Colombia Protests: The End Of ESMAD?

A wave of protests has recently been sweeping through Latin America, from demonstrations in Chile over metro-fares, to public outcry over allegations of vote-tampering forcing Bolivia’s President Evo Morales to resign. Over the past week, that wave finally crashed over Colombia, with protests organized by students reaching over 200,000 people last Thursday, 21 November 2019, as per Colombian officials. If the numbers are accurate, it will be the most massive protest in Colombian history in over 40 years. Several interconnected issues regarding the way the country operates motivated the demonstrations. Grievances range from economic reforms that have yet to be implemented, and a systemic failure to deal with rampant corruption and the killings of human rights activists. Because of the mass public pressure, the president, as of Sunday, 24 November 2019, has committed to a national dialogue over six key issues, economic inequality and growth, corruption, education, dealing with the impacts of Chile’s civil conflict, the environment, and strengthening government institutions, according to the Washington Post. One issue that isn’t being dealt with within the dialogue, and may be of critical importance, is what role the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron or Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD), will play in Colombia’s future.

ESMAD was initially established by the National Police as a temporary unit to deal with unrest in the country in 1999, triggered by the failure of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army, or the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC). The unit was never disbanded, and in 2007 was granted permanent status. Ever since its inception, it has faced public opposition due to its ruthless tactics for breaking up and stopping public dissent. Recently, that opposition has intensified, and it may have finally reached a tipping point. With eyes from all around the world now on Colombia due to its mass protests, ESMAD has been put under the microscope. ESMAD’s response to the protests has resulted in the government launching multiple investigations.

The centerpiece of the whole scandal is the shooting of 18-year-old Dilan Cruz. An ESMAD officer shot a tear gas canister, hitting Cruz in the head, knocking him unconscious and leaving him in critical condition. Bystanders recorded the incident, and footage shows it seems like a completely indiscriminate attack. Afterward, the bystanders’ videos showed medics resuscitating Cruz. Immediately, the whole event went viral internationally. Cruz only recently graduated high school, and he was protesting to ensure he could get a loan to go to college, as reported by The Bogotá Post. Now, it may be impossible for Cruz to attend college at all, as the full effects of the shooting on his health are still unknown. It’s hard to find a more compelling story, and the fact the attack happened in Colombia’s capital, not some rural region, amplifies all that. Cruz’s shooting may be what it takes to finally result in the government dismantling ESMAD, mainly because it garnered national attention. The media covered the event so extensively it provoked a direct response from President Ivan Duque, in which he explicitly condemned the shooting and expressed his remorse.

Now is the perfect time for Duque to capitalize public opposition to ESMAD. Not only would ending ESMAD likely boost Duque’s popularity at a much needed time, but it would also massively reduce violence inflicted on civilians in times of domestic crises. Additionally, Duque could package the termination of ESMAD with a public commitment to following through on promises he made in 2018 about increasing investment in higher education and preserving the right to protest. Those three positions alone would meet the demands of students, who were the primary drivers behind the protests. Even if Duque does not go so far as to extend commitments to education or the right to protest, a limited concession to the public that ends ESMAD would dramatically improve relations between protestors and the government, all while stopping government-sponsored brutality.

Christopher Eckert