Police systematically violent towards civilians, Colombian Supreme Court finds

Colombia’s police force, including the notorious Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD), has systematically violated the human rights of civilians during protests, Colombia’s Supreme Court has declared.

While the government has sought to portray major human rights violations committed by state agents – of which there are many instances – as ‘isolated cases’, the Supreme Court said that ESMAD agents have attacked protesters rather than ensure their democratic right to peaceful protest. ‘There is a lack or incapacity in institutions responsible for maintaining public order to use, in a rational and moderate way, the arms of the Republic,’ said the Court.

The declaration also found that there was a ‘generalised and repeated violation of the rights to protest, citizen participation, life, personal integrity, due process, [and] freedom of expression, meeting and movement’. It also listed four practices employed by the ESMAD which violated citizen rights: dispersing peaceful protests, the use of potentially-lethal arms, indiscriminate use of teargas and mass arrests. ‘This is not the first time the ESMAD has been called before the courts to answer for illegitimate and disproportionate conduct towards those who peacefully exercise their fundamental right to gather to protest,’ said the Court.

The ruling cited the widespread violence committed on 9 and 10 September against protests over the police killing of Javier Ordóñez, when police killed several unarmed civilians, including a number of teenagers. Bogota’s mayor, Claudia López, accused police of ‘shooting indiscriminately’ at people, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that ‘excessive use of force could have killed up to 13 people and injured another 300’.

Among the other cases reviewed by the Supreme Court are the ESMAD killings of 15-year-old Nicolás Neira and university student Jhony Silva, both in 2005, and student Óscar Salas the following year. It also investigated the ESMAD’s conduct during the National Strike protests launched in November 2019, in which ESMAD agents committed multiple human rights violations, including the shooting death of 16-year-old Dilan Cruz as he fled their attacks on protesters in Bogota.

In response, the Colombian government has blamed the victims of police brutality for their own deaths, suggesting they were criminals acting violently. The Supreme Court ruling dismantles that baseless claim and will raise optimism that state agents could be held to account over crimes committed against civilians.