New Internationalist

The NI Interview

Issue 271

The NI Interview
Juan Pablo Ordoñez
Wayne Ellwood
meets an exiled Colombian human-rights activist who is campaigning
against his country’s attempt to clean up poverty by killing the poor.

Illustration by ALAN HUGHES As a young lawyer in Colombia Juan Pablo Ordoñez could have had a life of wealth and ease. He had three books to his credit, a part-time teaching position at the university and was also teaching at the Judicial Police Academy in Bogota. ‘I felt full of hope and was convinced I could bring justice to everyone in my country,’ he sighs. He stops and shifts self-consciously in his seat for a second, then continues: ‘Of course, I had much to learn.’

Ordoñez’s eyes were opened suddenly late one night in 1989. Returning to the Police Academy after work he heard loud screams echoing in the hall. ‘I went into the building and saw a group of police cadets and trainers beating several street people. One instructor had a stun-gun which he was demonstrating on one of the victims.’ Ordoñez was shocked by what he had witnessed. But it was the attitude of one of the trainers that he found most astonishing.

‘Later, in my office, when I confronted one of the senior instructors, I learned that this was a routine part of police training. They needed the victims and the easiest way to get them was to abduct them from the street.’ When Ordoñez protested, the instructor dismissed his concern with a wave of the hand. ‘“These people are just desechables (disposables),” he said. I was outraged. This was the first time in my life I heard the word applied to human beings.’

Shaken by this experience, Ordoñez moved to Girardot, a few hours south of Bogota, where he became Chief of the Preliminary Investigation Unit for the Judicial Police. Violence and corruption in the police now became his obsession. When he reopened an investigation into the murders of 40 so-called ‘disposables’ – mostly transvestites, drug addicts and street people – he quickly found the evidence pointing to the National Police. And that’s when the death threats started.

‘Even police in the streets would point their fingers at me,’ he recalls. A few weeks later he was attacked and severely beaten by four men outside a restaurant. When the death threats continued he fled to the US. Eventually he found his way to Washington where he became active with the Colombian Human Rights Committee (CHRC). At the same time he struggled to accept his homosexuality – a difficult task for a man from a country where homophobia and machismo are closely entwined. But by 1993 he was working with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRA).

‘I was interested in the violation of the rights of gays and lesbians but the old issue of the “disposables” came back to haunt me,’ he says. In fact, the two issues are closely connected. Every year in Colombia hundreds of gay prostitutes – along with beggars, street kids, petty thieves and drug-users – are killed in a grim class warfare that Colombians refer to as ‘social cleansing’. On one side are the killers: police death-squads, vigilantes and private security guards. On the other are the victims, those that middle-class Colombians label ‘social deviants’. The killings are never investigated and rarely publicized.

In 1994 Ordoñez returned to Colombia for 11 months to gather evidence. In his research he found evidence of thousands of undocumented murders. More disturbing still, most Colombians appeared to support the killings. Ordoñez points to the violent, insecure nature of Colombian society as a key reason why the murders continue. ‘This is one of the most violent countries in the world. Our murder rate is ten times that of the US. Both the police and the criminal justice system are absolutely corrupt. If you’re robbed or broken into the odds are you’ll never get your things back and no-one will be arrested.’

As a result shop-owners and businesspeople bankroll bands of hired killers, mostly police officers and soldiers, in an attempt to ‘clean up’ the streets. Prostitutes, beggars and others are kidnapped, murdered (often with fingertips hacked off to prevent identification) and dumped, sometimes with a crude sign around their necks – ‘Death to Homosexuals’ or ‘Death to Thieves’.

The links between the police and their victims have taken some bizarre twists. In one case, in the city of Barranquilla, police were implicated in the murder of more than 50 slum-dwellers whose bodies were then sold to the university medical school for $150 each, no questions asked.

Ordoñez, a compact, thick-set man with flashing eyes, is barely able to hide his rage. ‘No-one asks the basic questions,’ he fumes. ‘Why are so many people forced to beg and steal? It is a question too complicated for some and irrelevant to those in power.’

The simple answer, says Ordoñez, is poverty and injustice. Nearly half the country’s 36 million people are poor, while just 2 per cent of the landowners hoard 40 per cent of the land. ‘There is no political will to improve things,’ Ordoñez claims. ‘Those in power have the absolute support of the armed forces and are from the same privileged families that own most of the country.’

Determined to alert the world to these abuses, in 1994 Ordoñez set up Project Dignity for Human Rights in Colombia, a joint effort with IGLHRA and CHRC. The group’s goal is to document individual cases of ‘social cleansing’ and to raise international attention to the issue. ‘A lot can be done through international pressure,’ Ordoñez stresses. ‘We can link development aid to real improvements in human rights. If there are not changes, then we should suspend all non-humanitarian aid. These killings have to end and we all have some responsibility to stop them.’

Juan Pablo Ordoñez’s full report on ‘social cleansing’, No Human Being is Disposable, is available from Project Dignity for Human Rights in Colombia, 3325 17th Street NW, Washington DC 20010.

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