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Colombia orders police ‘modernization’ after protest criticism

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People shout slogans and wave Colombian flags during a demonstration to welcome the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights (CIDH) to the country, in Bogota, on June 6, 2021. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) arrived in Colombia to assess the situation in the country, shaken for more than a month by massive protests that left dozens of deaths and have generated international alarm. (Photo by Juan BARRETO / AFP)

Colombia announced Sunday an effort to “modernize” the police, who have been widely criticized internationally for the violent repression of anti-government protests.

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President Ivan Duque said he ordered the creation of “a decree that will modernize the structure of the national police, especially to strengthen the policy… on human rights.”

Without specifically yielding to protesters’ demands for police “reform,” Duque promised a “transformation” of the police, which — after decades of armed conflict and violent struggle against drug traffickers in this South American country — answer to the Defense Ministry.

He said he would create a human rights directorate headed by an outside expert. A statement from the defense ministry also said there would be better follow-up on citizen “complaints” and a training review, plus systematic use of ID badges and body-cams.

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The aim is to ensure “professionalization so that all police officers are trained in (human) rights and use of force,” Defense Minister Diego Molano told AFP.

Duque’s announcement came as a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) arrived for a four-day visit to the country to evaluate the recent social turmoil in Bogota and in the southwestern city of Cali.

The delegation from the Washington-based body was greeted by hundreds of people on a central avenue in Bogota on Sunday. Some carried banners, one of which read: “Duque, stop the massacre. Welcome IACHR.”

Later on Sunday a major group representing protesters broke off talks with the government that began in early May.

The National Strike Committee, which represents labor unions, students and indigenous peoples, among others, accused the government of “purposely delaying negotiations.”

Demonstrations on April 28 against proposed tax hikes have morphed into widespread anti-government protests of unprecedented scope in this country of 50 million.

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At least 61 people, mostly civilians but including two uniformed officers, have died in the protests, according to the authorities, while the NGO Human Rights Watch has cited “credible reports” of 67 deaths.

Young people — many of whom were sheltered from the dark years of armed conflict and decades of stigmatization against social protest — have not hesitated to film the repression with smartphones.

Government delegates and protest leaders have held talks aimed at defusing the crisis, so far in vain.

Protesters want Duque to denounce excessive force by police and act to address yawning inequities in the country.

The president, meantime, wants his political opponents to condemn the dozens of roadblocks that have sprung up across the country, which he blames for crippling the economy and leading to the deaths of two babies trapped in ambulances.

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