Outrage has erupted in Colombia after a young woman participating in anti-government protests was grabbed by riot police in body armour, forced into an unmarked vehicle and driven away.
Video of the incident showed the woman sobbing and screaming “Help! The police have kidnapped me!” through the window of the black Chevrolet sedan as it drove away from the demonstration near the National University in Bogotá on Wednesday night.
Video de cómo policias del Esmad suben a la fuerza a una mujer a un carro particular Chevrolet HCI 264
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Two members of the public gave chase in another vehicle, and the driver can be heard in the video shouting reassurance to the detainee as they drive alongside. The pursuers eventually stopped their car in front of the officers, who then released the woman in the middle of heavy traffic.
The video – and a second clip showing a young man apparently being forced into an unmarked car on Tuesday night – prompted fresh accusations of excessive force against the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron – known by its Spanish initials, Esmad.
Bogotá’s chief of police said at a press conference on Wednesday that while it was not usual for police to use unmarked vehicles when detaining people, it was legal.
But Gen Hoover Penilla did not specify why the two protesters were seized – nor why the woman was released if she had been suspected of wrongdoing. The whereabouts of the young man remained unclear late on Wednesday.
Penilla admitted that the woman should not have been left on the road, but adopted a defiant tone, telling reporters: “We will continue to do our duty but I ask you not to question everything our police officers do.”
For the past three weeks, Colombia has been racked by demonstrations triggered by widespread discontent with the proposed economic reforms of the rightwing president, Iván Duque, whose approval rating has dropped to just 26% since he took office in August last year.
Protesters are also angry at the lack of support for the historic 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which formally ended five decades of civil war that killed 260,000 and forced more than 7 million to flee their homes.
In a country which not long ago suffered the highest kidnapping rate in the world – and whose security forces have themselves been implicated in forced disappearances – the videos of police snatching protesters evoked disturbing memories.
According to the national victims’ agency more than 150,000 people were forcibly disappeared between 1986 and 2017, with up to 80,000 still missing. Combatants on all sides of the conflict engaged in the practice.
While most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, some vandalism occurred when protests first broke out on 21 November.
The hardline response by Esmad – who have fired teargas, flash bangs, and “less lethal” bean bag rounds at peaceful protesters – has only fanned the discontent.
One 18-year-old protester, Dilan Cruz, died after he was shot in the head with a bean bag round on 23 November.
Opposition politicians called a debate on Esmad on Wednesday morning, while protest organizers have called for the unit to be dismantled altogether.
“Esmad has been acting violently and leaving victims in their wake for years,” said Mafe Carrascal, a prominent activist. “Rather than containing disturbances, they are generating them by provoking showdowns and killing people.”
Featured image: The hardline response to protests of the Esmad riot police –who have fired teargas, flash bangs and bean bag rounds at peaceful protesters – has only fanned discontent. Photograph: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images