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A design for the painted-over mural, asking: “Who gave the command?” (courtesy of Puro Veneno)

BÓGOTA — Colombians took to social media this weekend to denounce what is being called censorship after military officials reportedly stopped a group of artists from completing a mural that questions the role of five generals in thousands of extrajudicial killings committed more than a decade ago.

As part of a campaign to raise awareness on the series of crimes committed by the Colombian state, 11 human rights organizations hired graffiti artists to visually represent the military apparatus that executed thousands of poor farmers, youths, and other civilians from 2000 to 2010, during the height of the war against rebel fighters.

With a peace deal signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2016, it’s expected that the truth behind some of the gravest human rights violations will surface in the upcoming years. One question that remains to be answered is if high-ranking military officials and politicians planned the systematic killings.

“Who gave the command?” is the question that six artists expected to paint in Colombia’s capital, on a giant wall facing a highly-trafficked highway. But before they could do so, military officials pulled up in their cars and started to record the scene with their phones. According to the artists, six soldiers sporting long-range rifles arrived later.

“The team felt intimidated and vulnerable before the exaggerated presence of the military as a response to the mural that we were realizing,” said the artists in a collective statement to Hyperallergic. The artists preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

“The military officials asked us who we were, what we were doing, who had given us permission to do the mural, who had paid us to do so and told us to hand over our identification,” said Sebastián Bojacá, a lawyer of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) who was present that night. The CCJ is one of the organizations behind the campaign and is legally representing victims of extrajudicial killings.

Bojacá said that the military called the police and while they waited, 26 more officials arrived — 22 of them in uniform and another four dressed in civilian clothes and hoodies hiding their faces. The officials proceeded to cover the mural with white paint, starting with the portraits of the generals. The police ticketed one of the artists and a journalist that was accompanying the group for allegedly vandalizing a public space.

“In what was in some ways a threat, the military manifested that if we didn’t leave, they would issue us more tickets,” Bojacá said.

The lawyer claimed that this is the first time in Colombian history that the military intervened in and halted the painting of a mural, given that local police usually attend to these types of graffiti-related incidents. What is especially worrisome for those involved is that the officials said they were ordered to cover up the mural although they wouldn’t specify who.

“We categorically reject this act of censorship committed by the military to this campaign for truth and we know that this response didn’t do more than make evident that they are afraid of the truth,” the artists wrote.

The mural depicted five active and retired generals, including the current commander of the military Nicacio Martínez and the former top commander Mario Montoya, who have all been questioned for their role in extrajudicial killings. These crimes cost the lives of at least 5,763 civilians over the course of a decade, according to the human rights groups behind the mural.

The image is straightforward. The design includes data on the total number of civilians killed from 2000 to 2010 and couples the portraits of the generals with their names and the number of extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by subordinates under their command.

“[The military] had strong, political reasons for erasing the mural. It wasn’t because it was illegal, it wasn’t because they were doing it at night, or because they were smoking weed. It was because of the message,” said a member of Puro Veneno, an anonymous graffiti collective that has been fiercely critical of the political establishment.

The artists added that contrary to what the military and the police claim, the mural was painted on the wall of a private building with the permission of the owner. The lawyer said they would challenge the tickets because of the irregular manner with which they were issued.

Hours after the mural was erased, social media users picked up on the news after the Puro Veneno collective shared it to its tens of thousands of Instagram followers and made the original design viral with the hashtag #EjercitoCensuraMural or #MilitaryCensorsMural.

One user commented, “They can erase the mural but they can never erase the memory. Thousands of youths were killed by the military under the government of [former president] Álvaro Uribe.”

José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’ Americas division, tweeted: “This is a flagrant case of censorship. The Inspector General’s Office should open a disciplinary investigation. Who ordered this abuse?”

The military and the Ministry of Defense have yet to publicly comment on the incident. A military spokesperson told Hyperallergic  there is currently no official information available. Senator Paola Holguín and Senator Maria Fernanda Cabal did not respond to a request for comment. The office of Bogotá City Council member Daniel Palacios declined to comment on the incident because they said the councilman had no part in the matter.

Meanwhile, Puro Veneno uploaded a high-quality version of the design online, encouraging followers across the country to print and to share the image on the streets. The response to their call was immediate, the member of the collective said.

“In these days, we’ve received images from people who printed the design and pasted it and handed it out in the form of stickers. In the end, this all provoked interesting ways for people to manifest their indignation,” the member said.

Bojacá explained that the muralists and their collaborators remain concerned for their safety, given that military officials left that night with their personal information. Still, the group plans to continue with the graffiti campaign and to highlight other state crimes, such as the persecution of leftist political parties.

“We take over the walls and streets with art because we are in the construction of our own media and channels of communication,” the artists said. “The streets are and will always remain ours.”

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Christina Noriega

Christina Noriega is a freelance journalist covering culture, social movements and women’s rights in Latin America. She is based in Bogotá, Colombia.