Dispatch

In Colombia, Violence Against Protesters Is Exploding

The United States should invoke the Leahy Law to stop paying for it.

By , a journalist in Bogotá.
Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest in Cali, Colombia, on April 29.
Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest in Cali, Colombia, on April 29. Paola Mafla/AFP/Getty Images

CALI, Colombia—The protests that have swept Colombia in the past two weeks have led to a violent and disproportionate police response. But the deaths of at least 41 protesters, hundreds of disappearances, a dozen accusations of sexual assault by police against protesters, and public officials’ dismissive or inflammatory remarks have only emboldened many demonstrators and turned a protest against tax reform into a national movement.

On April 30, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe tweeted in defense of police use of firearms against protesters. On May 3, Defense Minister Diego Molano equated protesters with terrorists, and on May 4 the commander of Colombia’s army referred to ESMAD, the country’s notorious anti-riot police, as “heroes in black” and expressed “love” for them. Uribe’s tweets were later removed by Twitter for glorifying violence, but since then, reports of excessive police violence have persisted, and talks with protest leaders have fallen through.

With the uprising showing no signs of stopping, many U.S. politicians, academics, and NGOs are calling on Washington to cease its funding for the Colombian armed forces through a pair of statutory provisions referred to as the Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S. government from funding foreign armed forces that commit human rights violations.

CALI, Colombia—The protests that have swept Colombia in the past two weeks have led to a violent and disproportionate police response. But the deaths of at least 41 protesters, hundreds of disappearances, a dozen accusations of sexual assault by police against protesters, and public officials’ dismissive or inflammatory remarks have only emboldened many demonstrators and turned a protest against tax reform into a national movement.

On April 30, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe tweeted in defense of police use of firearms against protesters. On May 3, Defense Minister Diego Molano equated protesters with terrorists, and on May 4 the commander of Colombia’s army referred to ESMAD, the country’s notorious anti-riot police, as “heroes in black” and expressed “love” for them. Uribe’s tweets were later removed by Twitter for glorifying violence, but since then, reports of excessive police violence have persisted, and talks with protest leaders have fallen through.

With the uprising showing no signs of stopping, many U.S. politicians, academics, and NGOs are calling on Washington to cease its funding for the Colombian armed forces through a pair of statutory provisions referred to as the Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S. government from funding foreign armed forces that commit human rights violations.

On Friday, a group of 55 members of Congress led by Rep. Jim McGovern signed a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing “grave concern over the political and human rights situation” and calling on Washington to denounce police brutality there and to suspend military assistance and weapons sales. Meanwhile, a petition by a group of Colombian academics calling on the United States to invoke the Leahy Law has attracted signatures from more than 2,700 people.

The Leahy Law, first introduced in 1997, stems from efforts to control U.S. military aid to Colombia during the early years when Plan Colombia—the $10 billion, 15-year U.S. campaign to tackle Colombia’s armed leftist insurgents and the drug trade that funded them—was taking shape. At the time, human rights organizations had been documenting horrific abuses committed by the Colombian military and police, and the Leahy Law allowed the United States to target specific units that committed “gross human rights violations,” such as rape, murder, or torture, rather than cutting off aid to an entire country.

Since then, the law has been used with respect to Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Jamaica, and elsewhere. As the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), a U.S.-based nonprofit, has documented, the law has prompted greater accountability for human rights violations in Latin America, including in Colombia. There, the United States froze certain military aid in 2009 in response to the “false positives” scandal in which Colombian soldiers were alleged to have killed thousands of people and dressed them as guerrilla insurgents to claim time off and extra pay for killing combatants. Such pressure was in part responsible for bringing some of the perpetrators to justice in civilian courts.

The true extent of the use of the Leahy Law is unknown, and Adam Isacson, the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said that is by design. Isacson said the U.S. government does not publish a list of banned units for fear of damaging those relationships, meaning that the Leahy Law can be applied quietly and often is. But in the case of the police response to the Colombia protests, Isacson and others say the United States should invoke the law loudly and publicly to distance the country from the brutal tactics being used. Colombia’s security force “gets by far the most amount of U.S. aid in the hemisphere, so there is a bit of guilt by association here,” he said in May. Washington should “say in public that we’re not okay with this.”

The United States does give roughly $300 million in annual assistance to Colombia, sometimes as much as half of it toward military and law enforcement, but such aid is not broken down by unit. A State Department spokesperson stated in an email to Foreign Policy that “all foreign security force units who are nominated to receive any type of U.S. assistance are first vetted under the Leahy Law” and that adherence to such requirements has “been and will remain a bedrock principle of all our training programs, in Colombia and around the world.” The spokesperson went on to note that the U.S. government “does not train or equip” ESMAD, which has a particularly poor record on human rights and is especially loathed by the public.

Isacson said that while the Leahy Law applies to grant assistance, it does not apply to sales of weapons if foreign armies want to purchase them. Similar complaints have arisen, he points out, with U.S. sales of fighter jets to Saudi Arabia that have been used in the war in Yemen. “Congress can turn down a big sale, or there can be a lot of political pressure to stop one, but if they’re using their own money, creating U.S. jobs, then it’s harder to stop,” he said.

The lack of data is also why Isabel Peñaranda, one of the organizers of the petition of Colombian academics and an incoming Ph.D. student in urban planning at the University of California, Berkeley, said the demands of the Colombian Scholars Network include greater transparency of where U.S. foreign aid is going. It is also why Lisa Haugaard, the co-director of LAWG, said her organization is calling for the United States to do more than use the Leahy Law, which involves a lengthy verification process.

“The Leahy Law is a pretty slow process where you have to prove that the unit that is involved in the specific violation received U.S. funding,” she said. Instead, Haugaard hopes in the short term that the United States will immediately suspend U.S. assistance to Colombian police and halt U.S. exports of weapons and crowd control equipment like tear gas canisters “until there is some accountability.”

WOLA’s Isacson said he’s hopeful the United States will invoke the Leahy Law, but it’s not clear that if it does, which units it will apply to. “The request that a lot of NGOs and some members of Congress are making now is to actually suspend all aid to the entire Colombian national police,” he said, “which I support in my heart, but I know the Biden administration will never do.”

While U.S. President Joe Biden has verbally committed to human rights as a centerpiece of his foreign-policy agenda, the Colombian political analyst Sergio Guzmán said, in practice, it has been more temperate, and Colombia’s role in international politics might make the United States reluctant to cause tension in the U.S.-Colombian relationship.

By taking in 1.9 million Venezuelan refugees, Colombian President Iván Duque has “done a huge service to regional stability,” he said. And as China makes massive investments in Latin America, the Biden administration might be reluctant to make Colombia rethink its strategic alliance with the United States. U.S. military commanders, meanwhile, have criticized the Leahy Law in the past for limiting their ability to train and equip foreign troops to fight terrorists and drug traffickers.

“Right now [Biden] has plenty of tools to coerce Colombia,” Guzmán said. “The question is whether or not he’ll use them. And this is really the first test to see if the administration is willing to coerce Colombia or not.”

And that might be an issue, he says, since the Duque government does not acknowledge its record on human rights—or even the recent police violence—as an issue. On Wednesday, Duque told the New York Times that while there were individual cases of police overreach, he didn’t see it as a systematic problem. “There have been acts of abuse of force,” he said. But “just saying that there could be any possibility that the Colombian police will be seen as a systematic abuser of human rights—well, that will be not only unfair, unjust, but without any base, any ground.”

But that’s not how many Colombians—and Colombian Americans—see it. Peñaranda, who was born in Colombia before moving to the United States as a child and has returned several times to conduct research, said the shocking violence seen in recent weeks has become a “rallying cry” prompting Colombian Americans to connect and organize. “Colombians, both within Colombia and abroad, I’ve never seen so united around one thing, so in agreement,” Peñaranda said. “And so it’s a really interesting moment to be thinking about this law, which would have really huge implications for other countries, as well as other cases in Colombia beyond the protests.”

If abuses continue without accountability, it’s possible that the U.S. Congress might cut police aid, and such a threat could incentivize Colombia to show restraint or prosecute low-ranking offenders, Isacson said. But Guzmán said fully defunding Colombia’s police is unlikely, especially considering that progressive Democrats have been unable to sway Congress on other U.S. allies whose actions they object to, like Egypt and Israel. U.S. aid to Colombia has been widely lauded as a success, and it’s unlikely the administration would want to hinder that.

While the issue of the Leahy Law specifically is not an issue for Colombians to decide, many are looking with desperation toward foreign actors to pressure their government in a way that the people have been unable to. “Colombians want foreign countries to hold Colombia accountable,” Guzmán said. “Because I think that they realize that their government and the government institutions that are supposed to keep themselves accountable are doing a pretty terrible job at it.”

Genevieve Glatsky is a journalist in Bogotá. Her writing has appeared in Politico, the Independent, and more.

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