MS Risk Blog

Colombia continuous police brutality leads to civil unrest for the long term

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Colombian police are still illegally imprisoning, torturing and using deadly weapons against innocent demonstrators since April. Initially against a tax proposal that has since been axed, though they quickly morphed into a nationwide howl of outrage over entrenched economic disparity. Protesters stayed in the streets for nearly two months, with marches taking place almost every day in major cities. Some protesters put up roadblocks, and some private and public property was damaged. The National Police officers allowed armed citizens to attack protesters and human rights campaigners. They have subsequently cooled, but they flared up again on July 20, Colombia’s Independence Day. The National Police and the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) have been criticised for using excessive force and suppressing peaceful protests. The biggest demonstrations were in Cali, where racism, classism, and the country’s internal armed war have caused chaos. The police reaction was violent, killing 44 demonstrators and injuring 1,650. A recent human rights commission visiting Colombia saw police employing counter-insurgency methods developed in battling leftist rebel groups against demonstrators.

From a recent study produced by Amnesty International it is possible to analyse three incidents from the demonstrations. The first was on May 3 at Siloé, a Cali favela on a hillside. On May 9, armed citizens assaulted an indigenous protest caravan, injuring 11 protestors. The third was an armed citizen raid on a neighbourhood near the Valle university, allegedly in cooperation with police. There is a sense of disappointment among people who hoped for peace in Colombia after the nation signed a landmark peace agreement with the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in 2016.

Many anticipated that the agreement would usher in a new chapter in which Colombians would resolve their disputes with words rather than guns. The agreement has stalled under President Iván Duque, who entered office in 2018 after campaigning against the treaties.

The Colombian administration has defied growing international criticism. Critics argue the improvements are cosmetic rather than functional, including new uniforms and human rights training for riot police. However, they also complained of “fake news” and pointed out that two policemen were murdered and another 35 were shot during the demonstrations. More than 500 individuals, including government officials, human rights advocates, and violence victims, testified in the IACHR study about the state’s reaction to the demonstrations in places including Cali and Bogota. The committee recorded indiscriminate use of weapons by law police against demonstrators and non-protesters, gender-based violence, and violence against journalists and medical personnel. It also urged President Ivan Duque’s government to look into abuses and safeguard protesters. According to Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Andes director of the Washington Office on Latin America, the study contradicts Duque and his party’s narrative that protestors are vandals and criminals.

The group made over 40 suggestions to the Colombian government, including separating the police and military. The Colombian police, like the army, are a result of decades of violent warfare. But that structure has led to militarised law enforcement – notably by the riot police, ESMAD – that has been heavily criticised by the Colombian public and international observers. The government already has rejected several the suggestions, while Duque and members of his party criticised the report on Wednesday morning, continuing to decry acts of vandalism and roadblocks that violate the rights of citizens. While protest organisers have temporarily suspended the demonstrations, it is predicted only more protests are on the horizon if significant changes are not made.

The underlying reasons people have for protesting have not been resolved yet: unemployment, inequality, corruption, urban poverty. As there’s no reform for police how police conduct their jobs, how police deal with protests, and that is likely to be a trigger for future unrest.