Editor’s note: The videos in this story contain graphic content.
Joan Nicolás García Guerrero was mourning the fallen from Colombia’s worst bout of civil unrest in years.
Then, the candlelight vigil that the 26-year-old artist and father was attending in the city of Cali descended into chaos — a scene captured, like so much of the Colombian violence, by amateur video.
García Guerrero, a front-line protester, had expressed a willingness to give his life for the cause. “Mother,” he had written in a text to his family on April 28, the day the demonstrations erupted. “We have to have a civil war, it’s painfully sad, but true.”
Now, just after midnight on May 3, he was approaching police lines behind a cloud of acrid tear gas. In video obtained and analyzed by The Washington Post, a single shot is fired from what appears to be Colombian security forces.
A heartbeat later, García Guerrero falls hard.
Historic protests have been held in hundreds of cities and towns in Colombia. Nearly 1 million people have taken to the streets over the past month. Dozens of deaths, including those of a police officer and 14 civilians whose killings Human Rights Watch investigators have linked to excessive police force, are putting the nation’s militarized security forces under a global microscope.
A Post examination of video footage involving four of the deaths shows how Colombian police appear to have crossed a lethal line.
The avalanche of videos underscores the power of viral images to hold officials to account. Colombian authorities, under mounting international pressure, have detained and indicted police officers in three of the four cases The Post examined.
Authorities have been most active in cases in which videos have been the clearest and most widely shared. No arrests have been made in García Guerrero’s death, nor in several others in which protesters or bystanders were killed.
The deaths of García Guerrero, Marcelo Agredo Inchima, Santiago Andrés Murillo Meneses and Brayan Fernando Niño Araque were captured on video. Some have become flash points, sparking outrage against police violence amid the already growing demonstrations for economic justice. Three of the deaths involved live fire — a level of force Colombian police are permitted to use only when confronting an “imminent threat of death or serious injury, or to prevent a particularly serious crime that involves a serious threat to life.”
A Post analysis of the footage, including some that has not previously circulated publicly, illustrates the extent to which police appear to have overstepped their rules of engagement. Colombian government officials have blamed at least some of the violence on guerrillas and criminals that they say have infiltrated the ranks of the protesters.
“I think that [the] combination of videos, media attention and Washington reaction is explosive for the government,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The impact in the U.S. of the George Floyd case, and the concept of Black Lives Matter, is also an element that creates the conditions for zero tolerance of police abuse.”
Colombian police say they have sought to guarantee the right to “peaceful protest” while also containing violence and property damage caused by some of those involved in the unrest. They say 119 internal police investigations have been opened since the start of the protests, including nine related to homicides.
“To use force, all Colombian police officers must observe four principles: necessity, legality, proportionality and rationality,” police said in a statement in response to questions from The Post.
They added: “Something that we have to rethink as a society is the use of violence within legitimate scenarios of public protest.”
April 28: The start of the protests
Protests erupted April 28 in response to a tax proposal by the government of President Iván Duque. The unpopular bill was meant to plug fiscal deficits after a year in which the coronavirus pandemic slammed the economy and sapped government resources. Demonstrators, some of whom had taken to the streets in 2019 to protest inequality and corruption, viewed the measure as a step too far. The bill, they argued, would hit working-class Colombians already stung by increasing poverty and joblessness while largely shielding Duque’s wealthy supporters.
On the first day of the protests in the Mariano Ramos neighborhood of Cali, a city that would become the epicenter of the demonstrations, a resident on a balcony began to film police forces standing across the street.
LEFT: The location where Marcelo Agredo Inchima was killed in Cali, Colombia. (The Washington Post) RIGHT: Marcelo Agredo Inchima was killed amid protests in Colombia on April 28. (Courtesy of Agredo family)
In video obtained by The Post, the officers — identifiable by their yellow helmets — watch as demonstrators march across an intersection a block away. Two officers close to the protesters, one brandishing what appears to be a baton, walk away. About 30 seconds into the video, as the officers reach their motorcycles, a group of protesters breaks from the crowd and runs toward the officers, throwing rocks and projectiles.
A second clip filmed moments later shows Marcelo Agredo Inchima, 17, wearing a hat, blue jeans, and a black and red jersey, at the front of the crowd.
Around 12 seconds into the video, Agredo and a few others sprint toward a lone officer attempting to ride away on a motorcycle. Other officers can be seen standing farther back. An officer in the intersection raises what appears to be a gun and fires toward the protesters. Agredo lunges toward the officer on the motorcycle and kicks him in the back.
Agredo turns to run. The officer on the motorcycle pulls a weapon from his hip and fires multiple rounds at the fleeing teenager. An analysis of the video for The Post by Steven Beck, owner of Beck Audio Forensics, found that officers fired seven shots.
“It’s definitely live ammunition, based on the sound profile and the timing of the shots,” said Brian Castner, a weapons analyst for Amnesty International’s Crisis Team who reviewed the recording for The Post.
A surveillance video from a shop down the street shows the moment Agredo kicks the officer and flees. He runs away for three seconds, seemingly uninjured. Then his hat flies off and he falls to the ground. In syncing the security footage with the witness video, it appears as though Agredo was hit in the head with the seventh shot.
A graphic video recorded moments after the shooting shows Agredo lying motionless on the pavement with blood covering his head. Passersby try to get him help; no police officers are visible. There is yelling and screaming: “The police just killed this young man!”
“Before he kicked the police officer, they were already shooting,” said Armando Agredo Inchima, Agredo’s brother. “My brother just kicked him. It doesn’t justify this policeman taking his life.”
In the statement to The Post, Colombian police said that neither their specialized riot police, known as the ESMAD, nor their regular forces specifically engaged in protest control are permitted to carry firearms.
But other police forces that have responded to the demonstrations are allowed to carry such weapons, and at least some of their members appear to have used live fire. Of the four officers arrested, three were in cases in which the victims were shot. The police said that three of the four officers being investigated in connection with two of the deaths were from a unit that was officially permitted to carry firearms. A fourth police officer being investigated belongs to the ESMAD. “In this particular case, the type of weapon that would have caused the victim’s death has not yet been judicially established,” the statement said.
The Colombian National Police report directly to the Ministry of Defense, an unusual structure that predates the country’s decades-long wars against leftist guerrillas. Police have been accused in recent years of deploying excessive force during operations in rural areas. Human rights activists accuse them of using heavy-handed tactics to control anti-government protests in 2019 and in demonstrations last year after a taxi driver died of wounds sustained in police custody.
In the statement to The Post, police said they deployed officers to the area of Agredo’s killing in response to “public disorder.”
“The circumstances surrounding the death of young Marcelo Agredo are the subject of an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, who charged a patrol officer of the institution on May 13 with the crime of aggravated homicide,” they said.
May 1: Tensions escalate
After April 28, protests grew in Colombia’s largest cities and spread to smaller towns. Human Rights Watch says the movement gained momentum after Agredo’s death in Cali and the initial reports of police abuse.
Santiago Murillo, 19, was walking home from his girlfriend’s house in the western city of Ibagué, about a five-hour drive from Cali, on the evening of May 1. That night, his mother said, the aspiring artist was on foot only because his cellphone was dead and he couldn’t call his father to ask for a ride.
LEFT: The route Santiago Murillo took home and the location where he was wounded in Ibague, Colombia. (The Washington Post) RIGHT: Santiago Andrés Murillo Meneses, 19, died amid protests in Colombia on May 1. (Courtesy of Sandra Milena Meneses Mogollón)
Two blocks from Murillo’s house, a video shows, protesters threw unidentifiable objects toward a location outside the video frame. Motorcycles can be heard revving; a large crowd of demonstrators starts running.
Twenty seconds into the video, the crowd appears to scatter just before four gunshots are fired. About 10 shots are heard in a span of about 15 seconds, according to an analysis by Castner. The source of the gunfire is not visible in the video.
About a minute later, the street clears and a large armored vehicle with the word “Policía” on its side drives through. An ambulance siren is heard and police identifiable by yellow jackets on motorcycles appear.
A second video clip, filmed later, shows Murillo on the ground. Eleven seconds into the video, a voice off-camera can be heard saying, “Lo mataron” — “They killed him.” A chaotic scene unfolds as people gather around Murillo and try to get him help. Police are seen in the area but available videos do not show them seeking to get Murillo medical attention.
“I was on my sofa watching television when my telephone rang and it was my sister and my nephew,” said Murillo’s mother, Sandra Milena Meneses Mogollón. “They told me urgently that Santiago was at the hospital. I went to the hospital and there they gave me the news.” Murillo died that evening. Authorities told The Post that live ammunition was the cause of death.
A post on Murillo’s Facebook page from April 30, the day before he was shot, indicates that he supported the movement behind the protests but that he thought the demonstrations should be nonviolent. His mother described him as a homebody, someone who was always with his family.
“He always wanted to help others,” she said. “He had a lot of dreams.”
A May 11 news release from the prosecutor’s office says that Murillo was shot by officers of the National Police. In a statement to The Post, the National Police said two officers have been arrested in the case.
About the same time, 3½ hours away in Madrid, Colombia, protests turned violent. Video and witness accounts obtained by Human Rights Watch indicate that peaceful protesters blocked a road in a roundabout. According to the rights group, some demonstrators threw rocks at a police station a few blocks away and others vandalized a toll booth less than a mile away.
LEFT: The location where Brayan Fernando Niño Araque was wounded in Madrid, Colombia. (The Washington Post) RIGHT: Brayan Fernando Niño Araque, 24, died amid protests in Colombia on May 1. (Courtesy of a family friend)
Video verified by Human Rights Watch shows an armored vehicle with the word “Policía” on its side driving toward a group of protesters as they flee. Thirteen seconds into the video, police shoot what appear to be tear gas canisters.
Protester Brayan Niño was wounded in his right eye and later died. According to Human Rights Watch, Niño was 24, a father and a furniture store employee who told his mother and sister the morning of May 1 that he was going to the protest to “fight for his rights and raise his voice.”
Graphic video shows a group carrying Niño, his right eye bloodied and his body limp. In a statement to The Post, authorities said the cause of death was a “sharp weapon.”
Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw an armored vehicle arrive at the roundabout around 9 p.m. and start to shoot tear gas cartridges directly at protesters. One witness said he saw Niño turn around as he was running away and get hit by a tear gas cartridge shot from the armored vehicle.
ESMAD, the specialized unit within the Colombian National Police deployed to control riots, uses such armored vehicles. A government authority familiar with the case confirmed to Human Rights Watch that ESMAD appears to have been responsible for firing the tear gas that struck Niño. According to analysts in Colombia, ESMAD is not authorized to use lethal force.
Prosecutors are investigating; one officer has been arrested.
In a statement to The Post, Colombian police said a blockade in the vicinity had violated “fundamental rights such as food security and the free movement of the inhabitants of this area.”
“Faced with this situation,” police said, “ESMAD intervened, using gradual and proportional nonlethal elements to restore security.”
May 3: A deadly day in Cali
Joan Nicolás García Guerrero had attended every demonstration in Cali since the protests began on April 28, his mother said. In texts she shared with The Post, her son spoke about his fears for his country and his younger sister’s future in it.
“He was protesting because he wanted a country where we could all live in peace,” Laura Guerrero said.
Video from the early hours of May 3 obtained by The Post shows a small group of protesters gathering on a highway littered with debris and fallen lampposts after a candlelight vigil for those killed in the previous days’ demonstrations.
Twenty seconds into the video, in the upper-right corner of the frame, a group of men including García Guerrero can be seen walking toward a wall of tear gas. A couple of seconds later, a single shot can be heard. García Guerrero falls. Others carry him away.
Beck reviewed the recording for The Post.
“The sound has all of the characteristics of a gunshot, including a loud and sharp initial blast sound immediately followed by reverberation,” he said. “The primary spectral peak is around 800 Hz, which is consistent with a small firearm. There are also several loud echoes following the blast sound, indicating the presence of large reflecting objects. These are all common characteristics of recorded gunshots.”
A graphic video live-streamed to Instagram shows protesters carrying García Guerrero’s limp and bloodied body to a gas station up the road. No police officers are seen trying to aid him in this video.
Hector Lenis, a friend of García Guerrero who was present that night, said García Guerrero didn’t have any protective equipment. Lenis told The Post that he didn’t see the shooting but heard the sound of a live bullet and a man next to García Guerrero yelling, “Injured, don’t shoot!”
LEFT: The intersection where Joan Nicolás Garcia Guerrero was wounded in Cali, Colombia. (The Washington Post) RIGHT: Joan Nicolás García Guerrero died amid protests in Colombia on May 3. He is seen here with his mother, Laura Guerrero. (Courtesy of Laura Guerrero)
Guerrero’s mother said that her son had joined the protesters that night to help medics tend to the injured, and that members of ESMAD attacked the crowd and deployed tear gas, prompting protesters to respond.
“My son joined the front lines,” she said. “He was overcome by his frustrations and anger. He liked his country and he didn’t want to be subjugated by anyone. He made the decision to go to the front and they killed him. They killed him.”
Cali Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina confirmed García Guerrero’s death to Colombian media. “Nicolás Guerrero is the son of my cousin,” he told Blu Radio. “He is a boy from Floralia, he is a good boy. He left at dawn and had a gunshot wound to the head.”
In a statement to The Post, Colombian police said: “For now, what is known is that in the location of the homicide, moments before there was looting of a commercial establishment. In the videos capturing the events in the area, there were fires, people with hoods on, riots and a scene of unrest, where, indeed, you can appreciate the use of less lethal weapons.”
In a statement to The Post, authorities said live ammunition was the cause of death.
Hours after the death, hundreds of protesters returned to the location. There was another candlelit vigil, this time for García Guerrero. It also turned violent. According to Human Rights Watch, five more people died in Cali that night. Their connection to the protests is still being investigated.
In a joint statement on Monday, Colombian prosecutors and the human rights ombudsman’s offices said 42 deaths had occurred since the beginning of the demonstrations, 15 of them directly related to protests. Both offices said 134 people were missing.
Dalton Bennett, Ana Vanessa Herrero and Brian Monroe contributed to this report.