Heavy-Handed Riot Police Bring Wave of Criticism on Colombia

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Colombia is facing a wave of criticism from foreign governments and human rights organizations over heavy-handed police tactics during recent protests.

U.S. House Foreign Affairs chair Gregory Meeks, a Democrat, expressed concern over “excessive use of force”, and warned that the so-called Leahy Law bars the U.S. from supporting security forces involved in severe human rights violations.

The U.N. Office for Human Rights said in a statement that it was “deeply alarmed” by police opening fire on demonstrators in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, on Monday night.

The Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO which studies human rights in the region, called on the U.S. to suspend sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces.

The European Union and Human Rights Watch also criticized the government.

At least 20 people have died across the country in recent days in clashes between protesters and security forces. The police said that nearly 600 officers have been injured, and that they have repeatedly been attacked with firearms.

Defense Minister Diego Molano said that Colombia is facing a “terrorist threat from organized crime gangs” who are seeking to destabilize cities including Bogota, Medellin and Cali.

Demonstrations erupted last week in protest against a plan by the government of President Ivan Duque to raise taxes. More marches are planned by labor unions Wednesday even though the tax proposal was withdrawn and the Finance Minister resigned.

Masked vandals put dozens of stations of Colombia’s mass transit bus network out of action, while road blocks by protesting truckers have hampered food distribution. Chicken producers say that hundreds of thousands of birds have died because of food shortages caused by the blockades.

In a statement, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said it will meet with foreign diplomats on Wednesday to explain the situation, and affirmed that Colombia is a law-abiding state which guarantees the right of peaceful mobilization.

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