By Mario Andres Torres* and Juana Valentina Parra**
"Get them out!" shouted in despair the relatives of the people who were confined in the Immediate Attention Center (CAI) in Soacha, near Bogotá, Colombia, on the morning of September 4, 2020. According to the version of the relatives, due to the In the precarious conditions in which the inmates were found, one of the detainees set fire to a mattress, causing a fire in which eight of the eleven detainees were incinerated. Family members denounce that the police officers who were at the station maintained a passive and disinterested attitude in the face of the emergency that was occurring. In a video released by relatives and the mayor of Bogotá, it is clearly seen how a uniformed man removes the hose from one of the mothers, preventing them from helping those who were burned alive. Once the scandal was unleashed on 11 November 2020, more than two months after the tragedy, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and the Cundinamarca Police Commander gave statements defending the actions of the police and without making any statement about the lives lost, the defense minister stated that "there is a campaign to discredit the armed forces in Colombia."
In recent years the dehumanization of prisons and detention centers in Colombia has accelerated dramatically. This event in which eight people died and three more were seriously injured adds to a whole series of tragedies that have happened in recent years. Years ago, on January 28, 2014, a fire broke out in the Barranquilla Model Prison, in which about 20 inmates died. More recently, on March 21, 2020, 24 people died in Bogotá's La Modelo prison and 90 were injured, in events in which Human Rights Watch has declared that the majority of deaths were intentional or detainees were finished from behind. On July 26, 2020, Juan Luis Guzmán, an Afro-Colombian gay person died in police custody. On the night of September 9, 2020, in the face of protests and fires over the death of Javier Ordoñez in a police station, 13 people died and more than 70 were seriously injured on the streets of Bogotá, almost all with firearms from the National Police. In all these events, there are two elements in common: In all cases the judicial and administrative investigations were stalled, while the attitude of the national government was not only disdainful, but reduced what happened to a riot of vandals, an accident or an attempt to discredit of public authorities, ignoring the real causes of the tragedies that from time to time shake the justice and security system.
Despite the words of the Minister of Defense who try to minimize this tragedy, the National Police has for years faced a serious problem in the control of its police stations and transitory places of detention (CAI, URI and UTP). In 2019, there were 6,882 people detained in 239 police stations in Colombia, with an overcrowding rate of 132.12%, and in the Units of Immediate Response (URIs) there were 689 people deprived of liberty. In municipal establishments there were 2,865 people. In June 2020, 11,980 people were detained, a figure that in less than fifteen days rose to 12,512 people according to the National Police Citizen Security Directorate, in centers with the capacity to house 4,825 people throughout the country, with an overcrowding figure of more than 124.75%.
According to Alberto Sánchez, an expert in urban security who has worked with the security secretariat of Cali and Bogotá, in its worst moment of overcrowding, Cali had more than 800 daily detainees in its police stations, while Bogotá in the worst moment It had more than 1000 detainees daily, which makes fights and riots very common. The situation is repeated in all the capital cities of Colombia, especially in times such as the COVID 19 pandemic in which the entry and transfers of people to prisons are considerably reduced.
The problem is much more serious when considering the type of people who are detained in a police station. The wide discretion of the police to detain a person, added to the repression of arrest warrants and the lack of places in the penitentiary system means that the temporary detention centers house people with very different legal situations. On a normal day, people accused of homicides, thefts or sexual crimes live in crowded places with other people who are detained for reasons as absurd as not carrying a citizenship card, being a habitual drug user or being a homeless person reluctant to follow a police procedure.
From the perspective of security strategy, this crisis in custody in police stations also implies very important costs in security and disproportionate responsibilities for the Police. According to Sánchez, the National Police in Bogotá alone can require up to more than 300 people divided into shifts to guarantee custody of the almost 1,000 people a day who are in temporary detention centers. In a context of limited resources, we are using a large part of the police personnel to guard detainees instead of solving the citizen security problems that afflict Bogotá, especially in high-impact crimes such as theft of bicycles and cellphones in public spaces.
Beyond the custody problems in police stations, these types of cases also demonstrate a deeper ethical problem, increasingly common in Colombian society. News of a tragedy in prisons or places of detention is often accompanied by a wave of comments on social media that show the darker side of Colombian culture, which dehumanizes detainees and treats them as second-rate people. There are responses on social media such as "why should we have compassion for criminals if they did not have compassion for victims?" or "they are criminals, now we are not going to cry when the criminals themselves were the ones who started the fire." This type of common response among politicians and citizens shows how little value we place on human life in Colombia.
The dehumanization of detainees in Colombia is problematic for at least two reasons. The first is that citizen disinterest creates incentives for state inactivity and incompetence. The second is that this view tends to confuse the recognition of the human rights of detainees as a matter of permissiveness or as the granting of benefits. However, the possibility of accessing a reasonable minimum of drinking water, basic sanitation, health and food services is not a matter of benefits, but is a minimum of humanity that ultimately is a protection for all of us citizens that we see the arbitrariness of the state is limited thanks to the protection offered by universal human rights. When someone is detained by the police, it is clear that there is a special relationship of restraint in which the Colombian state is responsible for guaranteeing the life and integrity of any person who is detained.
In practice, this dehumanization process of which persons deprived of liberty are victims is particularly visible in this case. On the one hand, it is questionable why this news was only echoed in the media for more than two months after the events occurred. It was not until November 10, 2020, on the occasion of the complaint by Councilor Diego Cancino on his twitter account, that the news was finally broadcast in media with wide national circulation. What would have happened if a public figure had not used his social network with almost 10,000 followers to denounce this fact? Likewise, the actions of the Prosecutor's Office and the Attorney General's Office are completely absent, since the impossibility of talking about a preliminary version, even confirmed, of events that occurred two months ago is due to the lack of a timely response from the competent authorities.
The responsibility of the National Police in these events is indisputable and justice should investigate those criminally responsible for these events. Meanwhile, there are several measures that can be taken from the Colombian state to avoid tragedies such as that of the Soacha police station. Among them, for example, training protocols can be improved, measures can be taken to improve the participation and independence of control entities in police stations, guarantees judges can be closer to what happens in transitory detention centers and legislative reforms can be made to rethink the Colombian criminal policy. However, no change is possible if Colombian society and public authorities continue to respond to this crisis with cynicism or with absolute disinterest. As long as the security policy remains the same, we run the risk that more people will continue to die in the custody of the Colombian state, in prisons, in police stations or in the streets of Bogota.
* Mario Andres Torres, PhD Research Fellow, Programme for Studies on Human Rights in Context, Ghent University
** Juana Valentina Parra. The opinion was also published in the newspaper 'El Espectador' (Colombia), 27 November 2020.