BOGOTA—The brutal rape and murder of a seven year-old girl has outraged Colombia and sparked several protests over the growing epidemic of sexual violence in this South American country.
But can one case change anything in a nation where thousands of girls are raped each year? That’s the question rights activists are grappling with as angry protesters head home after several days of demonstrations, and the initial media storm over the gruesome crime starts to wane.
Yuliana Samboni, 7, was found dead Sunday night in an upscale Bogota apartment owned by 38-year-old architect Rafael Uribe Noguera. Security camera footage obtained by police showed the girl was pulled into Uribe's vehicle on Sunday, and driven away. According to police, Uribe, who is now in custody, strangled the girl to death in his apartment after raping her. Prosecutors say he then spoke to his brother, who saw the scene in the apartment and took Uribe to a private clinic because he had overdosed on cocaine.
Three protests were held once the news got out Monday. Several hundred people went to Uribe's apartment building to shout their anger and light candles in Yuliana's memory.
Many Colombians were concerned that Uribe would use his family's connections and wealth to wiggle out of criminal charges. The alleged perpetrator comes from a prosperous family of architects and lawyers, while Yuliana, the daughter of indigenous Colombians, migrated to Bogota to escape violence in the countryside.
“Justice is very weak in Colombia,” said Gina Jaimes, a young protester outside Colombia's Attorney General's office on Tuesday. “We need the government to make an example of him.”
Police arrested Uribe in hospital on Tuesday and took him to prison. He had to be escorted out of the clinic by riot police, as dozens of angry protesters called him a murderer, threw bottles, and demanded swift justice.
With Uribe behind bars on charges of first-degree murder, abuse of a minor, and kidnapping, politicians and women's rights groups are debating what more Colombia can do to prevent similar cases from happening in the future.
Efrain Torres, a congressman for Colombia's governing coalition, is proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow judges to sentence child molestors to life in prison. It's an approach that has already been taken by some U.S. states.
“Unfortunately, violence against children is common in Colombia,” Torres told Fusion. “We need to send a message to these deranged criminals that there will be severe penalties if they mess with children.”
But not everyone is convinced life sentences is the best solution. Beatriz Quintero, director of The Women's Network, an umbrella organization of 100 women's rights groups, notes that current laws already allow judges to sentence child molestors to decades in prison. She argues the proposal to increase sentences to life-long terms has more to do with “political demagoguery” than effective prevention.
“Politicians only come up with this when an emblematic case pops up,” Quintero said. “What we need are better prevention strategies.”
Quintero said interest in Yuliana's case presents an opportunity for her organization to hold meetings with government agencies to discuss prevention strategies, including implementing guidelines to discuss sexual violence in schools, and finding ways to make it easier for families to alert police about potential sexual predators before a crime is committed.
Olga Sánchez, a member of the women's rights group Casa de la Mujer, says that the government also needs to do more to protect adult women from sexual violence. Colombia's Institute for Forensic Medicine says it conducted legal rape tests on 18,876 women last year, which means there was an average of 51 suspected rape cases each day across the country.
Sánchez says Colombian culture needs to stop treating women as if their bodies are an “object that anyone can use.” She also said the government needs to provide more safehouses for at-risk women.
“Some women go to the police and talk about how they are under threat, but their claims are not taken seriously,” Sánchez said. It's hard to get authorities to investigate crimes, too. “According to our estimates, 80% of cases of violence against women go unresolved,” Sánchez added.
Congressman Torres says he is also working on a law to create a national registry of sex offenders, as well as a special tribunal for sex crimes against minors. Another option under consideration is chemical castration for convicted sex offenders. The controversial punishment has been used in Florida and California, with varying results.
Whatever happens next, Sánchez says Yuliana's horrific case has at least gotten Colombia to face its persistent problem with sexual violence.
“What this case shows us is that this is a society that does not take care of its girls properly,” Sánchez said. “The Colombian state has to assume its responsibility to protect girls and women.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.