BOGOTA (Reuters) – Members of Colombia’s national police force who are responsible for abuses or acts of violence amid ongoing protests will be punished to the full extent of the law, the head of the force said.
Demonstrators and human rights groups have repeatedly accused police officers of killing civilians, excessive use of force, sexual abuse and the use of firearms, both during current protests and previous ones.
Accusations of possible abuse of a minor in the city of Popayan have sparked violent protests there this week.
“They must respond before the authorities and whoever has knowingly committed a crime; the response will have the full weight of the law,” national police director General Jorge Luis Vargas told Reuters in an interview.
“We are the first to reject illegal behavior by an officer and we will ask for forgiveness when there’s a judicial decision,” said Vargas.
Vargas said 122 disciplinary proceedings have been opened against police since protests began last month, while three have been arrested on murder charges tied to civilian deaths.
“There cannot be, there must not be and there will not be impunity,” said the 30-year police veteran.
Accused officers will have due process, he said, adding cops have also been the victims of physical aggression, firearm attacks and one incident where a mob set fire to a station.
One police officer has died and nearly 900 have been injured.
Police who have intervened to control looting and vandalism during protests have not used firearms, Vargas said. Instead non-lethal weapons are employed according to national and international rules.
Groups like Human Rights Watch say misuse of non-lethal weapons can lead to deaths.
Protesters, who originally called marches against a now-canceled tax plan, have expanded demands to include a basic income, an end to police violence and opportunities for young people, among other things.
The protests’ death toll is disputed. The human rights ombudsman is investigating 41 civilian deaths, while the attorney general’s office has confirmed 14.
Road blockades causing shortages will be broken up by the police whenever the government orders, Vargas said, repeating accusations that criminal groups and guerrillas have infiltrated protests to stoke violence.
Leftist politicians and student groups have long demanded the police be transferred out of defense ministry control, use of lethal weapons during protests be banned, the riot police disbanded and officers implicated in abuse be tried in civilian and not military courts.
Vargas ruled out the dissolution of the riot squad but said he supports more options for punishing police abuse.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Chris Reese)