Colombia’s anti-police reckoning centers on excessive use of force

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — For years, Jeimmy Tique Medina, a high school security guard, held fast to her belief that the Colombian police existed to protect and serve.

Then they shot her 19-year-old son.

Now she has joined the critics of police brutality in this South American nation. Colombia is having its own version of a George Floyd moment, an eruption of anti-police sentiment in response to the deadly beating last month of a 46-year-old father of two during an altercation with officers in Bogotá.

Video of their initial interaction, shared widely on social media, shows Javier Ordóñez begging “please, no more” as officers repeatedly shocked him with a stun gun. He died later of head injuries allegedly inflicted while in police custody.

Medina’s son, Kevin, was returning home from a soccer game in their working-class neighborhood of the capital when he became caught up in a demonstration against the killing of Ordóñez. Police shot him in the arm, she said, during what activists have denounced as excessive force deployed against demonstrators. The bullet, she said, is still lodged there.

“I thought the police were good, there to protect, to help with problems … but now I see them as just another problem,” Medina, 37, said. “I have no feeling of security or trust in them anymore.”

The Colombian National Police, which reports directly to the Ministry of Defense, have long stood accused of excessive force, particularly during the half-century civil war that ended in 2016 against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC.

But Ordóñez’s death, and the official response to it, is sparking a far larger national debate over police violence.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Bogotá in the aftermath of Ordóñez’s death last month, leading to clashes with security forces that left 13 people dead and more than 400 injured.

But instead of fizzling out, as protests here have tended to do, the incident has fueled a continuing string of demonstrations and social media agitation. Union members, student groups and human rights activists are now putting police brutality at the top of their list of grievances ahead of a national strike called for Oct. 21.

Authorities have blamed the violence of the demonstrations in part on FARC dissidents and urban militants from the Marxist National Liberation Army, or ELN — a claim protesters say is overstated.

The outcry is further polarizing a country that, like the United States, is deeply divided between law-and-order conservatives and socially conscious progressives.

“With my head held high I tell them, they lost,” one young conservative activist tweeted under the trending hashtag #IzquierdaRespeteLaPolicía — “Leftist, respect the police.” “There are more of us good guys and we support our police force!”

The movement here has drawn comparisons to the defund-the-police and Black Lives Matter campaigns in the United States — albeit in a Colombian context. Activists decried the May death of a 24-year-old Afro-Colombian man at the hands of a police officer for allegedly violating a coronavirus curfew. Yet the debate here is pivoting not around race, but on heavy-handed police tactics more generally, especially in interactions with poor and marginalized Colombians and leftists.

The view of the political left is colored by allegations that the conservative administration of President Iván Duque has effectively ignored a surge in killings of human rights activists and community leaders in the countryside while backtracking on fulfilling the requirements of the peace accords struck with the FARC.

“There have always been protests in and outside of Bogotá,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director of the Washington Office on Latin America. “When we started seeing them really upping was after the wave of protests last year in countries like Chile. Now, this focus on the police is being influenced by the rise up in the United States. But for them, it’s Colombian Lives Matter. It’s not a racial thing.”

The Bogotá-based human rights group Temblores has documented 40,481 cases of physical violence, 639 homicides and 241 cases of sexual abuse committed by the police since 2017. But the Ordóñez case struck a national nerve.

A middle-aged taxi driver who was in the final stages of finishing a law degree, Ordóñez was involved in an altercation with the officers for allegedly drinking on the street in the early hours of Sept. 9, in violation of the country’s strict coronavirus lockdown. After being restrained and Tasered repeatedly for several minutes, he was taken to the nearby Villa Luz police precinct, near Bogotá’s airport. He died that afternoon. Preliminary forensic examinations revealed he had received a significant blow to the head, causing nine skull fractures.

His death, and the video of the initial altercation, sparked outrage beyond the typical student groups and the left.

“We have noticed there is more citizen participation and more people becoming fed up over what they’re seeing in respect to the police,” said Franklin Castañeda, director of the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, which sends teams of lawyers to protests to aid and protect demonstrators.

The most enraged citizens hit the streets in emotion-fueled and spontaneous demonstrations that quickly turned violent. The police precinct where Ordóñez was killed was quickly rushed and set ablaze.

“I was happy to see that people were expressing their anger and that they took to the streets,” said 19-year-old law student Laura Paez, who took part in the demonstrations. “But at the same time I was scared, because when you go out on the street to protest in this country, you don’t know if you’re going to return home.”

Authorities fired live rounds. Protesters responded by throwing rocks and vandalizing dozens of police stations. Three female protesters filed complaints saying they had been sexually assaulted in police custody.

Some demonstrators targeted public transportation, to the dismay of many. The initial spasm of violence lasted two days and spread to other cities, including Medellín, Pereira and Ibagué.

Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo issued an apology two days after Ordóñez’s death. In a statement to The Washington Post, the ministry said it has moved to adopt new measures aimed at strengthening police training on human rights, transparency and engagement with the public.

But government officials also maintain that the violence wasn’t a spontaneous response. Days after Ordóñez’s death, Duque said the ELN and FARC dissidents had infiltrated the protests. Then an ELN leader posted a video on social media confirming that its militants had attacked police precincts.

Human rights groups say claims of ELN involvement are being exaggerated.

“What happened in Bogotá wasn’t organized by any type of guerrilla group,” said Jenny Alejandra Romero, Bogotá coordinator of Defender la Libertad, a network of human rights organizations against illegal use of force. “They may have participated, but they didn’t organize it.”

The ELN has continued to carry out attacks on police infrastructure nationwide, mostly in rural areas. The government blamed the group for the killings of two police officers in Colombia’s Bolívar Department in mid-September.

Colombia’s left has condemned Duque for visiting police stations in a bright yellow officer’s uniform while families were burying young victims killed in the protests.

Government officials say his administration also reached out to victims’ families.

“President Duque's pledge is to have a strengthened police force, providing protection and security to those who take part in peaceful marches, but also to protect the rest of the population from vandals and those who want to destroy the city,” Duque spokesman Diego Molano said.

Human rights groups argue the incident has set up a tipping point, one that could ignite a long-lasting movement.

“People are going to start demonstrating in a more organized way, and the issue of police violence is going to be at the forefront of the demonstrations,” says Alejandro Lanz, of Temblores.

Faiola reported from Miami.