Times are grim for human rights and the rule of law in Colombia. Since the end of April, tens of thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets after President Iván Duque announced a controversial tax reform. While the government has withdrawn the reform proposal, protests are ongoing as citizens express their frustration over structural inequalities. Discontent is high across the country, especially among lower- and middle-class Colombians who have experienced increased hardship while enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. By 22 June, 83 people were killed and over 1,600 wounded, with much of the violence attributed to the Colombian National Police. The police’s anti-riot unit, known as ESMAD, has become a symbol of disproportionate policing based on the excessive use of force. The Constitution demands the police guarantee “the conditions necessary for the exercise of public rights and freedoms,” but this is a mandate they have clearly failed. Colombia’s contemporary problem of violent policing is the consequence of the country’s decades-long internal conflict and the limitations of past institutional reform processes. Consequently, we cannot expect that police reform will fix the problem if Colombia’s militarised national security approach remains untouched.
Policing and protest reflect deep-rooted conflicts
Colombia is still struggling with armed conflict five years after the government signed a historic Peace Accord with the FARC-EP in 2016. For years, the government fought with the Marxist guerrilla group over territorial control. With the Peace Accord, the FARC-EP has transformed into a political party. Now known as Comunes, the former rebels play only a marginal role in Colombia’s political system. They have not turned into a political force able to channel the citizens’ manifold grievances that the country’s traditional political elites have left unaddressed.
The Peace Accord was supposed to help create new avenues for underrepresented voices to be heard in politics. However, the Peace Accord’s implementation has been slow, and citizens exercising their rights to protest and organising politically are becoming targets of violence. President Duque’s Peace with Legality policy that aims at re-establishing territorial control in contested areas of the country does not provide protection for many of those engaged in building a more equal society. In the first six months of 2021 alone, 79 social leaders and human rights defenders have been assassinated.
The end of the FARC-EP insurgency did not bring peace to Colombia as non-state armed groups—first and foremost the ELN guerrillas—continue to challenge the state’s authority. While much of the country’s contemporary violence indeed comes from insurgent, paramilitary, and criminal groups, the state is also to blame—including the police. Against the background of six decades of internal conflict, Colombia has developed a militarised police force that is deeply rooted in counterinsurgency. Furthermore, politicians and members of the security forces engage in a criminalisation of protest and political participation. One of the informants of my research on Colombia’s conflictive borderlands reports that police in his region often do more to delegitimise social leaders rather than to protect them.
Many citizens living and working in marginalised communities perceive the state’s security forces as part of the problem rather than the solution to insecurity. Consequently, citizen distrust in the police is rampant, with 64 percent of Colombians disapproving of the force. This negative trend has been accelerated by a series of violent policing of protests since 2019, when national strikes unfolded amidst a regional wave of anti-government protests to which riot police reacted with brute force. In September 2020, yet another wave of violence erupted after police officers killed the unarmed taxi driver named Javier Ordoñez, triggering a “George Floyd moment.” In the mass protests that followed Mr Ordoñez’s death, 13 Colombians were killed.
Why the police reform myth undermines meaningful change
As a reaction to state violence in Colombia, observers regularly resort to the narrative of police reform. They are certain that this time reform experts will get it right and finally resolve the long-standing problems of the police. Reacting to national and international pressure, in June President Duque jumped on the reform bandwagon by announcing a transformation of the police. His proposal builds on the standard reform toolkit: more training, minor changes of the institutional setting, and improved learning from international policing best practices.
My research on security sector reform in Latin America suggests that police reform is unlikely to improve citizen security in Colombia. Decades of international security assistance to Guatemala, for instance, shows that reforms usually fail to improve public security. One round of limited reforms inevitably leads to another. The import of zero-tolerance-policing strategies and the creation of special forces have not made Guatemala safer, while the human toll paid by citizens has been huge. More progressive police reforms often were limited, as security remained influenced by the remnants of counterinsurgency thinking and the infamous national security doctrine that also prevails in Colombia.
Colombia can learn from Guatemala’s experience, and I argue that the country’s cycle of police violence can only be broken by debunking the myths of police reform. While one observer suggested that President Duque’s repressive security policies “undermined decades of professionalization among the security forces themselves,” the issue is more complex than that. Professionalization, as such, does not guarantee adherence to the rule of law. What’s more, it is part of the problem more often than not. US-trained units in Colombia, like ESMAD, going rogue and not following protocol is not uncommon, and thus providing better training is not the solution.
Colombia’s security architecture and resistance to change
As an official working with an international organisation put it in an interview, “police here hate it when someone talks to them about security sector reform.” In the security forces’ view, they succeeded in countering the FARC-EP insurgency—and they are further emboldened by their new status as a global “success story.” Consequently, the transformation of the security sector never made it into the 2016 Peace Accord. And while some security bureaucrats do discuss these questions, they often do so behind closed doors. Speaking out is still considered politically risky given the country’s pronounced polarisation and the politicisation of security.
Further, police are part of a wider security architecture. Any successful reform must also be accompanied by political reforms. However, the Colombian government’s resistance to institutional changes is fierce. When in 2020 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights suggested relocating responsibility for the police from the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of the Interior she was promptly accused of meddling with the country’s sovereignty. It is, however, this particular institutional arrangement that at least partially explains the blurred lines of law enforcement and military missions, the lack of effective oversight, and the police’s involvement in human rights abuse. Renaming the Ministry of Defence by adding Citizen Security, as suggested by President Duque, is not enough.
Police alone cannot fix the problem—but they can become a peace actor
Police reform alone cannot solve Colombia’s security problems. Rather than looking at Colombia as a case of an unfinished reform process, more attention must be paid to altering the security architecture and the very concept of security itself. Colombia’s international partners, for their part, can only be truly supportive if they acknowledge their own past wrongs. The US-sponsored Plan Colombia, in particular, represents some of the flaws of past reform programming, as it contributed to the militarisation and narcoticisation of security. As long as security in Colombia remains haunted by the spectre of an internal enemy, be it the “rebel” or the “criminal,” state violence will prevail. If this is not acknowledged, then any reform process is bound to fail.
What is thus needed to advance a truly transformative process is a historically informed dialogue on the “very nature of policing,” to borrow from Alex S. Vitale’s landmark book The End of Policing. His work shows that policing is about order-making and defending the status quo, and that police cannot produce peaceful or more just social relations. Acknowledging this inevitably holds uncomfortable truths, no doubt. However, an honest discussion on past failures and future challenges—and the role an active civil society can play in shaping the country’s security policies—is key to achieving democratic policing and to turning from national towards people-centred security. To be successful, there must be a change to a political status quo that still excludes many Colombians from participation and protection. This will be a strenuous process, but it is without alternative on Colombia’s way towards becoming a truly post-conflict society.