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Colombia’s riot police need ‘profound transformation,’ U.N. rights agency says

Anti-government protesters clash with authorities June 12 in Colombia. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)
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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia’s riot police should undergo a “profound transformation” to prevent the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters, the United Nations urged in a report Wednesday.

The U.N. human rights agency blamed the country’s public force for 28 deaths during months of nationwide protests this year. They included 10 deaths linked to a specialized riot police unit that has been prohibited from carrying lethal weapons.

The excessive and “unnecessary” use of force violated protesters’ rights to peaceful assembly, the agency said, and underscores the need for major reform to a militarized police force that reports directly to the Ministry of Defense.

“A key element of that reform is putting police under civilian authority,” Juliette de Rivero, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, told The Washington Post.

The unusual placement of Colombia’s national police within the Defense Ministry predates the country’s 52-year conflict with leftist guerrillas. Police forces fought alongside the U.S.-backed army on the front lines of that conflict against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But five years after the country signed a peace deal with the FARC, the United Nations is urging Colombia to consider moving its police out of its Defense Ministry.

“Colombia is now a post-conflict country,” Rivero said in a statement to The Post. “In a context of a transition to peace, it is important that the civilian and non-military character of public security functions be reinforced.”

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

In the aftermath of this year’s protests, President Iván Duque announced several reforms, including the creation of a human rights directorate within the police. In September, lawmakers presented a bill that would move the police to the Interior Ministry.

The government has launched at least 231 internal investigations into police disciplinary offenses, including 16 for homicide and 108 for abuse of authority. Most are now closed, but 38 are ongoing.

Colombia’s national police said in a statement that it rejects any type of violence and “is always clear about the duty to protect the life and integrity of people.” It said the police force has been developing a comprehensive transparency policy with a focus on respecting human rights and the right to peacefully demonstrate.

It added that people “taking advantage” of protests “adopt behaviors that constitute crimes and that also materialize with violence, situations that force intervention by the Public Force.”

The protests during spring and summer 2021 followed two days of demonstrations against police brutality in Bogotá in September 2020. Eleven people were killed by law enforcement during the 2020 unrest, U.N.-funded investigators concluded in a report released Monday. The investigators described the killings as a “massacre.”

This year’s protests erupted on April 28 in response to a tax proposal by Duque’s government to address fiscal deficits amid an economic crisis. In a country with rising unemployment and one of the region’s highest rates of inequality, working-class Colombians said they would be hit the hardest.

The protests eventually spread to 860 cities in every department of the country and continued through the end of July. Nearly 90 percent of the protests were peaceful, according to the Colombian government. But over the course of two months, at least 46 people died, including 44 civilians and two police officers. Twenty-eight of those deaths were caused by the public force, the U.N. human rights agency reported. Seven were caused by “less than lethal” weapons used by law enforcement, including riot-control shotguns, water cannons, tear gas and “venom” grenade launchers.

Ten people were killed by armed individuals who were not members of the public force. The rights agency said authorities “did not act with due diligence to protect the protesters against the violent actions of non-state actors.”

Hundreds more were injured, and 27 remain missing. The rights agency also received reports of 60 cases of sexual violence. Sixteen were perpetrated by national police, who “used sexual violence to punish people for their participation in the demonstrations and to humiliate them for their status as women,” as LGBTQ people or other minorities, the agency reported.

In other cases, police officers beat protesters with fists, helmets and batons, even when people were not resisting, the agency reported.

The agency highlighted the case in Medellín of an 18-year-old with Down syndrome who was observing a protest with his mother near their home. He had been defending his mother from a police attack when an officer responded with force. The man suffered spine and collarbone injuries.

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