Between 28 April and 30 June 2021, a national strike occurred in Colombia. This strike was called by different sectors and social movements (trade unions, students, indigenous people and youth, among others) because of “public discontent over a tax reform proposal, the economic and health crises in the context of COVID-19 and the increase in massacres and assassinations of social leaders and human rights defenders from across the country.” The strike was impactful at the national level and was harshly repressed by the security forces. Although Colombian government accounts reported that the protests were largely peaceful, official figures recorded 59 protest-related deaths by the end of May 2021.
The VENOM launcher system (VENOM) was one of several weapons and equipment used by Colombian security forces during the policing of the 2021 protests. VENOM is a multi-tube grenade launcher which is either mobile (mounted on a vehicle) or static (placed on the ground). It includes up to 30 tubes (smaller models are available) that can fire different grenades or canisters (for example, 38mm, 40 mm or 66mm). The tubes on the launcher are fixed, which means that while the system can generally be aimed in a particular direction, the angle of elevation cannot be altered. Security forces were documented placing the VENOM system on the ground, holding it by hand, and firing directly at protesters rather than overhead. Such use would be expected to cause movement of the launcher on firing, resulting in poor aiming or flat and direct firing trajectory. For law enforcement, the VENOM 38mm munitions are advertised as having a range of between 100 and 160 meters.
Developed by a US company, VENOM has since been purchased by Israeli and Colombian law enforcement, and proof exists of its use by law enforcement in Colombia by its “riot-control” agency, ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, or Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron) as of January 2021.
VENOM is an inaccurate weapon that fires numerous canisters simultaneously or successively in different directions. In addition, the canisters are fired at high velocity over long distances, which turns them into KIPs. These features make VENOM a dangerous weapon that can never comply with the principles of legality, precaution and proportionality.
As of mid-June, NGOs Temblores, Indepaz and PAIIS reported that they had recorded 28 instances where VENOM had been used against protesters. In one instance of use in Bogotá, it was reported that “at least 20 detonations were counted in less than 10 seconds”. Newspaper El Espectador reported multiple uses of VENOM, firing both stun grenades and tear gas towards protesters in Bogotá. The use was described as “flashes and sparks (like missiles), then thunderous explosions, ending in a rain of tear gas that filled the streets” which appeared to be “heavy artillery” and “indiscriminate”. Video footage indicated significant numbers of cartridges being fired in quick succession. This type of use may cause panic among people in a crowd, risking a stampede, which may itself cause injuries, in addition to those caused by the impact or effects of the projectiles.
The use of VENOM in the city of Popayán has been widely reported. France24 reported that “security forces fired the grenade launcher several times at protesters, who [were] located less than 80 metres away. Most of the protesters [were] sheltered behind shields and barricades.” In a joint report, Temblores, Indepaz and PAIIS noted that one of the incidents in Popayán on 12 May 2021 was the first clear and recorded use of VENOM being placed on the ground and held by police officers and fired directly at protesters. Several reports document similar instances where VENOM was fired directly at crowds, rather than overhead. On 14 May 2021, Sebastián Quintero Múnera, a young protester, was killed during protests in Popayán. Múnera was allegedly killed by a VENOM projectile. At the time of his death, VENOM was being used by security forces on the streets of Colombian cities to disperse protesters. Its use was suspended by an administrative judge in Popayán in June 2021, although only in that city. The suspension is to be maintained until a protocol for its use is developed as “the way it is being used, can make it lethal”.
Following Múnera’s death, the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) called on the Colombian government to respect life and human rights, and warned against the indiscriminate use of CCWs, particularly noting “anti-riot weapons–like the VENOM rocket launcher–that have an indiscriminate impact on mostly peaceful protests”.There is no evidence that VENOM has been permanently retired from its use in Colombian law enforcement. The use of military-designed weapons, such as VENOM, to police protests is indicative of a worrying trend towards violently suppressing the right to protest and freedom of expression.
Manufacture and procurement of VENOM
Developed by Combined Systems Inc (CSI), a US-based company, VENOM is described as “a lightweight, high capacity, non-lethal grenade launcher”. According to CSI’s marketing materials, VENOM “delivers non-lethal flash and sound, smoke obscuration, irritant and blunt trauma effects”. Initially, VENOM was created for use by the United States Marine Corps, but not used by them. It has also been used for more than a decade by the Israeli army in the West Bank. In Colombia, Combined Systems Inc. has reportedly supplied a range of munitions to the Colombian “riot control” agency, ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios or the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron).
VENOM has reportedly cost the Colombian government between 400 million and 445 million pesos, although the precise figure is unclear. In addition to the system itself, the Colombian government purchased cartridges from CSI for VENOM, including, for example, signing a 745 million pesos contract for stun and tear gas cartridges. In 2020, the Colombian Ministry of Defense stated that VENOM cost the Colombian government $118,000, with each launched cartridge valued at $71.