Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Colombia: Outside the Lourdes Church, the bodies of two men

Around 11pm on Sunday night, November 5th, responding to a phone call by a passer-by, police inves- tigators in Bogota found two men sitting on the steps outside the Lourdes Church in Bogota. One of the men had an arm around the other man's shoulder. Neither man was alive.

"Due to the position in which they were found it is assumed that they were a couple," said a lead detective to a reporter from El Tiempo.

The detective, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that they were looking into whether the men had committed suicide by ingesting poisonous substances as neither showed any signs of violence. He also said that two officers had reported approaching the men earlier that night when they saw them on the steps but left them be when they said they were just resting a bit before heading home.

Symbolically, the news of a gay couple committing suicide in front of one of the major churches in Bogota in the midst of legislative efforts to grant some rights to same-sex couples, was striking. After all, the Catholic church in Colombia, as in other Latin American countries, had led the opposition against the recognition of such partnerships. But some leading LGBT advocates were initially outraged that the paper had violated the privacy of the two men by discussing their sexual orientation in death when it wasn't clear that it had been public matter while alive.

Long-time LGBT-rights advocate Manuel Velandia Mora, writing in his blog, criticized the editors of El Tiempo for the language used in the headline ("Two homosexuals were found dead on the steps of the entrance to the Lourdes Church in Bogota") and, specifically, the word "homosexuals" arguing that it was no different than the language used by scandal-hungry tabloids to draw readership to their homophobic and lurid coverage of crimes committed against gays. Velandia also wondered if there was anything else to indicate that the men were gay other than the "position" in which the bodies were found.

Nevertheless, Mr. Velandia ended by saying that if the men were indeed a gay couple, the death of these two men should also highlight just how inadequate the authorities are in investigating the deaths of those who might be gay in Colombia as well as the lack of any governmental oversight or condemnation of crimes committed against gays in Colombia.

Actually, turns out that the men were probably not gay after all.

On Friday, the person who alerted the police sent a note to a listserv to which I subscribe. On his way to one of the many gay bars that surround the Lourdes Church plaza, he said it was impossible not to notice the two men sitting together on the church steps and that - as he got closer to see if they were ok - it was also clear that they were dead. So he called the police.

Eventually he made it to a nearby bar. The bouncers, who had a view of the church plaza, told him that the two men had been hanging out and drinking with the local artisans who sold their wares to tourists during the day. They hadn't paid much attention until they saw a tall man fall to the ground. That's when they saw the other men pick him up and prop him up next to another person who seemed to have passed out on the church's steps. They also noticed that the men had draped the tall man's arm around the other man's shoulder probably to help them to maintain balance. This, apparently, was how the police found them and what led the investigator to determine that they might have been a couple.

I'm not sure if El Tiempo responded to any of the concerns raised by Velandia, among others, but, in a follow-up article that was printed on Sunday, they proved that the original report was flawed, to say the least. In the article, Marta Stella Cano speaks of one of the men as having been her boyfriend and states unequivocally "The police and the journalists came out to say that they were gay, that they were a couple and that they had committed suicide out of love. But none of that is true."

One of the artisans who makes a living in the plaza, says that Julian Suarez Mosquera was just another artisan vendor, a "hippie," who he had met in the streets of Bogota and befriended. He says the other man, only known to him by the nickname of Popis, was also just another friend and not his partner.

The police say that they think the men died of mercury poisoning and are still investigating the deaths as suicides but those who knew Mr. Suarez say that they cannot believe that he'd take his life.

Community members say that both men were probably the victims of something that is known to afflict a lot of alcohol drinkers who buy bottles in the street: A poorly distilled adulterated form of alcohol that can be poisonous and deadly.

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