Death Toll From Colombian Protests Warns About Police Violence

After more than two weeks of anti-government protests in Colombia, 41 civilian deaths have been reported in connection to the demonstrations. The protests in Colombia first started on 28th April after President Iván Duque issued a controversial fiscal reform that aimed at closing the fiscal hole created by the pandemic. Out of 46 reports of deaths related to the protests, Human Rights Watch has verified 13 so far. Despite the ongoing discussion over the exact numbers of victims, the police brutality witnessed through widespread videos showing policemen using tear gas and batons against protesters has urged foreign governments and political bodies, such as the European Union, to issue statements of concern.

Soon after the demonstrations began, the tax proposal that sparked the protests was pulled by President Iván Duque. However, the protests spread across the nation in 247 cities and towns denouncing economic inequalities and police brutality after the police authorities responded with severe force. José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch director of the Americas division warned about the violence witnessed during the protests “I have never seen the police engage in this level of sustained brutality across Colombia.

Unless President Duque changes course, these recent developments will further damage Colombia’s standing in Washington and Europe.” Given this violent crackdown, independent human rights experts appointed by the UN have called for the Colombian Government to undertake a “thorough and impartial investigation.” 65 investigations of alleged misconduct have been opened by the police inspector general and 5 police officers have already been suspended from the police department. However, President Iván Duque assured that the police forces, acting as “military assistance,”  were only remaining in cities as a way to “guarantee the security of citizens.” Indeed, the actions undertaken by the police during the protests have been seen by authorities as merely following orders: “We train every day to employ proportionate use of force, reasonable use of force,” declared Lieutenant Sánchez.

Whilst the prosecutions of members of Colombia’s national forces that abused or acted with violence during the protests hold them responsible for their actions and begin a more peaceful approach to decrease current police violence, the Colombian police system should also undergo reforms that would make them more equipped to manage civilian protests. Indeed, since the 1950s, Colombian police officers sit, together with the military, under the Ministry of Defense.

Advocates for police reforms push to move a part of officers from the Defense Department into the Ministry of Interior, thus favouring limited use of weapons and human rights training instead of military-focused training. Nevertheless, even in the thick of the pandemic crisis in 2020, USD 9.2 billion has corresponded to that years’ military expenditure in Colombia. An investigation into the Ministry’s of Defense funds usage would help manage a possible over budget that allows the police to maintain their current position.

The anti-government protests in Colombia only seem to increase in number and intensity the more police forces are encouraged to intervene and hold control of the crowds. Slowly decreasing police presence amongst the protests as well as their usage of non-lethal weapons would thus decrease civilian’s animosity towards the Colombian government. However, reforms that move police offers from the Ministry of Defense and give training focused on human rights offer a long-term solution to police violence.