May 17, 2021

IntelBrief: Continued Unrest in Colombia Could Destabilize the Broader Region

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The recent protests in Colombia were ignited by President Ivan Duque’s tax reform bill but have now expanded to encompass other issues.
  • There is concern about whether the recent protests will lead to a rise in COVID-19 infections, at a time when many cities in Colombia are struggling.
  • Calls for police reform in Colombia are gathering momentum as a part of the protests, and the police response has been draconian and heavy-handed.
  • Historically, many of the abuses perpetrated against Colombians have come not from armed groups but rather from state sanctioned violence.

A recent wave of protests in Colombia has destabilized the country, ignited by President Ivan Duque’s tax reform bill in late April. The bill itself was poorly received by many Colombians who viewed it as unjust, particularly since it added taxes on essential food and other items, while also increasing taxes on pensions. Many Colombians viewed the tax reform bill as just another political move to benefit the country’s wealthy elite, shifting the tax burden to the middle class and everyday Colombians. Moreover, the proposed reforms were also perceived as tone-deaf in the middle of a devastating pandemic and subsequent economic recession, with many Colombians struggling to find work and pay for basic necessities.

The tax reform bill was eventually withdrawn by the government, and the finance minister subsequently resigned. However, the protests have since morphed into a more inclusive, national movement. NGOs have noted a death toll close to fifty people. The protests shed light on broader and endemic grievances within Colombia, including but not limited to economic and physical insecurity, widespread inequality, rampant corruption, and police/security-sector brutality and abuses. Another immediate concern is whether the recent protests will lead to a rise in COVID-19 infections; many cities in Colombia have been fighting against intensive care unit (ICU) needs exceeding capacity and concerns about health sector shortages. Colombia’s largest cities, including the capital of Bogota, Cali, and Medellin, have all expressed serious concerns about the health situation. According to Reuters, approximately 7% of Colombia’s 50 million people have been vaccinated to date.

Calls for police reform in Colombia are also gathering momentum as a part of the protests. An important area for reform is the line between military and civilian security discourse. This is borne out of Colombia’s long history with violence and armed conflict — the 2016 Peace Agreement ushered in the end of five decades of armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Yet, not all armed groups are complying with the agreement, and some remain outside of the peace framework, including the National Liberation Army (ELN) and various FARC splinter groups. Colombia also remains the epicenter of a transnational, multi-billion-dollar illicit drug trade, which has always and will continue to be characterized by high levels of violence. Over the past decades, the violence associated with the trade has transitioned away from mega-cartels — which are capable of declaring war on the state and with “soldiers” better armed than Colombian police and military — to smaller criminal networks. But violence remains the defining feature of the illicit economy in Colombia and is connected to every stage of the value chain, from growing to refining to transporting cocaine. Cultivation and production of coca and cocaine remain high. Colombia faces constant international pressure to reduce the supply of illicit drugs, even as it remains inextricably linked to various aspects of everyday life. After the entire arsenal of U.S. military power was deployed against the cartels in the 1980s and 1990s, these criminal groups adapted, learning to attract less security attention, while still maintaining high levels of cultivation and production. Criminals prioritize profit over politics. The status quo means production and profit are healthy, and criminal networks can take advantage of ongoing chaos and anarchy to ply their trade.

Historically, many of the abuses and crimes perpetrated against citizens in Colombia have come not from armed groups or narco-criminals, but rather from state violence or adjacent paramilitary violence. Within this context, the Colombian police have been on the front lines and have become highly militarized. Furthermore, the current protests have shed light on police brutality within the context of demonstrations; but many communities face a securitized existence with the police year-round (and historically), especially Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Colombia is often presented as a success story for overcoming enormous security obstacles and winding down, though not fully extirpating, decades of conflict. Nonetheless, security gains will never be sustainable without addressing endemic inequality and corruption. Colombia’s police force remains one of the few in Latin America that reports to the Ministry of Defense, along with the Colombian military. Therefore, while the police have been trained in counterinsurgency, they have been less focused on serving civilians in times of peace. Lingering security realities in Colombia and a lack of training have left them ill equipped for traditional policing in a political climate where everything is viewed through a security response rather than human security lens.