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Colombian police responsible for ‘massacre’ of 11 people in 2020 protests, U.N.-backed investigators conclude

A police officer in riot gear stands behind a burning barricade during protests on Sept. 10, 2020, following the death of a man who was detained by police for violating social distancing rules in Bogotá, Colombia. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia’s national police were responsible for the deaths of 11 people during two days of protests of police brutality last year, according to an independent investigation requested by the mayor of Bogotá and supported by the United Nations.

The killings amounted to a “massacre,” former national ombudsman Carlos Negret wrote in a scathing 177-page report released Monday. A copy of the document was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its release.

Negret and a team of researchers blamed the deaths on an institutional failure to instruct officers not to use firearms against the crowds, and on a response that prioritized the protection of police stations over the lives of officers and protesters. They described the violence as “one of the most serious episodes of violations against human rights in the history of the city of Bogotá.”

Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, who requested the investigation into the police response to the protests, said she deserved a share of the blame.

“Who should assume political responsibility? Me, to begin with. But also the Police and the president of the Republic,” López said in a response included in the report. “That’s what I’ve asked for from day one. From that day it was obvious that what happened was police abuse and a state crime.”

The investigation was funded and supported by the U.N. Development Program.

The violence happened on Sept. 9, 2020, as thousands of people poured onto the streets of Bogotá and vandalized police stations to protest the death of Javier Ordóñez. The middle-aged father of two had been detained for breaking Bogotá’s covid-19 lockdown.

A video shared on social media that day showed him pinned to the ground, pleading for relief as two police officers shocked him repeatedly with a stun gun. “Please,” he begged. “No more.” He later died of a blow to the head suffered while in police custody.

An estimated 12,000 people took to the streets on Sept. 9 and 10 to protest. Fourteen died, 11 of them at the hands of the police. Seventy-five more suffered gunshot wounds, and hundreds of civilians and police officers were injured. Seventy-six police stations were damaged or destroyed.

At least two of the victims were killed by armed individuals dressed in civilian clothing, the investigators said. It remains unclear whether the armed people were civilians or police in plainclothes.

In Colombia, a death in police custody follows a history of brutality

A spokesman for the director of Colombia’s national police said the fatal violence following the death of Ordóñez “should have never happened.” He said a judicial process was underway in the attorney general’s office to prosecute any officers who committed crimes.

The spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity according to rules set by the police, said records show that on Sept. 10, officers were given specific instructions to guarantee respect for human rights and the proper use of force. He also pointed to recent reforms, including the designation of a human rights directorate within the national police.

“Clearly, there were violations of human rights and crimes committed by the police, but they do not correspond to a doctrine … rather to individual facts,” the spokesman said. “For that reason, they must be clarified by the competent authorities.”

Officials and human rights groups in the United States and around the world are increasingly demanding accountability from a Colombian police force long accused of using excessive force against civilians.

Colombia’s national police, which reports directly to the Ministry of Defense, is a militarized force that fought alongside the U.S.-funded Colombian army in the country’s half-century civil conflict against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. During several weeks of protests across Colombia this year, at least 20 people appeared to have been killed by the police, according to Human Rights Watch.

Video analysis: Killed by police in Colombia

Colombia’s specialized riot police, known as the ESMAD, are prohibited from carrying firearms. But other police forces that respond to demonstrations — including those following the death of Ordóñez — are armed with such weapons.

In Senate foreign appropriations for 2022, U.S. lawmakers have proposed an outright ban on any assistance to the Colombian riot police. They have also proposed withholding 5 percent of $160 million in anti-narcotics funding to Colombia unless the U.S. secretary of state certifies that riot police are being held accountable for excessive use of force against peaceful protesters.

Negret and the researchers highlight Colombia’s failure to promptly investigate and prosecute allegations of police abuse from the September 2020 protests. More than a year after the violence, they found, fewer than 44 percent of criminal cases connected to the protests and brought before the attorney general’s office are being investigated. Of the 427 active investigations, only 2.5 percent have reached the trial phase.

The illegal use of force by police was widespread, the investigators said. They documented cases of torture and cruel, inhumane treatment prohibited by the inter-American human rights system. Protesters and bystanders were subjected to mass and arbitrary detentions and gender-based violence, they said. Detainees were robbed or denied medical attention while in police custody.

Those killed were mostly poor, young people from working-class neighborhoods, whose families had come to Bogotá from other regions in search of economic opportunity, investigators noted.

“The result of this tragedy shows that there is a criminalization of poverty by the public force,” Negret wrote.

The investigators acknowledged that police officers suffered serious beatings and attacks from protesters throwing sticks and stones. But they said the use of force employed by police against the protesters could not be justified as self-defense. Officers used their weapons as “an offensive measure to indiscriminately deter” those vandalizing police stations and those who demonstrated peacefully, they found.

Political leaders in Colombia have tried to link demonstrators last year and this year to illegal armed forces and organized criminal groups. Last year, President Iván Duque blamed “urban terrorist structures” seeking to “take advantage of the circumstances and generate chaos.”

These messages were not based on facts, the investigators said, and might have contributed to a belief that police officers’ use of firearms was part of a “an offensive action to attack a legitimate target in the fight against terrorism.”

Most of the thousands of police officers deployed on Sept. 9 and 10 were not members of the specialized riot police. Many of those tasked with protecting police stations were inexperienced in crowd disturbance situations, according to the report. One senior police official interviewed by the report’s authors acknowledged a “lack of foresight” once authorities learned of Ordóñez’s killing.

At one point, police officials ordered the deployment of 40 female officers to control protests near the police station where Ordóñez was killed, believing it less likely that protesters “would attack policewomen,” according to people interviewed for the report.

López, the mayor, and the investigators criticized police commanders for not ordering officers to leave the scene as police stations were being destroyed.

“It cannot be that they did all of this to defend some” stations, López wrote. “How could they stay to defend a piece of cement with blood and fire?”

Some who were injured on Sept. 9 and 10 were not even participating in the protests. One 19-year-old man happened to be walking by demonstrations in the Bochica Sur neighborhood of Bogotá after leaving a soccer game on Sept 10. As he ran away from the clashes, he told investigators, two police officers on motorcycles chased him to a parking lot, where one officer shot him in the arm.

The man was later detained, tortured and robbed at a police station, he said in the report. When he asked to be taken to a hospital for treatment, he said, an officer told him, “Don’t be a girl.”

The young man said he has always dreamed of becoming a police officer. That goal hasn’t changed, he said.

But more than a year later, the bullet is still lodged in his arm.

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