BOGOTA — The LGBTI community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual/Transgender and Intersexual) in Colombia has suffered disappearances, forced migrations, mutilations, humiliation and abuse.
The phrase "damaged bodies, silent crimes' has come to be used by this community to describe their suffering often made even worse by the civil war that has torn Colombia apart over the past decades.
In 2011, Colombia passed Law 1448, commonly known as the Victims Law or Victims Compensation Law, meant to acknowledge and offer reparation to LGBTI who have faced abuse and violence.
As of now, 374 people belonging to the LGBTI community are registered with the reparation plan. The details of the reparations are still being developed, but indemnities of 20 to 30 times the current minimum wage and personal rehabilitation, together with a number of psychological measures, are being considered.
But behind the statistics, there are the stories of 278 forced displacements reported to the government. As this is the most common complaint, the Unit for Victims has identified patterns in threats and displacements by forces of the insurgent rebels.
The narratives of disappearances and displacements are repeated over and over. El Espectador has the details of three cases that are being assessed by the Unit for Victims:
She prefers to talk about the year 2000 onward, but with some observation we can pick up a few details about her past. "In 1999, I was persecuted for belonging to the state military," says Andrea, who is transsexual. "I was a non-commissioned officer, and I fought for six and a half years … But that's all in the past." Andrea says that where she is from is irrelevant. She has variously fled to Tolima province, Oslo, Milan and Bogotá.
"They gave me four hours to leave. In one of the towns in Tolima, I had a hairdressing salon and, because I refused to leave the town, four guys arrived, grabbed me by the hair and beat me up. They had sent me a note, but I had ignored it. I wasn't hurting anyone. That day they knocked me unconscious and left me lying on the floor."
Andrea looked for a house in the Diana Turbay district in Bogotá. "That was around 2002. I was walking through the area when a guy stopped me and asked me my name. He asked for my documents and told me I had to leave. He was one of those men who had sent me away from the town, a paramilitary."
That's when she changed her name. She asked a friend to lend her some money and she went to Oslo in Norway. "I arrived at the airport and they stopped me again. A policewoman made me strip and kept me in a bathroom for three hours telling me to hand over the drugs! It was so degrading. I hadn't done anything wrong. Then I went to Milan. There nothing changed. The police held me for a whole night without water or anything, and I was there with my documents all in order. I went back to Colombia and everything carried on just the same."
She says that she signed up for the reparation plan because she doesn't want to hide her true identity any more. And she talks about the military. "I signed up to the military, and I ended up in the school for non-commissioned officers. Of course, I was like a chameleon, always with a dual identity. At night time, I transformed into my real self … But then the ignorance and machismo started from certain people, and I had to leave and set up my hairdresser. Today the only thing I have left is my self-esteem."
She says she was "the first trans woman" in town. "There was a large gay community, but almost no trans," she says. "That was a defining point for my town. Dabeiba in Antioquia department is too Catholic and religious. It was obviously not easy to accept someone like me. In 2007, those self-defense groups arrived to carry out social cleansing. At that time, there were two more trans girls in the village. One was physically assaulted and the other was killed. I wasn't going to wait to find out what would happen to me, so I fled to Medellín in 2008. There are still a lot of transphobic men there too."
2013 LGBTI pride parade in Bogota — Photo: Diego Cambiaso
In Medellín she found work in a hairdressers. "As a stylist, I met more trans women and we founded Antioquia Trans, an association that worked with the whole LGBTI community in Medellín, which has suffered at the hands of the armed conflict. I think we deserve reparations. But that has to start with the way we are treated by civil servants. When I went to register as a victim, they told me, ‘You don't look like a displaced person, and you're not dressed like one either." They looked as if they were scared of me, and I felt discriminated against. Being displaced doesn't mean you necessarily live in degrading conditions. And when I tell people, they say that I deserve it for being who I am … People are always on their guard. Getting rid of the stigma would be a good start for reparations."
On a farm in the outskirts of Paratebueno, Adionel sufferered many episodes of violence at the hands of the Centauros branch of the Colombian paramilitary group known as United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. "It is the only municipality in the province of Cundinamarca with a llanero plainsman/cowboy culture. Every time one of those guys came by the farm, they would say things like, ‘You poof, if you want to know what a real man is, I'll bend you over." They would come, abuse me and my sister who has Down Syndrome (they called her ‘that crazy girl"), steal everything we produced and then leave."
In 1999, things got even worse, Adionel recalls. "This little guy that they called The Rat would come and tell me, ‘You poof, you are going to end up dead in a bag." He threatened us with a gun, and touched us and everything … It wasn't just that, but the fact that they treated my little sister like that … We moved to the city because they made some really serious threats."
Adionel is requesting reparation because he believes that if peace comes to Colombia, he could work without being discriminated against. "I have studied at the SENA a national education service that promotes employment and training possibilities, and I am doing a Masters degree. But five years ago they sacked me from Paratebueno Town Hall just for being gay. Reparation is about more than just the money. I want processes to be put in place so that my municipality can be a peaceful land, and so that they stop seeing us like weirdos."
Luis Miguel Hidalgo, alias The Rat, arrived in this region in 1999 and has 200 murders to his name. During trial, he confessed to massacres and rapes in the provinces of Meta and Cundinamarca. And he revealed the locations of seven mass graves to the district attorney's office.
One of the reference points for the LGBTI community is the group Colombia Diversa, which has been fighting on behalf of this marginalized population since 2004. "The first challenge is the structure of the community and the visibility of the victims," says the organization's lawyer, Mauricio Albarracín. "Institutions must be more flexible and encourage the creation of safe spaces for these people to be able to express their true identity. The peace process and a negotiated solution to the conflict, as well as protective measures for these communities, are urgently needed to stop the increasing levels of victimization."
Albarracín adds that the fight for greater rights must be decentralized. "The majority of public policies about LGBTI rights are implemented in the large urban centers, and rural locations and other urban centers where the armed conflict has been more severe are forgotten."
The Colombia Diversa lawyer agrees with the LGBTI victims that "the focus cannot remain solely in the Unit for Victims, but it must also include the district attorney's office, the public prosecution office, the military, Congress and civil society."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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