Colombia’s Police Force, Built for War, Finds a New One

At the time, the government hoped to professionalize and depoliticize the work by consolidating a fragmented system into a national force, said Juan Carlos Ruíz, a professor and security expert at Colombia’s Universidad del Rosario.

By the 2000s, the police had become a critical actor in a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at exterminating the FARC, in which the military evacuated rebels from the territory and the police held that ground. The strategy worked and forced the rebels to negotiate. And it earned the police “a very high level of civil trust,” said Paul Angelo, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But little has changed within the police department since the peace agreement.

Juan Manuel Santos, who was president when the treaty was signed, had long supported the expulsion of the police from the Ministry of Defense. But the idea was unpopular with the armed forces, also because the police bring money and manpower into the ministry, said Angelo. Until Mr Santos signed the peace agreement, he had little time in office and even less political capital. The change was never made.

Now, advocates of police reform are pushing again to move the 140,000 Defense Department officers to the Home Office – and prioritize human rights education, weapon restrictions, and bring officials to justice who commit crimes in ordinary courts instead of military courts.

In an interview, the head of the national police force, General Jorge Luis Vargas, said he presented a reform plan to the country earlier this year. But the police shouldn’t be removed from the Department of Defense, he said.

“The current situation of drug trafficking and illegal groups does not allow this,” he said, calling these problems “the main problem in Colombia”.

The protests began in late April when Mr Duque proposed a tax overhaul to close a tax hole exacerbated by the pandemic. The country was already on the brink: after a year of restrictions related to Covid, the outbreak continued to grow, along with poverty, inequality and unemployment.