A wide range of social organizations in Colombia recently called for a general strike after President Iván Duque’s government proposed tax increases on public services, fuel, wages and pensions. The government intended to increase revenue and reduce debt, but the changes disproportionately affected middle- and working-class Colombians.
Colombians heeded the call, and following massive demonstrations across the country, the government eventually withdrew the reforms and the finance minister resigned. However, the use of lethal force by police against mostly peaceful protesters fuelled demands for better social and economic policies.
These demands include the dissolution of the Colombian anti-riot police (known as ESMAD), an improved health-care system, a basic income, more educational and employment opportunities for youth, guaranteed protection of social leaders and activists and the implementation of the 2016 peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC).
Calls to reform Colombia’s security forces
The state’s violent response to the general strike has received global attention. According to Temblores, a non-governmental organization that monitors police violence in Colombia, there have been 3,789 acts of police violence during the nationwide strike. These acts include physical violence, arbitrary arrests, gun misuse, homicides and gender-based and sexual violence.
In Colombia, as in the United States and Canada, the calls for police reform have grown louder over recent years. Last year, Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered the government to guarantee the right to peaceful protest and to end abuses of police power. The court’s ruling stemmed from excessive police violence during a 2019 national strike.
The government has begun talks with the national strike committee, a coalition of labour and student unions and Indigenous organizations, ostensibly to make this happen. However, there’s skepticism that the government will implement the outcomes of the negotiations. The strike committee recently suspended negotiations even though a tentative pre-agreement has been drafted.
Government officials have attempted to minimize the demands of protesters. For example, in an interview with Vice News, Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz accused international crime groups of using the protests to destabilize the state’s authority while also denying the police’s use of lethal force. Similarly, the defense minister accused three well-known human rights defenders of terrorism, and offered a reward for their capture.
Overseen by defence ministry
Unlike other countries in Latin America, Colombian police forces are controlled by the Ministry of National Defence and not the Ministry of Interior. State violence and the stigmatization of protesters, youth in particular, are the legacy of national security policies that were used to rationalize and justify massive human rights violations during the decades-long armed civil conflict in Colombia.
Earlier this year, a special peace tribunal found that between 2002 and 2008, at least 6,402 people were murdered and falsely declared killed in combat during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe Velez, many of them young men from low-income backgrounds.
While the implementation of the peace agreement with FARC provided an opportunity to reconsider the role and structure of state security forces, Duque’s Centro Democrático party has fiercely opposed its implementation.