PBI-Colombia accompanied organizations comment on the ESMAD riot police now being called the UNDMO

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Photo: The ESMAD riot police.

The government of President Gustavo Petro has changed the name of the controversial ESMAD police unit to UNDMO. The Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) is now the Dialogue and Order Maintenance Unit (UNDMO).

Three PBI-Colombia accompanied organizations – the Committee of Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP), the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CCAJAR), and the Corporation for Judicial Liberty (CJL) – say this is insufficient.

They released this open letter on June 13 that expresses their “deep concern about the process of internal transformation” which they describe as “cosmetic” and one that “does not favour comprehensive transformations.”

For context, the ESMAD was formed in February 1999 as a specialized police unit to deal with protests and crowds. Between its inception and November 2019, the ESMAD killed 34 people. Among the dead: 10 students, 9 campesinos, 9 Indigenous people, 2 children, 1 homeless man, a worker, a street vendor, and one other person.

According to the non-governmental organization (NGO) Temblores, there were also 3,789 cases of police violence including 45 killings between April 28 and May 31, 2021, against protesters challenging the neoliberal policies of the government headed by Iván Duque.

By November 2021, the ESMAD had also been implicated in 12 cases of irreversible eye trauma during the National Strike of 2020 and 2021. They are accused of intentionally firing less-than-lethal weapons at the eyes of people at protests.

Photo: “I regret to inform the ESMAD that with my left eye I still see a better future for my country.”

During the National Strike, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) supported the popular call for the dismantling of the ESMAD.

Notably, Petro, as a candidate in 2022, had promised to do just that.

Specifically, his program stated: “Our priority will be to recover, at the institutional and operational level, the civilian character of the police force and, accordingly, to redefine its functions and priorities, which include the dismantling of the ESMAD and the transition to a force oriented to the peaceful and intelligent resolution of conflicts.”

Petro was sworn in as President of Colombia on August 7, 2022.

Photo: Petro, a former M-19 guerilla, is Colombia’s first left-wing president. Before his election, five presidential candidates had been assassinated: liberal Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (1948), communist Jaime Pardo Leal (1987), liberal Luis Carlos Galan (1989), and leftists Bernardo Jaramillo and Carlos Pizarro (1990).

The recently announced UNDMO will be divided into two groups: one focused on dialogue (who will wear blue vests and a white helmet), the other on controlling public order (who will wear the current uniform of black armour, helmets and shields). Portafolio reports: “[The UNDMO] will continue to have the well-known tankettes [armoured vehicles], but inside it will have a mobile dialogue unit equipped for the subject.”

Photo: The new dialogue group with the public order group behind them.

The three PBI-Colombia accompanied organizations along with other organizations, including the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) and the Movement in Resistance Against Eye Aggressions of the ESMAD (MOCAO), now say: “The new UNDMO, although it replaces the ESMAD, does not dismantle the old structure and seeks to legitimize abusive practices and human rights violations in other scenarios.”

They further highlight in their statement: “The opportunity to confront and put an end to [ESMAD] practices of discrimination against women, people with diverse sexual orientation and gender identity and structural racism against the Afro-descendant population and ethnic communities is missed.”

The organizations also note that the “military doctrine” of the police continues to see protesters as an “internal enemy”. They comment: “The intention to leave behind this conception has not gone beyond the discourse and, therefore, the current attempts to change practices of systemic violence within the National Police are insufficient.”

We will continue to follow this and help to amplify the concerns of organizations in Colombia accompanied by Peace Brigades International.

Photos: An old and new ESMAD tankette.

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