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Colombia’s Police Force, Built for War, Finds a New One

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At the time, the government hoped to professionalize and depoliticize the job by consolidating a fragmented system into a national force, said Juan Carlos Ruíz, a professor and security expert at Colombia’s Universidad del Rosario.

By the 2000s, the police had become a critical player in a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at rooting out the FARC, in which the military cleared rebels from territory and the police held that ground. The strategy worked, forcing the rebels to negotiate. And it earned the police “very high levels of citizen trust,” said Paul Angelo, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But since the peace deal, little has changed within the police department.

Juan Manuel Santos, who was president when the deal was signed, had long supported moving the police out of the defense ministry. But the idea had been unpopular with the armed forces, in part because the police bring money and manpower into the ministry, Mr. Angelo said. By the time Mr. Santos had signed the peace deal, he had little time left in office, and even less political capital. The change was never made.

Now, police reform advocates are again pushing to move the 140,000-officer force from the defense department into the interior ministry — and to prioritize human rights training, limit weaponry, and try officers who commit crimes in ordinary courts instead of military ones.

In an interview, the head of the national police, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, said he had presented a reform plan to the country earlier this year. But the police should not be moved out of the defense ministry, he said.

“The situation of drug trafficking and illegal groups at this time does not allow it,” he said, calling these issues “the main problem in Colombia.”

The protests began in late April, when Mr. Duque proposed a tax overhaul meant to help close a fiscal hole exacerbated by the pandemic. Already, the country was on edge: After a year of Covid-related restrictions, the outbreak was only getting worse, along with poverty, inequality and joblessness.

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