A report released on Wednesday (9) by the independent organization HRW (Human Rights Watch) considers that the Colombian police have acted abusively in the repression of the “mostly peaceful” demonstrations, which began on April 28 — since then, several union entities, young students and civilians without party 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 a greater weight on tax collection on the middle class, largely to pay for the expenses of fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
The first clashes between protesters and police were already violent, with arrests, wounded and dead — officially, there are 46 civilians and 2 police officers. This number, however, is questioned by human rights associations such as Indepaz, which claims there are more than 50 dead, and HRW itself, which counts 68.
The president backed down from the proposed taxation, but the protests did not stop, and brutality in police repression increased. The protesters then started to also demand more jobs, better health care (Colombia has a health system saturated by the pandemic) and better quality of education.
The country’s historic debts entered the agenda, such as requests for improvements in the living conditions of the “displaced” (displaced) by the conflict with the guerrillas since the 1960s, who live in precarious situations in the suburbs of large cities, and the demand for reinsertion in the society of ex-combatants of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), approved item of the peace agreement.
The speech of the Duque government is that the demonstrations are respected and that only the abuses, attributed to “vandals”, are being punished. The Colombian president suggests that there be foreign intervention in the protests, at the behest of the Venezuelan Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship, to try 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, firearms and sexual abuse. Many of the arrests were classified as arbitrary. “These brutal abuses are not isolated incidents by brute officers, but are more related to a systemic way of training Colombian police officers,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at the organization.
The document also attests to the presence of police dressed as civilians and who allegedly mingled with the protesters and killed four people. Of those murdered by police, the report says, 16 were killed with firearms.
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 “comprehensive transformation” of the police forces.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the reform prioritize the training of new agents and more respectful training of those already on the job, “to prevent further abuses.”
Vivanco also says it is advisable to separate the police from the army, something that works together in Colombia. “Thus, it would be possible to maintain a specific pattern of charging and surveillance of police action.”
The NGO mentions the acts of vandalism as one-off — there were attacks on police officers and the burning of a police station, and two agents were killed. The report, however, says that “violence against police is unjustifiable, as are road blocks that leave cities without supplies.” HRW charges the investigation of 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 telephone and live. Among them are victims, relatives, lawyers and representatives of the Judiciary in 25 cities in Colombia. The NGO also interviewed the country’s current vice president and chancellor, Marta Lucía Ramírez, and analyzed medical and police reports, as well as videos and photos posted on social networks.