The Spectacle of “Reconciliation” Amidst Police Brutality Protests in Colombia

Five seated political and social leaders at a forgiveness event in Bogotá, Colombia

Kristin Foringer, University of Michigan

Published on: January 20th, 2021

Photo: Colombian government officials sit in the background of a reconciliation ceremony.

The Colombian state has often opted for symbolic gestures of apology and reconciliation—a staple of the transitional justice “toolkit”—in the wake of its decades-long civil war, yet the anti-police brutality protests of early September 2020 proved to be a new target for these ceremonial remedies, aimed at allaying the anger and mistrust that many Colombians hold toward their government. On Sunday, September 13, Bogotá mayor Claudia López led a public ceremony for “reconciliation and forgiveness” (“acto de reconciliación y perdón”) for victims of police brutality. This action came on the heels of a week defined by nationwide protests (concentrated in Bogotá) and subsequent repression by police, leaving at least 13 dead and over 400 wounded by stray bullets. This round of protests was most immediately in reaction to viral footage of Bogotá resident Javier Ordoñez—father of two and a law student—being repeatedly tasered by police until he later died in the hospital that night on September 8. During her speech at the ceremony, López was clear to reference the systematic nature of police brutality in Colombia’s capital city, with her office receiving at least 141 complaints of police brutality so far in 2020. Furthermore, the specific occasion of protest-related police brutality has emerged as part of a growing trend since the nationwide strike in November 2019, where 18-year-old Dilan Cruz died at the hands of riot police.

The ceremony itself engaged a varied agenda, including speeches from various political and religious leaders, a Catholic mass, and musical performances (including an appearance from the National Police Orchestra). Significantly, the cast of political figures involved in the ceremony borrowed from a network of human rights actors more typically associated with transitional justice initiatives rather than matters of police brutality or reform: the president of the Truth Commission, the High Commissioner for Peace, and the presidential advisor for Human Rights and International Affairs were all present. Noticeably, Colombian President Iván Duque was absent while his chair remained empty on stage, causing many to comment on his long-standing reputation as apathetic to widespread human rights abuses. The intended audience for this ceremonial event was both the family members of those killed by police brutality and additionally the (protesting) public at large, who could stream the event across multiple news venues or observe in person at the Plaza de Bolívar.

The composition of this reconciliatory event and its intended audience highlights a perhaps unexpected continuity between the Colombian state’s strategy of symbolic remedy for the overlapping yet empirically distinctive social problems of police brutality and civil conflict violence. Even in a narrative sense, Mayor López explicitly situated the violent events of the week’s protests squarely within the lineage of decades of conflict-related violence, saying that the recent accounts of police brutality is “the most grave since the Palace of Justice Siege of 1985,” which was a landmark event in the course of the conflict in which M-19 guerillas attacked the Supreme Court. The strategic grafting of civil conflict discourse onto the immediate public emergency of police brutality and its associated protests suggests that the Colombian government’s “tool-kit” in moments of public upheaval remains durable across diverse episodes of violence. The rhetorical and commemorative choices of September’s ceremony suggest the need for more evaluation of the efficacy of symbolic gestures of reconciliation as compared to the more substantive, long-term promises of institutional reform and reparation.

Kristin Foringer is a USIP-Minerva Peace and Security Scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on law and culture in post-conflict Colombia, with current work focused specifically on collective memory and symbolic reparations in the country.