The Observers Direct

'Colombia: Silencing a Revolt': A video investigation

Colombia: Silencing a Revolt – a video investigation by the France 24 Observers.
Colombia: Silencing a Revolt – a video investigation by the France 24 Observers. © Observers

Major protests that broke out in Colombia on April 28 have been marked by numerous acts of violence perpetrated against demonstrators by security forces and armed civilians alike. In this special report, ‘Colombia: Silencing a Revolt,’ the FRANCE 24 Observers investigated these clashes using the testimonies of our Observers on the ground and the analysis of countless amateur videos posted online. 

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On April 28, Colombians took to the streets to protest against a tax reform bill proposed by the government. The bill, accused of negatively impacting middle- and working-class people, was withdrawn on May 2, but protesters remained mobilised, denouncing inequality, corruption, the assassination of political leaders and police violence. 

Complaints of police violence have only increased, as videos posted on social networks since the protests started show numerous acts of violence committed by police against protesters on a daily basis. According to the Colombian NGOs Temblores, Indepaz and Paiis, 44 people were killed by police during the first two months of unrest.

>> Read on The Observers: Protests in Colombia: Videos show 'dangerous' use of grenade launchers by police 

Moreover, footage taken in May shows armed civilians attacking demonstrators, while police officers look on. 

In this special video investigation, the FRANCE 24 Observers took a closer look at events in the cities of Cali and Popayán from May 9 to June 4, where amateur videos and our Observers’ testimonies illustrate the silencing of a revolt. 

Behind the scenes of our special report 'Colombia: Silencing a Revolt'

Working with amateur photos and videos always requires verification: where and when were these images taken? That's where we started our analysis of the videos of protests and police violence coming from Colombia. 

A few things make this kind of verification difficult, especially when videos are taken at night. When everything is dark, as in many videos of police violence, it's particularly difficult to verify the location. 

Plus, the constant influx of photos and videos taken in the first weeks of the protests on WhatsApp, Twitter, Telegram, Facebook or Instagram makes verifying everything near impossible. 

However, relatively few images of Colombia's protests were taken out of context or spread with false captions since April 28.

A culture of citizen journalism

Many people filming videos at demonstrations had the good reflex of "citizen journalists," and specified the place, date and time during their videos. This is invaluable information for journalists in the newsroom, and it allowed the FRANCE 24 Observers team to reconstruct the sequence of events the evening of June 4 in Cali, when two people were killed by police in the Villa del Sol neighbourhood. 

Multiple videos of the same event taken from different angles also helped us to verify these events. 

But these reflexes are not without risk in Colombia. During the first two months of demonstrations, 38 people were harassed for filming the police, according to the NGOs Temblores, Indepaz and Paiis. Yet any police procedure can be legally filmed, according to the Colombian Police Code.

Tensions in Cali

In addition to analysing videos online, our team also went on the ground in Bogotá, Cali and Popayán.

In Cali, we went to Villa del Sol in mid-June to interview Luis (not his real name), a paramedic who took care of wounded demonstrators on June 4. When we arrived, riot police were stationed on a street where bullet holes in nearby trees from previous clashes were still visible. The first-aid tent was a bit farther down the street, set up at the beginning of protests to treat the wounded after clashes with police.

Luis asked to stay anonymous, due to the threats being received by many health workers since the start of protests. He and others have received anonymous phone calls, or gifts of food or drink with poison or broken glass inside.

'Why don't we make him disappear?'

In Cali, we also met Álvaro Herrera, a young musician who was detained on May 28 by armed civilians, who then handed him over to the police. That day, he says, one of the police officers said to him, "Why don't we make him disappear?" This sentence is not insignificant, as hundreds of people have been reported missing in connection with the demonstrations since April 28. In mid-June, the attorney general's office announced that 335 people had been found, but searches were still in progress for 84 others. No new figures have been released since.

The circumstances of Álvaro Herrera's arrest show some form of complicity between police and groups of armed civilians. In May, armed civilians were involved in several incidents of violence against protesters in Cali, sometimes even while police stood idly by.

But who are they? While some of them are likely police officers in plainclothes, others are residents who said they wanted to defend their neighbourhoods from protesters.

Our team contacted the Colombian police, who said that investigations have been opened into several of the incidents we looked at in this report. They added that three police officers have been killed in the protests since April 28.