CALI, Colombia—Álvaro Herrera didn’t know where the police had taken him, but he knew from the beatings that they didn’t like his answers to their questions. “That’s not the correct response,” his interrogator said as two other policemen looked on, recording Herrera’s halting speech.
The officer punched him again. Herrera was disoriented from hours of beating, but he knew what the police wanted: a confession to crimes he didn’t commit. If he didn’t provide it, he was told he could end up floating facedown in the Cauca River. Or, his interrogators threatened, he would be disappeared.
“So I told them what they wanted to hear,” he said to 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.
Herrera, a 25-year-old music 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. Just a few hours before, he had been performing on the French horn with the campus symphony at a peaceful demonstration near his campus.
“The demonstration during the day went smoothly,” Herrera said. “But in the afternoon, things turned violent.” Confrontations between police and protesters escalated to gunfire, and Herrera began to record the shootings near University Valle with his cellphone.
“There were civilians firing at protesters as well. They seemed to be coordinating with police,” he said. “That’s when one of them pointed a pistol at me. With my cellphone in one hand and my French horn in the other, I raised my arms in a gesture of surrender.”
The civilians detained Herrera and delivered him to nearby police at 4:45 p.m., he said. He didn’t emerge until 6 p.m. the next evening, bloodied and dazed from 25 hours of beatings and threats.
Herrera 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 Herrera 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 near University Valle, where Herrera 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 at 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.
Sebastián Mejía, 25, a psychology student at University Valle, says he was tortured at the clandestine detention center in Ciudad Jardín. Mejía was arrested not far from Herrera the same day. He was taken by van, first to an abandoned police station that had been burned down by protesters, where he says he was beaten and threatened by police, and then to 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 told VICE World News. “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. Like Herrera, he was beaten and forced to record a confession to crimes he said he did not commit, as well as threatened with murder if he spoke up about what happened to him or “made problems.”
“I was having problems focusing, I was so disoriented from the beatings,” he said. “But I could hear screams coming from other rooms—the sounds of other people being beaten too.”
Mejía was off the radar for more than 24 hours in police custody. 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 and Herrera re-emerged, many with testimony to support the stories that had been circulating.
The video of Herrera’s coerced confession was sent by police to right-wing political parties, including supporters of President Iván Duque’s Democratic Center who posted it to social media. Seated on the floor, his face bloodied, Herrera mumbled a confession to supposedly vandalizing property and attacking police.
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.
Herrera, the student who was detained and beaten, 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.”