Since April 28, thousands of people throughout Colombia have exercised their right to protest—triggered by a controversial, government-proposed tax reform plan—and have been met with unacceptable violence by members of the Colombian National Police (Policía Nacional de Colombia). The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is pleased to learn that President Iván Duque has withdrawn the plan, which would have placed a severe burden on the middle class through regressive sales taxes. The legislation’s withdrawal provides the country with an opportunity to build a consensus on ways to address the country’s fiscal gap, without deepening inequalities that were further exacerbated by the pandemic. It is also a victory for the many Colombians who exerted their right to protest in order to guarantee democratic governance in Colombia. Such widespread, multisectoral, and regional protests were extremely rare before Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord.
Despite this victory, WOLA condemns the disproportionate use of force employed by the anti-riot police (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) and other police units against protestors, as well as the hostile words of high-level officials and influential politicians. Many of these public figures reacted to the protests in ways that escalated violence, stigmatized protesters, and served a larger anti-peace accord agenda, for instance by attacking the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP).
In light of these events, which have left dozens of people killed or injured, WOLA calls on the Biden administration and U.S. Congress to condemn police excesses, distance the United States from officials’ inflammatory rhetoric, and insist that the Colombian government reform the ESMAD and hold accountable those who violated human rights since the protests began on April 28.
On that day, Colombian civil society initiated national protests against a presidential tax reform proposal erroneously titled the “sustainable solidarity law,” (ley de solidaridad sostenible). Divisions existed among multiple social movements whether to proceed with protests in the midst of a grim wave of the pandemic. Ultimately, the government’s brazen efforts to squash the right to protest emboldened thousands of people to take to the streets throughout the country. The police responded repressively using a disproportionate, and in several instances lethal, use of force, with the justification that it acted to restore order and stop looting. According to data compiled by the Defend the Life Campaign (Campana para defender la vida), so far, public security forces are responsible for 21 homicides, several whom were youth; 208 wounded individuals, including 18 cases of serious ocular injuries; 42 aggressions and abuses committed against human rights defenders and journalists; 10 cases of sexual assaults against women; and 503 mostly arbitrary detentions.
The police’s response was particularly brutal in Cali, Valle del Cauca department, where at least 10 individuals were killed by police on Friday, April 30. The Minister of Defense Diego Molano’s problematic tweets equating the Minga, an Indigenous collective peaceful protest action, with terrorists, and former President Álvaro Uribe’s tweets defending police use of firearms against protestors—later removed by Twitter for violating community guidelines that prohibit glorifying violence—fueled the repression against protestors. On Saturday May 1, President Duque announced he would deploy troops into several cities, a move rejected by the Mayors of Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. Given the tax reform’s retraction, we expect militarization will not take place but the announcement itself was concerning as soldiers are trained for combat, not for distinguishing between peaceful protesters and rioters.
The police response to country-wide protests in November 2019, September 2020, and April-May 2021 force us to reexamine the need to apply stronger human rights protections to U.S. assistance that benefit the Colombian National Police. The ESMAD must not receive U.S. assistance, as it has an egregious record of committing gross violations of human rights with impunity. Any assistance to the ESMAD probably is a violation of the Leahy Law—which prohibits U.S. funding to security forces implicated in human rights violations—and should remain so. WOLA strongly recommends that sales of crowd control materials to Colombia be suspended pending evidence of stricter adherence to proper procedures for de-escalation and use of lethal and non-lethal force.