'Please Stop, Officer! I Beg You!': Police Face Protests After a Deadly Arrest in Colombia'

The death of the man in police custody sparked protests across Colombia, and a reckoning over police brutality.
September 11, 2020, 4:21pm
Flames rise from a barricade behind a riot police officer after clashes erupted during a protest against the death of a lawyer in police custody

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — “Please stop, officer. I beg you!” said Javier Ordóñez, as he was pinned down by two police officers in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, this week. Ordóñez later died in a hospital from injuries he sustained when he was in police custody.

Protests erupted across multiple cities following the death of Ordóñez on September 9, which has provoked a national reckoning over the use of force by Colombia’s security forces. State violence is rife in Colombia, and often goes unpunished by the authorities.

Ordóñez, a 43-year-old lawyer and father, was hanging out with friends when he left his house at midnight to buy some drinks. Two police officers stopped him and asked him for his ID, according to his ex-wife, María Angélica Garzón. The officers then shocked him with a taser at least 10 times while demanding he put his hands behind his back, a video of the incident shows.

The police then took him to a nearby station, where he was subjected to a severe beating, according to media reports. He was later declared dead in a local hospital. Thousands of demonstrators later gathered in front of the police station in the Villa Luz neighborhood, where Ordóñez had been held, chanting "Murderers! Murderers!" and daubing the station’s walls red.

Across Bogotá, police stations, buses, cars, and motorcycles were burned by protesters. Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and gunshots. At least 12 young people died during the disturbances and dozens were injured. One of the victims was 17-year-old Jaider Fonseca, who died in front of a police station after being shot four times in the legs.

“No one gave the order to use firearms indiscriminately, but we have evidence from several places that this indeed happened,” said Claudia López, the mayor of Bogotá. She called for an investigation and reconstruction of the night’s events, and promised that wrongdoing would not be forgotten or go unpunished.

Some 200 people were injured in protests around the country, in other cities including Cali, Medellín, Cúcuta, and Armenia.

Carlos Holmes Trujillo, the minister of defense, boosted Bogotá’s police force with another 1,600 officers as the protests erupted. He called for citizens to not stigmatize police, and offered monetary rewards for help identifying those who “perpetrated vandalism acts”. Holmes Trujillo later apologized for any violation of the law by the security forces.

In Colombia, the stigmatization of social protests and the militarization of cities is nothing new. The country's complex internal conflicts have seen atrocious police and military abuses, with thousands of extrajudicial executions committed by members of the security forces.

There were some 40,481 instances of physical abuse and more than 600 homicides perpetrated by the police against civilians in Colombia between 2017 and 2019, according to human rights group Temblores, and the reputation of the police has deteriorated in recent years, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.

During the Bogotá riots this week, protesters published hundreds of videos on social media showing the police’s excessive use of force, including the use of firearms as well as tasers like the one used on Ordóñez.

Seven police officers have been suspended and are under investigation for their role in Ordóñez’s murder. The investigation will be handled by a military justice system, which is separate to the court system for civilians and which critics say allow some abuses to go unpunished.

Cover: Flames rise from a burning barricade behind a riot police officer after clashes erupted during a protest against the death of a lawyer in police custody, in Cali, Colombia, on September 10, 2020. Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images.