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Protesters’ videos show violent repression of dissent in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia – A college student who loves geography had bought a GoPro to record his bike rides in the forest. He found another use for it while marching during the ongoing tax reform protests that began during late April in Colombia.

Rage flared up in the streets of Colombia’s city of Popayán after news that Alison Meléndez, 17, had committed suicide. She told her family that she was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of officers on May 12 when they detained her during a protest.

“They took down my pants and groped me all the way to my soul,” Alison allegedly wrote in Spanish on Facebook on May 13.

Police denied the allegation. A prosecutor said on May 14 that the sexual battery and Alison’s mental health were under investigation. During a May 14 protest, Juan Diego Ortega Garzón wore his GoPro. He was standing in the street when he saw an armored riot control tank speeding towards a student.

Ortega Garzón ran to try to save him. He filmed when the tank with spikes belonging to Colombia’s mobile anti-disturbances squadron, or ESMAD, ran him over without mercy. His video has piled up on social media with other evidence of the brutal repression at roadblocks.

The video shows another student carried Ortega Garzón to safety. He suffered trauma all over his body. He fractured his left arm. He suffered a cut to his eyelid and fractured his cheekbone, so he underwent plastic surgery. On May 15, he shared a video saying another student had lost his eye.

Through tears, Ortega Garzón said he had feared that he too was going to be blind in one eye.

“I would give my life for this country,” Ortega Garzón said on May 16, adding that he was in better spirits after his doctors told him that he had lost some mobility, but not his eyesight

Ortega Garzón felt grateful. That same day in the streets of Popayán, Sebastián Quintero Múnera, a computer engineering student who worked in his father’s arepa business, died during the protest when an officer’s projectile struck him in the neck, relatives told reporters. He was 23.

The protests in Popayán over Alison’s death soon turned into outrage over Sebastián’s alleged murder. For weeks, the students who stand on the first line, or the “primera linea,” volunteer to protect protesters’ right to dissent, as ESMAD riot police officers move aggressively to repress it.

Angered over ESMAD’s violence, groups of mothers emerged to help the injured. They are known as the “mamás de la primera linea.” On Thursday, a video showing ESMAD riot police threw a projectile at one of the groups went viral. The violence continued on Friday night.

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About the Authors:

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.