An Examination Of Policing In Colombia

Protests continue throughout Colombia against police brutality as the statue of notorious colonist, Christopher Columbus, was toppled by protesters in the coastal city of Barranquilla. Since April 28th, protestors have been active on the streets of Colombia, initially rejecting a proposed tax reform that would have eliminated tax exemptions for employees and increased business taxes. Escalation of the protests was caused by a violent government crackdown on demonstrations, claiming COVID-19 concerns as justification for the police response. Protests amplified further as a result of the violent measures, causing injuries to over 2,300 civilians, security forces and the death of over 60 individuals.

Protesters come primarily from historically discriminated and disadvantaged communities, such as the indigenous groups in Colombia. In their report on June 7th, 2021, Amnesty International depicted the disturbing number of people they fear are missing due to the National Strike; “the Working Group on Forced Disappearances had recorded 775 people feared disappeared, the whereabouts of 327 of whom remain unknown.” Gloria Gómez, coordinator for the Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared, has stated that “some people, when they are arrested, shout out their name and ID,” highlighting the desperation and difficulty in recovering detained individuals.

Protesters are demanding the riot police to be disbanded and that each security force member who committed unjust acts of violence be held accountable by an independent body, rather than by the military courts that currently handle each case. In response, the right-wing administration of President Iván Duque has announced harsher prison sentences for vandalism, roadblocks, and attacks on police. Critics point out that with the increased prison sentences, the government is effectively criminalizing protests. Human Rights Watch has condemned the government response, calling out the Colombian National Police members for committing “egregious abuses.”

Policing methods in Colombia treat each peaceful protest as a violent demonstration, which villainizes the peaceful protestors and groups them together with violent demonstrators.  Frequently, policing is done strictly to dismantle uprisings from Marxist–Leninist ideology or other left-wing political groups that are deemed to threaten the Colombian government, rather than to ensure the safety of Colombian citizens.  Colombian police are effectively reacting to each protest as a threat to national security. By deeming citizens as threats to the nation, the government is turning people away from supporting its ideals and breaking support for the police force in Colombia. In September of 2020, following the death of local attorney Javier Ordóñez at the hands of police, the unfavourability rating for police rose to a historical rate of 64 percent.

Violent policing further engulfs a nation that has struggled immensely with COVID-19. The police create new problems for a population that suffered an extraordinary rise in poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic, as 3.6 million people have been pushed into the poverty zone. With a violent police reaction to protests, rather than one that employs de-escalation tactics, there is little room for peaceful coexistence when individuals are targeted for voicing their ideals. According to a BBC News article, the Colombian Defence Minister claimed that left-wing rebel groups have infiltrated the protests. This approach is likely an attempt to diminish and undermine the reputation of protestors and showcases to Colombians that President Iván Duque is solely looking out for the ideals of his political party and not the citizens he supposedly represents. With this response, his party unintentionally gives fuel to his political opponents, showcasing that the President and his administration will take any protest as a supposed attack against his party and use violence as a response.

President Iván Duque’s administration has failed to de-escalate police violence within Colombia during times of unrest. The administration has consistently used the police force to maintain the status quo rather than to facilitate peaceful transitions within Colombia. Police reform alone will not solve Colombia’s problems; however, it is a necessary step in creating avenues toward further change in the region. President Duque is clearly fearful of an uprising from the National Liberation Army and a takeover of Marxist–Leninist ideology within the Colombian government. His administration’s poor treatment of protesters, who are primarily indigenous individuals, further divides his government from the support of the public. Therefore, progressive change cannot occur with the continued oppression and silencing of voices. The concerns people have over government policies, policing, the COVID-19 response and corruption needs to be openly discussed to ensure the public of Colombia have fair representation. President Duque’s administration is currently employing an adversarial mentality, which increases division and resentment toward his party and further casts individuals into opposing categories.

When international politics is at play, there is no question that the United States has a significant influence on Colombia and its government. Without any international pressure on the Colombian regime, there is little chance of reform. Since the Cold War period, the United States has supported the government of Colombia while countries such as the former Soviet Union, Cuba, Libya and more recently, Venezuela, have funded the National Liberation Army. It is evident that the United States has historically objected Marxist ideology, creating an American incentive for a robust Colombian government. However, allowing police brutality to occur at protests and harming civilians that already face horrendous conditions such as displacement, limited reproductive rights, extreme poverty, and indigenous isolation will cause the public to view their government as an enemy of the people. It would be in both the Colombians and the United States’ interests to condemn the violent policing at protests, so that the country can move toward a government that represents their interests and safety.

Ideally, many things ought to change along with police reforms. However, open dialogue and an honest discussion will renew lost faith in the Colombian government, ensuring that the people’s wishes are being heard and the government actively attempts to improve conditions. Actual change cannot occur unless those suffering have improvements in their lives. Censoring individuals based on their personal beliefs will create further resentment towards the Colombian government and strengthen outside groups like the National Liberation Army. In situations such as illegal roadblocks, every effort must be made diplomatically to improve equality and economic opportunities, rather than engaging in lethal force in an attempt to maintain order. Police must protect the rights of Colombian citizens, not just the protection of the current regime.


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