Police Brutality in Colombia

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Author: Lisa Haugaard

This article was first published in the Fall 2021 issue of The Advocate.

In July 2021, I traveled to Colombia to be part of an international verification team, SOS Colombia, to investigate and expose police brutality during the nationwide protests that erupted against the government’s regressive tax proposal and lack of jobs and access to education. We interviewed dozens of young people who had participated in the protests. Some had been wounded by live bullets, rubber bullets and tear gas canisters shot at them by police, the ESMAD riot squad, and armed civilians working with police. Eighty-seven people, mostly teenagers and young adults, were killed in the course of the protests.

I was strongly affected by their stories and came back determined to tell our government to condemn the police brutality and suspend U.S. assistance to the police until there were steps towards justice for these crimes and serious police reform (see my report here). Since then we have organized meetings for Colombian human rights and indigenous activists with the U.S. ambassador and State Department officials, and we participated in a press conference releasing the final mission report. We asked the Congress to place human rights conditions for the first time on aid to the police, and we are still pushing for tough enough conditions in the final foreign aid bill. With you, we supported an amendment to ban any future U.S. aid and commercial arms sales to the ESMAD riot squad (the U.S. does not currently provide ESMAD with direct aid, but the United States does allow commercial sales of tear gas launchers and other equipment to ESMAD). This amendment to the Defense Authorization bill won in the House but faces tough obstacles.

We will keep you posted about what you can do to support the rights of these Colombian young people, some of whom now face threats and legal action.

“Victims and witnesses reported that the police and ESMAD systematically employed excessive use of force against protesters as well as bystanders and human rights defenders and journalists who were accompanying or covering the protests and members of medical brigades providing first aid to victims of police brutality as well as to police wounded in the protests. As one medical brigade member told us, ‘It was as if the goal was to make young people paraplegic or dead.'” — Lisa Haugaard, report from Cali