Crushing of Colombia’s Wave of Unrest Had UK’s Defense Assistance


Photo source: Al Jazeera

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Due to an unpopular tax reform in April 2021, tens of thousands of protestors across Colombia, had joined to vent the frustration over rising inequality against the right-wing administration of President Ivan Duque. Infact, Colombia is a country where more than forty percent of people survive on less than $90 dollars a month.

The majority of protests were largely peaceful, even though dystopian, which led to some vandalism and looting leading to damaged public transport, businesses and state buildings. Colombians believe that there is also a discontent over corruption, and the absence of state in rural areas, all serving to fuel protests in Colombia. According to statistics agency Dane, the middle class fell, the incomes declined, and at the same time the number of poor households have had surged for a while. The United Nations had violently condemned the violent repression of protests.

Witnesses amid the protests said that officers have seemed to exacerbate tensions. Police were waiting for night to fall so they can roll up and start shooting indiscriminately. A community leader in a poor Cali neighbourhood said that his area had been repeatedly raided by police and that the bodies there had been piling up, the dead on top of the dead.

Each night had bought a new cacophony there. The whirl of police helicopters overhead, sirens, flash bangs and the fizz of teargas dominated the streets of Cali, which has the largest Afro descendants in Colombia, and where racism and classism is rampant. Protesters, seeking to block the entry of riot police into their communities, set up roadblocks made of burning debris. There had been an order to militarise the city. Social media circulated through cell phones showed scenes reminiscent of a war zone. Temblores, a local NGO that monitors police violence, had advised protesters in Cali to go home, as there were no guarantees of safety. The city’s airport, from which over twenty five flights depart each day, had been closed amid the protests. During this time, there were roadblocks on the edges of the city, and on the road to the nearby Pacific seaport in Buenaventura. There were protests in multiple other cities as well, hinting that these protests were not only diverse in demands, but in terms of geography as well.

As per an article in Al Jazeera by Fabio Andes and Maria Gabriela, while the reform package included a wealth tax for individuals with assets above $1.35m, it also had many provisions that would affect low-income households, as the new law would have lowered the taxable income threshold and increased pension and value-added tax (VAT). All these new clauses would have significantly increased the prices of subsistence items, such as eggs, milk, cheese and meat.

Other elements of the reform benefitted the private sector and specific economic groups. They included maintaining several tax exemptions for various industries, including the finance sector, mostly benefitting well-off entrepreneurs.

When protests started, instead of engaging in an open dialogue and listening to the population’s grievances, the government resorted to a smear campaign. It tried to portray the demonstrations as a radical left-wing conspiracy that was going to destabilise Colombia. The pro-government figures have being weaponising this narrative which they call as “castrochavismo.”

The protests should also be seen in the context of the 2016 peace agreements between the Colombian government and FARC. As the incidents of violence between FARC and the government declined, social movements created more space for mobilisation. These protest movements also had a hope that its concerns would be dealt with one day. But the violence continued unabated.

It was also being said that UK assisted Columbian police force curbing the recent protests. According to Declassified, the UK military had up to nine soldiers ‘assisting’ the Colombian police force a month before it launched a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters that left sixty three people dead, according to Human Rights Watch. But, the ministry of defence (MOD) refused to divulge information regarding the nature of the recent assistance.

Wendy Morton, foreign minister responsible for the Americas had told the parliament in March 2021, a month before protests erupted that fewer than ten members of the UK armed forces were deployed to Colombia to assist the Colombian police service. A year before in 2020, the ministry of defence told Declassified in response to a freedom of information request that the UK military had up to five personnel deployed in Colombia. However, it refused to say what their role was as ‘it would prejudice the security of UK personnel serving abroad.’

Declassified had also revealed  that the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) had also trained the Colombian police in a multimillion-pound five-year programme that was shrouded in secrecy. The NCA is shielded from Britain’s transparency laws.
Morton also told UK parliament that the UK military personnel deployed in Colombia supported its armed forces as well as the police, including “capacity building support” to the Colombian ministry of defence.

There has long been close military cooperation between the UK and Colombia, which has led to an appalling human rights record by Colombia’s armed forces. In 2020, Colombian personnel attended five military courses in the UK, including “building integrity for senior leaders”, a course for one- and two-star military officers. Six courses were also given to Colombian military personnel, including an “advanced command and staff course”, which includes “planning operations”.

Freedom of information requests had revealed that in the six years to 2020, three hundred nine Colombian students studied at the UK’s Defence Academy and its constituent colleges. The academy is part of the ministry of defence, and trains personnel from the British army and civil service, as well as from overseas.

British assistance has also extended to Colombia’s intelligence services. MI6 was heavily involved in setting up of so-called “vetted units” of Colombian intelligence agents, according to a BBC article. MI6 had helped Colombia set up electronic eavesdropping centres, and recording incriminating conversations. In 2018, the Colombian army ran an illegal spying operation on more than one hundred thirty people including politicians, NGOs, trade unionists, and international journalists.

According to Matt Kennard, head of investigations at Declassified UK, since the beginning of 2016, the UK has licensed the export of £28-million worth of military or “dual-use” military and civilian equipment to Colombia. This includes £1.5-million worth of light weapons, artillery, small arms, and ammunition.

The UK government claims to refuse arms exports when there is a “risk of contributing to internal tensions or conflict in the recipient country”.

However, it commissioned a report in 2018 that found the Colombian state and military had carried out “massive human rights violations and abuses”, leading to the “systematic contravention of international humanitarian law.”

In 2019, the UK government invited Colombia to shop for arms at DSEI, a defence fair dubbed a “festival of violence” that brings together arms dealers and military delegations globally.

In 2020, the British government made Colombia one of its key arms sales markets and rubber stamped all thirty export licence requests made, to the tune of £2.5-million, despite placing it on its “human rights priority countries”. It shows not only their double standards, but also inclusion of massive military aid which have resulted in many blood feuds in Colombia. The partnership still continues.

A recent inquiry found the Colombian army was responsible for six thousand four hundred two extrajudicial killings of civilians from 2002-8 during a crackdown on left-wing rebels in the country.

Vulnerable civilians, often poor young men, were murdered and falsely presented as enemy combatants, in order to improve public perception of the Colombian army’s fight against the FARC. There were access rewards offered to military units that achieved high body counts.

In May 2021, Colombian President Ivan Duque deployed troops to its western provinces and Bogota, which was also put under a curfew. However, succumbing to pressure, Duque also made some concessions by invoking some police reforms in the wake of public and international pressure. The reforms include establishing, with international guidance, a committee on human rights, in addition to new officer trainings.




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