(CNN)Seven Colombian soldiers were arrested on Thursday after confessing to charges of sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl from the Embera Katio indigenous group, in the northwestern department of Risaralda, the country's Attorney General said. Their Army unit had been deployed there to enforce lockdown measures in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Colombian soldiers confess to sexually abusing indigenous girl, says Attorney General
The soldiers confessed to "aggravated abusive sexual intercourse with a minor younger than 14-years old," according to a statement from the Attorney General's Office published Thursday and are currently awaiting a civilian trial.
The leader of the Embera Katio community, Juan de Dios Queragama said in a statement that the alleged incident occurred last Sunday and that human rights workers had informed him of it.
"It appears that some friends from (the rural settlement of) Santa Cecilia found her, because her mother was looking for her as she had been lost.
"When she went to look for her, she found the child at her school. When they picked her up, the child couldn't walk. They took her directly to the hospital and from the hospital they took her to forensic services," Queragama told national news outlet RCN Wednesday. On Friday, she was still in the hospital.
The victim, her family and the indigenous group are currently receiving legal and psychological assistance by the Organization of Indigenous Nations of Colombia (ONIC), spokesman Silsa Arias told CNN on Thursday.
"Her health condition is very serious," Luis Fernando Arias, Senior Adviser for ONIC told CNN Thursday, adding that the 12-year-old "was kidnapped and raped for a period of 17 hours."
The case coincides with a turning point in the Colombian government's approach to sexual violence: On June 18, Congress passed a reform that would expand possible penalties for sex offenders to life in jail.
Although the measure is yet to be signed into law, Colombian President Ivan Duque said that its full weight could be imposed if the seven soldiers are found guilty. "If we have to inaugurate the life in prison penalty with them, we're going to do it with them. And we are going to use it so that these bandits and scoundrels get a lesson," Duque said on Wednesday.
Similar pledges came from the Ministry of Defense, and the Attorney General who on Thursday said the soldiers had dishonored their uniforms and the dignity of Colombia.
Sexual violence is a pandemic of its own in Colombia and the surrounding region. According to the 2019 UN Human Development Index, one in three Colombian women say they have been victims of sexual violence. More than 40% of Ecuadorian women and 58% of Bolivian women say the same thing.
In Colombia the majority of such violence is directed at minors: According to figures collected by the Colombian Femicide Foundation, 8,532 women and girls reported that they had experienced sexual violence in the first five months of this year. More than 5,800 were under the age of 18.
Those figures are consistent with the numbers of cases collected so far this year by Colombia's National Institute of Legal Medicine: Of 7,544 medical examinations performed across the country since January to determine whether sexual violence was committed, 6,479 were performed on minors.
And these are just the numbers of cases that end up being reported. Colombia has a history of under-reported sexual violence according to women's rights organizations who warn that this year, the reality of what happens inside locked-down households could be far worse.
But the trial could mark the beginning of a new era in Colombia: Despite controversy, the vote in Congress last week to toughen punishment of sexual abuse was widely seen as a success in the fight against sexual violence. Until now, the Colombian constitution has not included life in jail as a penalty for any crime. When the vote came, more than 30 congressional representatives left the hall to signal their opposition to the reform.
The initial reaction to the case at the highest levels of government may also indicate a shift. Over more than fifty years of fighting with guerrillas and drug traffickers, the Colombian Army has repeatedly been accused of silencing crimes committed by soldiers.
Many feared that the soldiers' case in Risaralda would be swept under the rug without resolution, but authorities inside and outside the military world have instead publicly acknowledged the allegations.
While the seven soldiers are waiting for their day in court, the ONIC is demanding that they be tried under indigenous law, arguing that it's their jurisdiction since the alleged crime was against an indigenous person, on indigenous land.
"This act breaks Colombia's indigenous groups' trust in all the armed forces of the country. The soldiers were supposed to be here to protect the people from the pandemic," said Luis Fernando Arias.
"They are worse than the pandemic."