Colombia: Excessive force by riot police left more than 100 people with eye trauma

Violence and repression by the Colombian security forces, especially the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD), have resulted in hundreds of victims sustaining eye trauma, said Amnesty International, Temblores and the Programa de Acción por la Igualdad y la Inclusión Social (PAIIS) of the Universidad de los Andes in a new report published today.

Colombia:  Shoot on Sight: Eye Trauma in the Context of the National Strike documents 12 cases of police violence that resulted in irreversible eye trauma. Four of the cases occurred in previous years and eight in the context of the 2021 National Strike, in the cities of Bogotá, Popayán, Florencia, Medellín and Manizales. Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps analysed more than 300 pieces of audiovisual material on the disproportionate and repressive actions of ESMAD between 28 April and 20 October, concluding that officials carried out widespread human rights violations against protesters by inflicting eye injuries through the disproportionate use of potentially lethal weapons.

“It is chilling to see how members of the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad deliberately fired at the eyes of so many people, just for daring to exercise their legitimate right to peaceful protest. The Colombian authorities must guarantee justice, comprehensive care and reparation to the victims and take the necessary measures to avoid a repetition of these serious human rights violations,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

The report highlights the stories of victims of eye trauma and describes the multiple barriers they have faced in ensuring they received specialized health and psycho-social care. Several victims have faced increased obstacles in accessing decent work or continuing their education under conditions of equality.

Their accounts describe in detail how their injuries were not accidental, but were targeted attacks intended to punish them for legitimately exercising their right to social protest. They reveal once again patterns in the conduct of ESMAD officials which corroborate repeated complaints about the systematic nature of their practices of excessive and disproportionate use of force.

“Police violence cannot continue to be part of our daily lives. We cannot get used to the state indiscriminately violating citizens’ rights, much less harming those who exercise their right to protest. The cases of police violence and specifically eye injuries committed during the 2021 strike that we registered in our platform demonstrate that the actions of the police do not comply with international human rights standards and that police reform is necessary to guarantee the safety and lives of the people,” said Alejandro Rodríguez, coordinator of Grita, Temblores’ police violence observatory.

One of the most emblematic cases in the report is that of Leidy Cadena, a political science student who was demonstrating peacefully with her boyfriend and some friends in central Bogotá on 28 April when ESMAD officials approached them in an aggressive manner. “I just shouted ‘let’s go’ and immediately afterwards my face felt very hot. I couldn’t see through either of my eyes, I was in a great deal of distress,” said Leidy.

Amnesty International verified a video taken following the incident in which five ESMAD members are seen with shields and two of them are carrying riot gear in their hands, including mechanical kinetic weapons. Leidy is covering her bleeding eye, clearly in pain and her companions ask for help, but the ESMAD officials do not help her.

Leidy lost an eye in the attack. She believes that it was an act of gender-based violence because her companions were unharmed and from the start of the demonstrations she had noticed several attacks against women. After she reported the incident to the Attorney General’s Office, Leidy confirmed that she was interviewed about what happened at least 10 times and that this revictimized her. She also received threats on social media and on 16 October she was the victim of an attack when gunpowder was pushed under her door. Leidy, her mother and her partner have been forced to leave Colombia because of the threats.

Based on the evidence and statements presented in the report, Amnesty International, Temblores and PAIIS urge the Colombian authorities to comply without delay with the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights following its working visit in June 2021 – in particular ensuring that the use of non-lethal means of controlling public order is subject to strict, publicly available protocols. To prevent the excessive use of force during protests, the Colombian authorities must undertake a structural reform of the National Police, in particular ESMAD, which ensures a civilian approach in their actions, as well as independent and effective monitoring systems and investigation protocols to investigate police abuses. Likewise, they must create pathways for supporting victims of eye injuries and gender-based violence that include prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and psycho-social care.

“We had the privilege of supporting several victims of eye injuries who gave testimonies about their cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and we continue to provide legal assistance to some of them. We understand their struggle and frustration and we support their demands for justice. We are convinced of the need to continue to draw attention to the ways in which the security forces not only do not guarantee the rights of citizens, but deliberately violate them. Eye injuries appear to be a punishment for victims for exercising their legitimate right to protest, which is stamped on their faces and their lives,” said Juliana Bustamante, Director of PAIIS.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Duncan Tucker: +52 55 4848 8266, duncan.tucker@amnesty.org

Read more:

COLOMBIA: Shoot on Sight: Eye Trauma in the Context of the National Strike (research, 26 November 2021), https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/amr23/5005/2021/en/

Colombia: Violent Repression, Paramilitarism, Illegal Detention and Torture of Peaceful Protesters in Cali (News, 30 July 2021), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2021/07/colombia-represion-violenta-contra-manifestantes-pacificos-cali/

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