A report published Wednesday (9) by the independent organization HRW (Human Rights Watch) considers that the Colombian police acted abusively in repressing the “mostly peaceful” protests, which began on April 28 – since then, several trade union entities, young students and civilians without political affiliation occupy the streets of the country.
At first, the uprising was against a tax reform planned by the center-right government of Iván Duque. The bill placed greater emphasis on tax collection from the middle class, largely to pay for the expenses of fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
The first clashes between demonstrators and police were already violent, with arrests, injuries and deaths – officially, there are 46 civilians and 2 police officers. This figure is however questioned by human rights associations such as Indepaz, which claims more than 50 dead, and HRW itself, which counts 68.
The president has waived the proposed taxation, but protests have not ceased and the brutality of police repression has increased. Protesters then began to also demand more jobs, better health care (Colombia has a health system saturated by the pandemic) and better quality education.
The country’s historic debts have entered the agenda, such as demands for improving the living conditions of the “displaced” (displaced) by the conflict with the guerrillas since the 1960s, who live in precarious situations in the villages. suburbs of large cities, and the demand for the reintegration into society of ex-combatants of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), approved article of the peace agreement.
The Duque government’s rhetoric is that demonstrations are respected and that only abuses, attributed to “vandals”, are punished. The Colombian president suggests foreign intervention in the demonstrations, at the request of the dictatorship of Venezuelan Nicolás Maduro, in an attempt to destabilize his administration.
In its report, HRW presents accounts of executions carried out by national police officers, as well as the use of violence, guns and sexual abuse. Many arrests have been described as arbitrary. “These brutal abuses are not isolated incidents by brutal police officers, but are more linked to a systemic way of training Colombian police officers,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the organization’s director of the Americas.
The document also attests to the presence of police officers disguised as civilians who would have mingled with the demonstrators and would have killed four people. Of those murdered by police, according to the report, 16 were killed with guns.
After more than a month of protests, the government announced on Sunday (6) a set of measures to modernize the Ministry of Defense and promote the “global transformation” of the police force.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the reform prioritize training new officers and training more respectful of those already in place, “to prevent further abuse.”
Vivanco also says it’s advisable to separate the police from the military, something that works together in Colombia. “Thus, it would be possible to maintain a specific pattern of charging and monitoring police action.”
The NGO mentions the acts of vandalism as occasional – there were attacks on police officers and the burning of a police station, and two officers were killed. The report says, however, that “violence against the police is unjustifiable, as are the roadblocks that leave towns without supplies.” HRW is investigating the case of an official who was raped by protesters in Cali.
The entity’s report was based on interviews with more than 150 people, by phone and live. Among them are victims, relatives, lawyers and representatives of the judiciary in 25 cities of Colombia. The NGO also interviewed the current vice-president and chancellor of the country, Marta Lucía Ramírez, and analyzed medical and police reports, as well as videos and photos posted on social networks.