Another grim chapter of police brutality and social unrest
It was a warm night like any others in the Colombian capital on that damned 8th of September. Javier Ordóñez was at home with a group of friends. Maybe they were celebrating his upcoming degree – he was only missing one exam from officially becoming a lawyer. Or, perhaps, they were just enjoying one of the last summer evenings in each others company.
Of that weird summer of health crisis and economic instability that, as everywhere across the world, had already brought enough discomfort. Around midnight, they ran out of booze and decided to go to the shop to buy some more. A standard situation that generally ends up with a big headache the morning after. Unfortunately, the epilogue is far more grim.
For containing the spread of COVID-19, Bogotá authorities banned, amongst others activities, the purchase of alcohol after 9 pm. While approaching the store, the group was stopped by the police. Probably for placating a dispute or facilitating the arrest, one of the officers started using his shining taser against Mr Ordóñez. A friend filmed all of the tragic scene, begging the cop to stop. Unconcerned of being recorded, he did not cease and, helped by another colleague, kept holding the transgressor on the ground while repeatedly electrocuting him. “Por favor, no más”- “Please, no more” – were the last words captured on the video before they dragged him off into a police car. Javier Ordóñez, father of two boys, would die some hours after in a nearby hospital, whilst still in police custody.
The video of the aggression soon became viral. The hashtag #ColombianLivesMatter took over Twitter walls. As happened with George Floyd’s a death few months earlier, a sense of outrage resonated into the nation and outside its borders. Within 24 hours, the streets of Bogotá were filled with thousands of citizens protesting against the umpteenth police brutality.
Starting at the Engativá barrio, the neighbourhood where Mr Ordóñez got arrested, rioters attacked around 40 police stations as well and burnt 17 of them down. Under the chant of “Cerdos asesinos”(“murderous pigs”), the unrests went on for two days. According to the Colombian authorities, thirteen people were killed and hundreds injured as a result of a violent crackdown put in place by security officers against protesters, even whilst the protest was peaceful. It has been reported that all the victims’ age ranged between 17 and 27.
In a video tweet posted on Thursday 10th of September, Claudia López, the mayor of Bogotá, condemned the unjustified police violence. Even though, she warned that “destroying Bogota is not going to fix the police”. Colombia’s Defence Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo reported that about 1,600 extra police officers have been deployed to Bogotá to tackle the protests. While, the infamous President Iván Duque promised a rigorous investigation about the deaths occurred during the riots, reassuring that no officers abuse would be tolerated. However, in a video appeared in Twitter last week, the hacker group known as Anonymous suggested that the government’s paw could be hidden behind the massacres. They also claimed a cyberattack to the national police database, which has been promptly denied by authorities.
The wave of protests soon spread outside of the city’s borders. On the following Thursday night Medellín, Cali and Manizales’ streets were taken over by crowds of people asking to end police brutality against Colombian citizens. It should also be noted that the latest riots came after only two days of an unsuccessful attempt to revive workers’ and student union’s demonstrations that fired up the major cities until the late 2019. So, Javier Ordóñez’s death was followed by weeks of strikes and marches to protest against the systematic climate of police brutality, young people and social leaders massacres as well as repudiating the economic and social policies of President Ivan Duque. Thousands of people took part in these protests, largely peaceful, organised by students, indigenous and labour organisations in every major city around the country. Also this time, the police’s response was violence and arbitrary arrests.
Yes, as Ordóñez’s sister-in-law suggested “Javier was the straw that broke the camel’s back”. His death was the climax of years of injustice and anger. In fact, we need to take in consideration a thick web of facts for completely understanding Colombians’ frustration.
First of all, Colombian police has a long track record of unpunished brutality used against citizens. According to a study conducted by the human rights organisation Temblores, 639 people were killed by the hand of police officers between 2017 and 2019. Among them, it was the 17-years-old student Dilan Cruz. He died in November of last year, after being hit on the head by a bean bag bullet fired by the riot police during one of the anti-government demonstrations. Colombians are rightly fed up of living in this state of terror, perpetuated by those who should protect them. As Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk, explained to Al Jazeera, Colombians are particularly tired of the lack of government resolution to investigate police actions’ wrongdoing.
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By Chiara Castro: Political Columnist
Throughout 2019 Colombia was rocked by a large speight of social unrest. Calling for economic and social reform as well as justice to those who died during the rough years of social fight, these demonstrations were interrupted over Christmas and supposed to be restored at the beginning of 2020. Unfortunately, due to Coronavirus restrictions, they were delayed… until now.
This static and uncertain situation contributed to feed Colombians’ discomfort as well as to concentrate even more political powers, in spite of civil liberties. All this incremented the situation of malaise that has been deteriorating the life in many South American countries for many years.
Also massacres of civilians and social leaders by the fire of criminal groups got worse due to the current health pandemic. As The New York Times reported, already 33 massacres have been confirmed by the United Nations only during this year. These raids caused the death of at least 45 human rights defenders. While NGO Indepaz reported that 240 lives have been lost throughout more than 60 attacks. Among these, 11 people got killed in Cauca and Nariño areas as the result of massacres occurring last Sunday. Across these hot rural departments ripped apart by years of conflicts, several criminal organisations are also imposing over citizens their own Coronavirus restrictions. More blood is the punishment for not complying with them. Plus, the killing of social leaders became even easier thanks to the in force lockdown legislations.
For understanding the state of anarchy existing particularly throughout Colombian rural towns, we should go back in time 4 years. Indeed, in 2016 an historic peace deal between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the paramilitary group FARC marked the end of the civil war lasted almost five decades. However, lots were the negative products coming from this agreement.
After the deal, thousands of guerrilla soldiers laid down their arms and the homicide rate dropped considerably. Despite this initial success other criminal groups took over the control of these areas, while founding their organisations mainly over illicit drug production. The lack of political support and investments, across this forgotten part of the country, could be seen as the major cause of the current backlash. Critiques of Duque pointed out, also, his mismanagement of the peace process, as he denied the immunity to FARC leaders who wanted to speak in court. This precisely represented the central core for the peace agreement, which was aimed to build a national reconciliation among all the affected parts.
However, what happened at the beginning of September helped to create an unprecedented climate in Colombia. In fact, even though police brutality is not new to public opinion, the role of 2020 social movements is finally putting the problem under a global spotlight. Probably it was for this reason that the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice emanated an historic sentence, condemning national public forces’ use of “arbitrary and systematic violence”. As the Colombian newspaper El Espectador reported, the verdict ruled new legislations to severely limit the police’s use of force. Also the Defense Minister was obliged to publicly apologise to the entire nation for all the crimes committed by authorities. Bean bag rifles have been banned and the two police officers who killed Javier Ordóñez arrested.
“A Nation that looks to recover and build its democratic identity cannot locate over the citizens that legitimately protest the rhetoric of friend and foe, left and right, good and bad, friends of peace and enemies of peace, but as the political expression that seeks to open space for dialogue, consensus and the non-violent reconstruction of the Constitutional State of Law.” The Supreme Court argued. Could this represent a first step into a fairer Colombian society? Only time would give us a response.
So, the umpteenth killing of another Colombian citizen became the scapegoat for resurrecting anti-war and anti-government sentiment among the population. Colombians are taking over streets and squares of the main cities again, fighting in the name of their own security and freedom. No one can die for breaking some rules. No one can die for peacefully express his own right to protest. Or for simply being born in a forgotten area, where crime and violence rules over the population. No one should be left alone by governments whilst fighting a social battle against criminality. Neither who is complying with his duty of reporting news. #ColombianLivesMatter, no further Colombians must suffer more of all this.