The images of armed civilians shooting at protesters while being escorted by police in a wealthy Cali neighborhood have revived the specter of paramilitarism in Colombia and set off the alarms of international organizations. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michel Bachelet, called for an independent investigation into these attacks. “In some parts of the city, some private individuals have shot at protesters in the presence of police officers,” he said in a statement expressing concern about the deaths in the third largest city in the country.
“It is essential that all persons who allegedly caused injury or death, including state officials, are subject to prompt, effective, independent, impartial and transparent investigations, and that those responsible are accountable to the law,” Bachelet said. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also expressed its concern about the presence of civilians firing at the sight of agents of the public force. “The IACHR urges the State of Colombia to promptly and diligently investigate these events and punish those responsible. Likewise, it makes an urgent call to the State to strengthen the dialogue between all the parties and reiterates its willingness to contribute in this process ”.
On Friday, a month after the start of the national strike, Cali experienced a day of terror. At least 14 people died and 98 were injured, 54 of them by firearms in different parts of the city. In one of the most serious cases, an off-duty judicial police officer shot and killed two protesters. A crowd chased him and beat him to death.
At the end of the day, President Iván Duque traveled to the city, ordered the militarization of Cali and Valle del Cauca and, later, that of 7 other departments. The president also visited some neighborhoods, including Ciudad Jardín, the same neighborhood where groups of armed civilians were seen shooting, as they had done weeks ago against indigenous protesters. During his visit, several citizens thanked him for the order to triple the presence of the Army in the streets.
Following criticism from the UN and the IACHR, the Police have announced that they will investigate 10 agents and 5 civilians. The police commander, Jorge Vargas, assured that they had already identified the uniformed men and handed over the information to the military criminal justice and the Attorney General’s Office –which investigates public officials– while the data on civilians were sent to the Prosecutor’s Office. “Coordination was ordered to the Prosecutor’s Office to identify and prosecute and to know if (the weapons used) are traumatic or fire and what is the procedure to follow,” added the commander of the Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol, Fernando Murillo.
It is not yet clear whether these agents or the civilians caused any of the deaths that occurred that day in Cali. “We are waiting for information from three injured people who were at the Valle del Lili clinic to see if it corresponds to firearms or blank weapons and to be able to inform the Prosecutor’s Office about individuals who made use of those weapons,” Murillo told Caracol Radio.
One of those civilians – a marketing businessman – appeared on social media to acknowledge that he was one of the men seen in the videos. And although he assured that his was a blank weapon, he revealed that there is a citizen self-defense group in the neighborhood. “We have created a group for the benefit of the entire commune 22, we went out to defend it, not with the aim of causing damage but rather that the vandals would withdraw. The public force could not react, ”said Andrés Escobar. He assured that he is “a good person, not a paramilitary.”
It is not the first time that complaints have emerged about the presence of civilians who have fired at protesters in the last month. On May 10, several of them fired at indigenous people from Cauca, but no investigations are yet known. The mayor of Cali, Jorge Iván Ospina, said that his wardrobe and weapons are striking. “There is one thing that is very strange about these men: they are close to the Police, with short and long weapons and have the same concept of those who shot at indigenous people and express extreme radicalization, because they deny that societies have citizen mobilizations” .
Also in Pereira and Medellín, civilians have participated in attacks on protesters. In the first, located in the coffee region, armed men shot and killed Lucas Villa, a young man who was demonstrating peacefully on a bridge in the city; while in Medellín, a man surrendered to the police after shooting at people who were blocking a road. He argued that he used a blank gun. The police fined him 240,000 pesos ($ 64).
The mayor of Bogotá has demonstrated against the emergence of this type of group in the national strike. “The extreme right calls for militarization and the extreme left for rebellion. It is irresponsible to romanticize citizen self-defense or militarization. Instead of equally condemning all violence, they stoke hatred that ends in indiscriminate violence against young people or police, ”said the local president.
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