After being abducted as a child, Sandra Mora decided to become a police officer. She excelled at her job, but then got kicked off the force after being outed as a lesbian.
BOGOTA — Tears don't come easily to Sandra Mora, though God knows she's had plenty of reasons to cry. Her habit, instead, is to take life's blows and move on — like she did in 2000, when she lost her job because she's gay.
Trouble managed to find the now 45-year-old police officer early in her life as well. Mora was just eight when a band of thugs kidnapped her in Bogota, the capital, to use her as a tool for their criminal activities. She spent three years between the cities of Cali, Pereira and Armenia, forced by her captors into shoplifting and drug trafficking.
Her family never gave up on finding her, and one day her mother received a phone call about her daughter's whereabouts. With the help of the Colombian police and secret services, Mora's parents rescued her from the streets of Armenia, where they found her eating a stolen banana. It was at that moment that Mora found her life's calling: to become a policewoman, and protect the most vulnerable in society, like she herself had been.
After settling back in with her family and graduating from high school, she immediately enrolled in the General Santander National Police Academy in the capital, where Colombia's police officer corps are trained. After reaching the first officer rank of deputy lieutenant she was promoted to commander for child protection in her hometown of Villavicencio.
Mora continued to rise in the police ranks, and soon became the first female instructor of bodyguard units in the history of the national police. She was eventually appointed head of security for Alan Jara, the governor of the Meta department, long before he was kidnapped by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas in 2001. Mora then returned to Bogota, where she was promoted to deputy commander of the Tierra Linda police station, where she was responsible for managing security for ministers and ambassadors in the capital.
Cornered by the colonel
Her meteoric rise continued unabated until her return to Meta in 1999. That's when problems began to mount. The first order she received from her new boss, Col. Mario Gutiérrez, was to take command of Vanguardia airport, a major hotspot in the drug trade. "Can you do this, lieutenant?" Gutiérrez asked her in a doubtful tone. "As a woman who loves a challenge, I replied, "Of course I can!" I wasn't afraid," says Mora.
At the airport she discovered a dark underside of her job she had not yet encountered: corruption and disorder were rampant within the police station. After seven months in her new post she utterly transformed the unit, finally gaining the trust of the colonel — or so she thought.
"At the moment I was in a relationship, but we were having problems," Mora recalls. "At the airport I met a civilian pilot. I broke up with my partner and started dating her instead."
Not long afterwards, in October 1999, Col. Gutiérrez called her to his office for a reprimand. "Lieutenant, you're excellent at your job, but we know you're also in a relationship with a woman here that goes beyond friendship," he told her. Sandra unequivocally acknowledged her involvement with the pilot.
The police, it turned out, had been following Mora for months and recorded her conversations with her partner. The colonel insisted that if she didn't end her relationship she would be forced to leave the force, citing alleged links between her girlfriend and drug traffickers and paramilitary groups.
But Mora knew that she could not legally be expelled from her job because of her sexual orientation. She challenged her superiors. "First, I won't break up with her because we only got together recently," she remembers saying. "Second, you have to show me proof that she is tied to the drug trade because you don't know for sure. I'm not corrupt and my private life is separate from my work life."
Seven months later, Gutiérrez finally had his way. In May of 2000, Sandra returned from her vacation to discover that she had been fired without notice. A lowly private informed her that she was expelled from the police under a decree that gives police chiefs the discretion to dismiss anyone deemed to be involved in corruption or the drug trade.
"Many have abused this decree to ruin the lives of men and women in the force," Mora explains.
That day marked the beginning of her agony and her long struggle to defend her personal and professional rights. After several setbacks, she finally received legal representation from the police with four lawyers who ultimately failed to advance her cause. The medals she earned from years of hard work defending her country were no help at all, and she was forced to spend more than she could afford on an endless legal process.
Penniless, hungry and forced to live in a motel in the capital, she turned to her friends for support. She went through a litany of menial jobs, waiting tables at a restaurant, selling herbal products door-to-door, and washing dishes to get by and pay for her lawyers.
Despite her adversities, a series of guardian angels came to Mora's aid to help her in her darkest hours. After becoming security coordinator for a supermarket chain, she established the Mora Morales Young Entrepreneurs foundation, which still exists today. Her newfound experience in business management paid off, and after studying day and night she received an offer to become head of security projects for the Bogota district of Chapinero.
Chapinero is where she fatefully met Blanca Inés Durán, the district's mayor and one of Colombia's first openly homosexual politicians. With mayor's help Mora became successful in coordinating security for the area.
Finally, the day she had been waiting for arrived. In January 2011, Mora was shopping at a mall with her wife — the pilot who she has now been with for 15 years — when she received a phone call from an old high school friend who now works as a journalist. He told her the news she had been dreaming of for years: she had won her case in court.
Thanks to the relentless efforts of her friend and lawyer Miguel Ángel Villalobos, the Superior Tribunal of Meta department ruled in Sandra's favor and ordered the police to reinstate her in the same position she held prior to her dismissal. The court's ruling even commanded the police to fully compensate her for the more than 11 years worth of backpay. "It was a slap in the face for them," says Mora.
A triumph for the system
One of the first to recognize that justice had been served in the court's decision was Gen. Óscar Naranjo Trujillo, the distinguished national director of the police. "We spoke for more than an hour," Mora says of their meeting four years ago.
"It was difficult for me to return to the national police directorate, where they had treated me so badly, but I was happy. He congratulated me, emphasized that I had done no wrong against the police and added that he expected me to do great things," she recalls, visibly moved by the memory.
Gen. Óscar Naranjo Trujillo, in June 2008 — Photo: Jpx92681
"When I returned to the police it was a completely different institution. They promoted me to captain, then to major and eventually I was made human rights chief, charged with the protection of people faced with discrimination," she says with a beaming smile on her face. "I'm the official police liaison with the LGBT community."
Since then her career has progressed even further, and in June of this year she rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel after passing the requisite exam with flying colors. Mora now has years of laudable work under her belt in advancing social inclusion of sexual diversity in Colombia. "I will always defend the police. I'm a woman who stands up for her work," says Mora.
Thanks to her own experiences, she successfully reversed the dismissal of five soldiers and one police officer discharged for their sexual orientation. "There are people who think that all lesbians are crazy. I'm sure there are some who are, but the same applies to heterosexuals. I'm a lesbian but this doesn't mean I've lost my femininity," says Mora.
"I also don't think that just because a man is gay he should be barred from joining the army, whether he is effeminate or not," she adds. "What's clear is that putting on this uniform requires great responsibility, because every day we defend our rights knowing that we have a duty do so."
The first person Sandra turned to after Col. Gutiérrez threatened to dismiss her was Gen. Aldemar Bedoya. Nine years later, she discovered that his efforts were key to her victory in court. "He is one of the few men I'll ever love in my life. He found the truth amid the darkness and I will always be grateful for that," says Mora. "He became my angel."
"When one learns to love oneself, they can then begin to defend themselves," she says.
Mora's story isn't just a step forward for the LGBT community. The court's sentence provides hope and a legal recourse for all those who face discrimination. Her victory represents a triumph for Colombia's judicial system as a whole, asserting the fundamental rights of all citizens who are too afraid to be their true selves.