On 21 November 2019, a series of social demonstrations in Colombia was called by unions, students, pensioners’ associations, and other groups in response to several factors, including proposed modifications to the pension, labour, and tax regime; non-compliance with the peace agreements; the murders of human rights defenders; and socioeconomic inequalities.
Two days later, 18-year-old Dilan Cruz was participating in a protest in the centre of Bogota, the country’s capital. ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios), the police unit responsible for the crowd and riot management, began to throw tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the demonstrators. In videos, Cruz can be seen picking up a grenade, throwing it back at the agents and, within seconds, being hit in the back of the head by a flying object. The projectile that hit him was a bean bag, fired by Captain Manuel Cubillos Rodríguez from a 12-gauge shotgun, which is one of the less lethal weapons authorised for police use under Colombian law. Dilan Cruz died two days after the incident, while in intensive care. The National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences confirmed in his autopsy that the cause of death was “secondary to penetrating cranioencephalic trauma, caused by low impact ammunition, which causes severe and irreversible damage to the brain.” That is to say, he was killed by the impact of the bean bag ammunition, which complied with the manufacturer’s technical data sheet and had not been modified. His death fuelled further protests, including demands for the end of police violence and the end of impunity for deadly police conduct. Cruz’s death was followed by almost two years of disagreement regarding whether the ordinary justice system or the military criminal justice system had the authority to investigate and criminally prosecute the ESMAD agent.
The Constitutional Court, the highest court in Colombia on constitutional matters, ruled that the investigation should continue in the ordinary justice system. In December 2021, the agent was required to attend a disciplinary trial by the Procuraduría General de la Nación (the national prosecutor’s office), which is in charge of investigating and sanctioning public officials for actions taken in their official capacity. According to the prosecutor’s office, “The investigated officer did not take the necessary care when activating the shotgun he was carrying, since regardless of whether the weapon is listed among the least lethal weapons, it will always affect the integrity of the people.”Despite this finding, to date, there has been no decision on the merits of the case. In December 2019, days after Cruz’s death, civil society organizations and concerned individuals filed a legal action seeking protection of the fundamental right to protest.
In September 2020, the Supreme Court of Justice finally issued a ruling protecting the right of all persons to protest and clarifying the duty of authorities to “avoid, prevent and sanction the systematic, violent and arbitrary intervention of the public forces in demonstrations and protests.” The court’s ruling suspended the use of 12-gauge shotguns, the weapon used to shoot the bean bags, by ESMAD. The suspension continues to this day, and the Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia is obliged to monitor compliance with this order.