CALI, Colombia – By the time the police van pulled up at the big white house, Sebastián Mejía was dazed and terrified from all the beatings. But inside, there was more to come.
“What were you doing?” his interrogators asked, punching him repeatedly when he told them he was filming a protest. “No,” they responded. “You were attacking police, you were vandalizing. We’re trying this again.”
The blows continued until Mejía told them what he knew they wanted to hear, recorded on video as his supposed confession.
“No one knew where I was. I didn’t know where I was,” Mejía told VICE World News.
At the height of the massive protest movement that rocked Colombia for three months, police held hundreds of protesters at clandestine detention sites where they subjected them to beatings, threatened to kill them, and forced them to make false confessions, according to protesters, human rights workers, and lawyers in Cali who spoke to VICE World News.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which conducted an investigation into the Colombian government’s violent crackdown on protests in June, described the treatment as “torture” and “a grave violation of basic human rights.”
The protests surged at the end of April in response to a proposed tax increase and quickly transformed into a widespread revolt against corruption and police brutality. At least 72 people died during the demonstrations, 43 of those reportedly at the hands of police. In Cali, the epicenter of the violent police response, police fired on protesters and stood by as civilians joined the shooting.
Mejía, 25, a psychology student at University Valle, Cali’s only public university, says he was taken to one of those interrogation black sites on the evening of May 28. He had been attending a demonstration near the university that had been peaceful when he saw police and civilians shooting at protesters.
He began to record them on his phone but he made a wrong turn down a dead-end street to escape a police officer and was arrested.
“I was restrained by police and what appeared to be civilians as well. They told me if I tried to run they would break my fingers,” Mejía recalled.
Mejía was one of hundreds arrested that day during the protests. So many people were detained in Cali during the first two months of the demonstrations that police ran out of space to hold them.
To solve the problem, officials passed an emergency decree that temporarily authorized the use of other locations.
But what took place went far beyond the scope of official authorization. In the newly allowed locations, police systematically abused detainees’ rights by holding them in unsafe and unhygienic conditions, lawyers say.
But authorities also took protesters to more-sinister black sites, which existed completely outside of the Colombian justice system, according to Sebastián Caballero, a defense lawyer.
Almost 500 people went missing under circumstances directly related to the national strike, according to a coalition of social groups in Cali called the Working Group of Forced Disappearances (MDTDF by their Spanish initials). Now, four months later, more than 60 have still not been found.
It was in one of the clandestine centers where Mejía said he suffered hours of torture. They were located near the main points of conflict: warehouses in Siloé, a working-class neighborhood where fierce clashes took place; a supermarket called Éxito in a middle-class neighborhood called Calipsís; and Ciudad Jardín, the wealthy area where Mejía was held.
The mayor of Cali, Jorge Ivan Ospina, of Colombia’s Green Party, as well as police deny that protesters were detained and tortured at the Éxito supermarket. The Cali police press office declined multiple times to comment on allegations about the other locations when contacted by VICE World News. Police said publicly on July 8 that an internal investigation is under way in military courts, which are inaccessible to the public, into allegations of police abuses in Ciudad Jardín.
Caballero, who is defending Mejía, said that his team has submitted a formal complaint to the Cali prosecutors’ office that is supported by testimony from people who said they were detained at the Ciudad Jardín building.
After Mejía was arrested, he was first taken to an abandoned police station that had been burned down by protesters, where he says he was beaten and threatened by police.
“They said they were going to make me disappear, that they would take me to a place no one knew.” He was pushed into the van and taken to the white house, a site he says officers referred to as “La estación de La Maria.”
“It was a large, white, residential house with no signs identifying it as a police station,” he said. “The only thing that indicated it was being used by police was the presence of the uniformed officers.”
The house had no cameras, no computers, “not even a desk where maybe they would take your information and file a report,” said Mejía. After he made his confession, he was put in a room with about 10 other people. “I could hear screams coming from other rooms, where it sounded like they were beating other people.”
Mejía was off the radar for more than 24 hours before he was released. One officer played him the false confession and warned him not to make any “trouble.” There was no record of his arrest, just one more protester among hundreds that teams of lawyers and human rights workers were trying to track down at the end of May.
“May 28th was complete chaos,” said Julián Santiago, a human rights worker who was part of a team that tried to locate missing protesters. “By that evening, we had over 600 new names on our list.”
Santiago and his team whittled down the list, crossing off the names of people who were located. He noticed that something was wrong.
“We started to realize over the next few days that some of those missing had been detained by police without any record of their detention,” he explained. “And the prosecutor’s office wasn’t cooperating with us at all to find them. That’s when we began to realize that these people were being jailed outside of the legal system.”
Human rights workers, lawyers, and community leaders had been hearing rumors about secret police detention centers in Cali for a month. At the end of May, hundreds of protesters like Mejía re-emerged, many with testimony to support the stories that had been circulating.
Local media soon began uncovering the clandestine sites. The Éxito supermarket became a national story after bloodstains were found in the parking garage and those who had been held there began to speak out. The reporter in Cali who first reported on the Éxito supermarket, José Alberto Tejada, has faced physical assaults and death threats.
At the improvised detention sites that were authorized by the prosecutor’s office, prisoners were held under conditions that Alex Montaña, a human rights lawyer, describes as torture.
In dozens of in-person visits, Montaña and colleagues saw crowded conditions with no measures to avoid COVID transmission, people who were tied up and left to wait for hours seated on concrete floors, and inadequate sanitary facilities. Hundreds of detainees were never processed by the legal system.
He has also gathered sworn testimonies from more than a dozen protesters who were taken to the clandestine sites. He said the testimonies were corroborated by reports from residents in some of these areas.
For some of those who were held, the psychological scars may be permanent. Alvaro Herrera, a music student who was detained and beaten before ending up at Ciudad Jardín, has had enough. “I’ve received death threats for speaking out. My sister and mother have been followed,” he said. “I’m leaving Colombia. If I don’t, I fear I might end up dead.”
CORRECTION Sept. 21, 2021: This story story was corrected after VICE World News learned that while Alvaro Herrera alleged he was tortured by police, his treatment didn't happen at a "black site" as initially reported but in a disused police station that had reportedly been burned in a fire. Other protesters, such as Sebastian Mejia, alleged they were tortured in "black sites" kept secret from the public. The story is updated to reflect these facts.