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‘I just need my son’: the people who disappeared amid Colombia’s protests | Colombia

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Before 17-year-old Duvan Barros left his home in a downtrodden neighbourhood in Bogotá to attend an anti-poverty demonstration, he asked his mother, Dolores Barros, to make him a fruit juice. She said no, but there would be one waiting when he got back.

That was 5 June, and Barros hasn’t seen him since.

“He went to the protests to support the cause, to fight for his rights, and that’s the last I know,” she said, in her rented home in the downtrodden El Amparo neighbourhood of western Bogotá. “I just need my son.”

Since protesters first took to the streets of Colombia’s cities in late April, calling on the government to address entrenched inequality, hundreds of people have been reported missing. Some have eventually reappeared after being held for days in extrajudicial police custody.

But others have not been seen again: 77 people have vanished since the start of the unrest. Some were protesters, others appear to have had no links to the demonstrations.

The disappearances have evoked memories of some of the darkest days of the country’s civil war, during which thousands of people were forcibly disappeared by the military, rightwing paramilitaries and leftwing guerillas.

Newscasts still show the smoke-filled streets and skirmishes on the fringes of cities across the country. Frontline masked protesters block roads and launch rocks at armoured riot police, who respond with teargas and billy clubs. At least 44 protesters have been killed by police, according to local rights groups, and Barros worries her son could now be added to that number.

In recent communiques, the offices of Colombia’s attorney general and human rights ombudsman have both labelled the disappeared as “non-located people”. The euphemistic language reflects a disturbing nonchalance of the issue, say human rights activists.

“It’s a political strategy to divert attention away from the seriousness of the crimes – and from the involvement of state agents,” said Adriana Arboleda, the spokesperson for Movice, a Colombian organization that supports victims of state crimes.

A demonstrator is arrested by Colombia’s riot police in late June.
A demonstrator is arrested by Colombia’s riot police in late June. Photograph: Daniel Romero/LongVisual/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Duvan was last seen by some of his friends at Portal de las Américas, a bus terminal in the Colombian capital that has since been dubbed Portal Resistencia by protesters who have battled with police almost nightly since the demonstrations began. He was wearing a yellowT-shirt, black trousers, a black cap and black shoes.

“I need him here, I don’t know if he’s eaten or if he’s cold,” Barros said, fighting back tears. “You can imagine my desperation.”

Each day, Barros checks in with police, hospitals, and morgues for signs of her son, but has found authorities unresponsive. “People die every day in Bogotá,” one police officer told her. “Maybe he went to another town,” suggested another.

“I’m certain that if I had money, they would be looking everywhere for him,” Barros said. “But we’re in Colombia.”

Many families are fearful of reporting loved ones missing, worried that doing so could affect their chances of coming home alive. “Many protesters have also been portrayed as vandals, so people worry that their loved ones could be investigated if they report them missing,” Arboleda said.

Meanwhile, authorities continue to find corpses. Last month, the severed head of Santiago Ochoa, 23, was found in a black bin liner left in a rural garden in Tuluá, a town in Colombia’s conflict-ridden Valle de Cauca province. He had been reported missing two days earlier.

Days later, forensic scientists searching for Ochoa’s body pulled the remains of Hernán David Ramírez, 25, from a nearby river. He had been missing since 10 June.

In several Colombian cities – including Cali, Pereira and Pasto – police officers have detained protesters in extrajudicial sites, using football grounds and shopping centres to hold people without formally charging them.

Riot police stand around a demonstrator sitting on the ground in late June.
Riot police stand around a demonstrator sitting on the ground in late June. Photograph: Sebastian Maya/LongVisual/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Such tactics have prompted comparisons with bitter memories from elsewhere in Latin America. During the cold war, tens of thousands of people were kidnapped and murdered by the military in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Guatemala. In Mexico, about 85,000 people have disappeared since 2006, when its government began ramping up offensives on drug traffickers.

During Colombia’s 50-year conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), more than 100,000 people were forcibly disappeared, with atrocities committed by state-aligned paramilitary groups, leftist rebels and Colombia’s conventional forces.

On Tuesday, a court charged a general and nine officers with forcibly disappearing 24 people and murdering at least 120 civilians, who were later passed off as guerrillas to inflate combat kills and receive bonuses.

A 2016 peace deal with the Farc formally ended that conflict, in which 260,000 people died and 7 million were displaced. But the shadow of that violence still looms over Colombians like the Barros family.

Dolores Barros holds a missing sign showing her son, Duvan Barros.
Dolores Barros holds a missing sign showing her son, Duvan Barros. Photograph: Joe Parkin Daniels/The Guardian

In 2006, when Duvan was a toddler, the pair left their home on the Caribbean coast after militiamen killed Barros’s brother. She suspected the men belonged to a paramilitary group, but when she started asking questions, death threats began – and she fled to the capital.

“I brought my son here to safety, I raised him on my own,” Barros said, as heavy rain pummeled the plastic roof. “He only has me, and now he’s all alone.”

Family members of those disappeared during the conflict see history repeating itself.

“Forced disappearances aren’t consigned to history, they’re continuing today, affecting victims and society alike,” said Elizabeth Santander, a London-based Colombian activist whose husband, Marino Escobar Aroca, was disappeared by Colombia’s intelligence agency in 1987.

Escobar’s remains were never found, though Santander still lobbies the Colombian government and international community to keep searching for all those forcibly disappeared – including those lost during the protests. “The disappeared disappear the day we stop looking for them.”

Barros continues the tireless search for her son, putting up posters around Portal de las Américas and meeting with rights groups like Movice who are supporting her case.

Barros works the night shift at a nearby textile factory, which she says is ideal as she can dedicate her days to the search effort, and she hardly sleeps anyway.

“There are so many people missing but the families are scared to speak out,” Barros said, as she put on her coat and headed to the site where Duvan was last seen. “I’ll go wherever I have to until I get answers.”

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Under the volcano: a year after Mount Nyiragongo’s eruption, people of Goma start to rebuild their lives | Global development

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Migration crisis: The Nicaraguans who are learning to swim to avoid drowning in US river crossing | International

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Seeing his son with the water below his waist, standing firm on the stones of the riverbed, Pablo Cuevas ruled out using the 60-meter rope he had bought to cross the Rio Grande with his family, because it would prove more of a hindrance than a useful tool in their desperate attempt to reach American soil.

“Dad! The river is calm!” shouted the 22-year-old from about 30 meters away from the bank. Faced with the imminent arrival of Mexican or American border agents, the man let go of the rope, hugged his five-year-old grandson very tightly and entered the waters. It was mid-morning on April 17, less than a month ago. The Rio Grande, a “treacherous” river according to the migrants who have lived to tell the tale, was calm that day. It was a lucky break for this family that fled Nicaragua because of their father’s job: Pablo Cuevas is a renowned human rights defender in his country.

Accustomed to tense situations back home due to his clashes with gangs and police officers under the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Cuevas concealed his fear of jumping into the river so that his wife, daughter-in-law and his other grandson would not lose the courage they had rehearsed during the 40-day journey to Ciudad Acuña, in Mexico’s Coahuila state. The trip had taken them across Central America and Mexico, along a road rife with robberies, kidnappings, extortion, fatigue, hunger and death that 49,738 Nicaraguans followed in the first quarter of 2022 alone, according to the United States Customs and Border Protection. That is the largest number of migrants from this country to try to cross the US border in recent history.

Migrants crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico on May 13.
Migrants crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico on May 13.ADREES LATIF (REUTERS)

It was on the first week of March, as he sat inside his home in Managua, that Cuevas made the decision to join this unprecedented exodus to escape the political violence and precarious economic situation that Nicaragua has been experiencing since 2018, following social protests that were brutally repressed. by the police and paramilitary groups. The country’s sociopolitical crisis has deepened since June 2021, when the Ortega-Murillo presidential couple intensified the hunt for opponents that facilitated Ortega’s re-election and perpetuation in power.

“Before the government closed the CPDH (Permanent Human Rights Commission),” says Cuevas, alluding to the last such organization left in Nicaragua, I received threats and intimidating messages. Someone from the government told me that I had better leave… I have never been a fan of desk jobs, I always liked to be out doing field work, but there came a point when I could no longer practice freely, and my wife was having nervous breakdowns thinking that they could arrest me at any moment. So we decided to leave, and the route through the Rio Grande seemed the best, after analyzing it with many users I had who had already crossed into the United States,” he tells EL PAÍS.

The Cuevas family’s greatest fear was drowning in the river. Between March and April 2022, news of Nicaraguans killed in those waters shocked the country: 10 people registered by the Association of Nicaraguans in Mexico, although there are other agencies that put the number at 14, such as the non-profit Comunidad Nicaragüense en Texas. There were cases like that of a four-year-old girl swept away by the current, or the most recent drowning, on May 1, of Calixto Nelson Rojas, a radio host for Radio Darío, a station that was burned and attacked by the Sandinista regime. The death of the radio journalist was recorded by a Fox News reporter: it happened before the eyes of US and Mexican border agents who did not help him because they were prohibited from doing so, even as Rojas cried out for help. The reason for not saving him was that a Border Patrol officer allegedly drowned weeks ago while trying to rescue two migrants.

Relatives and friends of Nelson Rojas, who drowned in the Rio Grande, carry his coffin during his funeral.
Relatives and friends of Nelson Rojas, who drowned in the Rio Grande, carry his coffin during his funeral.STRINGER (AFP)

Cuevas, a man who was well informed thanks to his work as a human rights defender, knew about the dangers of crossing the river. “We began to do introspection exercises with the family, to remember one of our camping trips to the sea in Nicaragua, specifically once an undercurrent dragged us out to sea, but we were able to swim and save ourselves,” says the lawyer, who is now living in Florida, where he has started an organization to help other Nicaraguan migrants. “So I told my family to remember to bury their feet firmly in the bottom so we could cross the river.”

The Cuevas were able to cross without a rope and without a life jacket. However, some 3,000 kilometers south of the Rio Grande, in Nicaragua, dozens who have decided to leave the country and do not know how to swim are taking precautions before heading north: they are signing up for Mario Orozco’s swimming lessons.

‘I know it is a dangerous river’

With no major signs of a solution to the sociopolitical crisis, Nicaragua has become a country on the run. In 2021 alone, the United States Border Patrol tallied 87,530 Nicaraguans who tried to enter the southern border without documents. An exponential increase occurred in June, when the Ortega-Murillos imprisoned all their adversaries and ended the possibility of a resolution to the conflict through transparent elections. If one asks people in Nicaragua about the best decision in this scenario, the majority, especially young people, will answer the same thing: to leave. Migrant groups leave at dawn from some gas stations in Managua, while others who feel politically persecuted, such as Pablo Cuevas, do so clandestinely across the Honduran border.

Border Patrol figures from January to March of this year provide a measure of this booming exodus: 70,066 Nicaraguans have surrendered to patrol officers. “But there is an underreporting,” says the Association of Nicaraguans in Mexico. There has been a change in the migratory dynamics from this country, driven by political violence that has aggravated endemic ills (a precarious economy and lack of jobs). In 2018, at least 120,000 Nicaraguans applied for asylum in Costa Rica. But the pandemic plunged this latter country into an unemployment crisis and Nicaraguans reconfigured their flight path. First, because Costa Rica has collapsed and second, because Joe Biden’s immigration promises were interpreted as greater flexibility by the US government.

Eddy Hurtado learns to swim at a recreation center in Esteli, Nicaragua.
Eddy Hurtado learns to swim at a recreation center in Esteli, Nicaragua.MAYNOR VALENZUELA (REUTERS)

Suddenly, the migrant caravans in which Hondurans and Salvadorans used to predominate began to be led by Nicaraguans, who are now also prey to the mafias along the route. Among those preparing to flee the country, crossing the Rio Grande became the best option despite the dangers of its waters. That is why the post on Facebook by professional swimmer Mario Orozco offering free lessons went viral in Nicaragua.

Orozco assures that some of his friends drowned in the Rio Grande and that moved him into action. “I am a professional swimmer, I know the techniques to swim in open waters. So I took one of my days off to teach and avoid these tragedies,” he says, emphasizing that his work is humanitarian and not political. The swimmer is concise and prefers not to delve into details. He does not say why but, for those who live in Nicaragua, it is understood: anything that the Sandinista government views as criticism can cost jail time.

The pool where Orozco teaches is usually packed, as a reflection of the urgency to leave Nicaragua. “I know it is a dangerous river,” says Roberto García, a Nicaraguan who left the country a few weeks ago and is now in Tapachula, Mexico, where he is “preparing myself mentally” to ford the Rio Grande. “There are those who take swimming lessons; I, for example, am watching YouTube videos, asking other friends who have already crossed where it is less deep; the current less strong… I am afraid, but the situation is more critical when I am going to cross with my son,” confesses García, an auto refrigeration technician who used to provide services to the Supreme Court of Justice.

García was imprisoned for seven months for participating in the 2018 protests in Nicaragua. Upon release from prison, his workshop was never able to recover due to police harassment and lack of customers. Weary, he decided to migrate. “I don’t even want to think about the day I’m going to cross the river with my wife and son. It unsettles me. My son is 10 years old and I only think of him, especially when I see so many brothers drowning in the news… like that announcer from León. It was a horrible video. One feels powerless. I don’t want a similar video of us,” he says. He also doesn’t want to leave one last message like that of the radio host Calixto Rojas before jumping into the waters of the Rio Grande: “Today I’m leaving for Piedras Negras at one in the afternoon. Tomorrow at eight I will be trying to cross the river.”

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‘Cramped and unsafe’ Glasgow housing unit forced to suspend mother and baby services | Immigration and asylum

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A housing unit has been forced to close its services to mothers and babies after a damning report found that the “cramped and unsafe” accommodation breached their human rights.

In its report, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said the unit, which housed asylum-seeking mothers and their children, had radiators and gas cookers dangerously close to babies’ cots, a lack of natural light and little ventilation, and no space for babies to crawl, play or walk.

Each of the 38 rooms measures approximately 5 metres by 3 metres (16ft x 10ft) and contains a single bed, cot, kitchenette and shower.

The unit, run by a Home Office subcontractor, Mears Group, was opened in January 2021 to house mothers and babies while Covid-19 restrictions were in place. Women were moved out of flats in the city centre and accommodated in the unit on the periphery of Glasgow’s Southside.

A cooker, sink, bed and cot often crammed into one tiny room.
A cooker, sink, bed and cot are often crammed into one tiny room. Photograph: Twitter

The accommodation was described as “prison-like” by the charity Amma Birth Companions, which repeatedly called for its closure. Mears said the last mother and baby had now left the unit and the Scottish Children’s Commissioner confirmed that the women had been relocated to more appropriate accommodation.

The removal of mothers and babies from the site comes after criticism of accommodation provided for asylum seekers in Glasgow when a knife attack at a hotel in the centre of the city in 2020 left six people wounded and the attacker shot dead by police. Campaigners from a Glasgow group, Refugees For Justice, said the attack was a “direct result of the dysfunctional UK asylum support and accommodation system” and that there was an accommodation crisis in the city.

Ai* arrived at the unit in the autumn of 2021, when she was three months pregnant. She lived there for seven months, and, following the birth of her daughter in March this year, she was moved out.

“When I first arrived, I thought I was only going to stay for a few hours, but then they gave me a key for the room,” she said through an interpreter. “When I opened the door, I was really scared. The room was so small, with no privacy and you [could] hear all the babies crying all around.

“Then there were mice in the room. I told my midwife, who complained to the staff at the unit, but they did nothing. They just told me to cover up the food.”

Ai, who was in a safe house for trafficked women until she arrived at the unit, says that she was asked to sign a tenancy contract, which stipulated that nobody could stay over to support her with her baby, and imposed a 10pm curfew.

“Every mum has to manage by themselves,” she said. “There were so many loud noises, and fire alarms going off in the day and at night, which scared my baby. Sometimes we had to take our babies outside at night, when the alarm went off.”

The unit housed 38 women, and Ai says there were only six washing machines, all far away from the rooms.

“I had to wash my clothes and my baby’s clothes in the sink sometimes, pouring dirty water in where I washed plates and prepared food,” she said.

She added that the window in her room would get stuck, with a barrier in front of it, leaving the room poorly ventilated and cold.

Mears said it was aware of a pest-control issue and had put measures in place at the unit, adding that furniture had been arranged so that cots were not set up close to kitchen equipment.

In a statement, Mears added: “The mother and baby unit was purpose-designed with the advice of the local authority and NHS at a time when we had a significant number of mothers and babies to support and did not have suitable accommodation.

“Our aim was to provide a good standard of accommodation and enhanced wraparound support for mothers and their children. As accommodation needs have changed, we now operate the unit as initial accommodation for single females who are newly arrived into Glasgow.”

Maree Aldam, of Amma Birth Companions, welcomed the news that the last family had now left the unit. She said: “Although we welcome the progress made to relocate mothers with babies into more suitable accommodation, we remain concerned about the long-term effects of this experience on the affected mothers and their babies.

“We continue to call on the Scottish government to put in place minimum housing standards that will protect every child in the asylum process from ever enduring such living conditions again.”

* Name has been changed to protect her identity

The headline and text of this article were amended on 19 May 2022. The housing unit is not closing down, as an earlier version said; it remains open for mothers and children, but no longer offers services to mothers and babies.

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