Police Killing Rouses Colombia’s Lockdown Furies
Police Killing Rouses Colombia’s Lockdown Furies
People protest outside a police station after a man, who was detained for violating social distancing rules, died from being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by officers, according to authorities, in Bogota, on 10 September 2020. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean 7 minutes

Police Killing Rouses Colombia’s Lockdown Furies

In early September, demonstrations against police brutality erupted in Colombia’s capital and other cities. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Elizabeth Dickinson explains that reactions to the unrest have exposed the country’s political polarisation amid anxieties about the coronavirus and the 2016 FARC peace agreement.

What caused the protests that engulfed Bogotá and other cities?

The spark for the demonstrations came in the early morning of 9 September, when two policemen were filmed pinning down, beating and repeatedly firing a taser gun at Javier Ordóñez, a 44-year-old father of two. Ordóñez, trained as a lawyer but employed as a taxi driver, was drinking with friends, and was arrested after reportedly trading a few harsh words with the police. News reports affirm that seven officers proceeded to assault him in a nearby police precinct in the west of Bogotá. Ordóñez later died in a clinic, apparently from injuries sustained in the beating. In a cell phone video, Ordóñez and those gathered nearby are seen pleading several times with the police to stop.

Within hours of the news, protesters gathered around dozens of police stations across the capital. By early evening, some of these crowds had grown rowdy. In at least four Bogotá neighbourhoods, the police fired indiscriminately into the crowds; over two nights of protests, at least thirteen civilians died, most from gunshot wounds, while another 300 were wounded. Demonstrators burned and vandalised dozens of police stations. Videos taken at other locations show groups of civilians attacking policemen. Nearly 100 officers were reportedly wounded. Protesters also took to the streets in other major cities, such as Cali and Medellín.

Two starkly divergent accounts of these incidents expose the extent of Colombia’s political polarisation.

Horrified relatives of the wounded and killed described how the police fired directly at civilians. Dozens of videos of police beating up citizens on the streets have surfaced on social media networks. Bogotá’s centre-left mayor, Claudia López, while chastising vandals and those who attacked security officers, argued that the police’s use of force was part of a pattern of systemic abuse by the institution. López said she had ordered the police not to use firearms to contain protests – an order which they apparently ignored.

Officials from President Iván Duque’s conservative government, meanwhile, argued that the unrest was the product of organised anti-state violence, propagated by left-leaning opposition figures and intended to “stigmatise” the security forces based on the deeds of a few miscreants. “What happened yesterday wasn’t democratic civil protest, but the most egregious example of organised violence”, Defence Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said on 10 September. The government’s high commissioner for peace has since declared that urban guerrilla operatives were involved in the wave of attacks on police stations.

Ordóñez’s death stirred a deep well of public frustration with security forces.

Ordóñez’s death stirred a deep well of public frustration with security forces. Police abuse was already among a long list of grievances aired during mass protests across Colombia in November 2019. Critics complain that the police apply the law only when it suits them, training their arbitrary enforcement efforts at the poor, informal street workers, and members of the LGBT community. Unlike other forces in Latin America, Colombia’s national police is under the command not of the interior or justice ministry, but of the defence ministry – a legacy of the country’s long internal armed conflict. Although the constitution states that mayors are the “highest authority” when it comes to local policing, in reality their power is limited and the police behaves with the hierarchical structure and esprit de corps of a military body, following an internal chain of command. Allegations of abuse and wrongdoing pass through an opaque military justice system rather than the normal courts. In one widely followed case, the family of Dilan Cruz, a protester killed in November, has fought in the courts for months to move the investigation to a civil jurisdiction.

Ordóñez’s case was egregious enough that the Attorney General’s Office – headed by an official considered close to President Duque – said it would take up the investigation. The Inspector General’s Office, which oversees the probity of the public sector, will also conduct a parallel disciplinary review. Two officers captured on video tasing Ordóñez have been provisionally suspended from the police force for at least three months, while another five have also been put on leave.

Is this unrest related to the pandemic and Colombia’s six-month lockdown, which ended on 1 September?

At first, the national COVID-19 lockdown, which began on 25 March, stalled protesters’ plans to rekindle the demonstrations that flared toward the end of 2019. Very few large gatherings have taken place over the course of the prolonged lockdown, though there have been some small protests by taxi drivers, merchants and others. Colombia’s very strict quarantine rules hand the police extraordinary authority to block economic activity and prevent citizens from leaving home, meeting with others, exercising in public or travelling between municipalities, including by setting up checkpoints. These controls led to a rise in cases of alleged police abuse and spread popular resentment of excessive or arbitrary enforcement.

The police in effect became the face of lockdown even as irritation over the restrictions and their impact grew. As in much of Latin America, the pandemic set off a devastating economic crisis – pushing urban unemployment up to 25 per cent – and the poorest have felt the consequences most acutely. In Bogotá, epicentre of Colombia’s viral outbreak, the lowest-income households are ten times more likely to have an infected member needing hospitalisation than the richest. Hunger and desperation have soared. Nearly half the city’s jobs are informal, and many vendors in this sector felt obliged to work despite stay-at-home injunctions; some told Crisis Group that police harassed them if they did not offer officers a cut of their earnings. Police statistics analysed by scholars at the EAFIT business school show that arrests and other punishments for public health infractions rose considerably more in low-income areas than in wealthier zones.

The last two months have also seen an uptick in violence elsewhere in the country, including seventeen massacres in August and September so far. What is going on?

Just as in the cities, the pandemic has enflamed tensions in Colombia’s conflict-prone rural areas. Even before the disease struck, there had been a resurgence in massacres, defined as killings of more than three people, which fell dramatically after the 2016 peace accord between the government and the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Colombia (FARC). By last year, the numbers were back to 2014 levels, due to fighting among a shifting array of armed groups seeking to capture the illicit rackets and community strongholds the FARC left behind. Among those involved are the leftist guerrilla group National Liberation Army, as well as nearly 30 other outfits – including self-proclaimed FARC dissidents, who disdain the peace process, and paramilitary-style organisations such as the Gaitanista drug cartel.

Although these dynamics largely predate COVID-19, the lockdown handed armed bands a golden opportunity to tighten their stranglehold. Claiming the excuse of controlling infection, groups enforced their own quarantine rules, set up informal checkpoints and cemented their self-asserted local prerogatives as arbiters of movement, justice and food supply. With the state distracted and citizens shut in at home, the armed groups encountered few obstacles. There were eleven massacres in August alone, clustered along strategic drug trafficking corridors and in areas where two or more groups vie for control. In the central zone of Bajo Cauca, which has seen seven massacres this year, the Gaitanista drug cartel and a splinter organisation, the Caparros, have been locked in a contest since at least 2019 to dominate coca production, trafficking, mining and extortion. Communities report that both groups are trying to seize territory from the other and silence residents in the process.

Civilians in areas under the dominion of armed groups, and particularly young people, have borne a terrible cost. Children remain out of school, placing them at risk of recruitment by armed groups – particularly as their families’ economic needs grow and those groups offer the only way to earn money quickly. In several cases, violence has been directly tied to a group-imposed lockdown. On 11 August, for example, two children were killed in a disputed rural area on the border of Cauca and Nariño departments, as they walked to deliver a remote class assignment to their schoolhouse in violation of the curfew an armed group had imposed.

How can Colombia respond to this spike of insecurity?

The chaos of late August and September adds to the sense that violence is returning to Colombian daily life in ways reminiscent of its turbulent past. The killings of social leaders, the uptick in massacres, police brutality and urban unrest have also laid bare profound differences between the government and the opposition. The Duque administration sees violence in all its manifestations as a matter of criminal activity whose perpetrators need to be met with tougher police and military enforcement. By contrast, government opponents demand deep institutional police reform, demilitarisation of security forces maintaining civic order, and full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement to halt a new cycle of conflict.

Recent events have accelerated calls from the opposition, including local authorities in Bogotá, for police reform. After the head of Colombia’s police publicly apologised for the death of Ordóñez on 11 September, Mayor López said the police should extend the apology to all the victims of police abuse. She presented a police reform initiative to the president and the state’s inspector general the same day. Its details are not yet public, but pleas for reform have commonly focused on shifting the police high command out of the defence ministry to ensure strict civilian control and guaranteeing that civil courts handle cases of serious abuse. The inspector general has endorsed López’s idea, along with major political figures such as leftist opposition leader Gustavo Petro and former president César Gaviria.

For his part, Duque maintains that such structural changes are not necessary. While condemning Ordóñez’s killing and expressing regret for the violence, the Duque administration has said 2,000 soldiers – including 700 brought in from other parts of the country – will join the police to keep order in the capital. On 11 September, however, Defence Minister Holmes Trujillo lamented the unrest, signalling that compromise and change may not be impossible.

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