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The Staggering Toll Of An Anniversary Colombia Would Rather Forget

Nearly three decades after a bloodbath between guerrillas and the government, prison sentences, judicial expenses, and international prosecutions are costing the country dearly.

Bogota's new Palace of Justice
Bogota's new Palace of Justice
Alexander Marín Correa

BOGOTA — Twenty-eight years to the day after one of Colombia’s worst tragedies — a politically-inspired bloodbath between leftist guerrillas and the government — the country has yet to fully reckon with the two-day assault that has become a neverending financial burden, for damages incurred and compensations claimed, that has been draining the public purse for nearly three decades.

It was Nov. 7, 1985, when Colombian soldiers stormed the seat of the Supreme Court in Bogotá to recover the building from rebels. A day before, the Palace of Justice had been taken over by 35 members of the M-19, a leftist guerrilla force formed in the 1970s that demanded a trial for then-President Belisario Betancur. They accused the president of interrupting a tentative peace process between the state and the M-19. They took 300 jurists and judges hostage, and Betancur decided to let the army handle the situation. Troops stormed the Palace, and more than 100 people died, including some guerrillas and many magistrates they had taken hostage. Eleven people were declared missing.

No authority has an exact account of the costs to Colombia to date, but estimates place it around $525 million. This includes the cost of the court’s reconstruction, compensation payments, and the cost to the judiciary of various cases —and now that of defending the State before international bodies. The bill may yet increase.

The Inter-American Court Of Human Rights is currently processing a victims' claim worth more than $26 million, and there will be more costs if investigations ordered to ascertain the possible responsibilities of uniformed agents and certain ministers working then in fact proceed.

Reconstruction and other costs

The biggest expense linked to the assault so far has been the rebuilding of the Palace of Justice between 1986 and 1999. Experts have suggested a reconstruction cost equivalent in today’s dollars of over $263 million — excluding rents paid or furniture bought in those years to allow the higher courts to keep working.

With rulings that began to be issued in the mid-1990s, an arbitration body called the State Council determined that the Colombian government was administratively responsible for the massacre, in part for failing to protect its magistrates. And while fewer than half the 100 families affected by the tragedy have taken the State to court, the ones who have have generally been successful.

Analyst Alfredo Rangel counts 45 sentences issued against the government, with more than 100 people receiving an average compensation of 1,000 grams of gold for moral damages. Various sums have been paid for material damages incurred. The relatives of one judge killed in the assault, for example, received the equivalent of $525,000.

Then there have been the costs of military court proceedings dealing with disciplinary or criminal offenses, and the money spent on teams of experts hired to discover the truth, in vain.

And now international prosecution

Official contracts show the State has so far spent more than $789,000 since relatives of those missing after the assault took their cases to international courts. A big chunk of the money has gone to lawyers, the first of whom, Jorge Enrique Ibáñez Najar, signed two contracts in 2008 and 2010 worth more than $110,000.

He was the country’s defense attorney in May last year when Colombia was notified that the case would be referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. He resigned three months later, and five days before the deadline for responding to the notice from the court, Colombia hired Rafael Nieto Loaiza, whose contract cost more than $213,000. Nieto's answer to the court failed to acknowledge those who were missing after the two-day assault, a move that proved disastrous.

The State had to liquidate his contract, then hired an advisory committee of six lawyers, paying each of them a little under $23,000 for a month’s work. They had to decide whether it was advisable for the government to accept responsibility for the missing, for which they charged over $135,000. Accepting their opinion, the Colombia Defense Agency chose Julio Andrés Sampedro Arrubia, a committee member, as the new defense attorney. He signed a contract for almost $86,000, while a substitute defense attorney also hired was paid the same sum. Legal fees since the country was notified about the international court proceedings total $631,000.

It doesn’t look like this tap will stop leaking any time soon. Criminal lawsuits over the missing are proceeding, state prosecutors want to dig up the past to uncover officials’ presumed responsibility, and more relatives are set to sue the State. To cap it off, officials predict condemnation by the international court is imminent.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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