Leftist Riots Rekindle Gun Rights Debate in Colombia

Dissident guerrilla leader who goes by the name Aldemar, member of the First Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), displays his assault rifle as he patrols the jungle along the Inirida River in Guaviare Department, Colombia, on September 26, 2017. Aldemar is one of several dissident guerrilla …
RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty

Conservative lawmakers in Colombia have found renewed interest in a proposal to significantly expand gun rights for civilians in light of a left-wing terrorism campaign entering its third week, the nation’s El Tiempo reported on Sunday.

Left-wing mobs allegedly composed of union leaders, indigenous activists, “students,” and other social groups launched a “national strike” in late April, at the time declared against a radical tax increase proposed by self-proclaimed conservative President Iván Duque. While Duque, facing stern criticism over the proposal from conservatives as well as Marxists, announced less than a week after debuting his plan that he would no longer pursue it, the “national strike” remains in vigor. Its most prominent action consists of road blockades into major citizens that have left residents with severe shortages of basic food and fuel goods. In addition to the illegal blockades, leftists have conducted targeted attacks on police stations – firebombing them and setting officers on fire – and robberies of trucks carrying key medical supplies like antibiotics and oxygen for Chinese coronavirus patients.

Organizers of the “national strike” have not offered at press time a definitive list of demands that would result in the end of the action.

The attacks on police stations have left many residential communities with little state protection, prompting civilian actions against the rioters. In the Cali metropolitan area, one of the cities most affected by the “national strike,” residents have on several occasions opened fire against rioters with presumed illegal firearms. In at least one case, civilians attacked a mob of alleged “indigenous” activists with machetes; the activists had entered a residential condominium community and began vandalizing cars and homes.

Following reforms by former centrist President Juan Manuel Santos, civilians in Colombia need to offer the state a legitimate reason for them to require the ownership of a firearm. The government decides who needs or does not need to buy a weapon at its discretion.

The current turmoil has revived interest in a proposal by two Congressional lawmakers, María Fernanda Cabal y Christian Garcés of the conservative Democratic Center party, to greatly expand Colombians’ access to firearms. Garcés, who represents the district that contains Cali, has been working to undo the Santos “special permission” law since at least 2018. The new proposal would continue to require basic background checks and other processing but not require civilians to explain why they need a gun to the government.

Garcés told El Tiempo in remarks published Sunday that the current state of gun control laws in the country – which has faced over half a century of civil war thanks to Marxist terrorist groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – has resulted in a surge in illegal firearms circulation and little protection for law-abiding citizens.

“From 400,000 licenses to carry [firearms] that we had in 2016, we now have 6,000,” Garcés explained. “Meanwhile, 2.5 million illegal firearms circulate in the country and are used in the vast majority of crimes.”

In Valle del Cauca alone, where Cali is located, El Tiempo cited government statistics estimating the circulation of as many as 150,000 illegal firearms.

While members of Duque’s political party, Cabal and Garcés have received no support from the presidential office. On the contrary, as the Colombian magazine Semana noted this weekend, National Security Advisor Rafael Guarín has explicitly rejected in public remarks the concept of a civilian right to bear arms.

“There is no right to arms,” Guarín posted on Twitter in March. “A general disarmament is the policy of the government of President Duque.” Guarín published a government document explaining that Colombia’s constitution, passed in 1991 under Liberal Party president César Gaviria, famous for allowing drug lord Pablo Escobar to continue to run his illicit business from prison and escape. Police ultimately killed Escobar during Gaviria’s term; the ex-president is currently a drug legalization advocate.

“The Constitution asserts from its beginning the exclusive use of force lies in the hands of the State. In Colombia, possessing arms is not a citizen right,” Guarín’s document reads in part.

El Tiempo spoke to other experts who made the case that violent crime has increased, not decreased, since the Santos gun restrictions went into effect.
“Crimes against citizen security have been increasing,” retired General Jaime Lasprilla told the newspaper. “I think it is the duty of local governments to try to facilitate for good civilians, responsible people, have at least some element of personal defense.”

Lasprilla added that Colombia’s violent history made it a poor setting for strict gun laws seen in other parts of the world.

“This is not Denmark, this is not Europe,” he argued. “This is South America and Colombia, with one of the highest crime rates [in the world] that has only increased.”

Opponents of expanding the gun laws told El Tiempo that they fear expanding vigilantism in light of an already turbulent situation, but acknowledged a growing distrust among the general population regarding the police’s ability to protect it.

“Good people can overdo it,” professor Daniel Mejía, who opposes liberalizing gun laws, told the newspaper. “Empirical evidence shows that liberalizing possession and carrying [weapons] skyrockets violent crime, femicide, domestic violence.”

In the service of preserving public support for limited gun rights, Mejía warned against far-left proposals to disarm or defund police officers, which could lead to increased demand for civilian gun ownership.

Police have struggled to contain the current unrest in light of deliberate mob attacks on police stations, which debilitate law enforcement before the mobs can move on to attack civilian targets. The use of Molotov cocktails on Immediate Action Command (CAI) police stations has occurred nationwide, perhaps most dramatically in the nation’s capital, Bogotá, where rioters set police officers on fire and conducting gang beatings against those who ran out of the building.

“We saw a mob of people who totally surrounded the CAI, at that moment we closed the doors, and they began hurling Molotov cocktails, rocks, sticks, and all sorts of blunt objects,” one police officer said, describing an attack on his station. “I saw one of my officers in flames, asking for help, desperate.”

In Cali, the attacks – which also targeted historic statues and sites and residential communities – prompted the near-immediate appearance of armed individuals in plain clothes; some activists have claimed these individuals to be disguised police officers, though they have offered little proof to back up the claim.

Last weekend, in a particularly violent incident, two busloads of alleged indigenous activists attempted to attack a residential complex outside of Cali, resulting in civilians with guns and machetes opening fire. The mob did not appear to be carrying firearms but did destroy private vehicles and attempt to loot homes. Videos from the incident show men dressed in white shooting at the activists, who claimed to be traveling into Cali in solidarity with the “national strike.”

The mayor of Cali, Jorge Iván Ospina, attempted to organize a dialogue with alleged representatives of the “national strike” last week. Ospina and several other officials arrived at the site of talks on Friday to find that “hooded individuals” had falsely claimed the government was attacking an illegal road blockade, causing a stir and requiring security to remove Ospina and the other officials before the conversation could begin.

Duque has repeatedly insisted on “dialogue” with the rioters and urged Colombians not to “generalized” that all involved in the “national strike” are violent.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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