Riots protesting police brutality have broken out in Bogotá and civilian unrest has spread to surrounding cities of Medellín, Cali and Manizales. The protest was a public response to the killing of unarmed lawyer, Javier Ordóñez on Tuesday, September 8th. According to police, he was charged with drinking in a public space with friends, during which he violated coronavirus restrictions. The police responded by pinning him down to the ground and tasering him repeatedly for over 2 minutes whilst he pleaded for them to stop. The incident of excessive force was captured on video and footage went viral over social media, and news outlets. The victim, father of two was taken into police custody and then to hospital, where he was declared dead on Wednesday, September 9th.
Bogotá newspaper El Espectador reported that authorities released further information that Mr. Ordóñez died from a blow to his head whilst in custody. Thus, indicating there was further police brutality at the precinct.
The reaction of the Colombian civilian population was swift. Bogotá engaged in two nights of demonstrations, in which 17 police stations were torched on Wednesday night. Peaceful protest quickly turned violent as protesters attacked public infrastructure, the riots continued into the early hours of Thursday. According to Colombian authorities, 10 people died, and 209 civilians were reported injured as well as 194 police members. Hence, 2,000 police and military were called in to reinforce security in the capital city of Colombia.
Colombian defence minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo expressed his condolences for Mr. Ordóñez in which he stated that “the national police apologize for any violation of the law or ignorance of the regulations incurred by any of the members of the institution.” However, this has done little to quell the unrest in Bogotá. Similarly, Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López expressed condemnation for police brutality and publicly declared the behavior is “unacceptable,” however also declared that violence, and death is not the solution.
The mayor tweeted on Friday morning that police were not authorized to fire on demonstrators and actively “disobeyed direct instructions.” This raises larger concerns, about the control and agenda of the police in Colombia. Sergio Guzmán, a Bogotá-based political risk analyst, aptly comments that police not following bureaucratic processes, “doesn’t bode well for restoring public safety or trust in the police.”
This incident of police abuse is not isolated in Colombia. Whilst, the Colombian government responded to the riots by suspending the two officers involved and launched an internal investigation. The Human Right Watch (HRW) Americas criticized the police handling of the protests via Twitter. In particular, HRW director, Jose Miguel Vivanco stated that they received “serious reports of excessive force by members of Bogotá’s police.”
This incident in Bogotá is starkly reminiscent of the George Floyd death by police brutality earlier this year. The death was considered the main catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement and for creating support for defunding the police. Furthermore, it sparked protests globally. Therefore, this protest of police abuse is extremely relevant in the current geo–political context.
The president of Colombia, Iván Duque Márquez announced that the death of the protesters will be investigated. Furthermore, the official stance by the government is that abuse of power by security forces is not tolerated. Thus, there is positive scope for change as official bodies acknowledge the concerns of the public. Whilst, the issue of police brutality in Colombia is not new, the current political environment is ensuring that police brutality is being scrutinized on a global stage. Hence, the global political climate may facilitate international pressure on the Colombian government to address the discord between police behavior and safety of citizens.