The wave of violence erupted over a video showing two officers holding down a 43-year-old man being tasered as he begged them to stop and highlights long simmering tensions over excessive use of force by police.
Violent clashes have erupted in Colombia’s capital following the death of a man in police custody, with angry citizens setting fire to city buses, vandalising police stations and squaring off with officers in confrontations that killed at least nine people.
The wave of violence on Wednesday erupted over a video showing two officers holding down a 43-year-old man being tasered as he begged them to stop and highlights long simmering tensions over excessive use of force by police.
Authorities said on Thursday that 56 police stations were damaged, eight city buses burned and 175 civilians injured during the unrest, including 66 hit by bullets.
“That didn’t even happen during combat in the worst moments of the Colombian armed conflict,” Mayor Claudia Lopez said after visiting the injured at a hospital. “What happened yesterday was an indiscriminate, disproportionate, absolutely unjustified attack by some members of the police against the citizens of Bogota.”
The outrage stemmed from the death of taxi driver Javier Ordonez. Police said they were called to respond to reports of a fight among a group of men who had been drinking late into the night in Engativa, a working-class Bogota neighbourhood hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
“They turned aggressive against the police,” Col. Alexander Amaya said.
Video captured by witnesses shows Ordonez, dressed in black pants and sneakers, being held down by officers as he cried out.
“Stop, stop please!” he begged.
“He’s telling you to stop!” a witness yells in the background. “We’re recording you.”
Without vital signs
According to officials, Ordonez was taken to a police station and later to a hospital, where he arrived without vital signs. As word of his death got out on Wednesday, citizens took the streets, defying government orders to avoid conglomerations because of the pandemic. Several streets were left with piles of ash and rubble.
The dead were mostly young people. The youngest was 17.
Authorities promised a thorough investigation, though relatives expressed skepticism that they would see justice in a country with high levels of impunity.
The mayor said she would insist on an independent probe by the attorney general’s office. “None of the families I’ve spoken with trust in an investigation by the police,” Lopez said.
Police in Colombia were repeatedly accused of excessive use of force during anti-government protests that brought thousands to the street last year. The death of 18-year-old student Dilan Cruz, who was hit in the head by a projectile fired by police while protesting, sparked widespread outrage and condemnation from human rights groups.
The new unrest comes at a time of protests in the United States over racial discrimination and police abuse against Black citizens. The Colombia protests are more closely tied to abuse against the young and poor. Taking a cue from the US, the hashtag #ColombiaLives Matter began trending on Twitter.
Alejandro Lanz, a lawyer who leads Temblores, a group that tracks police violence, said he has documented 170 instances of excessive force this year. He expressed particular concern about the use of firearms by police and the presence of non-identified officers during Wednesday night's protests.
“We think these statistics are an undercount,” he said.
New demonstrations broke out as night descended on the city on Thursday. Dozens of protesters tried to knock down a stoplight and set a trash bin on fire. Police deployed 1,500 additional officers and 300 soldiers throughout Bogota.
Colombia is emerging from a five-month lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Millions have lost their jobs, nearly 700,000 have been infected by the virus and over 22,000 people have died from Covid-19.
Authorities asked citizens to cease acts of violence and vandalism.
“Colombia demands justice,” Interior Vice Minister Daniel Palacios said. “But the violent acts yesterday also fill us with pain and as a consequence take more lives.”
Videos taken by protesters using smartphones and shared on social media show terrified demonstrators running from gunfire during Wednesday's clashes.
One man in a crowd is heard shouting "he's been hit, he's been hit!" as another, with bloodstained clothes, is dragged away by friends.
The family of 23-year-old Frankpierre Charry said he was shot by police after he was caught up in the clashes in southern Bogota.
"The doctors say they shot him in the back, from very close range," his mother Blanca Clavijo told AFP.
The bullet had "hit his stomach and damaged his intestines," leaving him fighting for his life in hospital, she said.
The government said 56 police posts had been "vandalised" and 70 people arrested for "violence against public forces."
The defence minister told a news conference that the officers who detained the victim had been immediately suspended.
The police claim they had responded to a complaint of public drunkenness and that Ordonez had assaulted them, necessitating the use of a taser.
"We express our sorrow for the death of Javier Ordonez and offer our solidarity with his family," Trujillo said.
"The national government will continue to cooperate with the authorities so that the facts are established as soon as possible."
Capture of the perpetrators
Before the death toll rose to seven, the minister offered a reward for "the capture of the perpetrators of the murder of five people" during the unrest in Bogota and the neighbouring municipality of Soacha.
Lopez, the city's leftist mayor elected last October, said the case highlighted the need for "deep and serious restructuring within the police."
She said 137 complaints of excessive use of force by the police had been made so far this year.
"There is a structural problem of cases of police abuse and, in addition, impunity," Lopez said i n a statement.
For many Colombians, the case evoked the killing in the US in May of African American George Floyd, also 46, who suffocated after being pinned by the neck to the road under the knee of a white officer.
Floyd's plea that "I can't breathe" has become emblematic of police brutality toward African-Americans, burnished on banners and T-shirts at protests that continue to roil the United States.