EARLY ON SEPTEMBER 9TH police in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, arrested Javier Ordóñez, a taxi driver and father of two, for drinking alcohol in the street. A video that went viral shows two officers pinning him down. One pressed his knee against Mr Ordóñez’s back and tasered his hips. The officers stopped the filming, but witnesses say that Mr Ordóñez was unconscious when they took him to the nearest police station. He died hours later.
In the protests that followed, people in Bogotá and other cities burnt buses and police stations. Police fired gunshots and tear gas and beat up bystanders; protesters hurled back stones. By the time the tumult died down, 13 people had died and hundreds of policemen and protesters had been injured. Colombia has never before seen such a display of rage against the police, says David Gómez, a security analyst.
The protests echo those that followed the killing by police in Minneapolis in May of George Floyd, a black man. But the police force against which they are aimed is very different. The United States has nearly 18,000 police forces, most under local control. Colombia, with a sixth of the United States’ population, has just one. It is the only democracy in which all the police are controlled by the defence ministry. Their duties range from flying Black Hawk helicopters to search for coca bushes in the jungle, to cracking down on public boozing. They wear military green, are grouped into military ranks and often carry rifles, whether patrolling city streets or remote rural areas. As long as the police remain part of the defence ministry, they cannot be reformed, says a retired police general.
This blending of soldiery and constabulary began in the 1950s. In response to political violence, in which mayors used police forces against their foes, the then-president, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a former army general, put the defence ministry in charge of the police. Their paramilitary status made some sense during Colombia’s war against the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group, which began in 1964, and its fight against drug lords like Pablo Escobar. Under Plan Colombia the United States gave the government billions of dollars over 30 years to combat drug-trafficking, much of which went to the police. Today the force is 159,000-strong, more than double what it was in the 1990s.
The threats that justified outfitting it in military green have lessened, but not disappeared. Escobar was killed in 1993. The FARC laid down their arms in 2017. Today’s menaces include smaller drug-dealing gangs that have the command structures of guerrilla groups but not their ideologies. These include FARC guerrillas who refused to disarm and the Clan del Golfo, which is composed of demobilised right-wing paramilitaries. This year across Colombia illegal groups have murdered more than 100 community leaders for such affronts as pushing for the restitution of land to peasants. They carried out 15 massacres in August alone, mainly of people they suspected of sympathising with rivals. In parts of the northern department of Córdoba armed groups extort monthly payments from businesses. They, not the police, have imposed lockdown rules and fined those who break them.
Colombian cities, where four-fifths of people live, have the sorts of crime that plague others in Latin America. Three cities are among the 50 with the highest murder rates in the world. “Micro-trafficking” drug gangs dominate poor neighbourhoods and profit from other crimes, such as prostitution. Reported robberies, from pickpocketing to muggings, have risen fivefold over the past decade. Reports of domestic violence have risen by at least 165% during the pandemic. Recorded rape of women and children is the highest it has ever been. More than four-fifths of bogotanos feel unsafe, according to surveys.
Colombia’s police do not make people feel safer. Because of their history, the police place more emphasis on military activities than on citizens’ security, says Santiago Tobón, a researcher at EAFIT University in Medellín. Preventing crime is “not so sexy”, says Andrés Villamizar, who until 2019 was head of security in Cali, once the headquarters of the “Cali cartel”, now a hotbed of small-scale dealing of drugs and bootleg alcohol. It has Colombia’s highest murder rate and ranks 26th in the world.
Urban policing is based on “quadrants”, designated patrol zones which vary in size depending on how rife crime is in the area. A two-officer team is supposed to be on patrol in each quadrant at all times. But there are too few police to meet that goal, says Alberto Sánchez, a security analyst in Bogotá. A team patrols three or four quadrants, often working overtime. Officers are exhausted. That is one reason for slow responses to reports of crime and the city’s high number of thefts, says Mr Sánchez. Police do a bad job of investigating, bringing charges in just a quarter of murder cases. In Europe the rate is four-fifths.
The problem may get worse. In 2018 a court ruled that many officers could retire after 20 years of service rather than 25. Since then 10,000 have left the force; 15,000 could soon follow. The defence ministry says it plans to recruit 8,500 officers a year.
Abuse by police is widespread. Surveys suggest that most victims do not report it. Nonetheless, from January to August Bogotá’s mayor’s office received 137 complaints of excessive use of force, many from street workers and gay people. The police inspector’s office is supposed to investigate them, but it is not independent and reports to the national police director.
Killings like that of Mr Ordóñez are relatively rare. Last year police killed 90 people, according to the National Institute of Legal Medicine. That is probably an underestimate. Brazilian police killed more than 5,800 in 2019. But Mr Ordóñez’s death has made police reform a big issue. Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, has called for the force to be transferred to civilian control, and for wayward police to be tried in ordinary courts rather than military tribunals.
Such changes might help not just to change the mindset of the police, but also to increase their funding. Currently, they compete for resources with the army, which wields more power in the defence ministry. The police receive 27% of the ministry’s budget, about what they did at the height of the war with the FARC. The ministry buys equipment for the armed forces, but leaves it to governors and mayors, most of whom have little cash to spare, to equip the police.
Police officers make the same low salaries as soldiers, which discourages educated people from joining the force. Nearly a tenth of police are conscripts. The system of military ranks encourages obedience rather than independent thought, believes Liliana Mesías, a security consultant.
After Colombia ended its war with the FARC, reformers hoped the police would become a conventional constabulary, separate from the defence ministry. Juan Manuel Santos, the president who signed the peace deal, set up a commission to propose reforms, but then lost interest.
The current president, Iván Duque, is hostile. His conservative supporters see police reform as an attack on the security forces, which they have historically defended. While apologising for Mr Ordóñez’s death, the defence minister blamed the burning of police stations on guerrillas.
Some defenders of the status quo say that a militarised police force is still needed to deal with militias such as Clan del Golfo. That makes sense, but does not justify green uniforms on city streets. Crime has changed since Colombia ended its war with the FARC and the likes of Escobar. The tragedy of Mr Ordóñez suggests it is time for policing to change, too.■
Editor’s note (September 22nd 2020): Since this article was first published we have clarified a comment attributed to Santiago Tobón of EAFIT University.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Fight crime, not war”