Hundreds of Colombian Protesters Missing, Believed to be in ‘Clandestine’ Detention Centers

“The number of people reported as disappeared increases by the hour” as police sweep up protesters at blockades. NGOs are scrambling to find as many as 435 people who have gone missing during the unrest.
May 13, 2021, 12:45pm
A student performs during anti-government protests in Cali, Colombia, on May 11, 2021.
A student performs during anti-government protests in Cali, Colombia, on May 11, 2021. Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images.

CALI, Colombia — Two weeks into the wave of protests roiling Colombia, several hundred people swept up by police are missing, and the authorities have been largely silent on their fate. Many of the missing are believed to be in clandestine detention centers, beyond the reach of basic legal protections.  

The unrest grew out of a protest against a proposed tax reform and provoked a brutal police crackdown, leading to the deaths of at least 41 demonstrators. The police violence enraged many Colombians and transformed the protests into a national movement revealing deep discontent with the country’s inequality, poverty, and police abuse. 

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Although the deaths of protesters have captured international attention, the systematic disappearances have received less attention. 

On Sunday, May 2, Mayra López was attending a peaceful protest in Armenia, the capital city of the western province of Quindio, when the anti-riot police, known by its Spanish initials as ESMAD, began to throw tear gas. Her cousin became dizzy and as López stopped to help, the two women were told they were being arrested for vandalism.  

She and five other protesters were moved around in a vehicle for several hours between police stations. When López, 33, a single mother of three and a public administration student, finally arrived at the final station she said she and her fellow detainees were mocked by officers for attending the protests and being gassed. During that time she said they were not permitted any communications, and her family reported her as “disappeared.” 

She was released a few hours later, and Public Question (Cuestión Pública), a Colombian investigative journalism organization that has been tracking cases, changed her status to “found.” 

“It was humiliating and frustrating,” she told VICE World News. “Because we didn’t do anything wrong.”

Many protesters suffered worse treatment from the police, including physical abuse, she said, but are scared to speak out. Hundreds remain missing.

“I’m not afraid [for myself]. I’m afraid that nothing will come from the strike and that all the people who have died” will have died for nothing, she said. 

López was fortunate. Many missing demonstrators haven’t been reported dead or arrested, and NGOs are working frantically to find them. Some in Cali are crowdsourcing information to find the missing protestors using Facebook, Twitter and other social media. While Colombia’s human rights ombudsman has reported 168 disappearances, one NGO estimates that there could be as many as 435 — many of them concentrated in Cali, where much of the unrest has been centered

Sebastian Lanz, co-director of the NGO Temblores, which documents police violence, says that there are various reasons people might be missing. 

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One is that protesters have ended up in unauthorized “clandestine” detention centers where “there is no legal authority to verify the human rights situation there.” 

Other protesters are being picked up under a regulation that allows them to be held without charges for no more than 12 hours at special centers for protection. Lanz said that he believes these centers are being used “indiscriminately” as an intimidation tactic to scare protesters from returning to the streets.  

And finally, said Lanz, some demonstrators are being taken into custody and charged with crimes, some as serious as terrorism, for peacefully protesting. The large number of arrests has made it difficult to track them all and their families may report them as missing. 

Many of these protesters should never have been detained in the first place, he said, “because they are exercising their legitimate right to social protest.”

Some of those who have returned from these detention centers reported being subjected to physical abuse, according to the Working Group on Forced Disappearances, a collective of Colombian human rights organizations. 

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“The detainees are not allowed to have contact with the lawyers so all this has become enormously difficult,” said Elmer Montaña, a former prosecutor for the Cali Attorney General’s Office who is now the executive director of the Defense of Innocents Foundation in Cali. 

“The only thing we have been aware of is that the number of people reported as disappeared increases by the hour, the vast majority of them young people who have participated in blockades or rallies.”

Police stations have been reluctant to share information with human rights groups, says Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes Director for the Washington Office on Latin América (WOLA). She said WOLA is calling for an independent investigation of police repression monitored by the U.S. State Department in response to the Colombian government’s “marketing campaign to try to decrease the pressure” it is facing for human rights abuses. 

Colombia’s Presidential Council on Human Rights said Tuesday that the Attorney General had not received any formal complaints of forced disappearances and the council was reviewing reports from the human rights ombudsman and NGOs. 

In a press release, the council said that the government had located 227 people and was still searching for 168 people.

Erlendy Bravo Cuero, the vice president of AFRODES, the Displaced Afro-Colombian Association, said that many Afro-descendant families in Cali, which have been disproportionately affected by police violence, are left to assume the worst without any information. 

“Possibly they might not be alive because if they were alive, they would be arriving at their houses telling at least their relatives and their mothers: ‘here we are,’” she said. “But if they haven’t returned, it’s because they’re not going to show up.”

This fear is especially potent in a country with a gruesome history of forced disappearances. Colombia’s “false positives” scandal, in which thousands of innocent people were disappeared and extrajudicially killed by the army and then falsely designated as guerrilla insurgents has left an indelible trauma. 

While there is currently no evidence that the disappearances from the past two weeks of protests are due to extrajudicial killings, that legacy of state-sponsored violence is why Lanz says it is the state’s responsibility to keep the public informed on the citizens in its custody. 

Colombians’ fear is “exacerbated by what we have seen with security forces acting so supremely violent towards their citizens,” Lanz said. 

“Obviously we have every right to be as scared as we are.”