Caught in the Crosshairs of a Paramilitary Group
In mid-April 2021, Colombia was on the verge of erupting into civil strife marked by riots, protests, and violence. The country had been hit hard by the pandemic; the third-highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Latin America, with 42 percent of the population earning less than US$90 per month, and with one in four Colombians under the age of 28 unemployed.
Adrián was one of the lucky ones. He had a decent job in one of the larger cities. He was also a longtime volunteer and activist for a national LGBTQ organization.
On this particular April day, he was organizing a training session in a town on the outskirts of the city. It was a sad place, seemingly abandoned by the state, where insurgent and paramilitary groups fought amongst themselves for control.
As he walked away from the local community center, he was suddenly cornered by two men on motorcycles, dressed in the dark fatigues of a paramilitary group, shouting insults and questions at him. Adrián, his heart racing with fear, had no time to react. They were on him in minutes, beating and kicking him in the middle of one of the town’s most prominent roads, in broad daylight.
Adrián was laid up with multiple injuries for an entire week. It gave him a lot of time to think.
“I was… surprised,” he admits. “There are no guarantees for LGBTQ people in Colombia. We face situations of risk—harassment, discrimination, insecurity—every day. But I didn’t expect to be attacked like that.”
It wasn’t, however, the first time he had experienced violence. A bright and inquisitive child, he had been marked “different” from his first miserable day of school to his last, enduring verbal, physical, and psychological abuse with horrific regularity. He survived by becoming an academic star in school and, later, at university.
Along the way, he’d faced rejection or indifference from most of his family members because of his sexual orientation. He’d found a cause in the LGBTQ rights organization—one where he could put his talents, skills, and passion for service to use. But he’d also found friends, family, and community.
Adrián was needed. He vowed to keep working.
Throughout April and May, several right-wing paramilitary groups declared LGBTQ organizations and their members as military targets. And then the threats became more chilling and personal; disturbing letters addressed and hand-delivered to him; pamphlets with lists of names and addresses—his included—left at his apartment.
In some ways, these intimidation tactics were even more frightening than the attack had been. This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment action; it was a planned campaign, and there were more than just two thugs involved.
Adrián went to the police to file a complaint and was summarily dismissed. There was nothing they could do to help him. They already knew that members of the LGBTQ community were receiving these threats. Besides, they were too focused on controlling the demonstrations—with resulting crime and vandalism—happening in the center of the city.
“I was treated as a second-class citizen because of my orientation,” says Adrián. His sense of betrayal is palpable; legal rights and protections for LGBTQ people in Colombia are considered among the most progressive in Latin America. But it is hard to escape the fetters of the country’s long and turbulent past.
“Our history of war for longer than 50 years has made hate crimes and violence against the LGBTQ minority frequent,” he explains. “Sometimes it is at the hands of insurgent groups who have always worked outside of the law. Sometimes it is at the hands of ordinary people or even the state itself.”
Adrián fought hard against his mounting sense of panic, but he was afraid. Right-wing paramilitary groups were acting with impunity throughout the region. The police were unable or unwilling to help. That night, he made a fateful decision. Within days, he had quit his job, left his apartment, gathered his meager savings, and was on his way to the United States.
The Courage to Begin Again
Asylum seekers have one year after arriving in the U.S. to apply for asylum. By the time Adrián found Justice for Our Neighbors North Central Texas—our ILJ affiliate in the Dallas-Fort Worth area—he’d already been in the country for 11 months.
He entered the doors of Arapaho United Methodist Church—the host for JFON NC-TX legal clinics—telling himself not to get his hopes up too much.
“He’d spent several months looking for representation,” recalls site attorney Ana Laura Arellanos-Baeza. “But everyone was at capacity. None of the other nonprofits were accepting cases. We were his last hope. We saw his filing deadline—30 days out—and took his case that very day. “
Adrián had left many things behind in Colombia, but not the documentation that covered every aspect of his experience. There were medical and police records, confirmation of his work with the LGBTQ community, the threatening letters and pamphlets he had received, and links to reputable studies of the paramilitary group targeting and terrorizing LGBTQ groups in Colombia.
“Honestly, at that point, I think he was preparing to present his case on his own,” says Ana. “He’s very organized and resilient.”
After rushing to get all 11 of his documents translated in record time, Ana filed his paperwork a week before the deadline. And then they didn’t hear anything for five whole months—not even an acknowledgment of receipt.
“At least Adrián had us to calm him down during these months,” she says. “We all had to remain calm on the outside, but on the inside…we were a bit worried.”
Ana finally received the looked-for acknowledgment, and Adrián’s asylum case is progressing. He received a work permit in January and now has a job working with computers. He continues to study and improve his English. He feels comfortable, at peace with himself, and is making friends in the community.
As grateful as Adrián feels, this isn’t enough for him. For his entire adult life, Adrián has nurtured a vocation for service, always volunteering in some capacity or other. It is something he would like to continue with JFON NCTX.
“I realize there are so many people in need like me, “he says, “and more than anything, more than money, more than a nice house, I want to contribute my grain of sand. I want to help the way JFON helped me.”