What burns in a burning country?

These days will go down in history and will soon be studied in classrooms. This is the largest social protest that Colombia has experienced in recent years. It is already inevitable: while some of its protagonists will be exalted as heroes, others will be blamed as murderers. A dead man -one of dozens- breaks his silence in these lines.

19 de mayo de 2021

By José A. Castaño Hoyos / Illustration: Angie Pik
Translation: Rubén Darío Gómez Aristizábal, California State University

About fifteen policemen from La Virginia station, all recognizable with names and surnames, and whose commander is Major Néstor Sanabria, beat them to a pulp while insulting them: punches, kicks, gun butts, baton blows. Cowardice is usually a gesture of the many. It happened on the banks of the Cauca River, under the Francisco Jaramillo Ochoa bridge, which connects the Pereira International Free Trade Zone with La Virginia, Risaralda. On the ground, like drowning fish, two brothers were floundering: Otto and Brahian Rojas Lopez, aged twenty-eight and twenty-six. It was at nine o’clock at night on Wednesday, April 28, the day the social protests began in Colombia and the police rage was unleashed.

Otto managed to break through the encirclement of the uniformed men and ran to the top of the bridge. That saved him. His brother was not so lucky. Outside, a plain-clothes policeman, with a radio on his belt, grabbed Otto by the neck and pointed a gun at him. I’m going to kill you, motherfucker,” he said with bated breath, his eyes red with anger. “Why, why, why, why”, babbled the boy bathed in blood, his right cheekbone slashed open. A policewoman told her partner to put the gun away, that he was being watched and could be filmed. According to several witnesses, the plain-clothes man changed his appearance, putting on a bulletproof vest, then a jacket, then a cap.

Before letting him go, in front of the crowd protesting at the far ends of the bridge, other policemen beat Otto, helpless, his hands in the air, his mouth foaming with drool and blood. Get lost, the plainclothes policeman told him, put the gun away and returned to the darkness of the bridge’s underside, where Brahian was. Since that first day, in two weeks of social protests, the list of deaths at the hands of the National Police exceeds fifty. The record of missing persons adds up to hundreds, over five hundred. The wounded, dozens of them teenagers with eyes lost by rubber bullets fired with millimetric accuracy by agents of the Mobile Anti-riot squad, add up to almost two thousand.

What else happened that first night of Wednesday, April 28? Otto returned to the site of the beating to look for his brother Brahian. It was a couple of hours later, when the protesters and police had left. He did so spitting blood, shuffling his feet, his eyes almost closed from the swelling of the blows, his hands shaking. He called him by his name, called him little brother, walked back and forth, kept calling him, no one answered. Except for the chirping of crickets and the croaking of frogs, everything was silent at the edge of the Cauca. It was a full moon night. The light floated downstream.

***

Vicky Thalia Rojas Lopez reported the disappearance of her brother Brahian in the virtual portal of the Prosecutor’s Office and obtained as a response a consecutive number as unusual as useless, until now. The 2 0 2 1 6 6 6 4 0 0 0 0 1 8 9 0 3. How can such a number be understood, longer than the number of a bank account, than the winning number of a lottery draw, than the latitude and longitude coordinates of an island lost in the middle of the ocean?

A day later, Vicky Thalia received a call from an investigator from the Prosecutor’s Office who identified himself as Victor Giraldo. After some initial questions about her brother’s appearance, the official told her that the boy had jumped into the water and drowned. He probably didn’t know how to swim, Giraldo said in an impatient, obfuscated voice. She, twenty years old and with no law or criminal studies, asked him if before assuming such a conclusion he should investigate, ask questions, get out of his office. And she gave him a relevant piece of information, so that he could write it down in his notebook as an expert detective: my brother had been swimming these waters since he was a child.

Indeed, just below the bridge where he was attacked by the police, right there, Brahian Rojas Lopez had been working as a river sand fisherman. That is a famous trade, even many kilometers away, where the work of the sand fishermen of La Virginia is recounted with amazement. They navigate the Cauca river in barges with outboard motors, looking for banks where they can dive and cling to the bottom with their tentacle-like feet. It is a haphazard job. The sand fishermen extract the sediment from the river with buckets that they fill with their hands, holding their breath, avoiding being swept away by the current. Few swim better than the Cauca sand fishermen.

Vicky Thalia had no doubt that her brother, even in the darkness of the night, would have crossed the river with the strokes of an expert swimmer, navigating its eddies. Of course: such a feat was impossible after the beating the cops gave him. If he ended up in the water, she told investigator Victor Giraldo, it was because they, the police, threw him in after punching him, kicking him, beating him with their gun butts and batons. One question still hangs in the air, silent and smoldering. It is an obvious one, too: after beating him so viciously, under the cover of the darkness of the bridge, did any of the uniformed officers of the La Virginia police station shoot Brahian?

***

The night of Wednesday, April 28, agents of the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad detonated stun bombs to disperse the crowd. The order from the Risaralda police commander, Colonel Javier Raúl Gallego Duque, was peremptory: disperse the crowd at both ends of the bridge and restore the flow of vehicles. The police officers followed his orders and fired tear gas canisters in all directions. Two of them landed in the house of husband and wife Evelio de Jesús Flórez, eighty-six years old, and Blanca Esneda, seventy-five years old. Both sought help in the street, suffocated by the toxic smoke. Only she survived.

The main component of the tear gas bombs dropped by the police is chlorobenzylidene malonononitrile and its effect is well calculated: to severely irritate the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. As a result, it causes sneezing, coughing, crying, skin inflammation, blindness and drowning. Neighbors washed the old man’s face with milk in a desperate attempt to bring him to his senses. Photographs of that night show the man spattered with fear and bewilderment, trying to reach a last gasp of air. Evelio de Jesús Flórez died a few blocks away from his house, while they were trying to transport him to a medical center. He died spitting blood, recalls one of his sons.

Neither the president of Colombia nor his finance minister, nor the congressmen of the Centro Democrático, the governing party led by former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, calculated the wave of indignation that would be unleashed as a result of the tax reform that they were trying to pass in Congress as a matter of urgency. Colombia, one of the countries with the lowest vaccination rate in the world, the same country whose government voted against the release of patents for Covid vaccines, turned out to be the first to promote a tax reform to overcome the economic deficit imposed by the virus.

At the beginning of April, the leaders of the union federations asked themselves if it was possible to be more indolent, more clumsy, more cynical. The answer to that question had a lapidary eloquence and will go down in history as the trigger that unleashed the discontent of millions of citizens. During an interview in one media condescending to the government and its economic policy, in a casual, almost playful atmosphere, the Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, estimated the cost of a dozen eggs at $1,800 pesos, about fifty cents of a dollar, five times below their real price.

The answer of the man in charge of defining the country’s economic policy and its tax base showed a supreme ignorance about the survival costs of most Colombians, almost half of them -some twenty-two million- living in poverty. Only one poultry farm backed Alberto Carrasquilla, who was the object of mockery, insults and calls for his resignation. It was Avícola Santa Rita, which in a clever advertising gesture decided to offer three hundred dozen eggs at the minister’s incorrect price. Restrictions applied, of course. The promotion was for type A white eggs, which are the smallest eggs laid by their hens. How did they do?

It seems that almost everything in Colombia is related to something deeper and more painful: in early 2003, the owner and founder of Avícola Santa Rita, Rogelio Tenorio Sanclemente, was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas and spent months locked in a hole underground, unable to communicate, eating what his captors threw at him with violence and contempt. The poultry promotion went viral and the eggs flew off the shelves. The protests against the tax reform also went viral and with them images of police anger in Cundinamarca, Antioquia, Valle del Cauca, Atlántico, Caldas, Risaralda, Nariño, Huila, Tolima, Santander… The flames of similar violence had also reached the police themselves.

In Soacha, twenty-four kilometers from Bogotá, Jesús Alberto Solano, captain of the Judicial Police of that municipality, was stabbed to death when he confronted a group of vandals. A week later, three suspects indicted for the crime were captured. This swiftness has not been the same for the hundreds of cases of police crimes that have been documented by human rights organizations, including the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization of American States. Its secretary general, Luis Almagro, a partner in the Colombian government’s diplomatic offensive against the Venezuelan government, said it emphatically: “We especially condemn the cases of torture and murder committed by the forces of law and order”. Torture and murder.

But so far, not even the request from fifty U.S. congressional representatives for the suspension of economic and logistical aid to the Colombian National Police, and even some political leaders calling for the involvement of the International Criminal Court, have succeeded in reducing the violence perpetrated by agents of the State. In Cali, in Medellin, in Bogota, in Bucaramanga, in Buga, in Barranquilla, policemen -and civilians escorted by them- have been seen shooting at peaceful protesters, armed with signs and drums.

In addition to the loss of eyes, beatings, disappearances and deaths, there have been reports of sexual assault on women detained by agents of the Mobile Anti-riot Squadron. The case of Alison Meléndez is just the most notorious. The seventeen-year-old minor committed suicide after, according to her own testimony, she was abused by the four anti-riot agents who detained her in Popayán. The furious explanation of Colonel Ricardo Alarcón, police commander in that region located in the south of the country, only increased the social indignation to the point that the Immediate Reaction Unit where Alison Meléndez was detained was set on fire by an out-of-control mob.
The sparks of the social protests, which set fire to the text of the tax reform and also incinerated the positions of the Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, and the Chancellor, Claudia Blum, have almost buried the denouncement of the disappearance of Brahian Rojas Lopez at the hands of the Police of La Virginia. It has been barely two weeks since that night, but so many events have happened, many of them broadcasted live, so many that the boy’s disappearance seems to have happened years ago. In a painfully literal sense, the dead bury the dead, hide them, cover them up. The executioners breathe a sigh of relief, though perhaps not this time.

Vicky Thalia’s stubbornness has been more persistent than fear. And despite the threats, the harassment and the evident negligence of the State, she has not stopped knocking on doors, scratching at them with her fingernails, following her intuition. It was she, not the Attorney General’s Office, who found her brother’s body.

***

It was on Tuesday, May 4, six days after her brother’s disappearance. Vicky Thalia had called the firefighters of the riverside towns downstream of the Cauca one after the other. She got the telephone numbers and the names of their commanders. It was a miracle, almost a miracle. Jhon Jairo Sepúlveda, commander of the Sabanalarga firefighters, remembers that she spoke to him with clarity and firmness, with an alacrity that did not seem like that of a young woman in her twenties. Sabanalarga is a municipality in the department of Antioquia, three hundred and thirty kilometers away from La Virginia. How is it that the body of her brother traveled so far, avoiding the countless bends where the current usually leaves the corpses of animals and people?

The Cauca River is a huge mass grave almost a thousand kilometers long. Paramilitaries, guerrillas, gangs of hired killers and state agents have thrown an impossible-to-determine number of corpses into these waters. According to the account of members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, hundreds of bodies were cut up, even stuffed with stones, to prevent them from floating. In August 2013, paramilitary leader Ramiro Vanoy Murillo, alias Cuco Vanoy, told the magistrates of the Justice and Peace Chamber of the Medellín Superior Court that he had ordered his men to dig up bodies buried in mass graves and dump them in the Cauca river. In other words, to make those who had been already missing to disappear in the river.

Jhon Jairo Sepúlveda is a firefighter who has been a veteran in the currents of the Cauca river and has already lost count of the many corpses he has had to rescue in the nooks and crannies of its banks. He was surprised when he heard where Vicky Thalía was calling him from: La Virginia, Risaralda? Exactly that morning of Tuesday, May 4, he had been informed of the discovery of a corpse near the mouth of the Rosa stream, which descends from the municipality of Buriticá, in the foothills of the Western Cordillera.

Two tattoos allowed his full ID. Wings on the back, below the nape of the neck, and a character from the cartoons the three brothers watched on TV on Saturday mornings. It was Sam Whiskers, from the Bugs Bunny show, the lucky rabbit. Just a month ago Brahian had those drawings tattooed, with a celerity that his family didn’t fully understood and didn’t share. They were the first works of a friend, a tattoo apprentice. How are they,” Brahian asked Vicky Thalia. She looked at them and smiled indulgently. Nice, she replied, although she actually thought they were too flashy. Luckily they were.

The body that the commander of the Sabanalarga firefighters rescued from the water with the help of three of his colleagues was unrecognizable, a corpse without features, disarrayed, eaten away by the inclemency of the water and the sun. But the tattoos were there, in plain sight, screaming their origin. Vicky Thalia sent him the photographs of the tattoos on her brother’s living body, and Jhon Jairo Sepulveda compared them with the photographs of the tattoos found on what was left of him. There was no room for doubt. The young woman called Victor Giraldo, an investigator for the Attorney General’s Office, to inform him of her discovery. What followed was more pain and more fear.

The body of Brahian Rojas López was taken to the offices of the Forensic Institute in Medellín. His family hired the services of Sacrosanto Funeral Home to receive the body, prepare it and transport it back to La Virginia. The expenses incurred were over one million pesos, which neither of them knew how they managed to obtain. Between all of them, family and neighbors, they opened piggy banks, lent money, sold belongings, pawned tools. The body arrived to the village in a sealed coffin on May 8, eleven days after his disappearance, after the beating perpetrated by the policemen of the La Virginia station.

After so many days, the Prosecutor’s Office remains silent, and the family is yet to receive the autopsy report. No authority has told them anything. And although they know how Brahian died – they know for sure – there is still no one to confirm it. Otto, the brother who witnessed the beating, capable of recognizing the faces of the aggressors, is hidden, far from the uniformed men who patrol the streets of the town looking everywhere, as if they were looking for him. The images have been recurring every day for the past two weeks: angry policemen beating faces, breaking arms, running over people with their armored cars, shooting at them in cold blood.

Meanwhile, the most recent promise of the President of Colombia is that the America football Cup, scheduled to start in four weeks, will be held without delays. It would make no sense not to do it, said Iván Duque on television. Irony is also a form of protest: as mascot of the tournament, the outraged citizens have proposed a dummy of the Mobile Anti-riot Squad that, instead of a ball, kicks a head. The scene is already iconic of the present times in Colombia.
What’s burning in a country on fire? Vicky Thalia Rojas Lopez answers in a cracked voice, without hesitation: people.

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