CALI, Colombia - The four police officers repeatedly punch the young woman as she struggles against them. “You’re taking off my pants, you idiots,” cries out Alison Ugus, in a video capturing her arrest. “Let me go! You’re stripping me naked.”
Ugus, 17, was detained as she filmed police tear-gassing protesters in her home city of Popoyán on May 12 and held for hours. After her release, she published a Facebook post accusing four policemen of raping her while she was in custody.
Two days later she was dead, a presumed suicide.
Her death has set off an outpouring of anger among Colombian women, who have marched in cities across the country to protest what they say is endemic sexual violence committed by security forces.
“Rape has been used during these protests as a weapon of war, as well as a weapon of torture to punish those marching,” said Emilia Márquez, the co-director of Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, in a phone interview with VICE World News.
Temblores has received 18 allegations of rape or sexual violence committed by police against protesters since demonstrations began to roll across Colombia last month. An additional 87 cases involved gender-based violence, usually police officers threatening young women demonstrators with sexual violence.
Advocates argue that the allegations are part of a long history of sexual abuse by state forces.
“The state has an attitude of indifference towards human rights violations committed by security forces, especially towards vulnerable populations such as young women or indigenous communities,” said Lizeth Montero, a human rights lawyer who released the video of Ugus’s arrest.
“When women take to the streets to exercise our legal right to protest, our bodies become a field of battle,” Montero added, speaking at a presentation on police violence hosted by the UCLA Latin American Institute this week.
That message has been echoed at the women’s marches. The day after Ugus’s death, hundreds of young women dressed in purple gathered near a burnt out bus-station in Cali.
They marched across the city shouting “Rapists!” as they passed police stations and some of the women charged at the precinct walls to paint graffiti: “ESMAD violadores (rapists),” read one message, referring to the mobile anti-riot squad that has become a particular target of protester rage. “The police don’t take care of me, my friends do,” read another.
“We’re here to demand justice for Alison,” said Gabriela, a demonstrator who withheld her last name in fear of retaliation by the police. “We’re here to demand an end to violence and the release of our sisters who are still illegally held by police forces.
“They’re raping us. They’re disappearing us and they’re killing us,” she added.
Human rights groups say that at least 42 protesters have been killed since Colombians first took to the streets to protest proposed tax increases on April 28th. As the demonstrations evolved into a wider movement against police violence, inequality and corruption, hundreds of protesters have gone missing and human rights lawyers say they may be held at clandestine detention centers across the country.
Police initially dismissed Ugus’s allegations as “fake news,” denying that they had detained her, until Montero released the video of her arrest and accused police of lying. The police deny there was any rape, arguing that the story has been sensationalized by the media.
Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez called for an investigation. “The extinguished light of this young woman’s life represents a great loss to Colombia, she said in a public statement on Friday. In response, the National Police announced an inquiry.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director of Human Human Rights Watch (HRW), told VICE World News by phone that the officers credibly linked to cases of sexual abuse “should be immediately investigated, suspended from their positions, prosecuted and punished.
“As part of a broader and much-needed reform of the police, Colombian authorities should urgently amend any oversight shortcomings that enabled these atrocious crimes,” he added.
But there is a long history of impunity for the security forces in cases of sexual violence.
During Colombia’s 50-year civil war against the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), sexual violence committed by both the state and guerrilla groups was widespread and often used as a tool to terrify civilian populations against cooperating with the other side.
One detailed study of sexual violence near the end of the conflict, covering the years 2002 to 2011, found that in 2014 an average of two women were raped every three days in the course of the armed conflict. But the report by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin said that few of the accused were convicted — and there were no convictions of any member of the armed forces before Colombia signed its peace deal with the guerrillas.
As part of the peace process, Colombia created the Special Judicial Body for Peace (JEP), an independent government body to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed by both sides during the civil war. Last October Colombian prosecutors sent 206 cases of sexual violence involving security forces and allied paramilitary units between 1991 and 2014 to the court for investigation.
But even with the relatively new peace court, Colombia’s process to investigate and punish those responsible for sexual violence remains deeply flawed. In 2020, Colombia’s congress commissioned a study of sexual violence against children after a brutal case of seven soldiers accused of raping a 14-year old indigenous girl attracted international attention. The report found that the vast majority of these incidents were investigated away from public scrutiny by military courts. Of the 288 accusations involving police officers or soldiers between 2014 and 2020, 51 percent of the individuals who were found responsible were punished, but military courts do not have to disclose what the sentence was.
The congressional report prompted calls for reform from human rights organizations and increased transparency— demands which the federal government promised to address but has yet to take up.
For Franceska Martín, a student at University Valle in Cali, the sexual violence accusations are a critical reason for taking to the streets.
“I’ve been a victim of sexual assault, and I didn’t report it because I was afraid and ashamed,” she said. “Imagine how much harder it is to come forward when the rapist is a policeman in your community.”