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Shocking police violence and repression in Colombia must stop

07 May 2021

The Colombian government must respect its people and their right to protest peacefully.

The ITF joins the international community in expressing profound shock at the violent tactics used by Colombian authorities in failed attempts to disrupt lawful protests by the country’s citizens.

As protests in Colombia enter their tenth day, the ITF joins other unions, governments, the UN and the EU in condemning the violence, calling for calm and insisting the government urgently intervenes to withdraw the police officers perpetrating the brutal violence.

“Freedom of protest and assembly, and the freedom of association for workers, and the freedom of movement are all inscribed in Colombia’s constitution,” said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the ITF. “Yet the Colombian authorities are running roughshod over these basic liberties. The ITF demands the government guarantees those rights and takes first steps in calming the situation, withdrawing police and the army and moving the police from defense to civil control.”

The Colombian Government should engender calm by moving to a more civilised response to the protests. It is also essential that it abolishes the Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) which has been at the heart of indiscriminate violence during the protests, now and in the past.

Protests sparked by unfair taxes

The government proposed changes in the tax laws that would penalise the poorest workers the most, while rewarding big corporations. This triggered a general strike by unions and social movements which began on April 28, 2021. The protests intensified as Colombians came to realise the implications of the new laws in a country that already suffers from deeply entrenched inequalities and the proposed tax reform would have made things worse.

On Sunday May 2, 2021, President Iván Duque withdrew the tax reform and the Minister of Finance quit the cabinet. Yet the protests continue, partly driven by outrage at police and military brutality, and partly by concern about the government’s wider social agenda.

So far, between 30-37 protesters have been killed and 87 have been disappeared, with hundreds of others hurt or arbitrarily detained, according to different reports.

ITF President Paddy Crumlin said that the Colombian situation has been made far worse by the government’s historic inability to remove paramilitary elements in the country.

“Paramilitaries have assassinated hundreds of trade unionists and social activists in the last two years, and around 3,000 since 1985. To get true justice for Colombian working women and men, and for Colombia to be a truly safe country, it must stamp out paramilitary groups,” said Crumlin.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported being “deeply alarmed” and “profoundly shocked” at reports of police opening fire on demonstrators, the majority of whom had been peaceful. The UN called for calm and reminded the State authorities of their responsibility to protect human rights. The European Union has also condemned the violence and said it is a priority for security forces to avoid disproportionate use of force. 

Unions have created a National Strike Committee (Comité Nacional de Paro), to agree on next steps and to push for negotiations with the government.

Transport workers at risk

Colombian ITF affiliate Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Rama, Servicios de la Industria del Transporte y Logística de Colombia (SNTT) has reported that transport workers caught up in the chaos are at extreme risk. Widespread discontent with the inefficiencies of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system has made stations a target. So far, 700 buses have been damaged, and more than 50 ticket offices destroyed.

Transmilenio, the company in charge of managing buses, has so far refused to protect workers and has continued to force them to go to work, despite the fact that the buses cannot run during the protests. This has been especially damaging for the ticket vendor workers of Recaudo Bogota, over 80% of whom are women. 

“The company has forced workers to stay in the stations, even as the violence got worse and police brutality increased,” said one worker. “Four or five of us have been locked for hours inside our small cabins waiting for the violence to stop, fearing for our lives.”

SNTT is part of a coalition of unions that fully supports the general strike and continuing peaceful demonstrations demanding reform. However, it also wants to protect workers who get caught up in the violence.

“While the Duque government has accepted the need for dialogue with the national unions, we urge them to avoid declaring a state of emergency at all costs,” said Esteban Barbosa, President of SNTT. A state of emergency would put the discredited military firmly in charge. “Instead, the government should come to negotiations on 10th May in good faith and should adopt a more conciliatory approach to deescalate the situation and resolve conflict as a matter of urgency.” 

ITF Regional Secretary Edgar Diaz expressed solidarity from the world’s transport workers to the workers of Colombia, particularly to transport workers and ITF affiliates.

“Police violence, military violence, paramilitary violence, directed towards working men and women, protesting peacefully, won’t be tolerated. ITF unions around the globe, across Latin America, are ready to provide solidarity for our brothers and sisters in Colombia in any tangible way we can. We won’t stop until the violence stops,” said Diaz. 

ITF supports core demands of the National Strike Committee

  • The government must guarantee and respect the freedom of movement, freedom of protest and assembly, and the freedom of association for workers, as inscribed in the Constitution.
  • Demilitarization of the police response to protests, and prosecution of those responsible for police violence. This includes moving police control from the Ministry of Defense into the Interior Ministry.
  • The government must take effective actions to deal with right-wing paramilitary groups.
  • The abolition of the Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD).
  • The government must avoid exacerbating the situation by declaring any state of emergency, and instead negotiate with the National strike Committee.