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A history of dignity and resistance in Colombia: MOCAO

By Irma Gallo
Photography Manuel Ortiz Escámez 

Created in 1999 as a police force to control protests by coca growers' movements in northern Colombia, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) bears the infamous imprint of being responsible for direct attacks against protesters that have left more than 300 people seriously injured since 2019.

The hallmark of this repression is the firing of rubber bullets directly into people's faces with the intention of causing serious eye injuries, which in many cases (especially, but not exclusively, to those who belonged to the First Lines, but not exclusively, to those who belonged to the First Line) was the result of the repression.1 in the manifestations) caused the loss of the organ or sight.

On November 23, 2019, an ESMAD agent shot Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old student who was protesting to demand guarantees from the government for universal access to higher education. The projectile that hit the back of his head was made of a textile material filled with lead pellets. After his death, he became a symbol of the struggle against official repression.

In 2021, Cristian Zárate, a victim of one of these attacks, created the Movimiento en Resistencia Contra las Agresiones Oculares del Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (MOCAO). 

At the dawn of the new government headed by President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Marquez Mina, in which many Colombians have placed their hope for a real transformation in human rights, these are the testimonies of some of MOCAO's members, collected in Bogota, at the end of May 20222.

Cristian Rodríguez Zárate

Cristian Zárate creator of MOCAO
Cristian Rodriguez Zarate, young victim of an ESMAD shooting on December 16, 2019 in Bogota, Colombia and founder of MOCAO. Photo: Manuel Ortiz Escámez P360P

From my critical point of view, from my reflection and indignation and also from my suffering, that in Colombia there are no guarantees for life, there are no fundamental rights, this led me to join the social movements and to carry out activism in the streets for six or seven years.

In the national strike of November 21, 2019, this whole phenomenon of police abuse begins to start. And within this concept of police abuse there are several types, and one of them is ocular aggressions. Already in 2019, 2020 and 2021 this type of aggressions in the demonstrations by the public force becomes public and very visible.

My personal case was in 2019, exactly on December 16. It happened at the National University of Colombia, at the Bogotá campus. I was concentrating on a demonstration that we were going to do in the Plaza de Bolivar, in the center of Bogota, with several organizations, student movements, labor movements, trade unionists.

Around 3 o'clock in the afternoon we left the National University for the Plaza de Bolivar and there we met with many organizations, with the opposition bench of the Congress of the Republic. We lasted approximately two, three hours and around 5 or 6 o'clock in the afternoon we were ordered to evacuate. 

The police told us all to leave the Plaza because there was going to be a Christmas event, so we decided to go back to the National University and there, around 7, 7:15 pm, at the main entrance of the University there began to be confrontations between the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) and the demonstrators. 

At that moment I was at the last part of the demonstration; I was entering and when I was already at the entrance I felt? first I heard a roar and then I felt an impact on the left side of my face. I am aware of the situation and immediately I realize that I lose the sight of my left eye. I touched my face, there was a lot of blood; I started to call for help. The nurses, the boy scouts, they helped me; they took me quickly to a nearby hospital, which is the Mederi Clinic. 

I was there for three or four days and after leaving the hospital I began a whole process of recovery in the psychosocial, legal and personal areas. Then I began to sue and to make visible this type of attacks.

At the beginning of 2020 I started to meet many people who were also attacked in one of their eyes through an NGO called the Center for Psychosocial Attention. I started to talk with the guys, we started to exchange experiences, points of view about what happened to us and we came to a great conclusion and "why don't we organize ourselves and denounce this kind of attacks, not only from the individual demands we make but through a collective, a movement?"

We made that decision because of what was happening in Chile in 2019, that vast movement there was of eye trauma victims, more than 600 people, some of whom were left without sight.

In the year 2021, exactly on April 9, which in Colombia is commemorated as the National Victims' Day, we went out to make ourselves public, not only through an event that took place at the United Nations headquarters here in Bogota, but also through social networks. We started this whole process of visibility with a very important and very big task, which is to convene and gather all the victims of eye trauma throughout the country.

I believe that this is the most complex and the most long term thing we have had to do: to summon children from the coast, from the coffee region, from the south of Colombia, from Cundinamarca.

Speaking of the general objective: basically, that through political, judicial, artistic and cultural actions, reforms, rulings and restructuring begin to be generated, so that in the long term the dismantling and disappearance of the ESMAD within the public force can be generated.

This movement has given me great motivation, emotional stability and an initiative not only to seek the symbolic reparation that we want, but also to redirect the lifestyle that not only I, but all the people who suffered this type of attack, had before the aggression.

These types of attacks are acts against humanity, subjecting the person to systematic torture in all areas of his or her life: at work, personally, emotionally. All kinds of strong, high-impact changes are generated in their lives. So, the essence of this movement is to translate and give another logic, another perspective to this type of aggressions.

People who suffer these aggressions are subjected to mourning, they are subjected to mourning; we have seen family breakups, suicide attempts. The whole issue of mental health is quite affected.

So MOCAO gives you like that twist of stopping that perspective of pain and suffering to a perspective of resilience, that there is a new lifestyle, another way of facing and taking on things to lead not only a stable life as human beings but also as part of this movement.

What we are looking for is justice because this is quite visible and it is quite clear that this type of aggressions are systematic. This is prepared, there is a whole manual to generate this type of aggressions.

MOCAO for me has been my balance; I have a very nice theory which is the trampoline theory: this type of situations, of moments that one lives, for me are an impulse to keep going up, where I have always kept myself. MOCAO for me has been that symbol of resilience and unity, and also of resistance for everything we have done so far and what we have to do in the future.

Daniel Alejandro Jaimes

Daniel Alejandro Jaimes, was the victim of an ESMAD attack in May 2021 for which he lost his right eye, ten dental pieces, detached upper jaw and nose. Photo: Manuel Ortiz P360P
Daniel Alejandro Jaimes, was the victim of an ESMAD attack in May 2021 due to which he lost his right eye, ten dental pieces, detached upper jaw and nose. Photo Manuel Ortiz Escámez - P360

That day was quite strong. A rather large crowd formed in the locality. It was the first of May 2021. We were with some friends; there was a lot of police presence, there was ESMAD. Even that afternoon I went to accompany a girl and at one point I saw that they were already putting on their vests, the men were getting ready, and then at that moment I was very angry.

There was a lot of concentration. At that moment the strike was at full strength and then we, with the joy of everything that was happening that day, were having a great time, a great time with friends.

As we were going up we could see that there was a lot of force available and we were ready with our shields. When we arrived at the intersection, 20, 30 seconds passed and they began to throw gas; then people ran. I started to see how children and their parents were running hand in hand and that made me very angry. 

That gas is very strong, so I put on a scarf and the hood because there was a drone taking pictures. I covered my face very well. 

People were already very offended. The gases were thrown at the body, completely. More or less 15 couples (that is, couples formed by a policeman and an ESMAD officer) passed by with their shields and some with grenade launchers. 

The moment we saw that, we said: where they catch us on the main road we have nowhere to run, so we made a barricade with garbage containers that are about two meters long, more or less. All the rubber bullets hit the container.

I was looking at an officer from the left; as I was looking at him I saw a burst from the right side, so my reflex was to turn around. The moment I turned around, I was hit in the nose. I say that because of that reflex I did not lose my life.

The moment they fired I felt like it was the flash of a photo. I didn't feel any pain, but I fell on my elbows and I heard bang! I felt someone grab me by the arms and started dragging me. Then another guy came and dragged me by my legs. 

The ESMAD was reloading again. There was a space for them to pull me and not take me away. The wound was quite large. At that moment I fell dazed and they saw it, they shot me. I did not react. When I reacted I touched my teeth with my tongue and I felt that they were broken; I was very offended, I got very angry. 

I felt like my nose was stuffed up. I couldn't breathe. I had a lot of blood in my nose. They took me to the fire station in a small grill. They took care of me there. I was choking on my own blood. 

The ambulance arrived at once. I didn't quite know what had happened. My nose was stuffy and my eyelids were swollen. I opened my eyes and could see that I had arrived at the hospital. 

I spent four days dead in life because they didn't know for sure what had happened to me. They cut my shirts, my pants were full of blood and I felt blood on my head, on my shoulders, it reached my torso. 

I was very dehydrated and cried for a glass of water, but they didn't give me any because they didn't know if they were going to operate the next day. The nurse secretly brought some gauze with water and I had to squeeze them to at least drink some water.

On the third day they took off the bandages and said to me: "cool, can you see anything?" I saw a blue, like a gray scale, very dark, and I could perceive light. At that moment I had the hope that I would be able to continue seeing.

As time went by, they looked at the damage and it was not only the eye, but also 10 dental pieces, detachment of the upper jaw and the nose. At that moment they saw that he had a hemorrhage in his left eye and it was necessary to control it, as he could lose his left eye as well. 

In my right eye they told me that the impact exploded the retina. I was hospitalized for a month. The hospital stay was very hard. My mother had to lie on a couch for a month. From lying down, I had stretch marks on my back.

My vision was very short, like from here to where you are. There was a television and I couldn't see it. Later, as time went by, I developed very well and my eyesight became much clearer.

But I never lost my composure. I always remained cheerful, I always laughed with my mom. I didn't fall into moral grief, I didn't get sad because I felt that my family was there.

It's hard to get used to looking with one eye, to do things with one eye: you want to grab something and it's a little bit farther away, so you lose that depth.

I became aware of MOCAO through a TV channel. My uncle told me: "Dani, come quick"; I said: "what happened?", and they were talking about MOCAO, what the collective was about. And we had contact with Cristian.

It gives me a lot of strength. Being part of MOCAO we all have that voice and that vote. We are very attentive to the kids. MOCAO did not just become a collective for me; it became a family. With Cristian we talk a lot, we laugh and more than once we meet in many places, so it generates a very nice trust.

One time a guy came up to me and said, "I don't know, being with you guys gives me a lot of strength".

Only we know the pain we have gone through.

Gareth Sella

Gareth Sella, was shot three times by ESMAD during a peaceful demonstration by the group "Escudos Azules" against police brutality. Photo: Manuel Ortiz P360P.
Gareth Sella, was shot three times by ESMAD during a peaceful demonstration by the group "Escudos Azules" against police brutality. Photo Manuel Ortiz Escámez P360

It is not that it has been an experience but that it is still an experience. At least I am going for a year and I am still discovering many things, accepting many feelings, many pains, many changes. 

But the event, which does not even begin at the moment I was shot, but I was part of a front line called Blue Shields, began a few days before, when the police intelligence here issued an internal criminal alert labeling Blue Shields as a radical and violent group that was calling for destruction on February 24. 

This alert was issued on February 22, on February 23 it was leaked to us and on that day we made a public denunciation. On February 24, the day of the official mobilization against police brutality, a policeman on the radio says: "no, the alert was true but we know them and no, they are peaceful and we would like to talk to them one day". And a few hours later, I am shot.

There was already this stigmatization, this singling out, this way of making us a target. 

The intervention takes place on 24th Street, an ESMAD squadron comes and starts to disperse the mobilization, which was not very large, there were 200 people, but at that moment everyone was leaving, that is, there was no confrontation, I am leaving and while I am trying to leave, on the next block, on 24th Street, I turn around and from behind is where they shoot at me. 

They shoot three bullets from markers, which are rubber bullets, that hit me in the head, in the eye and next to my nose.

And what follows is a lot of stigmatization, threats, follow-up, vindication, continuing to fight, meeting a lot of people who continue to fight, who continue to struggle, accepting what happened, grieving, etcetera.

Today I am doing television. I graduated some time ago, in 2019, in April, and before leaving my career I had formed a production company with some classmates from the university. Before that, my work has always been audiovisual.

Initially, when I get shot, I last 60 days in bed. Because I have a first surgery, then another surgery, and I end up with a final disability of 60 days.

Also what happens when you are shot is that there is a very strong stigmatization, so you have to change the narrative, fight against that narrative because you can't let them define what you are.

It is a criminalization of social processes. That is to say, they have criminalized belonging to the First Line.

Visually you don't notice the shot so much but there are a lot of guys who are very noticeable, and then there's a mark and it's a way that people point them out and it's also very hard to find work.

So it is not only the violence of the act, which is called ocular trauma not only because of the blow, but also because of what it generates, which is a mark for life that makes it difficult for you to have access to the right to work and other places.

The First Line is a popular demonstration that is also taking place in other places: in Chile, in Hong Kong, in different spaces of the planet in the face of police repression. Here it has been happening especially since 2019. 

[Since the murder of Dilan Cruz in November 2019] we need to defend people, we need someone to defend us because at that time I was not part of the First Lines. 

There are a lot of guys popping up throughout 2019 and even louder in 2021 saying: let's get cautious because we're getting shot in the head. Let's put on goggles because they're shooting us in the eyes. We are going to put on gas masks because they are gassing us and also with different types of gases; it is not only tear gas, but it is the expired tear gas from eight years ago, ten years ago, which is more harmful to health. 

We use shields because they are going to want to hit us, because they are going to shoot at us with everything, with gas, with stun guns, with rubber bullets.

We were not training in our lives to cover a shield; we were doing other things, we wanted other things and it is so painful to see our compas being shot and killed.

The police here is almost a military police. It is not part of the Ministry of Defense but it is militarily trained with a logic of the internal enemy that has to go to confront insurgents, guerrillas, etc., so there is a very big stigmatization against whoever demonstrates. 

They persecute people even in hospitals. Three police intelligence agents came to me when I was on medication. And they do that with many people: they go and walk around outside, as if they were applying violent pressure to intimidate.

And here I am, with one eye. Practically without an eye, although I didn't lose it, what I lost was my vision, but it's like not having it. It is difficult, complicated at the beginning.

For me [being in MOCAO] has been a curious and strange process because when they shoot me I propose to change that narrative. I start a very delicate and very solitary journey. Sometimes it's easier to have a solitary process but it's not going to go any further, and it starts to be hard because it's very difficult to see that these things keep happening, to see that more boys, more girls, etc. appear, and then the body generates a distance, a bit like I don't want to feel in that place because it's still very hard for me to face it.

So, in a moment it is difficult for me to get involved quickly. It is difficult to feel identified with a lot of people and one faces it at a moment trying to say "it didn't happen to me, it wasn't so serious". But there comes a point of saying: "yes, it happened to me and there are a lot of people that it happened to and that are still having a bad time", and it is another place of struggle, and you have to fight, and get together, and build from there, which is much more profitable to go further and to support each other, to keep each other company and to reinforce.

People have a hard time understanding what happened to you, and it helps to talk to colleagues who have been going through the same thing for a long time. It is good to meet and recognize oneself with others so as not to be left alone with that strange sensation of losing one's vision in such a violent event. Staying alone is dangerous, and beneficial for the state that repressed you in this way.

We go out into the streets without anyone giving us money, without anyone giving us anything, without anyone financing us, but with a lot of love and no one can take that love away from us.

There are different ways of seeing, and having more eyes is not seeing more. Close your eyes sometimes and see with your heart, with your soul, with love. Because eyes lie a lot; people believe in politicians who are looking them in the eyes and are lying to them.

Topo

Topo was in a park doing physical activity with friends on September 26, 2021, when members of First Line and ESMAD had a confrontation in that place, when he tried to move away a rubber bullet hit him. Photo: Manuel Ortiz P360P
Topo was in a park doing physical activity with friends on September 26, 2021, when members of Primera Línea and ESMAD had a confrontation in that place, when he tried to move away a rubber bullet hit him. Photo: Manuel Ortiz Escámez P360P

My case was complicated at the beginning. After the surgery it was difficult because I could not see well. My case started on September 26th of last year (2021). That week the week for peace was being celebrated here in Bogota. I was part of a group, and together with the whole group they played a game against the police; a different way of fighting them.

I was at the game with them, I accompanied them; I went to distract myself, to take my mind off things, I played for a while and then I left. 

That day a parcero called me to go play at Parque Marruecos and we never knew what was going to happen. We were playing, doing physical activity, when all of a sudden a few boys started to gather. 

Obviously I was part of a front line, but that day I was in another story, and precisely in the park where I went there was a small confrontation with the auxiliaries. Then the boys returned to the park, and later the ESMAD arrived. 

At the moment they entered the park attacking everyone went running, so I ran too. When I turned around a guy was in front of me and when he ducked down I was hit. I fell to the ground and when I got up I ran down the stairs of the park and that's where I fell and lost consciousness.

Then I woke up and the guys were taking pictures and videos of me, even though I told them not to. But they made the video viral on TikTok when I was injured on the floor. 

I was in the hospital, with a parcero and [three agents] came to ask me questions, what had happened, if I was sure it was the ESMAD people. I told them "it's obvious, because it's a blow with a rubber bullet". There was also a policeman who started looking at me, as if to say "I'm going to take him away if he screws up".

I was kind of asleep, they wake me up with "what were you doing?", and I'm like, "I'm on medication; what they're asking me to do is illegal. I don't have to say that right now," but they leave for a while and come back. 

But this happens with many. For example, the women human rights defenders who helped me were being called and told: "you defend guerrillas, then we are going to look for you", as if to generate fear in them so that they would not testify about the things they saw.

I had done nothing wrong. I was part of a front line, but that day I was not active, that day I was in my own story, I was with my friends. The First Line goes out in defense of the demonstrator. We are not guerrillas or terrorists, as we have been called. We are not that, we are the shield of the people.

My question is: why is it that most of the kids who have been ocular affected are always in the right eye? You look at that and they have every intention of taking the boy's head off. Because for them he is a terrorist, he is a guerrilla and he is a military target.

For the moment I am fine. It does affect me a little because not everywhere we can be received like this when looking for a job. Right now I am studying, finishing my academic studies and on the weekends I do odd jobs, that is, the little jobs that can be done.

For me, MOCAO is also a family where I learned a lot when I didn't know what my rights were. Going out on the street and going through what happened to me changed me: knowing a little more about the country and my rights. How to wake up, to say "no more". To say: "I defend my people and I defend my rights".

I have a phrase: "he who does not live it does not feel it, it seems".

Requests to the new government

In mid-August 2022, through Whatsapp audios, two members of MOCAO make their requests to this reporter for the government that has been in office for less than a month. Topo does so in his personal capacity, while Cristian brings the Movement's official proposals.

Topo

On my part, as a victim, that they do not fail us, that they keep their word because if not, believe me, this is going to be hell again and worse. That is why the only thing I ask of the government is that it be a good process because our fear, my fear, is that what happened last year will happen again, and the truth is that I do not want to see more blood spilled on the asphalt.

Cristian

From the National Movement of Ocular Trauma Victims MOCAO, from this social and political justice, in this new government we make a great invitation to this new legislative agenda so that we can work together on three specific proposals:

  1. Guarantees of reparation and non-repetition of this type of acts against humanity and war treatment in demonstrations and protests, that this type of acts in a demonstration never happen again in any part of the national territory.
  2. The construction and implementation of a comprehensive and lifelong care route for all the injured, victims of eye trauma throughout the country because we are more than 180, 200 people not only in the context of the strike of 2021 but also in previous years. That we can work articulately with the different representatives of the Ministries of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Labor, so that we can have a comprehensive care and the rights that were violated can be vindicated.
  3. That from the legal side, the justice side, the cases, the claims for direct reparation can be handled by the ordinary criminal justice system.

1 A group of demonstrators (almost always young people) who stand at the front of the demonstrations to protect and take care of the rest.
2 The original testimonies of the children have been respected as much as possible; only repetitions of words or reiterations of ideas have been edited for easier reading.

Irma Gallo is a reporter and writer. In addition to Peninsula 360 Presshas collaborated with Letras Libres, Revista de la Universidad de México, Revista Lee Más Gandhi, Gatopardo, Revista Este País, Sin Embargo, El Universal, Newsweek en Español. His most recent book is When the sky is painted orange. Being a woman in Mexico (UANL/VF Literary Agency, 2020). Twitter: @irmagallo IG: @irmaevangelinagallo.

This article was produced with the support of the organization Global Exchange in collaboration with the Center for Latin American Socio-Legal Studies CESJUL and Peninsula 360 Press.

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