Bogotá, Colombia — Colombian police have committed “egregious” abuses against “mostly peaceful demonstrators” during protests that began in late April against the tax reform but have expanded to include a host of social inequities, a new report has said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Colombia’s government to “take urgent measures to protect human rights, initiate a comprehensive police reform effort” to teach officers to respect protesters and bring to justice those responsible for abuses.
The HRW report on Wednesday came as Colombia is in its sixth week of demonstrations which have spread across the country, sometimes turning violent. Dozens of protesters have been killed or injured, supposedly at the hands of police.
Colombia’s right-wing President Ivan Duque announced on Sunday he would ask Congress to approve changes to policing – one of the main demands of protesters. The announcement came after talks between the government and an umbrella protester group, the National Strike Committee, stalled.
The HRW report alleges members of the Colombian National Police have responded to protests by “repeatedly and arbitrarily dispersing peaceful demonstrations and using excessive, often brutal, force, including live ammunition”.
The groups said it conducted more than 150 interviews with victims, their relatives and lawyers, witnesses, officials of the human rights Ombudsperson’s Office, and human rights defenders, in 25 cities across Colombia.
The government did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for a response to the report.
Human rights groups and protest organisers dispute the number of deaths claimed by the government.
The attorney general’s office puts the number of deaths in direct relation to protests at 21. HRW figures say they have been able to confirm 34, but some local human rights groups have even higher figures. Two police officers are included among those killed.
Colombia’s police force reports directly to the Ministry of Defense which experts say has caused policing to become tangled with the army and is the only country in Latin America to do so. A special squadron of riot police, known as ESMAD, are most under scrutiny.
“These brutal abuses are not isolated incidents by rogue officers, but rather the result of systemic shortcomings of the Colombian police,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at HRW in a press release on Wednesday.
“Comprehensive reform that clearly separates the police from the military and ensures adequate oversight and accountability is needed to ensure that these violations don’t occur again,” Vivanco said.
HRW also acknowledged that some protesters “committed grave acts of violence … including burning police stations and attacking police officers, two of whom died”.
Protests began on April 28 and were sparked by a tax reform proposal, which many working and middle-class people did not agree with. The demonstrations, supported by various sectors of Colombian society continued even after the reform was withdrawn and a series of other demands have emerged, including calls for the anti-riot police, known as ESMAD, to be disbanded and more equity in education and healthcare.
A history of reform promises
The Colombian government has come under fire internationally for its heavy-handed policing of protests.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), an autonomous arm of the Organization of American States, has been in Colombia to research possible rights abuses during protests. Its members have spoken to government officials, protest leaders, lawmakers and judges during a three-day visit that concludes on Wednesday. They are expected to release a report next week.
Some of the proposed policy changes the government has suggested include renaming the defence ministry to Ministry of National Defense and Citizen Security as well as new police uniforms which will include body cameras to record police interactions with civilians.
Colombia has a history of announcing big reforms when under scrutiny by the international community and then not following through, Gimena Sanchez, Andes director for the Washington Office on Latin America, told Al Jazeera.
“The reforms should be made with civil society and it’s not clear that they will lead to the dismantlement of ESMAD, which is what’s needed,” she said.
Aside from the issues related to police violence, demonstrations continue over other issues like economic inequality, unemployment, and poor public services.
Protests have gotten smaller over the past two weeks, but have been continuous.
Some of the more extreme demonstrators have allegedly attacked public infrastructure, businesses and transport links, moves condemned by the government and those who support the protests.
On Wednesday morning in Bogota, a group of Indigenous Misak people tried to tear down a statue of Christopher Colombus. ESMAD were sent to stop the incident. Nationwide protests were set to continue on Wednesday.
A missed opportunity
Duque’s proposed police reforms are a missed opportunity to make meaningful change, said Angelika Rettberg, a political science professor at Bogota’s Los Andes university.
“Here the government unilaterally offers a reform, and since we are in the midst of a confrontation it’s really likely that people on the side of the strike will not support this reform, or will think it’s insufficient,” she told Al Jazeera.
“In a way, it’s a missed opportunity for building political consensus on a topic that really requires including numerous voices which is related to how the police shall provide security and how it can protect human rights, while at the same time protecting people from terrorism and brutal actions.”
Rettberg believes protests will continue and that both sides – the right-wing government and the majority left-wing demonstrators – will try to use the ongoing protests for their political gain, as each side will blame the other for any failure.
“Unfortunately, I see this strike going on longer and longer and it has a lot to do with feet dragging on both sides seeking to both weaken the other side and also extract the most possible electoral advantage in light of presidential elections next year,” she said, adding that the CIDH needs to be neutral and take into consideration the views on both sides to help end violence and disarm the strike.
The fact that the police reform request must go through Congress is something political analyst, Sergio Guzman, said is a stalling point. The next legislative session is in July.
“The government’s announcement to make substantial reforms to the police is a welcome one,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Substantial changes to the norms of the police or to the independence of the control entities that look after the police are going to depend very much on Congress … and Congress has demonstrated to be a place where good intentions go to die.”
Guzman mentioned that other government requests have been rejected by Congress, which, he says, tends to bury any attempt at reform.
“Despite concessions being made by the government on account of the protests, we still don’t know if these movements will become effective until after Congress has managed to address them,” he said. “This is why I don’t think the protests are going to calm down because the government has very little credibility with protesters by way of keeping its word.”
“I think it is going to be problematic for the government because they want the protests to basically dissolve without a negotiation taking place.”