Colombia’s Minister of Defense announced Thursday that 1,500 troops will be added to the controversial anti-riot police force (ESMAD) before the end of the calendar year.
Since the beginning of the nationwide strikes on August 19, the government has relied heavily on its ESMAD units to control protests, which it consistently claimed had been infiltrated by outside rebel groups encouraging civic unrest.
Videos and pictures disseminated on the internet, however, support the widespread claims of protesters and human rights groups alleging a generally excessive use of force on the part of ESMAD forces.
In the past month alone, the ESMAD has been implicated in dozens of incidents across the country– ranging from unprovoked beatings to illegal searches, seizures and destruction of property — some of which have led to civilian casualties. Videos online showing indiscriminate and unprovoked use of violence by ESMAD units has spurred a large public backlash against the government’s primary tool for “maintaining public order”.
Far from bowing to public pressure however, the government has now indicated it intends to grow its anti-riot police force, adding some 1,500 troops in the coming months alone, and increasing investments heading into the next budget cycle.
This just over a week after peace negotiators for Colombia’s largest and oldest rebel group, the FARC, called for the ESMAD division to be disbanded, due to its alleged role in repressing democratic expression.
Indeed, the government’s response to criticism over its widely unpopular handling of recent protests seems to consist of doubling-down on existing tactics.
At the height of civil unrest during nationwide protests, President Juan Manuel Santos militarized the Colombian capital and other strategic parts of the country, using an outbreak of violence in Bogota incited by neo-paramilitary groups as justification to deploy a reported 50,000 army troops throughout the country.
Even before protests began, the government stepped up shifts for public security forces, accusing the FARC of coercing developing national strikes, and calling in additional police forces in preparation for the August 19th strike date.
The ESMAD announcement itself comes only a few days after the Minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzon, advocated for a bill recently introduced in the Colombian Congress that would heighten penalties for protesters participating in roadblocks, the scene of many of the more violent clashes between ESMAD forces and civilians in recent weeks.
Clara Lopez, President of the Polo Democratico opposition political party, recently joined a chorus of social and labor organizers in decrying what they perceive to be the government’s attempts to “delegitimize social protest” and criminalize dissent.
Luz Dary Molina, a local strike organizer in the heavily involved Boyaca department, echoed the express sentiments of many social leaders when she told Colombia Reports: “this is a government that only understands force, that only listens to force, only pays attention to force, only knows how to respond with force.”
“They come, they gas children and the elderly, they beat dignified workers with legitimate complaints and intimidate organizers. And then say we are the criminals, we are the ones who need to be controlled. This is not just. This is not how a democracy is supposed to work.”
- Interview with Luz Dary Molina
- ‘El esmad se va a duplicar’: Mindefense (Caracol Radio)
- Ministro de defensa colombiano se va a duplicar escuadrones antidisturbios (Prensa Latina)
- “El esmad no se va a acabar; se va a duplicar” Mindefensa (El Espectador)
- Official website of Clara Lopez Obregon