Opposition politicians have submitted a legislative proposal to the Colombian congress for police reform which would see the police demilitarised and placed under civilian administration. The proposal aims to modernise the police force and ensure it respects democratic and human rights following multiple violations committed against civilians. Despite long-running calls for the police to be demilitarised and for abuses to be held to account, the government has been unwilling to consider proposals for reform.
The proposal, which has been submitted by congress members Iván Cepeda and María José Pizarro, comes after a series of high-profile cases which have called police conduct into serious question, with the issue particularly prominent following last month’s protests in Bogota and other urban areas in which police are suspected of killing up to 13 unarmed civilians, including a number of teenagers. The protests were in response to a viral video which showed 44-year-old Javier Ordóñez pleading for mercy as two police officers repeatedly beat and tasered him. Ordóñez died shortly afterwards in police custody from head injuries.
Mobile phone footage from the protests, which took place on 9 and 10 September, showed serious human rights violations being committed by uniformed officers. Bogota mayor Claudia López accused the police of disobeying her orders and ‘shooting indiscriminately’ at protesters. She also promised justice for victims’ families. Further alarming footage appeared to show police giving weapons to plain-clothes men who then opened fire with them. A Bogota court found that police violence had negatively impacted people’s right to peaceful protest. ‘It worries us that in several videos of confrontations between civilians and police on these nights, men dressed as civilians are seen shooting alongside the police,’ said court ombudsman Guillermo Rivera.
Shortly after the protests, Colombia’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that the police systematically violated citizens’ rights around peaceful protest and freedom of assembly. Relations between the police and the public are fraught in many communities, particularly those affected by conflict and state abandonment which have faced repression and criminalisation from security forces. Police officers have been implicated in extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and torture, among other abuses.
Under the new proposals, administration of the police would transfer from the Ministry of Defence, where it currently resides, to the Interior Ministry. This is intended to place it under civilian, rather than military, oversight and end the use of police in military operations. It would also end the use of military ranks, such as general and colonel, in police positions. Proponents argue that, due to Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement, the concept of an ‘internal enemy’ within the population is no longer applicable and should be ended as it fails to distinguish between legitimate citizen dissent and enemy combat activity.
Earlier this year, a report by the Office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner documented widespread abuses commited by police in Colombia and recommended reform, particularly of the ESMAD riot police unit. Since its foundation in 1999, the ESMAD has killed at least 34 people, although the figure could be significantly higher. In November last year, the ESMAD killed 16-year-old student Dilan Cruz as he fled their attacks during protests in Bogota.
Other reforms include institutionalising principles of human rights and international law within the police and introducing more rigorous assesment of the suitability of individuals for specific roles. One of the congress members behind the proposals, María José Pizarro, said ‘we want the police to be able to recover its legitimacy and citizens’ trust, and that it is working for that, this is its function.’