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Temblores: Shaking the structures of oppression in Colombia

When stones were thrown at her on the street, Carmenza turned to the police. She recalls being mistreated by them, revictimized by those who should have protected her. Her assailant, in turn, went untroubled. He would later kill her dog, ‘Toni’.  

The next encounter she had with the police was not to follow up on the case, but to confiscate her livelihood. They took the recycling materials she collects and sells to survive. Carmenza was left with nothing but the clothes on her back.

“What debt do I owe in life?” she asked herself. The amount of senseless violence she endured on the streets of Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is a long one. And then there is the fear. 

“A block away from here a lady was murdered”, she says. “She was found wrapped in a rug. It scares me that it could happen to me too. It terrifies me.”

Carmenza is a street dweller, a population that has experienced a rapid rise in homicides in Colombia over the past decade, even as the overall homicide rate decreased throughout the country. For marginalised people like her, falling victim to violence, coupled with impunity, is not an uncommon occurrence.

It is a brutal reality that should send tremors through society. To ensure that it does, one NGO has made it its mission to shake the status quo to its roots.

Since its creation in 2017, the non-profit organisation Temblores (Tremors, in English), has sought to decrease social inequality and injustice for marginalised groups. Their tools for change are strategic litigation, legal support, and civic participation campaigns in Colombia. 

“The name Temblores comes from the fact that we want to shake all the structures that cause exclusion, violence, and human rights violations,” explains Sylvana Castro, Communications Coordinator at Temblores.

“In particular, [Temblores] works with street populations, sex workers, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, basically those made most vulnerable by the state.”

One of the core areas of work of Temblores is recording and documenting instances of police violence that otherwise would go unreported and unpunished. The process is accompanied by actions that give voice to underrepresented narratives, to lift them above the barriers that preclude them from accessing justice. Carmenza’s is one of those voices.

Los nunca nadie (The Never Anyone), a 2018 report that highlights the crisis of violence experienced by homeless people in Colombia, was published in this spirit.

Los nunca nadie collected facts and reports on the growing figures of homicidal violence, physical violence, and abuse experienced by street dwellers in Colombia. It also made recommendations to the government to reverse “the practices of police violence that, day by day, threatens their lives, their integrity, and their dignity.”

Yet, to further enact change, the team asked themselves: what social factors contribute to the systematisation of violence against street dwellers?

The answer came with the 2019 publication of Algo huele mal (Something Stinks).

It showed the terrible consequence of something that, to many, only represents a minor inconvenience: the absence of public toilets. At the time, there were less than eight public toilets per 100,000 inhabitants in Bogota. For street dwellers, discrimination often precluded access to even those few.

This fostered a vicious circle. For those for whom the streets are home, the absence of free public toilets left only public spaces to perform their basic needs. This put street dwellers in permanent contravention of the National Police Code. Not only were street dwellers denied fundamental and collective rights, but their deprival also drove police violence against them.

And it put them at risk: one of the most frequent contexts for homicide among street dwellers is while performing “vital activities or activities related to personal care,” according to data from the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science of Colombia, cited in the report.

Temblores’ team of lawyers recognised that this situation likely violated the fundamental rights to human dignity, free development of personality, personal privacy, and equality of street dwellers under Colombia’s Constitution. They took their findings before Colombia’s Constitutional Court.

“There were several avenues for filing a strategic litigation case, but the one that made the most sense, and was most likely to win, was to get the state to allow, or promise, sufficient sanitation space, i.e., public toilets, for people living on the streets. As it is their home, the state must provide a space under the Constitution,” explains Juan Pablo Ruiz, Associate, Latin America at Luminate.

On 17 March 2021, the Court heeded Temblores’ requests.

Its ruling reads: “The Court exempts street dwellers from the corrective measures for performing physiological needs in public spaces. It also urges territorial authorities to adopt actions and policies that guarantee this population universal access to sanitary infrastructure.”

“[Temblores] litigated, and won against the State”, says Sylvana Castro.

The achievement is a testament to the organisation’s commitment to fight exclusion, violence, and discrimination, and to promote the rights of people who the legal system has historically ignored. It is a commitment that we share at Luminate, where our mission is to ensure that everyone – especially those who are underrepresented – has the information, rights, and power to influence the decisions that affect us all.

“Temblores has an added value that is very important”, says Juan Pablo Ruiz. “They are highly innovative in how they communicate and how they advise more and more people who have been victims of violence. They have been very successful with their strategic litigation and their team of lawyers is impressive.”

Luminate partners with Temblores to counter police violence and its effects, across a wide range of initiatives.

“We have several lines of action. The first, which is something very horizontal, is police violence, on which we have worked a lot with Luminate”, says Sylvana Castro. “The area in charge of police violence conducts research and advocacy to document and monitor and denounce the different forms of police violence that occur in the country.”

Within this area, GRITA – an acronym in Spanish that stands for Record, Register, Investigate, Triangulate, Assist, and which translates to “Shout” – is a platform that seeks to facilitate reporting of instances of police violence to contribute to its eradication.

“Through this monitoring centre, [Temblores] makes a triangulation of the denunciations it receives. With it we not only make the violence visible, but also do research and advocacy, and try to maintain constant communication with the state so that this violence does not continue to happen,” Sylvana Castro explains.

“Then comes the role of strategic litigation, on which we have also worked with Luminate. It is divided into collective justice, individual justice, and the creation of legal tools. Collective justice litigates with collectives, as was the case with street dwellers. For individual justice, they have the strategic litigation justice platform called Policarpa. It is a mobile justice clinic to give free advice to people who need counselling. The women from Policarpa, who are all lawyers, investigate each case and try to advise the people who need it most.”

Temblores also brings people closer access to justice through legal tools, such as guides on regulations affecting LGBTQIA+ people and those objecting to military service. Gender, in particular, is a primary focus. Through a project called Epicentra, the organisation seeks to break the barriers that people with different genders and sexualities experience when trying to access healthcare services.

Democracy and participation are another essential component of Temblores’ work, which aligns with Luminate’s own focus on enabling people to fully participate in civic and political life, to safely challenge power, and to access accurate, trustworthy information. “We want to help to fight disinformation, to make electoral pedagogy that serves all”, says Sylvana Castro.

Over the past years – particularly in the context of the large protests that shook Colombia in 2021 – the organisation’s reports on police violence have continuously spurred media attention and increased pressure for greater accountability for police violence. Temblores was founded to shake the hegemonic structures that foster the perpetuation exclusion, violence, and discrimination. The tremors from their change-making have been felt ever since.

“They are a young organisation that has already achieved very interesting victories. They have been instrumental in the fight for police violence reform. And I think that meaningful reform is just around the corner,” says Juan Pablo Ruiz.