Colombia’s ESMAD riot police has a dreadful record of killing citizens

At least 34 people have been killed by Colombia’s Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) since it was created 20 years ago, according to new findings published by the Colombian NGO Temblores.

The ESMAD’s crackdown on recent protests has again cast the spotlight on its tactics, particularly following the death of Dilan Cruz. The 18-year-old student was killed after ESMAD agents shot him in the head with a bean bag projectile as he ran away from them on 23 November. The shooting and the desperate attempts to resuscitate the teenager were captured on camera, sparking indignation across Colombia over the brutal response of security forces to protests.

Since 21 November, Colombia has seen its largest protests in decades over economic inequality and human rights. The protests have been coordinated by trade unions, students, human rights groups, indigenous organisations and opposition parties, among others, in response to government plans for labour and pension reforms which critics say will further squeeze the majority of the population. Protest demands also include full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement and an end to the high levels of violence against social activists, trade unionists and FARC former guerrillas, with hundreds of people killed since the agreement was signed just over three years ago.

Dilan Cruz is the latest young person killed by the ESMAD. The Temblores report documents several other cases. In 2005, an ESMAD agent shot 15-year-old Nicolás Neira in the head with a teargas canister during a Labour Day march in Bogota, with the youngster dying in hospital a few days afterwards. Five months later, the ESMAD killed 21-year-old student Johnny Silva during a protest at the University of Valle in southwest Colombia. In both killings, the state was found culpable.

The first documented case involving the ESMAD was of another student, Carlos Giovanny Blanco, who was killed on a demonstration in 2001 to oppose the US and Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan. The following year, 18-year-old Jaime Acosta Campo was killed at another anti-war demonstration at the Industrial University of Santander.

Despite the number of killings and other forms of state brutality committed by the ESMAD, it has continued to receive increased funding as successive governments seek to suppress social dissent. The government of Juan Manuel Santos, who preceded Duque and negotiated the peace deal with the FARC, raised the ESMAD budget during a period of major rural protests in eastern Colombia. At least nine peasant farmers have been killed by the ESMAD during rural protests over state abandonment, human rights and underdevelopment.

The new report finds that half of all ESMAD victims were aged between 18 and 44, with the worst years for ESMAD violence against the population in 2005 (six deaths), 2013 (seven) and 2016 (eight). Having been launched with 200 agents in 1999, the ESMAD today has more than 3,300 personnel and has seen its budget soar. Funding has been drawn from the Plan Colombia agreement between the United States and Colombia over military financing.

With protests ongoing, President Duque has reiterated his support for the ESMAD and Colombia’s security forces. Meanwhile, the family of Dilan Cruz and other victims of state violence are still waiting for answers.