BOGOTÁ, Colombia — When protests against police brutality swept across cities in Colombia at the beginning of September, there was a nationwide call for police reform. The administration of President Iván Duque has instead responded with a proposal that promises to further limit protests instead.
His government bypassed congress and municipal governments to unilaterally release new draft protocols that severely limit protesters' rights to demonstrate. The new rules require protesters to register before hitting the streets. They also consolidate police control under the national government and the Ministry of Defense, stripping city governments of police oversight.
The potential measures have detonated a power struggle between the national and municipal governments that so far has no clear resolution.
Demands for reform were echoed by mayors, opposition parties, and civil rights groups after reports that police fired indiscriminately into crowds during September’s demonstrations, which exploded after a lawyer was killed in police custody. 14 people were killed and another 58 were wounded by live ammunition during the demonstrations, including passersby unassociated with the protests.
Colombia’s Supreme Court subsequently published a decision calling for the police reform process to start within 60 days. The court also sternly criticized Colombia’s riot police squad, known by its Spanish-language initials ESMAD, and demanded that Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo apologize publicly for violent police actions during the disturbances.
Trujillo ignored the Supreme Court order for almost three weeks, instead making a series of public statements defending the police, before finally issuing an apology on October 7 after he was threatened with censure by the Colombian Senate for failing to comply with the order.
But Duque’s government effectively backs Trujillo with the new proposals, which require demonstrators to buy insurance covering potential property damages and ban Colombians from wearing hoods during public gatherings
Bogotá Mayor Claudia López immediately dismissed the measures as unconstitutional. The federal government’s push for the new rules around protesting has been heavily criticized by opposition politicians and civil rights groups.
“The proposal illustrates that the government has no intention of implementing a real [police] reform,” said Sergio Guzmán, political analyst and director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a consultancy and research group in Bogotá. “They want to portray protests as illegitimate and out of control, a move that rather than disarming the situation, cultivates animosity with protesters.”
Guzmán views real reform as unlikely, citing examples of the administration simply ignoring orders from the Supreme Court in the past.
State forces in Colombia have a long and bloody history. Human rights groups have recorded tens of thousands of killings at the hands of the military and police. ESMAD riot police in particular have developed a fearsome reputation for violence in recent years.
A December report from human rights organization Temblores details 34 extrajudicial killings at the hands of ESMAD since it was created in 1999, and goes on to document over 40,000 instances of physical abuse and over 600 killings by national police forces between 2017 and 2019. The Colombian government faced widespread criticism after violent crackdowns on a national strike last November for repressive tactics led largely by ESMAD.
“The sectors protesting see the ESMAD and disproportionate or improper use of force as repression not just of social protest but also a dictatorial approach to silencing their legitimate concerns.” said Gimena Sánchez, Andes director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank also known by its initials WOLA.. “There is a great frustration [among Colombians] that this government puts economic interests above human needs and fairness.”
Protesters have responded by announcing demonstrations on October 21st and are planning a national strike on November 21st: the anniversary of last year's protests, which were the largest mass demonstrations in Colombia in over 50 years.