Cops in Colombia Were Caught on Video Brutalizing This Protester. His Family Wants Answers.

“They left him as if he were—I won’t say an animal, because animals are sentient beings,” the family’s lawyer said. “As if he were a bag of trash that they just dumped outside the station.”

BOGOTA, Colombia — Elvis Vivas was found stumbling and bloodied outside his local police station on the night of May 1 in Madrid, a satellite city of the Colombian capital Bogota. Passersby stopped to help him, calling out for water to wash the blood off his head.

Vivas was rushed to a hospital, where he told staff he'd been beaten by police. He died a week later.

A 24-year-old factory worker and aspiring actor, Vivas was one of thousands of Colombians who went out to protest that day, early in a nearly three-month-long wave of massive demonstrations across the country. What started as a national strike quickly became a bona fide national uprising, thanks in large part to the shockingly violent response from the Colombian National Police—a force renowned in the Americas for its supposed professionalism and decades of U.S. funding and training.

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"Young people here don't have opportunities," said Johana López, Vivas' mother. "They were out that day trying to make their rights count for something. And look at what the consequences are. Look what happened to my son."

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Elvis Vivas, a 24-year-old factory worker and aspiring actor, died after he was arrested and beaten by police. Photo courtesy of his family.

That day in Madrid, police fatally injured two protesters. First, officers from the ESMAD—the now notorious riot squad of the national police—struck Brayan Niño directly in the head with a tear gas canister. He died shortly after.

The second protester was Elvis Vivas. After he was taken to the hospital, his friends and family put out a call on social media asking people to help them figure out what happened. They obtained footage from a surveillance camera overlooking the same corner where the ESMAD killed Brayan Niño and saw officers dragging a figure across the street.

Vivas’ friends and family determined this figure was Vivas. They had his clothes from the hospital in their possession—they matched those in the video and were scuffed and torn, consistent with being dragged across pavement. They got footage from two more security cameras and four cellphones, and they started to piece things together. 

If they hadn’t acted quickly to gather evidence, it’s likely that Vivas’ death would have been swept under the rug. 

“That wasn’t our responsibility,” said Estéban Franco, Vivas’ childhood friend. “That responsibility fell to the authorities.” 

But they knew they couldn’t expect much from the authorities. “It’s clear from the videos that [the police] were the ones responsible.” said William López, Vivas’ uncle. “There was never going to be an investigation on their part.”

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VICE World News analyzed all the available video evidence, medical records, and witness testimony, and it paints a clear picture of the incident: Officers detained Vivas, repeatedly beat him, and dragged him across the length of a city block. At one point, police dragged him off the sidewalk and onto the street, allowing his head to fall, unprotected, more than a foot onto the pavement. On at least two occasions, officers appear to strike him with batons. And on multiple occasions, officers crowd around and appear to strike him. 

Later that night, Vivas was filmed by a passerby through the front door of the police station located about a block away from where he was apprehended. In earlier surveillance video, Vivas is physically capable, making an effort to escape the group of officers who are lifting him up and dragging him. But in the station, he is visibly weakened, his face bloody and his head bobbing up and down. 

“That leads us to the conclusion that the place where they really beat him savagely was inside the police station,” William López said. 

A witness told VICE World News he saw the moment Vivas stumbled out of the police station’s front door, as if he had been pushed out. A cellphone video shows him walking slowly and irregularly down the street until bystanders come to his rescue. 

“They left him as if he were—I won’t say an animal, because animals are sentient beings,” said Marlon Díaz, the Vivas family’s lawyer. “As if he were a bag of trash that they just dumped outside the station.”

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**

For years, the Colombian National Police have been held up as a model of professionalism in Latin America. They even regularly train police from other countries.

“It was hard to come up with a police force that was considered more professional and more trustworthy,” said Adam Isacson, director of the defense oversight program at the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA. “Of course, if you talked to the Indigenous in Northern Cauca, or the Afro communities in the Pacific, or [poor and working-class] people in Soacha, they had a very different view.” 

After the events of the last three months, that other view—which sees police as an unaccountable force quick to resort to extreme violence—is much more widespread.

During the national strike, 44 people were killed by security forces, with hundreds more injured, according to the Colombian human rights group Temblores. The events of May 1 in Madrid illustrate the twofold pattern of police violence. On one hand, there is direct force used against protesters on the street. Police fired live ammunition at protesters on multiple occasions, especially early in the strike. They also routinely misused less-lethal munitions in a way that made them lethal or severely injurious by, among other things, firing tear gas canisters directly at protesters and replacing rubber pellets with glass marbles, according to multiple cellphone videos and events witnessed directly by VICE World News. 

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Then there’s a pattern of arbitrary detentions on a massive scale, sometimes accompanied by serial beatings and other actions described as torture by, among other groups, the World Organization Against Torture. Temblores estimates that 2,053 were illegally arrested, while other groups count more than 3,000. In many cases, protesters were charged with crimes that were then quickly dismissed by the courts. In other cases—as with Elvis Vivas—the arrests were completely irregular, with no official record or charges. 

The Colombian government maintains that the National Police have used the degree of force necessary to subdue violent actors, and that any cases of excessive force were isolated incidents. 

“When there are irregular actions, they are investigated and sanctioned, and the officers are even relieved of their duties while the process runs its course,” said Diego Molano, Colombia’s minister of defense, who oversees both the armed forces and the National Police. “But this is not a systemic or structural problem. We have zero tolerance towards any degree of impunity that affects the credibility of our institutions, and towards anyone who tarnishes the honor of the uniform of the police.” 

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International human rights groups almost unanimously disagree. 

“In no way can anyone affirm that the human rights violations committed by the Colombian National Police are isolated incidents involving a few undisciplined officers,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas program at Human Rights Watch. While he stopped short of saying the abuses were "systematic" according to the strict definition of international law (meaning there is evidence of a policy or directive to commit abuses), he said they are the result of "structural failures and systemic problems" with the institution.

Chief among them is impunity. Of the Colombian government’s insistence that there is “zero tolerance” toward police abuse, Vivanco said: “The facts demonstrate how little credibility that statement has. [Zero tolerance] can in no way be considered an actual public policy in Colombia. It’s simply a slogan with no basis in fact.” 

The case of Elvis Vivas offers an example. While the attorney general opened an investigation into the case, Marlon Díaz, the family’s lawyer, says there has been virtually no progress since step one—even though he personally handed over the videos, medical records, and other evidence months ago. The government has not even identified the officers responsible for the attack. Díaz calls and emails the prosecutor’s office every week, but they do not return his calls. 

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“They should not only have identified the people responsible, they should be thinking seriously about bringing charges against them,” Díaz said. “It’s incredible that after three months we still haven’t gotten a response.”

** 

The history of the Colombian National Police is inextricably tied to the United States. Going back to the days of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the U.S. has used police there as a proxy for its hemispheric war on drugs. In the new millennium, that war became closely intertwined with the war on terror, as the U.S. sank billions into Colombia’s internal armed conflict against the now-demobilized FARC and other left-wing insurgents—all the while ignoring the government’s ties to right-wing paramilitary death squads.   

The National Police have always been a major player in that conflict. In most democracies, the police are a civilian body separate from the armed forces. But in Colombia, under the Ministry of Defense and with extensive military training, equipment, and combat-ready special operations squads, they are effectively another branch of the country’s armed forces. 

The resulting institutional culture has been widely cited as a key reason for the unrestrained violence during the national strike: a police force steeped in the mindset of counterinsurgency sees social movements as subversives to be eliminated, not as authentic expressions of a citizenry with legitimate grievances. This year, calls both at home and abroad intensified to move the National Police out of the Defense Ministry—a proposal the current government rejects.

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The longstanding relationship between Colombia and the U.S. also explains the Biden administration’s tepid response to this year’s crisis. The White House is fully aligned with the Colombian government—and against much of the international community, including the Organization of American States—in adopting the “isolated incidents” response to the situation. 

“The read we have is that the Ministry of Defense lost some of its command and control structure, and some police have gone rogue,” said Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s director for the Western Hemisphere. “We don’t see an organized process to this.” 

Gonzalez said the White House is demanding concrete action from the Colombian government on investigating individual acts of misconduct. “We expect to see results, and if they’re not serious, there will be consequences,” he said. 

But they are not calling for structural reforms—and they’re certainly not questioning the fundamental nature of the relationship. 

“Colombia is a country that the United States clings to,” said Isacson of WOLA. “The whole narrative about the relationship with Colombia is that it’s been one of the few foreign policy successes of the United States worldwide. That’s the whole mythology, the whole bargain: If you follow the neoliberal consensus and you cooperate with us on our military priorities—whether that’s the war on drugs, terrorism, communism, or crime—then things are going to work out for you.” 

It would be difficult, then, for U.S. officials under any administration to admit that Colombia’s security forces are guilty of atrocities—no matter how serious. But it’s not for lack of trying from 55 members of Congress, led by Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who in May called for a total suspension of all security assistance to Colombia—a dramatic move given that such requests are typically much narrower (such as calling for partial suspensions or the imposition of conditions on assistance, not a total suspension of direct aid and equipment and munitions sales across the board). 

"If I hear one more administration official tell me 'the policy is under review,' I'm going to scream,” McGovern told VICE News. “The policy has been under review forever. What the hell do you need to review? Innocent people are being killed, and not just during these protests—concerns have been raised since well before these protests."

** 

On the day Elvis Vivas was fatally injured, his mother, Johana López, asked him not to go out and protest. He’d been out four days earlier, on the first day of the strike, and López had been alarmed by the sounds of police helicopters and stun grenades. Her son insisted. 

“I’m not going to say he was in the wrong place, because I don’t think you can say that someone who stands on a street to demand their rights is in the wrong place,” she said. “Maybe he was in the right place.”