Petro Is Trying to Rein in Colombia’s Infamous Riot Police

Colombia’s riot police, the ESMAD, have a sordid record of abuse and extrajudicial executions of protesters. President Gustavo Petro is trying to reform the force — but he faces an uphill battle.

ESMAD riot police in Colombia. (Kurt Hollander)

The 2021 demonstrations and national strike in Colombia, called to protest unpopular tax increases and health care reforms proposed by then president Iván Duque and to demand an end to police violence, were themselves met, unsurprisingly, with police violence. Despite an aggressive campaign by official media and government outlets to portray the protesters as vandals and criminals tied to terrorist groups, videos of the rampant human rights abuses, violence, and assassinations against peaceful protesters on the part of the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, or ESMAD), the country’s dreaded riot police, went viral on social media. The police repression backfired and helped swing the tide of popular sentiment against the right-wing government, culminating in the election of President Gustavo Petro, a left-wing ex-guerrilla.

President Petro began his administration with a plan for “Total Peace,” negotiating with the major armed groups to bring peace to a country that has been mired in a civil war for as long as anyone can remember. Although he has had success in getting many criminal organizations and guerrillas to lay down their arms, Petro has been struggling to reform another of the armed groups frequently responsible for violence and assassinations in Colombia — that is, the ESMAD.

Plan Colombia and the ESMAD

The ESMAD was originally formed in 1999 as part of the United States’ Plan Colombia, President Bill Clinton’s initiative that drastically increased funding for the Colombian military in its fight against drug lords and insurgent guerrillas. Plan Colombia threw gasoline on Colombia’s long-standing civil war, brought about a hyper-militarization of the country, and, by merging the police with the military, led to a rise in assassinations and violence against peaceful popular protests. Trained in the use of military tactics to deal with strikes, marches, and mass movements, the ESMAD has served as a “shock force” to aid the government in its fight against political and social opposition, especially among the Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations.

A report published by the Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos (Committee for Solidarity With Political Prisoners) details the ESMAD’s sordid history of violence. In the first ten years of its existence, from 1999 to 2009, the ESMAD was accused of forty-three cases of extrajudicial executions during its interventions in protests, and other deaths at their hands happened during evictions, outside of community and campesino assemblies, after soccer matches, and during indigenous rituals for the liberation of Mother Earth. A quarter of the killings were carried out by the ESMAD in conjunction with the national police, the armed forces, and antiguerrilla units.

The ESMAD has often been accused of sexual abuse and rape. During the 2021 protests, a seventeen-year old girl was caught filming ESMAD agents and taken to a police station where she was raped. After lodging a formal complaint against ESMAD agents, she committed suicide. The police station where she had been raped was subsequently burned down by protesters — a dramatic example of ESMAD abuse leading to violent protests, which are in turn repressed by the ESMAD.

Such ESMAD abuses and the resulting rage and impotence experienced by the marginal were summed up in the music video of the popular song “Fucking ESMAD” by Afro-Colombian rapper and social activist Junior Jein. The lyrics of the song accurately describe the strategy of the ESMAD during the protests that took place in 2017 in Buenaventura, the nearly all-black port city two hours outside Cali: “We didn’t understand what was happening / They canceled all talks / Intentionally they provoked us / Infiltrated the people, the protests, and put the city out of control / Looting, vandalism and desperation.” The music video of the song includes video footage of widespread ESMAD abuse during the protests, precisely the kind of abuse at the hands of ESMAD agents that led hundreds of thousands of people to come out to protest during the national strike in April 2021. (Shortly after the protests, Junior Jein was shot dead on the streets of Cali. Those responsible for the hit have not been caught.)

An Attempt at Reform

As part of his plan for a “more humane police force,” Petro has been working to rein in the ESMAD. Salaries and benefits have been increased, new training programs have been created, and anti-corruption has become a priority. The name ESMAD, which had become synonymous with violence and abuse of authority, has been changed to UNDMO (National Unit for Dialogue and Maintaining Order).

A member of “la Primera Línea,” a group dedicated to protecting protesters from police during the 2021 protests in Colombia. (Kurt Hollander)

The color of the riot-police uniforms has also been changed to further distance the new police force from past violence. Those in charge of “dialoguing” with protesters will now wear a blue uniform and a white helmet, although regular agents will continue to wear their all-black, Robocop-like armor. Assault tanks will continue to be dark gray, but the oldest tanks will be converted into ambulances and rescue vehicles and will be painted white and blue.

Petro has reimagined the ESMAD as a police force to be employed only as a last resort, creating “pacific and intelligent solutions” to “construct peace and social well-being” and respect people’s right to protest. To make this a reality, President Petro passed a law in 2023 to end stigmatization of and misinformation about peaceful protestors. Right-wing governments and official media in Colombia have long labeled protesters (in particular indigenous and Afro-Colombian demonstrators, students, journalists, and human rights workers) as subversives and criminals, and political opposition as part of “the enemy within.”

The term “the enemy within” refers to those who collaborate or sympathize with leftist guerrillas and terrorists, but has ended up being applied to anyone whom the Right sees as its enemies. For example, during the 2021 protests, the stigmatization of indigenous groups (minga) who came to the city of Cali to offer their support and the misinformation campaign associating la Primera Línea (a group of young people who defended the peaceful protests against violence from police and paramilitary members) with terrorists and guerrillas sought to justify the illegal arrests, torture, and assassinations of members of these groups at the hands of the ESMAD.

The ESMAD and “Nonlethal” Weapons

Essential structural reforms, like separating the police from the military and ensuring transparency and accountability in prosecuting police abuse to justice, have not yet met with similar success. Another part of Petro’s proposed reform is to decrease the amount and kind of nonlethal weapons and ammunition purchases, but this also has yet to occur.

As part of the modernization of the police force under Plan Colombia, “reduced-lethal weapons,” such as tear gas and electric shocks, were authorized for the use by police for crowd control in 2012. Since then, the use by the ESMAD of non- or reduced-lethal weapons has only increased.

During the Duque administration, the budget for weapons and ammunition for the ESMAD soared, with a spike in increased purchases during the COVID-19 pandemic, preparation for the protests that were to come when the lockdown ended. During the pandemic, more than $2 million was spent to purchase 47,244 gas canisters, 5,352 multi-impact grenades, and 23,775 sixty-eight-gauge “paintball spheres” for the ESMAD. These and other weapons and ammunition were purchased from two Colombian and three US companies (Combined Systems, Inc.; Everytrade International Company; and Safariland LLC).

Between April 28 and May 20, 2021, twenty-five people were killed during protests in Colombia, most of them from being hit by a kind of supposedly nonlethal bullet. Among the most common “nonlethal weapons” employed during the national strike protests, designed to minimize penetration while maximizing pain and incapacitation, were kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs). Known informally as “rubber bullets,” KIPs can be made from plastic (foam-tipped plastic bullets, plastic baton rounds, sponge grenades, flash-ball rounds), metal (rubber-coated metal bullets, pellets, birdshot, flexible baton rounds, bean bags, or Super-Socks) or other materials, such as PVC, hard foam, wood, or rock salt. The original KIPs were sawed-off pieces of wooden broom handles shot at rioters in Singapore in the 1880s by the armed forces of the British Empire. In the 1960s, wooden bullets were developed in the UK and used against protesters in British colonies in Asia.

Primera Línea members. (Kurt Hollander)

Depending on the firearm used, the distance, and the body part hit, “nonlethal” ammunitions can maim or even kill. During protests between 1999 and 2023, KIPs left more than twenty people without the use of an eye. In 2019, one ESMAD agent fired a bean bag from a twelve-gauge shotgun into the back of a young protester’s head, killing them. (The incident led to the banning of such shotguns.)

In addition to rubber bullets, chemical agents are also used frequently, mostly tear gas and pepper spray dispersed by grenades. From 1999 to 2023, there were thirty-five cases of ocular lesions from grenades, two cases of asphyxiation from tear gas, and two deaths from the impact of projectiles of tear gas and flash-bang cartridges. Sonic and luminous weapons are also used by the ESMAD, including stun grenades which — although not designed to be — were fired directly at people during the protests, killing at least two people.

Among the new purchases for the ESMAD since 2018 were ten armored tanks and five VENOM anti-riot devices with multiple tubes capable of launching thirty-eight-, forty-, or sixty-six-millimeter grenades over one hundred meters, with up to twenty detonations in ten seconds. Originally designed for use by US Marines, for the past decade VENOM has been used for crowd control by the Israeli military in the West Bank.

VENOM was used more than twenty times during the 2021 protests in Colombia, both set on top of armored tanks and on the ground. When fired up in the air, the grenades create a sharp explosion and the gas rains down from the sky, designed to cause panic and stampedes. When set on the ground and fired directly at protesters, however, VENOM can be converted into a lethal weapon. During the 2021 protests, one young man was killed in Popayán, a university town in southern Colombia, by the direct impact of a grenade. (A judge in Popayán promptly halted use of the weapon in the city, but it is still in use throughout the rest of the country).

The Need for Accountability

Protesters accused of crimes during the national strike protests were promptly prosecuted, but police and ESMAD agents accused of violent abuses rarely made it to trial. Because the police are under the authority of Colombia’s defense ministry, human rights abuses on the part of the ESMAD are tried in military courts, where few officers have been convicted of human rights abuses.

Around the world, police are becoming increasingly militarized and increasingly immune to prosecution when they employ military force against a civil population. In Colombia, the police have long been trained, armed, and deployed by the military, shielded from prosecution by outside institutions. If Petro is unsuccessful in his attempts to structurally reform the police, “Total Peace” will remain a utopian dream, and Colombians will continue to live in fear of violence from their own government.