, I answered that I was in a symphonic cacerolazo, but the policeman stopped the recording, hit me and asked me again, as if making me understand that this was not the answer they wanted to hear,” he denounced.
Within minutes, the video [of his forced “confession”] had been replicated in Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter groups. It was through him that his family and friends found out what had happened.
When he was being taken to the police station, and as was recorded in several videos on social networks, Alvaro was no longer carrying his French horn. Before the authorities he revealed that it was taken from him at the police station. “As soon as the civilians stopped me, I hugged my instrument so as not to lose it, but then the police took it from me and did not return it.”