In Colombia, a country still reeling from six decades of civil war and grappling with ongoing spurts of violence, fears have been raised of rampant militarization as police and soldiers forcefully cracked down on recent protests .
Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said 19 people – including 18 civilians – were killed and more than 800 injured in clashes with deployed uniformed officers as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in recent days during anti-government rallies.
AFP reporters observed soldiers deployed to help police contain the unrest, and NGOs said the armed forces fired at civilians.
With the support of the army commander, President Ivan Duque said on Saturday that he would use “military assistance” to fight “those who, through violence, vandalism and terrorism, seek to intimidate society”.
The Defense Ministry said 47,500 people had been put into service across the country.
For many Colombians, the deployment of soldiers against a civilian population “has been received negatively, as a militarization” of the maintenance of public order and as a form of “repression,” said Eduardo Bechara, professor of public policy at the ‘Externado de Colombia University.
After six decades of armed conflict not quite appeased by the signing of a 2016 peace accord with the rebel group FARC, the government is more accustomed to fighting a battle than facing urban protests, said Bechara and other experts.
– ‘Premeditated’ –
The government attributes the chaos to premeditated “violence” “organized and financed by FARC dissidents” who did not accept the peace agreement, and the ELN or National Liberation Army – the last active guerrilla group in the country. country.
The first target of the military deployment on Friday was Cali, a city in western Colombia with a long-standing problem of violent crime blamed on the war between rival drug cartels.
Defense Minister Diego Molan announced the deployment of 700 troops to the city to confront “criminal organizations” which he said were fomenting violence.
But Ariel Avila, deputy director of the Colombian Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, said the move was a warning to protesters.
“This is the strategy of the former … a message to end the protests,” he told AFP.
In Bogota and Medellin, opposition mayors have refused military aid, but soldiers have been seen patrolling the capital by presidential order.
Colombia, a country of about 50 million people, has more than 266,600 military personnel and nearly 160,000 police officers.
The police report to the Ministry of Defense.
– Under surveillance –
The country with a poverty rate of over 42% spent $ 9.2 billion on the military in 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
This was 3.4% of GDP – higher than the world average of 2.4% but lower than 3.7% in the United States and 4.3% in Russia.
The Colombian police force has been under surveillance in recent years.
Last year he responded forcefully to protests against police brutality. Thirteen young people were killed in clashes and more than 500 people were injured, including 75 injured by projectiles allegedly thrown by the police.
The resulting outcry was such that the Supreme Court ordered the Defense Ministry to apologize for the excesses and rethink its modus operandi.
But NGOs, rights activists and international organizations say the abuses have not stopped.
According to the group of observers Temblores, 940 cases of police abuse were reported to him in the last days of protests.
– International concern –
The UN, the United States, the European Union and human rights groups expressed concern on Tuesday after reports of a disproportionate use of force against protesters, calling for calm and respect for human rights.
Duque’s government, for its part, has not commented and has so far admitted a civilian death.
In such a volatile situation, adding soldiers to the mix is ”a terrible risk,” Avila said.
“It is an overreaction … which will increase the death toll,” he told AFP.
For international security expert Florent Frasson-Quenoz of the University of Javeriana, the government’s firm response was aimed at “far-right voters”, he hopes to bring the conservative party of the Duque Democratic Center back to power during elections next year.
He added that Colombia was experiencing a return to the “muscular” way of governing of the 2000s, “when the security situation was most difficult”.
The protests continued despite Duque’s withdrawal of the tax reform bill that Colombians say would make them poorer at a time of dire economic hardship.
New protests were called on Wednesday as public sentiment appeared to have turned against those in power.
“The people on the streets demand much more than the withdrawal of the tax reform,” said the National Strike Committee organizing the protests.
It is an opportunity, Bechara said, for “the government and other political, social and economic sectors to converge around the need to rethink security.”
© 2021 AFP