Uniformed men shoot at night, people fall and then protesters by day roar, videos in hand, “they are killing us.” Colombia goes through a wave of massive protests against the government and police excesses. Popular anger demands an extreme change in the security forces.
Police brutality, also denounced by the international community, fueled the social crisis that had already exacerbated the pandemic. Popular discontent then turned to the police, which was forged in the conflict against communist guerrillas and drug trafficking.
“On Colombia the enemy was inside. And in that sense, the idea of the internal enemy prevails in the imaginary of Colombians, both in the police and in the army”, says Óscar Almario, historian at the National University.
In 15 days of demonstrations, 42 people (41 civilians and one agent) have died, according to the Ombudsman’s Office. The Defense Ministry also counts 1,500 wounded, between civilians and police. And the NGO Temblores, which records abuses by the public force, denounces at least 40 homicides at the hands of the forces of order.
The AFP evaluated some 40 videos showing violent acts by police officers.
As in other parts of the world, the Colombian public force has difficulties adapting to new realities. The protests are often spontaneous, without defined leadership, but with an aggravation: almost six decades of internal confrontation rooted the idea that the protesters are enemies to fight, experts agree.
Hundreds of thousands of Colombians have mobilized energetically. What began as a rejection of a projected tax hike – already shelved – became a popular cry of anger that, among many claims, demands a new police force, no longer dependent on the Ministry of Defense.
Since coming to power, President Iván Duque has faced unprecedented demonstrations in a country where the protest used to be attributed to the armed insurgency.
In 2019, crowds took to the streets to demand a change of course from the Conservative government, and the excesses of the riot squad led the Supreme Court to demand reform.
But “this is not just Colombia, this is worldwide because the demonstrations have a different tenor” and “the police are also affected a bit, by these new forms of protest,” warns Juan Carlos Vásquez, security expert from the Universidad del Rosario.
However, the riot police “are better trained” to handle protesters “than the surveillance police, who are in great majority those who have fired their weapons at the protesters,” he adds.
Some uniformed officers “have very high levels of degradation, because shooting protesters at point-blank range without thinking twice shows that they have no limits,” says Vásquez.
At the moment, five police officers have been suspended for alleged abuse, two of them for the shooting murder of a 19-year-old student in Ibagué (center).
In its defense, the government assures that the agents have also been shot and that the protests are infiltrated by armed groups such as dissidents from the FARC, or the ELN guerrilla. Of the 849 police officers injured, 12 were injured by projectiles.
Those uniformed men who “have been attacked respond to kill and defend themselves, but also as revenge,” Vásquez laments.
For a long time, the police had a good image in the Colombian context.
But its hybrid status, as a civil body attached to the Ministry of Defense, “weakens it at a juncture where the problem of public order makes it the first line of action of the State,” analyzes Almario.
In Colombia, many social groups have used violence as a mechanism for political participation, says Luis Felipe Vega, professor of political science at the Javeriana University.
That frightens the young people who protest. Although many of them did not suffer the hardest years of the war, “they may become victims of a new conflict that will no longer be rural, but will be urban”, because “they lost their fear of the police”, helped for the technology that allows abuses to be recorded and disseminated on social networks, complements.
Meanwhile, the government still faces powerful armed groups financed by drug trafficking and illegal mining. So the uniformed men see “behind any demonstration (…) a potential enemy that challenges the institutions and that wants to attack the country’s social rule of law, and obviously that is the worst scenario,” adds Almario.
For Vega, the government does not accept the request to demilitarize the police because it fears “losing the ability to face enemies, which in terms of security and defense is called the persistent threat.”
In Colombia there are 266,606 soldiers and 157,820 police officers, according to official data.
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.