By Jessica Garcia
Translation by Lukasz Firla
It's 9 o'clock in the morning, it's Friday and the sun is shining over Bogota. It is not just any Friday. Today, on 22 September 2023, the first inter-institutional roundtable of dialogue with Olga Castillo is convening. Olga has spent nearly a year protesting in front of both the U.S. Embassy in Bogota and the Colombian Foreign Ministry demanding justice for her and her family. Sixteen years of impunity and state silence have passed in the face of the sexual abuse of her daughter, at the age of 12, by U.S. military contractors at a military base in Melgar, Tolima.
For almost a year, Olga camped out first in front of the U.S. Embassy, and then in front of the Foreign Ministry. Almost a year of protest by a woman facing these two political giants and demanding to be heard. A year of cold, rain, violence, and a lot of resistance. The price she paid is high, very high. The breast cancer she was diagnosed with more than a year ago has metastasized in her lungs. Time is running and so is Olga, she will run until there is justice.
The First Step: Creation of the Roundtable
We are on one of the streets leading to the Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace of Colombia. In front of us, there is a fence and a soldier controlling the entry. Olga waits seated on the ground, while her colleagues from the Olga Castillo Collective arrive. The pain is unbearable. She has difficulty breathing, but neither the pain nor the fatigue prevents her from moving. She wants to move, she wants to get there. She will arrive, in a few minutes she will arrive at DAPRE (Administrative Department of the Presidency), and there she will have to be heard. The institutions that have systematically ignored and revictimized Olga and her family will finally have to listen and be held accountable.
Having passed all the bureaucratic controls, between emotion and dignified rage, between nerves and pain, Olga arrives at the dialogue table. Behind her goes this new collective of women, born to embrace Olga and her struggle, not only for her daughter but for all the girls and women who are victims of sexual abuse by members of the U.S. military who are protected by immunity agreements, or rather, by impunity agreements.
Almost all institutions of the Colombian State that carry responsibility either by action or omission for the process of re-victimization suffered by Olga Castillo and her family during the past 16 years are present. Finally, the recognition that Olga has cried out for, begins.
Olga recounts everything that has happened since the night her daughter disappeared and the moment she found her, the desperation after realizing that her daughter had been the victim of sexual violence at the Colombian Air Force base in Melgar by two U.S. military contractors in the service of Plan Colombia, Michael J. Coen and César Ruiz. She recounts the desperation she felt when she learned that the perpetrators were protected by immunity agreements. She recounts it all, the whole process of persecution and attempts to silence her throughout these years, in which she suffered seven forced displacements and four assassination attempts.
It is not the first time Olga recounts all of this. Throughout the past 16 years, she has denounced what happened many times. Olga knows that institutions present at the roundtable know. She has proof. She has a copy of each one of the denouncements, complaints, and petitions she submitted, and she shows them in front of each one of the institutions that are here today. She takes the documents out one by one and shows them to them again. The officials watch and listen in silence. For the first time in 16 years, Olga is being heard.
Today, Olga is demanding once again, in front of all these officials who are here representing the Colombian State, that she, her daughter, and her entire family deserve justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition. Olga asks herself and asks them “Are we not citizens, are we not Colombians? Don't we deserve justice?” No one answers.
The State is Responsible
It is important to ask what responsibility does the Colombian State have in this whole process. Has it only been an issue of negligence and unwillingness to follow up on the case? Has it been pure incompetence on the part of the officials who were responding to Olga’s case during all these years? Or has there been complicity on the part of some officials to cover up this crime of sexual violence? What about all the threats and attacks denounced by Olga? What role did the Colombian State play in all of this?
We have no answers to these questions, but each of the institutions that joined the roundtable should be prepared to answer, or if not, to seek how to. The United States is responsible for pressuring countries around the world to protect its military forces from any possibility of being tried for crimes committed on foreign soil. It is responsible for not having listened to the victims, it is responsible for having protected the two military men after raping a girl, and it is responsible for its indifference to the struggle of a woman who only seeks justice. However, Colombia is also responsible for having accepted the extension of diplomatic immunity to U.S. military personnel, for not having protected Olga, her family and so many other victims of such violence, and for the negligence or complicity of Colombian officials in the persecution of Olga. Only a responsible and rigorous investigation would be able to establish these responsibilities. The Colombian State is responsible for conducting this investigation.
All Steps: Justice, Truth, Reparation, and Guarantees of Non-repetition.
A week after the table, Olga was hospitalized. The pain continued to feel unbearable. However, getting a bed in the Méderi hospital became also a struggle. The Olga Castillo Collective denounced that Olga had to lie on the hospital floor for more than 10 hours waiting to be given a bed. It was necessary to exert pressure on different sectors so that her right to health would be attended to.
It has not only been 16 years of impunity, these were 16 years of re-victimization, persecution, silencing, and a complete denial of rights to a woman whose only crime was to denounce two U.S. soldiers for rape and to demand justice for her daughter.
However, Olga has no regrets. Despite the physical pain, she is happy to have achieved the creation of the inter-institutional roundtable of dialogue but at the same time, she knows that it is only the first step in her search for justice. Those who took part in the roundtable have committed to generating a space for regular dialogue to account for the role of all these institutions throughout these 16 years of impunity and to respond to Olga Castillo's requests for justice, truth, reparation, and guarantees of non-repetition.
It remains to be seen if these commitments are fulfilled. If they are not, Olga will continue to fight and, if she can no longer do so, the Olga Castillo Collective will continue to do so in her name and in the name of all victims of sexual violence.