Protests in Colombia: Videos show 'dangerous' use of grenade launchers by police

Colombian police have used Venom grenade launchers several times since early May, in an attempt to control protests around the country. Numerous videos circulating on social media show police using this weapon in a “dangerous" manner, according to the experts we interviewed.

These screengrabs show Colombian security forces using Venom grenade launchers to hold back protesters. They were taken from videos filmed in Popayán, Colombia in mid-May.
These screengrabs show Colombian security forces using Venom grenade launchers to hold back protesters. They were taken from videos filmed in Popayán, Colombia in mid-May. © Observers

Colombia has been wracked by a series of anti-government protests since April 28 and the demonstrations have been met with a strict police clampdown. At least 42 people have been killed since this date, according to the Ombudsman's Office of Colombia, which is the government agency charged with protecting human rights. The NGO Indepaz has reported 51 deaths, largely attributed to police violence. 

As protests went on into mid-May, Colombian security forces continued using Venom grenade launchers against protesters. 

An example of the Venom grenade launcher used May 14 In Popayán. Check out the geolocation of this video here.

The Venom grenade launcher is manufactured by Combined Systems Inc. (CSI), an American company. It includes three compartments, which can each hold up to ten grenades. According to CSI, most grenades used with this model fall into two categories: grenades that release smoke to reduce visibility or cause irritation, and stun (or flash bang) grenades, which produce light and a loud noise to disorientate the target. These grenades are considered "non-lethal," according to CSI. 

A Venom grenade launcher. © CSI website

Police use the Venom in the historic centre of Popayán on May 12

Police used the Venom in Popayán, a town located in southern Colombia, on at least two different dates.

The video below shows police using it in the historic town centre near Caldas Parc on May 12. At 0:11, security forces fire the grenade launcher several times at protesters, who are located less than 80 metres away. Most of the protesters are sheltered behind shields and barricades.  

This video was filmed in the historic town centre of Popayán, near Caldas Park on May 12 (check out the geolocation here). Other videos, which were also circulated on the same date, show the same equipment in the same location (check out this video, for example, or this one).

A second video – filmed at exactly the same time but closer to the protesters – shows some of them throwing stones at the police. Then, starting at 0:27, security forces start using the Venom against the protesters.

This video was filmed in the historic centre of Popayán, just a few dozen metres from the place where the last video was filmed on May 12.

The same day, police also used the launcher a few hundred metres further along, next to the San José church. We can see police using the launcher in this video, while other images filmed in the same location show that protesters were less than 80 metres away when they fired the grenade launcher. Moreover, the video below, which was filmed a few dozen metres from the San José church, shows protesters being targeted by the Venom.

This video was filmed in the historic centre of Popayán, a few dozen metres from the San José church on May 12. Check out the geolocation of this video here.

Police use the Venom at a second location in Popayán on May 14

Police also used the Venom in "Carrera 17," a street located to the west of the Las Americas neighbourhood, on May 14, as shown by the video published at the top of this article as well as the one below.

Video shot in Popayán, west of the Las Americas neighbourhood, on May 14. Check out the geolocation of this video here.

Although no protesters are visible in these images, videos released by the media Última Hora Cauca show that there were many of them in the area. In these videos, security forces fired a Venom at 0:38 and again at 3:17, even though a number of protesters are nearby. 

Security forces used a Venom grenade launcher in these locations in Popayán on May 12 and 14, as shown in videos analysed by our team.

Bogotá police have also been using Venoms since May

Moreover, police in Bogotá have also used Venoms multiple times since early May, as reported by the daily newspaper El Espectador and the NGO Human Rights Watch.

This video shows police using a Venom from one of their vehicles. It was filmed in central Bogotá and published on May 2. Check out the geolocation of this video here.

Why is this use of the Venom dangerous?

Colombians believe that a Venom was responsible for the death of Sebastián Quintero, a young protester killed in Popayán on “carrera 17” on May 14. In this video (check out the geolocation here), you can hear a loud detonation and see a flash of light. People try to carry Quintero to safety and help him. According to official sources, he was hit with a stun grenade. However, our team spoke to Quintero’s father on May 21 and he said that he had not yet seen the report from his son’s autopsy. 

Our team contacted several ballistics experts who said that the Venom can be “very dangerous” if it isn’t used correctly. On the CSI website, it explains, “In rare circumstances, if used incorrectly, CTS less-lethal products may cause [...] serious bodily injury or death.”

Indeed, though the grenades are supposed to be fired up into the air, the footage from Popayán shows that most of the grenades there were fired horizontally. So if anyone is standing in their line of fire, they are directly impacted. 

"In general, any grenade can be extremely dangerous when it is fired directly at someone. Even if that person isn’t killed, they could lose an eye, break their jaw or fracture their skull,” says Brian Castner, an advisor for Amnesty International. 

Moreover, the videos show grenades being fired even though the victims are just a few dozen metres away, which increases the risk of injury. 

“If people are less than 75 metres away, then it is extremely dangerous because the projectile will come at them very quickly. There should be a ban on firing at people who are less than 50 metres away,” said Daniel Gómez-Tagle, who has worked as the legal representative for CSI’s Mexico branch for several years. 

“This device was invented for war and that’s how I personally saw the Israeli army use it,” Gómez-Tagle added. 

Our team also interviewed Andrei Serbin Pont, the director of CRIES, a research centre based in Argentina. 

“The videos show the Colombian police using a Venom both on the ground and from a vehicle,” Pont said. “The different positions don’t change the level of danger, however they do show that there is no clear protocol for its usage, which increases the risk that a device won’t be properly used. What makes this launcher unique is that it can fire grenades quickly, because it is made up of several launchers.”

Amnesty International has called on the United States to stop providing Venom grenade launchers to Colombia as well as another weapon manufactured by CSI. Amnesty says that these weapons have been used to commit “human rights violations against protesters.” 

None of the experts we interviewed had seen a Venom used during protests outside of Colombia. But Pont said that a similar device has been used by security forces in Venezuela for the past few years to fire teargas. However, teargas canisters and other types of grenades that can be deployed by the Venom are being used by police to control protests all over the world. 

Our team contacted Wilson Baquero, the head of communications for the Colombian police. He said that police had “followed all procedure” when using the Venom. Then, he sent us a police video explaining how it works. However, this video says that a shot from a Venom should always be "parabolic" and not direct. When asked about the direct shooting that took place in Popayán, Baquero said that they had opened a "disciplinary investigation” into the matter.  

Our team reached out to CSI, but they did not respond to our request for comment.