Repression of Colombian Protests Remind Us: Police Violence is International

Protestors with Colombianos on May 22, 2021, making a stop in front of the Israeli Embassy to protest against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Photo by Drew Baldwin

by Drew Baldwin

45 dead. 187 missing. 25 sexually assaulted. 3,789 cases of police brutality in the span of a month. Millions protesting. The deaths of Marcelo Agredo Inchima, García Guerrero, Santiago Andrés Murillo Meneses, Brayan Fernando Niño Araque, and more were lost amongst limited media coverage. For the past five weeks, this has been reality for many Colombians. 

On April 28, 2021, demonstrations erupted in cities across Colombia in response to two major reform bills put forth by President Iván Duque’s right-wing government. These proposals, a tax reform bill and a health care privatization bill, came at a time where Colombia’s roots in institutional corruption and uneven wealth distribution were at an all-time high. Exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, Colombia’s economic activity decreased by 17% in the second quarter of 2020, leading the number of individuals living in poverty to swell from 17.5 to 21 million. As of May 2021, 21% of Colombians were unemployed. 

The tax reform bill, or Sustainable Solidarity Act, was proposed to Congress in early April. The bill sought to modify corporate income tax, value-added tax (VAT), and personal income provisions in order to lessen the country’s financial pressures, but the proposed increases angered a large portion of Colombia’s poor and working-class. In particular, the tax increases came from an eliminated VAT exclusion and an imposed a 19% VAT rate on certain essential goods and utilities such as computers, laptops, food, vitamins, medicines and more. Not only did the bill seek to dramatically increase the VAT rate, but it lowered the threshold at which people were taxed, consequently affecting anyone with a monthly income of $656 or more. This lower threshold, in combination with the VAT increase on essential goods like meat, fish, milk, and eggs, would have alleviated a portion of the country’s fiscal concerns by taxing those least able to pay. 

The healthcare reform bill, Bill 010, on the other hand, was claimed to provide the healthcare system with the necessary tools to address healthcare emergencies, such as a pandemic. However, the bill  enraged citizens because it sought to privatize Colombia’s healthcare system during a time in which it’s experiencing the third-highest number of coronavirus deaths across Latin America, and also because it was filed through a special committee in the House of Representatives, thus bypassing congressional debate.

Modeled after the U.S. healthcare system, the bill would have strengthened the role of private “health promotion companies”, led to healthcare monopolies, and merged private healthcare providers with public hospitals (AP News, 2020). The result of systematic overhauls such as this is that multinational companies have the ability to control public health, pursuing policies that will likely change prices and rules. Adding insult to injury, Bill 010 would impose an additional policy per pathology, threatening that if you don’t have the policy, hospitals have the authorization to halt admission. 

After weeks of popular unrest, President Duque called for both bills to be abandoned in Congress — at least for the time being. Although the announcement was considered a victory for organizers and unions, it did not end the protests. While Colombians were protesting against the two reform bills, they were met with an unprecedented and unchecked level of police and military repression. From arbitrary detentions, to brutal beatings, and in some extreme cases, homicide, Colombia’s anti-riot police force, ESMAD, was authorized by President Duque to quell protests. Although police brutality in Colombia is far from new — political demonstrations in 2019 and 2020 resulted in hundreds of unlawful detentions, sexual assaults, excessive force, and left at least 13 people dead — the current national strike has led to a distressing amount of state-sanctioned violence. According to Temblores, a Colombian organization that tracks police brutality, since the initial protests began on April 28, 2021, there have been 3,789 cases of police brutality, 1,248 victims of violence, 45 homicide victims, 1,649 cases of arbitrary detention, and 25 victims of sexual assault. Human Rights Watch cites at least 63 dead due to the protests. 

Despite the extremity of the situation, U.S. media coverage of the conflict has been limited. In the past month my news feed included just one single news notification about the clash, yet I was bombarded by alerts about Harry and Meghan’s second child, additional vaccination efforts, and domestic politics. So why should people care about what’s happening in Colombia right now? 

Police Repression is an International Issue

Well, there are several reasons. Not only should it matter for the simple reason that every human life matters, but also because what is happening in Colombia is not a Colombian issue alone.

When demonstrations break out, national governments silence protestors. Police brutality and state-sanctioned violence is increasingly an international practice. The first response is often to send in more law enforcement officials, clad in gear fit for war, not protests. Just like former President Trump in 2020 after the murder of George Perry Floyd and subsequent wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM ) protests, President Duque’s initial response to the protests was to deploy troops to major cities such as Cali and Bogotáin order to crack down on protests, when in fact, violence is often only aggravated by police interventions.

Not only did President Duque deploy troops, but he also adopted rhetoric reminiscent of former President Trump. President Duque sought to drive national narrative and portray the national strike as violent and extremist, calling Colombia’s protestors “vandals” and “terrorists” and falsely suggesting that guerilla groups permeated the demonstrations. Similarly, in a tweet on May 29, 2020, Trump called protesters “thugs” and said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. As supposedly democratic governments continuously seek to eradicate the “opposition’s” messaging, what ensues is only an escalation, acceleration, and encouragement of political violence. 

Time and time again police are directly implicated in homicides, yet time and time again nothing changes. The result is a casual, authorized killing of countries’ future generations. In America, Black youth are six times more likely to be killed than white children. In Palestine, almost 60 children were killed in Gaza over the span of a week alone. In Colombia, the murders of teenagers and young adults like Marcelo Agredo Inchima, García Guerrero, Santiago Andrés Murillo Meneses, and Brayan Fernando Niño Araque are only four names amongst the dozens murdered. 

The hard impact of rubber bullets and the sting of tear gas feel the same whether you are on the streets of Cali or Minneapolis. The protestors with their written signs and shields made from debris may be marching in different countries, but their goal is universal: stop state-sanctioned killing. If we’re going to continue our own fight against state-sanctioned violence in the United States, then we must also recognize the same fights elsewhere. 

This was also the message conveyed in Boston on May 22. Colombianos – New England, Boston May Day Coalition, Colombianos por la Paz, Mass. Peace Action and Mass Standing Up for Racial Justice protested in solidarity with the strike and against inequality, poverty, and poor economic policies implemented by the Colombian government. From the street, passers-by saw a flurry of bodies, some sporting drawn on Colombian flags, others waving Palestinian colors. The protest included a stop at the Israeli embassy, demonstrating the linkage between these issues. Although the triggers of each movement may differ — from the Palestinian occupation, to the Colombian national strike, BLM — the fight for justice is international.

How to help Colombians right now — #SOSColombia:

1. Share Accurate Information

  • Due to misinformation and censorship across social media platforms, national media outlets and more the real, on-the-ground experiences of Colombians is unclear. Some reliable, on-the-ground organizations to share information from are Temblores and Laorejaroja

2. Call Your Representatives

  • The U.S. finances Colombian armed forces through military aid packages such as Plan Colombia and the sale of anti-riot equipment to the Colombian National Police and ESMAD. Some U.S. representatives have already called for the application of the Leahy Law. The Leahy Law requires that Department of Defense (DoD) funds may not be used for any “training, equipment, or other assistance for a foreign security force unit if the Secretary of Defense has credible information that such unit has committed a GVHR (gross violation of human rights)”. Implementing the Leahy Law would freeze U.S. assistance to Colombian security forces.

The violence in Colombia is part of a worldwide pattern. It is a product of law and order rhetoric, systemic racism, and excessive power — elements that do not know borders —  and must be dismantled as such. 

— Drew Baldwin is an international affairs major at Northeastern University and an intern at Massachusetts Peace Action