By Caitlin-Marie Ward
May 25, 2021 — At least 41 people have been killed after police cracked down on protests across Colombia. The violence has forced Colombians to ask the same questions Americans have grappled with since the killing of George Floyd. How can societies design police departments to best preserve both public safety and human rights?
The initial catalyst for the protests in Colombia were a series of now-rescinded tax reforms, which the government claimed was necessary to increase national revenues and continue providing social relief programs to those hit hardest by the pandemic Although the proposed changes have since been revoked, protesters have continued their demonstrations, demanding improvements to the country’s overall pension, health and education systems.
Tragically, protests turned violent as police attempted to break up demonstrations. Hundreds of civilians and police officers have been wounded and last Friday, the country’s human rights ombudsman reported at least 41 civilians and one police officer have been killed. The United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of the American States have all condemned the excessive use of force by law enforcement. The U.S. State Department publicly urged “the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life.”
Our partners at JRS Colombia documented these abuses in the port city of Buenaventura, where protestors blocked the streets. Specialized police squads broke up the blockades in an “excessive use of public force,” says JRS Colombia. The unit also squashed national strike demonstrations in the Indigenous community of the Resguardo Nasa-Embera-Chami.
In a joint statement, JRS Colombia and the Jesuit Migration Network (Red Jesuita con Migrantes) called on the Colombian government to end the police violence and commit “to the absolute respect and maintenance of neutrality towards peaceful protests, even if they are aimed at questioning government policies.” (Read the original statement in Spanish here).
In an effort to restore peace, the president of Colombia, Iván Duque, has called for a “national dialogue initiative.” He has also promised a thorough investigation into police misconduct, although he has stopped short of calling for an independent inquiry into police practices more broadly.
Caitlin-Marie Ward is the senior policy advisor on migration at the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology. She coordinates advocacy efforts to protect immigrants’ rights, promote comprehensive humane immigration reform, and address human rights concerns, particularly in Latin America.