Colombia’s defense minister proposed to reform legislation Wednesday he says will prevent violence from marring future protests, as it has in recent manifestations, such as last month’s mass mobilization in Bogota, which lead to a temporary militarization of the city.
Speaking to Colombian radio Thursday, Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzon reaffirmed the government’s previous position that recent encounters between government forces and protesters, which have led to widespread claims of human rights violations, were instigated by outside groups “infiltrating” otherwise peaceful protests.
As part of a broad judicial reform initiative to “ensure public order”, the government is asking Congress to step up penalties for protest activities such as the blocking of roads, a tactic employed across the country during the recent spell of nationwide agricultural strikes.
The proposal, called ‘Measures Against Terrorism and Criminality”, calls for sentencing guidelines of up to five years for blocking roads, which would become a crime in and of itself, as opposed to a “disruption of public order”, as it is currently classified.
The purpose, said Pinzon, would be to prevent outside “illegal organizations” from compromising “legitimate protests”.
Critics, however, say the bill infringes on the basic right to protest, and is part of an overarching government strategy to criminalize political and social dissidence.
The government has come under recent public fire for its handling of national agricultural strikes, with President Juan Manuel Santos‘ public approval rating reaching all-time lows as widespread videos and pictures confirmed reports flooding in from throughout the country that riot-police (ESMAD) were using excessive, indiscriminate force against otherwise peaceful protests.
In interviews with Colombia Reports, protesters across sectors claimed that road blocks are an important tool in dealing with an administration otherwise unwilling to negotiate.
They point out that strike sectors that have resorted to entirely accepted forms of protests, such as the country’s striking health care workers, still haven’t been included in any formal dialogue with the government, while protesters in departments like Boyaca, where road blocks shut down transport for weeks, were the first to bring government officials to the negotiating table.
Protesters agree with early reports that right-wing neo-paramilitaries were responsible for inciting the riots in Bogota three weeks ago, but say that attempts to portray rural protests as “infiltrated” by guerrilla groups such as the FARC are meant to provide pretense for the bigger problem of government aggression.
Pinzon has said that new sentencing laws would not be used to prosecute peaceful protesters exercising their “sacred rights”, but instead would only target the sorts of “hooded vandals” behind the Bogota riots.
The minister, however, did not specify what, if any, measures would be put in place to protect the distinction, and no evidence has yet been provided that infiltration is responsible for a sizable percentage of road blocks, most of which have been carried out thus far by farmers and farming communities in the Colombian countryside as part of a deliberate strategy.