Colombia’s ESMAD and the History of U.S. Policing

by Maya Hernández

“A cop is a cop,” said James Baldwin in 1971. Undoubtedly, Baldwin was pointing to the way that U.S. law enforcement operates as a fraternized collective, wherein individual officers are not so much the problem as the embedded systemic policies that promote the use of violence. The actual objective of instituting the police in the U.S. was to protect and serve the interests of the wealthy, not the interest nor the protection of working class people at large. The misinterpretation that police are responsible for keeping our communities safe, perpetuates the narrative that the institution has just a few “bad apples” who reacted violently and accidentally murdered a black person, rather than the institution’s inherently racist and aggressive practices as a whole that date back to the early 18th century. The emergence of law enforcement in the U.S. can better explain why their practices continue with fervor today, exporting a model of policing to countries like Colombia in the effort to expand military efficacy and surveillance across the world.

Slave Patrols, created in the South in 1704, were the first form of policing in the U.S. These Patrols operated under informal means of surveillance and were run by white volunteers who circled the perimeters of plantations using vigilante tactics to seek out runaway slaves. One of the primary functions of the Slave Patrols was to deter slaves from revolting by employing organized terror. At the core of law enforcement in the U.S., therefore, is the ongoing vindictive and racist motivation to quell people’s right to protest against oppression and seek their rightful freedom.

In the 1830s, the push for a centralized police force that dealt with growing urbanization, primarily a result of incoming immigrant wage workers, became a critical priority for wealthy elites who feared for their business and mercantile interests. Through taxes and political influence, wealthy business owners convinced the government to undertake the development of bureaucratic policing institutions in order to monitor working class neighborhoods. As a result, policing moved from the private sector to the public one, with the institutionalization of mass public law enforcement which prioritized the security of the wealthy and surveilled the poor. In the late 19th century, major strikes and riots ensued in cities like Chicago, wherein protestors were met with attacks and extreme violence at the hand of police. After those strikes, the institution began to position itself as the protector of civilization and of security from the increasing social divide. Strikes and riots represented a threat to wealthy business people which encouraged police to elevate their violence and brutality in order to control protestors and quiet dissent.

At the outset of the 20th century, police in the North arrested people for crimes of disorderly conduct; a claim that was primarily driven by biases and racism regarding who was deemed a “threat to society.” In the South, the official system of discrimination known as “Jim Crow” used the police to conduct mass arrests of black people, driving them into convict systems as a way of reinstating the free labor that had been lost through the ending of slavery. Though the North and South approached their method of controlling and surveilling poor, working class people differently, their objectives rested equally in protecting the prosperity of wealthy Americans.

Today, the violence that police impart on communities of color across the nation emblematizes that history perfectly. Police who murder black people in the streets are rarely convicted or fired for their crimes. Findings reveal that commonly unreported police sexual misconduct and sexual violence are typically geared towards BIPOC younger than 18 years of age. One out of a handful of recent police killings was the murder of Breonna Taylor. Following unfounded claims, the police broke down Taylor’s front door and fatally shot her, while her boyfriend laid beside her in bed. The protective shield that surrounds police in the US is incredibly powerful and unyielding. The false pretense that they exist to serve and protect all people is what continuously allows them to escape accountability and continue murdering communities of color.

A significant element of policing in the United States is the exportation of those models to the rest of the world with the purpose of gaining geopolitical power and control. The exportation of the U.S. policing model started during the Cold War, when American officials traveled to over fifty countries, offering assistance for stemming the spread of communism to local police forces. By embarking on a global campaign to encourage the use of policing to fight communism, the U.S. successfully created a transnational repressive police force. These counterinsurgency tactics are ongoing. Today, the U.S. trains police in 91 different countries, mostly in the Global South, thus internationalizing the targeting of people of color by focusing their efforts in non-White majority countries. According to a recent article published in the Washington Post, “U.S. funding for foreign police training expanded from $4.3 million in 2001 to $146 million in 2018.” This is a continuation of the domestic root of policing to protect the interests of the wealthy and, especially, the profits secured from the global plunder of transnational corporations and their regional collaborators. In other words, overseas police training is essential to the prosperity of the U.S. Empire.

As a close ally to the United States, Colombia is one of the first countries to use the U.S.’ policing model. In 1999, the Colombian government, backed by President Bill Clinton, created ESMAD or Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron as part of a military-assistance program called Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia was a U.S. foreign-aid initiative to combat left-wing insurgent groups and drug cartels in Colombia by increasing aggressive and militant policing methods. Since its inception, ESMAD has flagrantly violated the rights of thousands of Colombians, consistently escalating violence against social leaders and activists and silencing peaceful protest. In rural areas, ESMAD has been used against protests led by peasant farmers communities, including attacks against mass indigenous consultations known as mingas, and against communities protesting to be included in voluntary programs of rural development to create alternatives to coca production. Disproportionately, the targets have been indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. We also saw the brutal targeting by ESMAD of the civic strike in Buenaventura, a city that is over 80% Afro-Colombian and that has suffered some of the highest rates of the nation’s institutional poverty and urban paramilitary activities that ensue with impunity, and little to no police intervention. The aggressive force that they impart on these communities echoes the country’s history of state neglect and structural violence.

In early September of this year, outrage and unrest spread throughout Bogotá with the killing of an unarmed lawyer, Javier Ordóñez who cried out, “please, no more” until he died at the hands of local Bogotá police, while onlookers aided in pleading for his life. Ordóñez was stopped with the sole reason being that he had violated a curfew put in place as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. In the massive protests that followed, ESMAD took to the streets and killed an additional 13 people. The line between restraining a person assumed to have committed a crime, and blatantly murdering them, has been blurred beyond disbelief. The overlap between the U.S. and Colombian police force is no coincidence. The fundamentals of the U.S./Colombia relationship are premised on U.S. efforts to safeguard their geopolitical interests by increasing the economic stability of Colombia through cooperation. The United States uses local police forces in countries such as Colombia as proxies, controlling cities everywhere without revealing the US as the culprit.

The U.S. government has essentially trained Colombian’s police, prison guards, military, and court personnel in order to have them pass the model onto other countries in the area. Both in collaboration with the U.S., and independently, Colombia operates its own international training programs. Between 2009 and 2017, Colombia trained over 30,000 students, including military, police, court, and prison officials. Half of those trained are from Mexico, with Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama as key recipients as well.

Despite the documented murders and severe brutality committed by ESMAD, the initiative has continued to receive funding from the government to grow bigger and stronger, going from 200 agents at its inception in 1999 to a little over 3,300 today. The more violence that ESMAD imparts, the more people that will protest in response,  risking their lives to demand justice. ESMAD has not been apprehended for their violations because their efforts are in direct service of the government: to silence protestors and general social unrest. By doing so, the power dynamics in Colombia are stabilized, satisfying government interests and big businesses who wish to maintain the current status quo of the economic and social system. Furthermore, the U.S. can rest assured that policing across Latin America is gaining traction as it silences the voices and the freedom of millions.

Presently, Colombians protest for the dissolution of ESMAD as part of ongoing efforts to eradicate all suppressive government forces across the country. We at AFGJ stand with the protestors in Colombia and call for the termination of U.S. imperialism.

Click here for more information on U.S. Empire and its relationship to Colombia.