WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Andres Gonzalez)

4 May 2021 | WOLA Statement

Colombian Lives are at Stake, U.S. Can Remain Silent No Longer

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is receiving reports of grossly excessive use of police force from several Colombian cities. Cali is the most severe, but incidents are reported in Barranquilla, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Manizales, and elsewhere. The vicious and indiscriminate use of force against participants in national protests is not new: similar abuses took place in November 2019 and September 2020. The events of the past few days, though, appear even more severe than these earlier examples of police brutality. 

As the crackdown on social protest escalates, it is chilling to watch the commander of Colombia’s army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, record a video alongside the Defense Minister defiantly calling the riot police (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios,  ESMAD) “heroes dressed in black” and urging them to stay their current course against their fellow Colombians. (Gen. Zapateiro does not command the ESMAD.)

The Colombian government should seek to de-escalate tensions, stop the violence, and encourage dialogue with a representative group of protesters. U.S. officials from both sides of the aisles have praised the very close relationship forged with Colombia and its security forces. This relationship gives the United States far more leverage than any other international actor. Timely messages from Washington can tip the balance in favor of officials and officers within the Duque government—and there are some—who urge moderation. Prompt messages from Washington can help avoid further escalation and, by doing so, save lives.

 We urge the U.S. government to:

  • Join the growing chorus of international voices expressing deep concern. Urge Colombia’s government to order its security forces to return to internationally recognized standards of use of force. Urge Colombia’s government to cease using tactics that needlessly escalate political tensions and related violence.
  • Provide public reassurances that, as WOLA believes to be the case, no grants of U.S. equipment and training are currently benefiting the Colombian National Police’s Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD).
  • Suspend all sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces, and all sales of equipment, training, and services to the ESMAD, until there are clearer assurances that it will not be used improperly or against non-violent individuals.
  • Encourage the Colombian government to dialogue with a representative group of protesters, chosen by the main organizers of the civic strike, and reach consensus on actions moving forward to address their concerns. 
  • Direct the U.S. State Department to investigate abuses that took place during the 2019, 2020, and 2021 protests and issue recommendations, which guarantee that justice and reforms take place that stop this cycle of police violence.