Clutching a handgun by its barrel, Fredy Bermúdez paced as he peered back at a man bleeding out on the pavement. He had fired on a group of protesters and within seconds they reacted to the killing of one of their own.
From across the boulevard in the La Luna sector of Cali, Colombia – the epicenter of recent protests against the government – cellphone video shows stones raining down on the off-duty investigator, who worked for the local prosecutor’s office.
When the crowd of protesters closed in, he attempted to flee, spraying shots in his path.
Moments later, Bermúdez was clinging to life, his body strewn across a cobblestone walkway, as hooded protesters delivered what looked to be the final blows with his own motorcycle helmet.
The lynching followed a month of protests that were at times brutally repressed by the state, leading to violent clashes that have left 73 people dead – the majority in Cali. Evidence in at least 41 of those deaths suggests they were killed by security forces, according to human rights observers.
“What people are really feeling is absolute mistrust up to the point where we are seeing some very violent responses from the population,” said Emilia Márquez of the nonprofit organization Temblores, which has studied police violence. “Nothing justifies this violence, but it shows us a very sad portrait of what is happening in Colombia at this time.”
What began as a protest against a proposed tax reform expanded into a broad movement that is driven by deep-seated grievances from corruption to inequality. The violent response by police has also prompted a national awakening on police brutality and the disproportionate use of force.
“The widespread repression of this government against these protests has been one of the things that has made people want to protest more,” said Márquez. “We have begun to see a large number of slogans and calls for police reform that at the beginning of the protests were not included in what the people demanded.”
President Iván Duque first proposed the tax hike on the poor and middle class to shore up Colombia’s finances after the pandemic caused the deepest recession in decades. He withdrew the tax increase proposal after four days of a national strike.
But by then roughly two dozen people had been killed, the majority of them suspected of having been murdered by security forces. Forced disappearances, sexual abuse allegations and arbitrary detentions heightened the rage against the police.
“That was what defined the prolongation because the government -- instead of solving the underlying social problems and other problems -- what it did was develop a regime of terror,” said Camilo González, president of the think tank INDEPAZ.
Anger over police brutality in Colombia has been roiling for some time. In September 2020, video of 46-year-old Javier Ordóñez being tasered by cops while he was pinned to the ground and pleading for them to stop sparked widespread outrage. Ordóñez later died in a hospital. But, like the killing of George Floyd in the United States, this time seems different.
On June 6, Duque announced a series of police reforms. But human rights advocates said they did not go far enough.
“They aren’t reforms that will produce structural change,” said Márquez.
At the center of activists’ demands is the requirement that the police, now under the command of the Ministry of Defense, be completely separated from the military and moved under the authority of the ministry of the interior.
This separation would also include changes to the way police are prosecuted for crimes. As part of the armed forces, police officers accused of human rights violations are brought before a military tribunal instead of civilian courts. “Many of these cases, if not the majority, end up with the police being released and exonerated of all guilt within a few days,” said Márquez.
Duque’s proposed reforms would require the police to undergo human rights training, change the color of their uniforms from military green to civilian blue and restructure the ministry of defense, including the creation of a new citizen security division within the department.
But the police have long received similar training – often funded by the United States, which is currently considering $140 million in new assistance for the Colombian police. U.S. and human rights advocates are demanding that those funds be suspended in response to the recent police brutality.
The events on May 28 that led Bermúdez to allegedly shoot and kill two people before being killed himself are unclear. He was apparently blocked by a barricade erected by protesters in a sector of Cali that has been a center of the political unrest, and the video shows that at least one person was killed there.That led to the pursuit by protesters and his death - all caught on jerky cellphone videos.
Cali’s Mayor Jorge Ivan Ospino said that three people had died in the violence.