Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Monday ordered an in-depth investigation after police reportedly chased off a human rights committee as the group was trying to investigate the deaths last week of at least six coca farmers.
In a speech in the town of Uribe, Santos called the police actions “lamentable” and said those responsible would be punished.
“I have ordered the national police and the armed forces to guarantee total, total cooperation in this investigation,” he said.
Problems began on Thursday when police attempting to eradicate coca crops — the raw ingredient of cocaine — were confronted by several hundred villagers near the southern community of Tumaco.
The police initially said the crowd had been ambushed by a dissident group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who used improvised explosives and gunfire.
Organizations on the ground, however, said it was the police who opened fire on the crowd. And there are reports that as many as nine people may have died.
The government’s ombudsmen’s office, after visiting the site, said eyewitness accounts all pointed to police involvement. In addition, there was no evidence that tatucos — bombs made from cooking gas canisters that are a guerrilla hallmark — had been used, as the police contended.
On Sunday, a human rights commission, which included members of the Organization of American States and the United Nations, tried to approach the police outpost when officials reportedly fired shots into the air.
In a statement, the police said that “an undetermined number of people were using force to enter the back side of the base, which led the [police] to detonate two concussion grenades that did not cause any injuries.”
The officers involved have been suspended pending an investigation.
Tumaco, in Nariño Department, is one of the country’s most problematic regions, flush with coca fields and illegal mining that have attracted armed gangs and guerrillas, including a small group of former FARC members who did not accept last year’s peace deal.
Colombia has been struggling to stop the expansion of coca crops, which are the lifeblood of many rural farmers. Forced eradication efforts, like the one taking place near Tumaco, are key to that strategy.
Despite the tragedy, Santos said the police and armed forces wouldn’t let up the pressure on the coca trade or the criminal groups that are behind it.
“The armed forces’ actions against criminal gangs and in eradicating illicit crops should be powerful,” he said. “But always with the most strict respect for human rights.”
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