An unprecedented protest movement has been shaking Colombia over the past week. It began on November 21, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the policies of President Iván Duque and the protests have continued every day since. Though most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, they have faced persistent police repression since the very outset.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Colombian teen dies after being shot in the head by police
The Policarpa neighborhood has been particularly affected by police violence. FRANCE 24 spoke to numerous witnesses in this area located south of the town centre.
According to some of the people interviewed, the violence began when “hooligans” vandalized the main bus stop, set up barricades and started numerous trash can fires. They said the police passed in front of the stop several times but didn’t intervene.
Physical violence and destruction of property
Around 8:30 or 9pm, quite a few police officers stormed into the neighbourhood. They chased away the hooligans, but then they set in on locals who had been banging on pots and pans in a peaceful protest just moments before. The police were hitting people and they also used tear gas.
Alex Cubides Narvaez, a 32-year-old shopkeeper, was just trying to go home that evening when he was caught and beaten by the police. Six days later, he still hasn’t recovered from his injuries.
I don’t really remember well what happened that night, because I had some kind of blackout. According to the people who saw me, the police were beating me up with their truncheons. They hit me in the head numerous times.
WARNING: SOME VIEWERS WILL FIND THE FOLLOWING VIDEO DISTURBING.
My brother and my friend brought me to the hospital right away. My brother says that I was extremely disturbed - I was yelling. The medical staff carried out a brain examination and they took an X-ray of my arm, which had been nearly broken. I also got stitches in my head wounds. We finally left around 3:00 or 4am.
The next day, when I was talking to my brother, my memory started to come back, little by little. But I still can’t remember everything. I’m still healing. Since going to the hospital, I’ve barely left home. I haven’t been able to work.
There are some things that really worry me. For example, I can’t walk straight. Or, yesterday, I went into a shop and bought something. The shopkeeper gave me the change and then I stood there and asked him for the change, even though the money was in my hand.
I am supposed to go back to the hospital for another brain scan. I will also go and file a complaint.
Juan was also beaten up by the police, along with several other members of his family. The police then smashed out the windows of a car parked in front of their garage. He didn’t want to use his last name, for security reasons.
We saw people running at the end of our street and then police appeared. My uncle told me to close our garage door. The police thought that we were hiding hooligans in there, so they started to force open the door and then one of them grabbed me and hit me with a truncheon.
My two uncles and my 15-year-old cousin intervened. They were asking the police why they were hitting me, but then the police started beating them up, too. A police officer hit my 15-year-old cousin in the head and then smashed out the windows of a blue car that we were in the midst of repairing.
Then, one of his fellow officers tried to damage the black car that we were working on, as well.
My uncle said that he was going to report them but then one of the officers threatened him, saying, “I know where you live!”
My aunt was also shoved when she tried to take a photo of the police car’s licence plate. On November 23, my family went and filed a complaint [Editor’s note: Our team was able to read this complaint].
Several photos and videos corroborate Juan’s testimony.
Armed police threaten locals
Police also threatened people living in this neighbourhood, sometimes with weapons in hand, according to Lobsang Parra, a sociologist at the Universidad Nacional:
I was at home around 1:00am and the police drove by on motorcycles. They were showing their weapons and would point them at the windows where they saw people, as if to scare them and keep them from going out in the street.
Police officers also fired shots in the street, like the video below.
"This neighborhood is stigmatised”
A week later, residents of Policarpa are still struggling to understand why the police lashed out with such brutality. Some of them say that the police have instilled a “strategy of fear” to prevent people from protesting. Others think that the repression is tied to the fact that the neighbourhood is known as a centre of opposition, according to Jhoan Pinto Castro.
"This isn’t your average neighbourhood. Most of the families who live here were originally from rural areas but were displaced by violence in the 1950s [Editor's note: tied to the armed conflict that wracked Colombia for years] and came and squatted this area. It’s a neighbourhood with a history of social struggle, so it is stigmatised. So it’s possible that police received specific orders about Policarpa because of the idea that some people have about its residents."
Our team contacted the Colombian police, but, so far, we have not received a comment from them. We will update this article if they provide a response.