Race and Equality urges concrete government action to combat the alarming increase in violence against LGBTI Colombians

Bogota, October 6, 2020.– The International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) is deeply concerned at the rising rates of violence and discrimination against the LGBTI population of Colombia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Race and Equality calls upon the Colombian government to take concrete actions to prevent, investigate, and respond to attacks and killings motivated by anti-LGBTI prejudice.

Although LGBTI Colombians have achieved important recent victories in securing their human rights, including a court ruling that the LGBTI population of the city of El Carmen (Bolívar department) was eligible to receive reparations for abuses during Colombia’s armed conflict as a collective body and another allowing a trans woman to receive women’s pension benefits, the numbers of killings, threats, and cases of harassment continue to grow exponentially.

As of September 15th, the national Ombudsman’s Office had reported 63 murders of LGBTI persons and 388 cases of violence motivated by anti-LGBTI bias. The Office stated that during the COVID-19 pandemic, “prejudice and discrimination have been exacerbated, obstacles to accessing justice by reporting crimes have increased, and so have other barriers created by a lack of empathy among officials charged with assisting the population.” To date, Race and Equality has documented 61 attacks against LGBTI persons, among them discrimination in public spaces, denial of rights to health and to nutrition, physical attacks including those with weapons, harassment, threats, and murders.

On September 5th, a man aggressively accosted Bogotá mayor Claudia López, a lesbian woman, and accused her of “teaching improper things to children.” This homophobic act, which the man said he did “in the name of Jesus Christ,” reveals that a climate of discrimination and social exclusion goes beyond official institutions. Despite formal progress, there is still not widespread tolerance for sexual diversity in Colombian society, preventing true recognition and inclusion from taking root.

Alarming numbers of attacks

From January-September 2020, Race and Equality has documented 30 cases in which LGBTI people were killed or severely wounded. Most recently, the killing of Juliana, a trans woman, from gunshots fired by a soldier put the violence facing LGBTI Colombians, especially trans people, into the spotlight. Throughout the country, indicators of violence are on the rise: in Armenia (Quindío department), the Ombudsman’s office issued an official alert about dangers facing the LGBTI population on August 25th. On September 1st, the LGBTI Network in Boyacá department denounced increasing police abuses of sex workers, particularly trans women, on social media. Caribe Afirmativo (Affirmative Caribbean) recently published an open letter to the authorities in the Caribbean region demanding a response to increased murders and attacks against LGBTI people, which have doubled compared to the same period in 2019.

LGBTI leaders face particular risks

Attacks against the leaders of LGBTI organizations indicate the fierce desire by LGBTI-phobic elements to repress pro-LGBTI initiatives across the country. To date, Race and Equality has documented 8 cases of attacks, threats, and murders of LGBTI leaders.

A dramatic example took place when Aurora Iglesias, popularly known as “Zunga,” a trans leader in Florencia (Caquetá department), was threatened with a firearm in her own home and warned to stop her work in the community. On September 17th, a burned LGBTI pride flag was found in front of a leader’s home in Armenia. The home of a gay leader in El Roble (Sucre department) was burned on August 25th. In addition to the direct impacts upon the targeted victims, these acts send a threatening message designed to tamp down LGBTI activism. Incidents such as the murder of Mateo, a trans community leader, and the attempted murder of John Restrepo, a leader in LGBTI conflict victims’ activism, both of which took place in public in broad daylight, underscore the risk facing LGBTI leaders.

Police abuse of sex workers

As Colombia experiences a tense climate of protest and debate about abuses by security forces, serious rights violations committed by the police against LGBTI persons have come to light. Race and Equality has documented 12 cases in which members of the National Police were denounced for attacking trans sex workers. These cases include physical aggression, unjustified seizures of property, and attacks using police service weapons. A common pattern is for police to threaten sex workers with arrest or fines (including arrests or fines for violating quarantine), demand payment, and physically and psychologically abuse those who do not pay, as has taken place in Medellín, Caldas, and Bogotá.

In another highly concerning incident, a young gay man named Juan Luis Guzmán was found dead in a police station under suspicious circumstances. He had been brought to the station after being arrested for breaking the curfew imposed due to COVID-19.

As civil society has consistently documented, police and military forces in Colombia play a major role in reproducing patterns of discrimination and exclusion against LGBTI people. When LGBTI people seek justice by reporting the abuses they suffer, they face greater vulnerability due to a lack of LGBTI-sensitive and gender-sensitive approaches in complaint offices, police retaliations, and/or institutional cover-ups.

Race and Equality joins with Colombian civil society to denounce these violations of LGBTI people’s rights and the ongoing crisis of violence against the LGBTI population. We call upon the government to:

  1. Prioritize investigations of rights violations against LGBTI people, sanction those responsible, and combat impunity. These efforts must integrate an approach that is sensitive to sexual and gender diversity.
  2. Strengthen efforts to educate security forces, especially the National Police, on LGBTI rights; monitor their compliance with LGBTI rights; and improve internal investigations about violations of LGBTI rights to fight impunity.
  3. Ensure that LGBTI people enjoy the right to access justice without discrimination. To make this right effective, efforts to train justice sector officials on LGBTI rights, mainstream LGTBI-sensitive approaches in the justice system, and strengthen monitoring systems will be crucial.
  4. Publicly condemn acts of discrimination and violence against the LGBTI population and implement public policies to combat LGBTI-phobia among the Colombian public.

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