Colombia’s current political crisis has led to severe clashes between police and protesters in many of the country’s largest cities. But recent actions carried out by security forces could have a severe impact on their ability to fight criminal groups in the future.
On April 5, the government announced a controversial tax reform plan. After weeks of contestation, thousands of people poured onto the streets from April 28 to declare a national strike. A violent response from police, as well as armed civilians who reportedly also attacked protesters, has left at least 47 dead between April 28 and May 9, according to Temblores, a Colombian non-profit focused on social activism.
While President Iván Duque has withdrawn the proposed legislation, the violence shown by police has not stopped. And the president has ordered that army troops be deployed onto the streets of several cities to contain protesters. Reports of police brutality appear daily on Twitter and Instagram, with videos appearing to show police assaulting civilians in a disproportionate manner.
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Colombia’s police force has faced a litany of abuse allegations in recent years. In November 2019, during another phase of social and political upheaval in the country, the violent repression of protests also led to several deaths, most notably that of 17-year-old Dilan Cruz, who was shot in the back of the head.
Police forces have also been linked to violence against Venezuelan migrants, excessive force and arbitrary arrests, according to Human Rights Watch.
InSight Crime Analysis
The pattern of excessive force used by Colombian police, often killing or injuring members of the country’s most vulnerable communities, has already undermined their legitimacy in carrying out operations against more severe threats to national security.
In recent years, the Colombian police has been actively involved in the fight against drug trafficking and investigating the killings of former combatants and social leaders. It has even been held up as an international model for other police forces and has provided policy advice to counterparts from around the world.
However, the public perception of the Colombian police, as well as the military, has plummeted. In June 2020, a Gallup poll, cited by El Espectador, found that approval of the police had fallen from 75 to 40 percent in a year following the 2019 protests. Repeated scandals saw the military’s positive reputation go from 85 to 48 percent. This is unlikely to improve given the current scenario.
This will make it far harder for the police and the military, as well as their commanders, to be trusted with the delicate and complex security work Colombia needs. The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) has grown into one of the more dominant criminal groups in Latin America. Dissident groups, once belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), are fragmenting. Social leaders and demobilized FARC combatants are being killed in ever-higher numbers. Violence is flaring along the borders with Venezuela and Ecuador, as well as across the interior of the country.
Colombia can ill-afford to lose any of the trust that remains in its security forces.
International organizations have called for change. The likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have denounced the “excessive and unnecessary use of force,” while José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the latter organization has demanded explanations from the Defense Ministry on why armored vehicles were seen firing rocket-propelled weapons at protesters.
“We had hoped to see sanctions against [police officers] linked to the violation of human rights,” Luis Fernando Trejos, a political analyst from Colombia’s Universidad del Norte, told InSight Crime. He added that calls to reform the police and make it less militarized had been ongoing since 2019.
But the government does not appear inclined to reform the police.
In response, Duque has continued to deploy more forces and the Foreign Ministry has dismissed some of the concerns as “external statements which are not objective.”
Furthermore, reports of armed vigilante groups that also seem to be targeting protesters, present another major hiccup. Colombia’s security forces have a long relationship with paramilitary groups, made up of civilian sympathizers that have been linked to thousands of extrajudicial killings.