By Samantha Wherry
The death of 18-year-old high school student, Dilan Cruz, at the hands of Colombia’s riot police on November 25th shows the human cost of the increasingly militarized approach used by the Colombian security forces. Dilan’s case, though not unique, is emblematic of the unjustified excessive force used by the notorious U.S.-sponsored Mobile Anti-Riot Squad- (ESMAD in Spanish). Dilan was taking part in the November 25th protest to demand better access to education. He was days from graduating high school and aspired to study business administration at university. Sadly, Dilan’s dreams will never materialize due to the ESMAD’s illegal use of force.
Since November 21st the Colombian people have been on the streets protesting the neoliberal policies of right-wing U.S.-backed president, Ivan Duque. The government’s apathy towards the escalating violence against social leaders and lack of implementation of the peace accords and economic reforms are among many of the grievances of the Colombian people.
Since the anti-government strike began, the Colombian national police have come under increased scrutiny over their flagrant violations of human rights. The assassination of Dilan triggered a wave of indignation leading to different human rights organizations, politicians and students calling for the dismantling of the ESMAD.
Because Dilan Cruz was shot in broad daylight in downtown Bogotá and not in a rural part of Colombia, his death has garnered visibility and provoked outrage at an international level. Unfortunately, rural victims of the ESMAD don’t receive the same indignation and attention. In fact, they hardly receive any coverage by the mainstream media, making it easy for the ESMAD to obscure their often lethal tactics.
Protests led by small-scale farmers, indigenous and afro-colombian communities are frequently the most brutally repressed. During the 2017 Buenaventura civic strike, for example, the mainly Afro-Colombian and Indigenous protesters were met with excessive force, as they peacefully demanded reparations for historic state neglect as a result of structural racism. The ESMAD indiscriminately used tear gas, stun grenades, and live ammunition against children, pregnant women, students, and the elderly.
Similarly, earlier this year in the southern department of Putumayo, the ESMAD, along with members of the Anti-Narcotics Police, injured at least 30 unarmed protesters. According to reports by local human rights groups most of these injuries came after members of the state security forces fired live ammunition at a crowd of peaceful demonstrators.
The United States was directly involved in the creation of the ESMAD, under the military-assistance program known as Plan Colombia beginning in 1999. The ESMAD went from just 19 members, to 3,580 members by 2018. Since its inception, the ESMAD has been a tool used for repression, using military-grade weapons to silence dissenting voices and peaceful protest. Many of the weapons used by the ESMAD are purchased from U.S manufacturers through U.S government arms programs.
Most of these weapons can be traced to one Pennsylvania-based company, Combined Systems, Inc (CSI). The U.S-based company, manufactures a range of munitions for military forces and law enforcement agencies, including the trademarked 12GA Super-Sock munitions used to crush Dilan’s skull. The Pennsylvania-based company also has sold tear gas, stun grenades and other weapons used in many other incidents involving the killing of unarmed protesters. In 2013, CSI was named "War Profiteer of the Month" by War Resisters' International. Today, CSI makes an estimated $50-100 million a year.
Since 1999, members of the ESMAD have never been held accountable despite being linked to the killing of at least 34 protesters, most of these occurring under the Santos administration. Arguably, the ESMAD has not been held accountable because they are representing the interests of the governments and big businesses who wish to maintain the current "ruling order" or economic and social system. Protests and general social unrest which threaten to destabilize current power dynamics risk powerholder's wealth and prestige. However, the lack of accountability for the ESMAD's crimes validates their violence and is a further mechanism of repression.
Despite the historic repressive nature of the ESMAD and blatant targeting of non-violent civil society, the US administration refuses to make any denouncements. Instead Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo vowed to support Duque’s administration, in other words, vowed to support the repression of non-violent protesters.
In order to move forward ethically and responsibly, the United States government must apply the same standard as it did for Hong Kong and pass a moratorium on the sale of lethal and non-lethal weapons to Colombia until these cases are properly investigated and those responsible are held accountable.
How long will the US government and the international community accept the criminal activities of the ESMAD?