Letters on a main street in Bogota, Colombia, last month read “disappeared.” (Daniel Munoz/AFP/Getty Images)
By Ana Vanessa Herrero
Juan Esteban Torres left his home on the afternoon of May 18 to join an anti-government protest in Caldas, Colombia. Millions across the country had taken to the streets in daily demonstrations against rising poverty, inequality and police brutality. Torres, his brother says, believed they deserved support. Security camera footage gathered by his family shows the 27-year-old walking between the protest and his home. No one has seen him since.
“We said goodbye,” Daniel Torres said, “and we never saw him again.”
While many of the thousands of demonstrations that have roiled Colombia over the last two months have been peaceful, security forces have responded to some with force. The government ombudsman reported 548 human rights violations through June 7, and 20 deaths.
Now protesters and human rights advocates say they’re seeing the revival of another familiar tactic from Colombia’s long civil conflict: disappearances. Hundreds of people in the South American nation have gone missing since the protests erupted in late April. According to the attorney general’s office, 84 remain unaccounted for. Advocates say this is the first time they’ve seen so many disappearances associated with demonstrations.
Friends of Juan David Montenegro comfort each other last week at a vigil in his honor. Montenegro died during clashes with riot police in Cali. (Paola Mafla/AFP/Getty Images)
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, called that number “terrifying.”
“These cases have occurred in a context of brutal abuses by the police, including massive arbitrary detentions,” he said. “Prosecutors need to urgently redouble their efforts to look for these people in police stations, in hospitals, and in the streets, and investigate any police involvement.”
Luz Marina Monzón is director of the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons, established to account for the people who went missing during the half-century-long conflict.
“Patterns that happened during the conflict years ago seem to be reproducing,” she told The Washington Post. “In a democratic country, this should not be normal.”
Mourners participate in the funeral this month of Angelvis Gregorio Bello, a demonstrator who was found dead on the road between Cali and Palmira. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)
The White House has taken notice. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki urged authorities last month to “continue to work to locate all missing persons as quickly as possible.” The government of President Iván Duque has said it’s doing all it can.
The Colombian attorney general’s office says it received 572 reports of people “not located” from April 28 to June 15. Of those, the office said, 335 people have been found and 153 reports were inadmissible.
In most cases, the office told The Post, the reports “correspond to the normal dynamics of people who voluntarily left their family circle, or who, due to circumstances different from those presented in the demonstrations, lost contact with close people.”
Human rights groups say they’ve recorded up to 700 cases, with some difficulty. Many families, they say, are not coming forward; most of the cases on their list have been gathered from social media.
“Some people, when they are arrested, shout out their name and ID and sometimes, we only have that information and photos or videos that protesters manage to get with their phones,” said Gloria Gómez, coordinator of the Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared. “This makes locating them very difficult.”
The attorney general’s office is investigating 84 cases of missing persons, four of them as forced disappearances. The others lack the necessary elements to meet the legal definition, the office says.
Indigenous Misak people clash with riot police this month in Bogota. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)
Juan Esteban Torres is one of the four. He participated in protests near his house on May 18 — “a day filled with tension between protesters and authorities,” according to Liberty Legal Corp., a legal advocacy group that’s advising the family. After running from police, the group said, Torres and others sought refuge in a house nearby. He was last seen by a friend between 10 and 11 p.m.
Torres’ supporters say they have reviewed footage showing him near his home at 2 a.m. May 19.
Three weeks after Torres’s disappearance, his family still hopes to see him walk in. They were recovering from the death of his mother when he disappeared.
“It’s like a movie,” Daniel Torres said. “We have been everywhere — hospitals, police — and I still don’t know what happened to him.”
Demonstrators confront riot police during an anti-government protest this month in Medellín. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images)
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