Friends and family of Nicolas Guerrero lit candles near the spot where he was killed during a protest

Families seek justice for youth killed while protesting last year

Distraught families are trying to raise awareness and seek justice after their children were killed while protesting proposed tax hikes in Colombia last year. Human rights groups say police killed dozens of youth from working-class areas.

The World

Friends and family of Nicolas Guerrero lit candles near the spot where he was killed during a protest on May 3, 2021. No one has been indicted for Guerrero's death so far.

Manuel Rueda/The World

At a small park in the Colombian city of Cali, friends and family of Nicolas Guerrero staged a concert to commemorate the first anniversary of his death.

The graffiti artist was shot in the head during a peaceful protest along one the city’s main avenues, with witnesses saying that the 27-year-old was killed by police who tried to clear the area using tear gas and live rounds.

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But so far, prosecutors haven’t pressed charges against anyone for Guerrero’s death. His mother, Laura Guerrero, said this is why the family is organizing protests in his memory. 

“I don't want more mothers to have to bury their children. We need justice, so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Laura Guerrero, mother of Nicolas Guerrero, who was killed while protesting

“I don't want more mothers to have to bury their children,” she said outside an amphitheater where a documentary on Guerrero’s death was screened. “We need justice, so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Laura Guerrero, poses for a photo next to a mural in Cali, that depicts her son, Nicolas Guerero

Laura Guerrero, poses for a photo next to a mural in Cali, that depicts her son, Nicolas Guerero. The 27-year-old graffiti artist known also as "Flex" was killed during a protest in May of last year.

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Manuel Rueda/The World

Over a year has passed since protests broke out on April 28, 2021, against tax hikes and income inequality in Colombia, which resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people.

President Iván Duque had announced a proposal to increase income taxes and sales taxes on many segments of the population, which had already been hit hard by the pandemic.

Relatives of young activists murdered during the protests said that police are to blame for many of those deaths. And they’re taking to the streets once again to seek justice.

“For months, we have been called vandals or terrorists. We don’t only need justice, but for the memory of our loved ones to be dignified.”

Crisol Sanchez, sister of Daniel Sanchez, who was killed while protesting

“For months, we have been called vandals or terrorists,” said Crisol Sanchez, the sister of Daniel Sanchez, a 16-year-old killed also during a protest in Cali last year. “We don’t only need justice,” she added, “but for the memory of our loved ones to be dignified.”

For almost two months, protesters across the country blocked roads and staged marches to demand the withdrawal of Duque’s tax proposal — which was quickly revoked — and then to voice their frustration with police violence, unemployment and other problems that they blamed on the president’s conservative government.

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In Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city with some of the biggest income disparities, protesters blocked the entrances to some neighborhoods and took over a few police stations, after police violently dispersed the first wave of protests.

Parents of youth killed during last year's protests showed up at the inauguration of the Siloe People's tribunal

Parents of youth killed during last year's protests showed up at the inauguration of the Siloe People's tribunal. The symbolic tribunal will collect testimonies from witnesses at the protest in Cali, Colombia. 
 

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Manuel Rueda/The World

The city of about 2 million people, which has a large Afro-Colombian population, experienced some of the worst protest-related violence, with police and radical groups of protesters, who used molotov cocktails, clashing regularly in May and June.

Human Rights Watch says it has collected evidence indicating that police killed at least 25 people across the country at the time. 

Temblores, a Colombian organization that monitors police abuses, estimates that police killed 40 people there. Three policemen were also killed during the unrest.

Families of youth killed while protesting in Colombia last year

Human rights groups claim that at least 25 people were killed by police during protests held between April and June of last year. Only five police officers in Colombia are facing trial for the killings so far.

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Manuel Rueda/The World

So far, only five police officers are facing trial for last year’s protester deaths, but no one has yet been convicted. And government critics say the inaction highlights the need to make changes to Colombia’s justice system.

The national prosecutor’s office, or Fiscalia, is in charge of investigating police officers who commit human rights abuses. But its director is hand-picked by the president.

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“That makes it very hard to have independence and autonomy within the criminal justice system,” said Juliana Bustamante, a law professor at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá.

While prosecutors are quick to investigate protesters who committed crimes like looting, injuring officers or destroying public property, they have been reluctant to go after police officers who attacked protesters, because it would be bad for the government’s image, she said. 

In Nicolas Guerrero’s case, prosecutors still haven’t conducted a forensic test on the bullet that killed him, to verify whether or not it comes from a weapon used by police.

A mural of Nicolas Guerrero, who was shot in the head during a protest held in May of last year

A mural of Nicolas Guerrero, who was shot in the head during a protest held in May of last year.

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Manuel Rueda/The World

And it's not the only case where they appear to be dragging their feet.

Abelardo Aranda said his son Michael Andres was shot in the stomach during a protest on May 28, 2021, in Siloe, a working-class area of Cali. And no one has been indicted so far in the case of the 24-year-old’s death either.

“When someone who works for the government is murdered, you even see them offering rewards. Instead, when our children die, the government says they were vandals or guerrillas.

Abelardo Aranda, parent of Michael Andres, who was killed while protesting

“When someone who works for the government is murdered, you even see them offering rewards,” Aranda says. “Instead, when our children die, the government says they were vandals or guerrillas.

Abelardo Aranda attends the inauguration of the Siloe People's tribunal in Cali

Abelardo Aranda says that no one has been indicted for his son's death so far. Recently he attended the inauguration of the Siloe People's tribunal in Cali, Colombia.

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Manuel Rueda/The World

Aranda and other parents of youth killed during the protests recently launched an initiative known as the Siloe People’s Tribunal, which plans to collect oral testimonies and videos taken by witnesses at the protests.

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The tribunal is organized by human rights groups and led by an international panel of academics who will review the evidence and issue a symbolic ruling in September.

Relatives of youth killed in last year's protests spoke at the inauguration of the Siloe People's tribunal on May 3rd

Relatives of youth killed in last year's protests spoke at the inauguration of the Siloe People's tribunal on May 3rd.
 

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Manuel Rueda/The World

It doesn’t have the power to arrest anyone or to order any forensic examinations. But victims of police violence are hoping that this “people’s tribunal” will put more pressure on authorities to investigate last year’s crimes.

“For us, it is a relief to be in a place where we are listened to,” Aranda said. “And it's good to be with people who will help us move these cases forward.”