Colombia: mass movement takes up fight against police violence

Between 9 and 10 September the Colombian National Police murdered 17 young people taking part in demonstrations against police violence. While [President] Iván Duque’s government offers money in exchange for information about the demonstrators, human rights activists warn: ‘we are being murdered; anyone could be the victim of homicidal violence at the hands of the authorities.’

This article was originally published by Agencia de Noticias RedAcción. Translation by Leslie Cunningham.

Colombian police officers. Keywords: Colombia police violence
Members of the ESMAD (mobile riot police). Photo: Policía Nacional de Colombia / Flickr

In Colombia, 9 September is regarded as the Day of Human Rights in honour of St Peter Claver, a priest who championed the cause of slaves in Cartagena in the 17th century. Four centuries later, on 9 September 2020, 17 people aged between 17 and 45 were assassinated by the police during protests against police violence. This brutality is not due to ‘bad apples’ or to social ill-feeling, as Iván Duque’s government claims. According to the records of the NGO Temblores (Tremors), between 2017 and 2019 at least 639 homicides, 40,481 acts of physical violence and 241 cases of sexual violence were perpetrated by the police in Colombia. ‘We are being killed’, they warn.

Despite the Peace Agreement signed by the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in which ‘FARC agrees to surrender all its weapons to the United Nations, not to commit crimes such as kidnapping, extortion or recruitment of minors, to sever its links with drug trafficking, and to cease its attacks on the police and the civilian population’, violence continues. Former FARC leaders and Colombian community organisations are united in their assertions that the terms of the Agreement is not being honoured, and that, on the contrary, the pact has only further emboldened government repression and the growth of paramilitary groups and drug trafficking operations. ‘As we have lived through war, violent forms of struggle have become unpopular. After the Peace Agreement and the demobilisation of the guerrillas, the government can no longer blame the actions of the guerrillas for their own aggressive actions’, they say, off the record; they suggest that a generalised state of fear has been created in towns and cities.

This process of disarmament has, in turn, allowed a return to the streets by the Colombian people, which found one of its most recent expressions in the general strike of 21 November (21N) last year. This spontaneous mass movement appears to indicate that a grassroots movement is beginning to be built, in a country which has endured 50 years of openly right-wing government and the highest rate of unemployment in the OECD.

Police and paramilitary brutality: a spectre which stalks Latin America

In Chile, Argentina, Ecuador or Colombia, figures recording abuse of power by the police are rising in tandem with the economic crisis and the rapid growth of ultra-right groups marked by a virulent racism and anti-feminism. Colombia differs from the countries to its South in having been at war for the last 30 years; the active presence of FARC and ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas meant that the overall level of violence remained high, and the pretext of fighting guerrillas provided the rationale for state military activity in towns and rural communities, backed by the military strength of the United States. The creation of the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) is an example of this. Colombia also has more of a global reputation than any other South American state for training Caribbean and African police forces.

Jaider Fonseca was 17 years old, and was one of the people shot dead on the night of 9 September. His case joins a long list of victims of police violence; there have been eight complaints of police wrongdoing per day in 2020, the highest figure for the last 15 years. ‘After he became a father, he started doing domestic work, and was always scraping a living, looking for jobs he could do as an underage worker’, say Jaider’s friends in a collective article they published online recounting Jaider’s killing. ‘And that’s why he was out protesting that night: because we were tired of the Police robbing us, hitting us, doing anything they liked, and not obeying the rules laid down by law,’ they wrote.

The uprising was sparked by the economic crisis which has plunged the country into an exponential rise in poverty, by police brutality, and by the government’s apologism for the latter. After accusing community groups of mounting an alleged ‘campaign to slander the police’, the Defence Minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, has had to apologise ‘for any violation of the law committed by any of our officers’. For his part, President Iván Duque, a partisan of right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe, visited police injured during the demonstrations, in a clear show of support for the police apparatus in the face of the recent protests. This comes as no surprise. The level of repression carried out under Duque’s leadership has been shocking: in only two years, 229 defenders of human rights have been assassinated. The Institute for Development and Peace – INDEPAZ – confirmed that among the victims are 66 members of Indigenous populations, 5 Afro-Colombians, 106 rural environmental activists, and 33 ex-combatants with FARC. The wave of violence has also included the killings of 230 people in the 57 massacres perpetrated by paramilitary groups in 2020.

Temblores have documented police violence for the last 3 years. In a report titled ‘Batons, God and Country’, they report that between 2017 and 2019 there were at least 639 homicides, 40,481 acts of physical violence, and 241 cases of sexual violence committed by state forces. Alejandro Lanz, in an interview with podcast La Purga (The Purge), has explained that, on the basis of Temblores’ database, at least 170 cases of violent repression and 17 killings by state forces were recorded as having taken place on 9 and 10 September. Lanz warned: ‘What we can see taking place in the streets and public spaces is alarming. The police are using illegal methods: indiscriminate use of firearms, use of non-standard equipment like garrots and sticks, providing firearms to civilian proxies, and the use of unidentified officers and cars with covered number plates in the streets’.

In the light of this, the question arises: what is to be done about the police? Restructure them, defund them or abolish them? Broad layers of Colombian youth – who, in the course of the most recent protests, burnt down some 58 police stations, and ran initiatives like public libraries amid the ashes – have raised the demand of abolition. ‘The police have always abused people’, they say. Feminist activists have joined in with the slogan: ‘The police don’t look after me, my (female) friends do’.

Heading for mass unemployment

The crisis unleashed by Covid-19 brought people out onto the streets protesting about the lack of food. Faced with the backlash of the authorities, this wave of protests became a tsunami on 9 and 10 September, but the National Committee on Unemployment, Colombian student organisations and workers’ and retired people’s associations are calling for mass action on 21 September against police brutality and moves to cut social assistance programmes make harmful changes to employment legislation.

According to reports by activists in urban areas in Colombia, the current mobilisation must be seen in the light of the actions of 21 November last year – 21N – called to reject the package of cuts imposed at that time by Iván Duque’s government, and during which the police murdered a young demonstrator, Dilan Cruz. The Covid-19 pandemic may have led to a temporary lull to these ongoing crises, but no more than that: now, unemployment is being felt in all corners of the country. A week after the events of 9 and 10 September, as in the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA, Indigenous communities tore down the statue of the Spanish colonist Sebastián de Belalcazar, whose image symbolises the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Meanwhile, human rights organisations defending have announced that they are on red alert after the issuing of threats against community leaders by the Black Eagles, a right-wing paramilitary organisation, which warns: ‘The time has come to stop the far left.’


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