Unease over the deployment of the army in the midst of social protest

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The use of the military in the face of demonstrations against government policy in Colombia has raised fears in a country unaccustomed to social protest and traumatized by decades of internal war.

Alongside the army commander, right-wing President Ivan Duque on Saturday announced the use of “military assistance” to fight “those who by means of violence, vandalism and terrorism claim to frighten society “.

AFP journalists had, however, already noted the presence of soldiers during the demonstrations, initiated on April 28 against a tax reform project.

For Eduardo Bechara, professor of public policies at Externado University, “this measure was perceived by citizens as militarization” or even “repression”.

After sixty years of persistent conflict, despite the 2016 peace agreement with the former Farc rebellion, traditionally conservative governments are more accustomed to managing war in the countryside than urban protests.

The unrest that has marked some of the mostly peaceful protests in recent days have resulted in at least 19 deaths, according to the People’s Defender, a public rights protection body.

Defense Minister Diego Molano reported more than 800 injured and hundreds of businesses vandalized.

The army was deployed on Friday in Cali, the country’s third largest city. The minister then announced the reinforcement of 700 soldiers there against the “criminal organizations” which, according to him, orchestrate the disturbances.

Stifle the protest

Under the pressure of the demonstrations, President Ivan Duque withdrew his project, promised a new text and the Minister of Finance resigned.

The National Strike Committee, which brings together the protesting sectors, maintains the mobilization to force the government to change its policy, in the midst of an economic crisis aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to Ariel Avila, deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, using the army, the authorities are trying to intimidate the demonstrators.

“It’s the same old, lifelong strategy that aims to make people holed up. It is a message to put an end to the protests ”, estimates this researcher.

The opposition mayors of Bogota and Medellin, the country’s second city, rejected the proposal. But soldiers still patrol the streets of the capital on presidential orders.

The total number of staff deployed has not been communicated.

Colombia has 266,606 military personnel and 157,820 police officers under the command of the Ministry of Defense, according to official figures.

The military deployment comes as the police are in the eye of the storm. Last September, it repressed mobilisations against the brutality of its agents, killing a dozen and more than 500 injured.

The Supreme Court of Justice then ordered the Ministry of Defense to apologize for these excesses and to review the methods of the police.

These days, several NGOs, international organizations and the opposition have denounced disproportionate repression.

Colombian NGO Temblores reported 940 cases of abuse and indicated that “the deaths of eight demonstrators allegedly attacked by police” were under investigation.

The local UN human rights office has expressed on Twitter its “concern” for the victims and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has urged the state to shed light on the involvement of law enforcement in attacks, including sexual abuse.

For its part, the government has admitted only two deaths linked to the demonstrations, those of a civilian and a police officer.

Back to the past

Sending the soldiers into the streets represents “a terrible risk” because they are more used to fighting armed groups with fire and blood, underlines Ariel Avila.

“It is an excessive response (…) which will worsen the number of deaths”, he warns.

For Florent Frasson-Quenoz, expert in international security, this decision one year away from the presidential election is in line with the “hard right-wing electorate” which votes for the Democratic Center (CD, in power).

It is a return to the policy of the “iron fist” of the former president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), mentor of Mr. Duque, during his fight against the guerrillas of the left.

Twitter censored one of his messages on Friday in which he called on the police to “use their weapons to defend their integrity, to defend people and property (…) from vandal terrorism”.

For analyst Eduardo Bechara, the government and its allies should seize the opportunity to “rethink security within a frame of reference” distinct from that of armed conflict.