It was only a matter of time before General Henry Sanabria, a homophobic and ultra-religious officer who led the Colombian Police with a Bible in his hand, would himself be struck down. On Wednesday, President Gustavo Petro issued a brief statement on Twitter announcing that Sanabria, who had waged war on crime as a fight against the devil with God on his side, had been replaced by General William Salamanca, thanking the former for his services. It was an elegant way for Petro to dismiss an official who had sealed his own fate a month ago when he decried condoms as causing abortions and blamed homosexuals for cases of HIV/AIDS among police officers.
Petro had initially stayed his hand so as not to appear influenced by others when taking such decisions. However, the clamor for Sanabria’s removal had become generalized and 11 lawmakers had signed an open letter calling for him to be fired. “Colombia has a medieval police chief. He leads the institution in the manner of a confessional. This gentleman is an activist against the exercise of women’s civil rights in addition to his open discrimination against the diverse population,” member of Congress Jennifer Pedraza, one of the signatories, recently told EL PAÍS.
Behind Sanabria’s seat in the conference room of Colombia’s National Police, the only civilian force in the country, a crucifix was on full display. On the table stood a small statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. Sanabria did not attempt to play down his devotion. But since he was appointed by Petro in August 2022, his positions against abortion, egalitarian marriage, free union and euthanasia — all of them legal rights today in Colombia and that have met with broad consensus — came to light.
As such, Sanabria’s appointment by a progressive government caused shockwaves from the word go. Leadership of the National Police is a sensitive post, above all after Sanabria’s predecessor, General Jorge Luis Vargas, oversaw the response to the 2021 protests during which more than 80 people died. Videos shared on social media showed police firing indiscriminately at unarmed civilians. When he came to power, Petro wanted to instill a different approach to public security and to do away with the prevailing doctrine in barracks and police stations, which consisted of seeing an internal enemy in social organizations and leftist movements.
Agradezco el arduo trabajo del General Henry Sanabria y la General Yackeline Navarro en la @PoliciaColombia. El nuevo director de la Policía será el General (R) William Salamanca, es un mayor general de la Reserva, con más de 37 años de experiencia en la institución.— Gustavo Petro (@petrogustavo) April 12, 2023
Sanabria, a 51-year-old former lawyer, was appointed among other high-ranking officials to bring about this change, but it soon became clear that his archaic manner was incompatible with his position. His public statements were so bizarre that it was hard to believe they were intended. Within a month of being appointed, he described Halloween as a “satanic strategy to induce children to the occult,” redoubling the police presence on October 31 to protect children from being abducted and killed in satanic rites in the absence of corroborating statistics or previous such cases.
A few days later it emerged that he had ordered his officers not to have extra-marital relations. Sanabria was performing the role of police chief, priest, and marriage counselor. “It is always the case that a person who is unfaithful in the small things is unfaithful in the big things,” he told the W Radio network. Shortly afterward, he stated that homosexuality was a personal decision. Sanabria, while claiming to respect the Colombian Constitution, dreamed of a religious police force in the style of some Islamic countries.
On March 8, International Women’s Day, he was no more restrained in his religious zeal. “A discreet woman is a gift from the Lord; an educated person is priceless. A modest woman is the greatest charm; nothing is worth as much as a reserved person,” he wrote on his Twitter account. According to Sanabria, 8-M should serve to underline the importance women have for men: “A woman’s charm makes her husband happy, and if she is sensible, he will prosper,” he added, borrowing from the Bible.
However, Sanabria’s ticking timebomb finally exploded during an interview with Semana magazine, in which he talked about exorcisms during law enforcement operations as part of his crusade against Satan: “The existence of the devil is real. I have seen him, I have perceived him. For many it is a fable and others do not believe. And that is fine because the devil says so, he denies himself.”
Petro still waited for a month before bowing to pressure to remove Sanabria, despite the general’s public proclamations leaving the Colombian president with little other choice than to dispense with a public official who envisioned running a civilian police force in a manner more befitting the Inquisition than a progressive 21st-century society.
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