Colombia’s national strike and protests, which began on April 28, continue to generate violence, destruction, and a panoply of human rights abuses. As of May 31, a network of Colombian civil society groups registered 71 homicides within the context of the protests. All but two of the dead are civilians.
While violence ebbed a bit during mid-May, the pace of homicides has picked up alarmingly in the past 10 days. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counted 14 killed in Cali alone between May 28-30.
Police brutality, disproportionate use of force by security forces, and unsettling videos showing civilians shooting weapons in the presence of the police continue to circulate. Cali—Colombia’s third largest city with a high number of Afro-descendant residents—has suffered up to 46 homicides and a brazen, racist attack on an Indigenous Nasa caravan that entered the city in early May in order to peacefully support the protestors.
On May 28, President Iván Duque ordered the deployment of 7,000 troops to Valle del Cauca and seven other departments, with most intended for Cali, to impose order and undo roadblocks set up by protestors. Colombia’s Army, shaped by and trained for 60 years of guerrilla warfare, is not set up to confront anguished, desperate citizens on the streets of major cities. The danger that newly deployed troops might escalate the situation, committing even more human rights abuses, is very high. This is a very risky deployment.
De-escalation, not greater force, is urgently needed right now. Yet dialogue efforts are foundering: while discussions are taking place between representatives of the government and the civic strike committee made up of various protest leaders, a formal binding negotiation has not yet taken place.
The government refuses to acknowledge the severity of the abuses committed by its public forces, and continues to stigmatize, criminalize, and delegitimize the protests. In one example among many, the Justice Minister said on May 29 that most of those killed in the context of protests actually died in “street fights or attempted robberies.”
The stigmatization of protesters and victims makes clear that the government does not intend to listen, even as a large segment of the pandemic-battered population falls into poverty. Instead, its priority is repressing the protests at all costs, preventing further damage to infrastructure rather than addressing legitimate concerns.
While the majority of the protests are peaceful, vandalism and attacks have risen as police violence towards protestors has increased. WOLA condemns actions like the May 25 burning of the courthouse in Tuluá, Valle del Cauca; the killings of two police agents; and roadblocks that have prevented ambulances and other medical missions from reaching destinations.
The Iván Duque government and representatives of the civic committee must immediately come together to protect the right to peaceful protest and undo the highway blockades, so that constructive dialogue around the 15 petitions presented by the civic strike committee can advance. Notably, Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao—the Catholic Church’s representative in supporting dialogue—has reiterated the need for productive negotiations between the government and the civic strike committee.
While negotiations proceed, independent verification of the human rights situation is of paramount importance. WOLA welcomes the Colombian government’s invitation to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to perform an “in situ” visit to the country. That visit must happen in the very near future, and with no constraints on Commission personnel’s access to witnesses and territories.
U.S. policymakers are also speaking out about the protest violence and ongoing abuses in Colombia. In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 55 Members of Congress called on the Biden administration to denounce the abuses taking place and to suspend direct aid to Colombia’s police following human rights abuses. However, officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest.
This silence of the U.S. government is taking place even as the 2022 foreign aid request, issued May 28, includes approximately USD $140 million in new assistance for Colombia’s police. WOLA reiterates its call for a suspension of all U.S. sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces, and a suspension of grant U.S. assistance to Colombia’s National Police, due to the high probability that such assistance might be misused while tensions continue to escalate.
To stop the ongoing violence, restrain further abuse by Colombia’s security forces, achieve justice for the victims, and prevent further damage, the U.S. government needs to take a bolder stance. Otherwise, the gains in security and other progress seen under Colombia’s 2016 peace accord will erode further.
As in much of Latin America, Colombia’s population is in pain right now. People are demanding that their government listen to them, help them, and stop using excessive, indiscriminate force against them. The close association between the United States and Colombia’s security forces, forged since the 1980s, makes it inevitable that these forces’ behavior reflects on their U.S. partners. While the escalatory violence and stigmatization continue, that association will pose an ever greater threat to U.S. interests and credibility in Colombia and elsewhere in the region. The time for the Biden administration to boldly speak up about the situation in Colombia is long overdue.