Colombia: iron fist
President Ivan Duque has promised to ‘modernize’ Colombia’s police force after security forces killed more than 60 protesters during May’s countrywide demonstrations against tax reforms.
The ‘Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron’ (ESMAD), Colombia’s highly militarized riot police force, reportedly used tactics such as torture, sexual abuse and disappearances to intimidate protesters. Observers found evidence of police firing live bullet rounds into crowds. According to Amnesty International, at least 400 people have been disappeared from the city of Cali, one of the protest movement’s strongholds.
One of Duque’s proposed changes would mean all policing institutions must include a human rights office. But as there is nothing to guarantee their independence, observers remain sceptical. Carlos Cruz Mosquera, a UK-based researcher on the Colombian Peace Process, called it a ‘cosmetic reform’: ‘It’s hard to envisage police holding themselves accountable for human rights violations,’ he said.
‘During the protests they denied wrongdoing and covered up the death toll, claiming 20 deaths although independent observers cite many more.
‘One of the main criticisms is that the minister of defence oversees the police when in fact he should oversee the armed forces. They are treating the wave of protests as a war and the Colombian people as a force that must be combated like military enemies.’
On top of police repression, trenchant inequality continues to provoke anger among the public. Colombia suffers one of the most unequal income distributions in Latin America. The wealthiest 20 per cent of the population hold 56 per cent of national income. To make matters worse, Colombia’s military expenditure in 2020 was $101 billion, the second highest on the continent.
According to Mosquera, international support for Colombia’s police forces is geopolitically motivated. The UK, Canada and the US have played a part in funding and training the Colombian military, but this funding has been used ‘not to combat the narcotics trade, but to quash political counterinsurgency.’ He adds: ‘Colombians here in the UK have been lobbying MPs to speak out. So far, we have had individual, generic responses from a handful.
‘There’s hypocrisy, because when the Hong Kong protests were happening there was endless news coverage. Labour MPs were on the news calling for sanctions against China. However, when it comes to British economic allies and trading partners, even when heinous abuses are taking place, there is no talk of sanctions or taking a tough stance.’
Colombian NGO Temblores is equally unconvinced. In a critical tweet the organization said ESMAD had itself been created by a previous ‘modernization’ drive. Instead, Temblores advocates decreasing police powers and reforming the judiciary. The 2016 Peace Process, which led to the FARC ceasefire, failed to root out human rights violations. The ‘Justicia Especial para la Paz’ (Special Jurisdiction for Peace) agreement has allowed abuses against civilians from all factions, including the police, to continue with impunity.