Bogota, Colombia – More than 100 people sustained eye injuries in a violent crackdown on mass protests this year by the Colombian security forces, notably the country’s anti-riot squad (ESMAD), Amnesty International and other rights groups have found.
Colombia saw a wave of nationwide protests that began at the end of April over a tax reform, but public anger later spiralled over a myriad of other social issues.
Violent clashes between protesters and security forces broke out during the demonstrations, which went on for over a month. More than 80 people – mostly young student protesters – were killed and many others suffered serious injuries, including security forces.
In a report published on Friday, Amnesty International said 103 protesters suffered eye injuries during the protests, including at least 12 demonstrators who lost eyes or some of their vision after being hit by police projectiles during rallies around the country.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty’s Americas director, said the eye injuries are an “indication of the intentionality of the police to damage those who were protesting”.
Several victims have faced challenges to receive specialised health and psycho-social care, as well as increased obstacles in accessing decent work or continuing their education due to their injuries, the rights group found.
“We have documented enough evidence to believe that the repression of protesters in the national strike [was] intentional, as a way to punish those who were taking to the streets and as a way to try to prevent more people taking to the streets,” Guevara-Rosas told Al Jazeera in an interview ahead of the report’s release.
Colombian police were internationally condemned earlier this year for their heavy-handed response to the protests, with Human Rights Watch saying in June that officers had committed “egregious” abuses.
Colombian President Ivan Duque has promised to “modernise” the country’s police force, including providing human rights training and increased oversight for officers. One of the protesters’ main demands was the dissolution of ESMAD, the main perpetrator of the alleged abuses, which comes under the ministry of national defence.
But Guevara-Rosas said government measures taken so far have been feeble.
“We are concerned that the efforts are still very insufficient to address the root causes of the problems,” she said, adding that officer accountability and impunity for human rights violations need to be addressed. “This needs to be done in order to really build a police force that’s going to protect citizens.”
A spokeswoman for President Duque told Al Jazeera she could not comment on Amnesty’s findings before seeing the report, while a spokesperson for Colombia’s National Police Department also did not respond to direct questions from Al Jazeera about the report.
In messages sent via WhatsApp, the police spokesperson said 231 investigations have been opened against officers in relation to the national strike, while 1,758 police officers were injured during the unrest.
The department said civilians have the right to peacefully protest, but protesters dressed up as police to attack security forces and should “face the full weight of justice”. Police officers also were targeted by demonstrators and criminal groups that infiltrated the protests, such as leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels, the spokesperson said.
However, Guevara-Rosas said that even though some protesters engaged in acts of violence, “the authorities have their responsibility to ensure and to protect the right of people to peacefully demonstrate.”
‘A face lift’
Meanwhile, calls for Bogota to do more to address allegations of police violence continue to grow.
Alejandro Rodriguez, co-ordinator of the Observatory on Police Violence at Temblores, a Bogota-based non-profit involved in Friday’s report, said the government has failed to meet citizens’ demands on police reforms.
“The government is doing it internally and there’s not enough participation. They’re not taking the reports of police abuse seriously,” Rodriguez told Al Jazeera.
Sergio Guzman, a political analyst and director of Colombia Risk Analysis, agreed, calling the proposed reforms to policing in the South American nation “just a face lift”.
“There’s a lot of scepticism about the government’s ability to bring those people who have committed crimes to justice. [This is] further compounded by the fact the government has in the past denied any allegations of wrongdoing on behalf of the police force, so not recognising the problem has been a huge part of it,” Guzman told Al Jazeera.
“There’s not really a profound attempt at addressing some of the problems from within.”