Grijalva leads coalition urging sanctions, denouncing police brutality in Colombia

By: - May 18, 2021 11:57 am

A riot policeman prepares to throw a tear gas grenade to disperse demonstrators protesting against police brutality and mass killings of youngsters and social and indigenous leaders. Photo by Guillermo Legaria | Getty Images

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., is leading a coalition of 55 members of Congress calling on the U.S. to suspend weapons sales, training and direct assistance funding Colombia’s national police force amid a human rights crisis stemming from deadly repression of anti-government protests. 

“We urge the State Department and all other U.S. departments and agencies to clearly and unambiguously denounce the violence, call for immediate de-escalation, help calm tensions, and facilitate inclusive social and political solutions in Colombia,” Grijalva and the others wrote in a May 14 letter. “Colombia’s security forces, especially its National Police, are more unleashed than we have seen in decades of strife —  hundreds of citizen videos show aggressive, indiscriminate use of lethal and non-lethal weapons against citizens in ways that violate both Colombian law and international human rights standards.”

Colombia has a national police force instead of local law enforcement agencies. Human rights observers have said there are serious issues of widespread police brutality, the police force is over-militarized and lacks oversight.

At least 42 people have been killed, including a police officer, during the demonstrations as of May 12, the letter states. Independent groups have also recorded 30 people who have sustained eye injuries from police projectiles and reported over 900 cases of excessive use of force against protestors, some of which could constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, according to Amnesty International. In addition, there were reports of sexual violence against at least 12 women.

The U.S. supports Colombia’s anti-riot unit, known as ESMAD, through grants, training and equipment, according to the Washington Office of Latin America, a human rights advocacy group.   

The nationwide protests, known as Paro Nacional, or “National Strike,” started on April 28 over a proposed tax increase from President Ivan Duque’s administration that would raise taxes on middle-class families while maintaining tax discounts for major corporations. The proposal included taxes on utilities, funeral services and basic goods like eggs. The proposal was withdrawn after days of protests, but more people have taken to the streets following the violent crackdown against the demonstrations to demand the government address corruption and historical inequities. 

Colombia, a country of 50 million people, is also undergoing a third peak in COVID-19 cases. 

The letter from the members of Congress urged the U.S. to send surplus COVID-19 vaccines to Colombia from its stockpile. 

The pandemic threw more people into poverty and unemployment rates rose while the country is undergoing a resurgence in violence from the failed implementation of a 2016 peace treaty. More than 400 environmental activists, social leaders in Black and Indigenous communities, and human rights defenders have been killed since 2016

“While the United States cannot resolve this crisis, it should be part of the solution, starting with immediate-term efforts to stop violence from spiraling,” the letter states. “After decades of close partnership, what the U.S. government says carries weight in Colombia – as does what the U.S. government fails to say.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and international human rights organizations have denounced the police response to protests in Colombia, which has been mostly led by students and indigenous leaders.

Grijalva is the only Arizona representative who signed the letter. 

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who is the first Colombian-American elected to Congress and calls the South American country one of the U.S. closest allies in the region, urged de-escalation after being pressed for comment by the Arizona Mirror. Gallego didn’t mention human rights violations, or a trend of excessive use of force and militarization of cities where massive protests have taken place.  

Arizona has a small Colombian community of about 4,500 residents. In recent weeks, that community has held five events to bring visibility to the escalating violence there amid anti-government protests attended by hundreds of thousands

Jaime Enriquez Ramirez Corredor attended a downtown Phoenix vigil Friday evening. A refugee, he was forced to leave Colombia in 2014 and has lived in Arizona for four years. 

As the streets of downtown Phoenix bustled with cars and people walking down the strip of bars and restaurants, Ramirez Corredor spoke with the Mirror about the day of protests that took place in the city of Popoyán, where his two sons live. Protesters there saw heavy riot police response to demonstrations, mobilized after a 17-year-old girl, who was arrested during protests the night before, wrote on Facebook that she was sexually assaulted while in police custody. She killed herself the next morning. She’s the daughter of a retired police officer. The week before, another student leader, Lucas Villa, known for his dances during protests, was shot and died in the city of Pereira.  

Ramirez said his two sons, who are university students, have been protesting in that city. He said he feels sad and powerless watching the deadly repression of protests. 

“They tell me we have the obligation to support,” Ramirez said. “One wishes to do something, but it’s difficult at a distance. The way things are headed in Colombia is towards a dictatorship, because the ESMAD does not obey anyone — it acts with impunity, attacks journalists and human rights representatives… We are defenseless.”

Ramirez wants President Joe Biden to emphatically denounce the human rights violations and take measures to sanction Duque’s government. Biden hasn’t publicly spoken on the crisis in Colombia.

On Monday night, Duque ordered a maximum deployment of military forces to end roadblocks in parts of the country. Leaders and organizers of the strike called the announcement a declaration of war on the strike, according to Colombia Reports

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.