A crowd of protesters was squaring off against a battalion of riot police on a city boulevard as plumes of tear gas and dust clouded the afternoon light.
It could have been Hong Kong or Santiago in 2019, Minneapolis or Portland in the summer of 2020, Tehran or Shanghai in the winter of 2022. But at this particular eruption of unrest in the spring of 2021—in Popayán, Colombia, a small city about 250 miles southwest of Bogotá—the basic grammar of protest and retaliation was about to take a harsh new shift.
Scores of young demonstrators were crouching behind a line of homemade shields, trying to hold back the authorities. Colombia had been in the midst of a general strike for more than two weeks, triggered by a series of tax increases handed down in the middle of a debilitating Covid shutdown. But as nationwide protests escalated in tandem with the state’s response to them, police brutality became the demonstrators’ main grievance. On the front line that afternoon in Popayán, a 22-year-old engineering student named Sebastian Quintero Munera took cover behind a piece of plywood spray-painted with the phrase “Alison We Are With You”—referring to a local teen who had died by suicide the previous morning after alleging that she’d been sexually assaulted in police custody.
On the other side of those shields, officers in riot gear were spread out across the width of the street in groups of two. Behind them, on the tree-lined median that divided the boulevard, another group of officers huddled around an unusual box with an array of metal tubes pointing out of it, mounted on a small tripod. It looked a little like the kind of equipment used to launch fireworks in a big New Year’s pyrotechnic display. But the tubes were aimed at the street, not the sky.
Without warning, a rapid succession of deafening blasts echoed down the block. A barrage of blunt, barely visible projectiles ricocheted against the shuttered windows of second-story apartments, off trees and light posts, shields and bodies, as the street filled with a dense fog of tear gas. The effect on the crowd was almost instantaneous. Gasping for air, protesters scrambled over each other to retreat. They tripped on abandoned shields, motorcycle helmets, and other make-do armor. Within seconds, the officers reloaded the contraption and fired again.
The box on the tripod was a remote-controlled launcher called a Venom, made by the US firm Combined Systems. Long used by the US Marine Corps for combat operations in Iraq, Venom is capable of firing up to 30 tear-gas or flash-bang canisters at a time. According to José Miguel Vivanco, who was the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division at the time, Colombia’s clampdown against demonstrators in 2021 marked the first time Venom had been used in Latin America, and it was one of the most brutal examples of its indiscriminate use by police against civilians anywhere in the world.
The launcher’s deployment in Colombia represented a new high-water mark for a pervasive but often overlooked industry. Venom is now marketed to militaries and police forces around the world as a top-tier “less-lethal” weapons system. Sales of such weapons have quietly grown over the past few decades and are now estimated to be a multibillion-dollar business. Demand has inched up alongside a historic rise in economic inequality, political turmoil, and mass demonstrations. According to numerous researchers, the past decade or so has seen nearly unprecedented protests worldwide, and less-lethal weapons are the chief technologies devised to contain them.
The theory behind all less-lethal crowd-control devices, from the simple billy club to the infrared laser dazzler, is that they allow security forces to suppress a riot without committing a massacre. Law enforcement and military experts have described them, again and again, as a “humane” alternative to conventional arms—and often as the frontier of high-tech innovation. Perpetually just around the corner, it seems, is the widespread adoption of futuristic weapons like sticky foam, net guns, and heat rays.
That rhetoric obscures how remarkably stagnant the main menu of less-lethal crowd-control weapons has remained. Tear gas has been around for about 100 years, rubber bullets for 50, flash-bang grenades for 45, and Tasers for 30. The language has also masked how brutal these weapons can be, and how much they’ve been neglected by oversight bodies. Tear gas—probably the most important less-lethal weapon for crowd control—has been prohibited for use in war since the 1925 Geneva Protocol. But no international treaty bans countries from using it against their own citizens. Less-lethals are also specifically excluded from the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty, a binding agreement that prohibits the sale of weapons to countries with documented human rights abuses. And in the United States, the world’s leading producer of less-lethals, no federal legislation specifically regulates their manufacture.
Unhindered by the kind of oversight on production, sale, use, and export that applies to typical small arms, the less-lethals industry has been left pretty much to its own devices. It is to the armaments trade what dietary supplements are to the pharmaceutical industry: a supposedly more benign sector that is, in practice, largely unsupervised and often slipshod.
The effects of these weapons are not minor. Even if they are designed not to kill, the less-lethals most commonly used in crowd control—tear-gas canisters, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades—can easily break limbs, shatter skulls, burn and lacerate skin, destroy eyesight and hearing, concuss brains, and contuse flesh. “They are as dangerous as the person firing them wants them to be,” says physician and human rights activist Rohini Haar. And as a growing body of research shows, these weapons have left a distinct trail of injuries in the wake of movements like the Arab Spring, the Hong Kong protests of 2019, and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2015 and 2020. In the huge protests that swept Chile in 2019, ocular wounds from rubber bullets and other projectiles were so rampant that eye bandages became a nationwide symbol; the Chilean Ophthalmology Society called it the largest outbreak of such injuries ever registered in a conflict zone.
I know the impact of less-lethal weapons all too well: I was shot in the face with one while covering a protest outside the White House in 2020. And sometimes the violence these weapons do to protesters’ bodies is even more severe.
When the smoke cleared from the streets of Popayán last May, Sebastian Munera was lying on the ground with a fist-sized hole in his neck, bleeding out onto the pavement.
The Venom multi-launchers used by Colombia’s riot police were assembled nearly 3,000 miles away, in the Rust Belt of western Pennsylvania—a region that has served as an unusually important node in the global less-lethal weapons market for the better part of a century. Combined Systems, Venom’s manufacturer, is one of the biggest less-lethal companies in the US. It’s based in the tiny borough of Jamestown, near the Ohio border. A couple hours’ drive to the southeast, in Homer City, is a smaller manufacturer called NonLethal Technologies. Until 2018, the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies, funded by the Department of Defense, was located on the campus of Penn State University.
All of those manufacturing entities trace their roots to the US Army’s Chemical Warfare Service (CWS), which was formed during World War I after Germany unleashed chlorine gas on British trenches. By the end of the war, according to historian Gerald J. Fitzgerald, the CWS was producing gas in “an amount greater than the production of Germany, Great Britain, and France combined.”
In her 2017 book Tear Gas, historian Anna Feigenbaum argues that CWS leaders, cognizant of the overwhelming public revulsion toward gas attacks, correctly anticipated that the 1925 Geneva Protocol would prohibit chemical weapons in war. So they began looking for ways to repurpose parts of their arsenals for the civilian market.
In the early 1920s, the Chemical Warfare Service lent critical support to newly established private firms to rebrand some of the terrifying gases of trench warfare as harmless tools for everyday use. Generals furnished these nascent less-lethal companies with product samples. One early manufacturer developed bank vaults with tear-gas trip wires and home security alarms. Ultimately, the real commercial opportunity lay elsewhere: In 1921, the Chemical Warfare Service provided tear gas to the Philadelphia police for an early experiment. Two hundred volunteer police officers walked away from the test choking and crying, but they were enthusiastic about the technology’s potential for their work. As one organizer of the test reported, the demonstration showed “that gas, intelligently used, was not only a most effective but a most humane method of dispersing rioters, mobs, or other unlawful elements.” Soon, law enforcement officers around the country were using tear gas.
The leading manufacturer during this period was a company called Federal Laboratories, or FedLabs, which built its flagship plant in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. Federal Laboratories’ CWS-trained chemists developed new munitions that would be deployed during labor strikes, anti-war protests, and marches for civil rights from the 1920s through the ’60s and ’70s. Then Federal Laboratories was dissolved in a buyout by Mace Security International in 1994, and its plant in Saltsburg was shuttered shortly thereafter. With that, the industry’s dominant player was succeeded by a fleet of smaller manufacturers with nonunionized workforces.
Combined Systems, the eventual maker of the Venom launcher, was founded in 1981. The company quickly grew its stock list by designing its own products and buying up existing patents. Law enforcement clients quickly snapped those offerings up, thanks in part to federal legislation in the ’80s and early ’90s that transferred billions of dollars in military hardware to local police forces across the United States. Combined Systems opened its Jamestown plant in 1995.
In addition to a healthy business in the US, the company secured contracts with the Israeli military and the Egyptian police, among other foreign clients. Production expanded beyond tear gas. In 2009, Combined Systems bought out Penn Arms, a local manufacturer of shotguns, adding launchers to its inventory.
Rising political and economic turmoil in the 2010s spurred even more growth. Larry Gearhart, who worked at Combined Systems for more than a decade before retiring in 2012, recalls that demand increased dramatically with the Arab Spring. “When these riots broke out, they loved it,” he says. “Every time something broke out somewhere, we got the orders: Rush, rush, rush ’em out.”
Back in World War I, soldiers weren’t the only casualties of chemical warfare; the laborers who filled shells with toxic gas also suffered overwhelming injury rates. Today, making chemical munitions is still a dangerous job. Line workers experienced burning, irritated eyes and throats while working in the “gas house” at Combined Systems, says Gearhart. Former employees say worker safety was often compromised in the company’s effort to meet growing demand and save costs. “A glorified sweatshop is all that place is,” Gearhart says.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Combined Systems 27 times between 2009 and 2016, for violations including storing propane tanks in locations used for test-firing munitions, failure to appropriately train employees in safety standards, and not providing mandated safety equipment to employees working with known toxins. In 2020, OSHA found that poor safety management had led to a “chain reaction of explosions” that injured five workers at Combined Systems. That’s just one of many fires—at least five, according to local newspaper reports—that have broken out at the plant since 2011. Combined Systems has also faced a lawsuit from a neighbor who accuses the company of trespassing and of violating the Clean Air Act. The family alleges that for years they have found spent munitions littering their property along Combined System’s fenceline. They have also been rattled by the daily racket of explosions and the occasional cloud of tear gas drifting across their yard, as documented in the many videos the family recorded and submitted as evidence. (Combined System did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
NonLethal Technologies, in Homer City, is an even more direct successor to the Federal Laboratories legacy. Founded by FedLabs chemists in 1994, NonLethal has remained relatively small compared to Combined Systems. But it too has been accused of slipshod operations by multiple sources.
“Think Breaking Bad, but instead of meth it’s tear gas,” says Shawna McCutcheons, who worked as a secretary at NonLethal Technologies for 12 years before quitting in 2017. A brochure on NonLethal Technologies’ website says “testing of all our products in specially designed test chambers at our facilities insure the highest reliability and performance of our end products and strict conformity to our printed specifications.” A former employee says it was standard operating procedure to test flash-bangs and other explosive less-lethals in a burn barrel outside the buildings used for manufacturing. “They would just walk out that door and drop it in there. Boom. And from the percussion grenade, the wall on the inside [of the building], like the insulation, would move,” says Kyle Stump, a 23-year-old former employee. He says he wasn’t warned to put on hearing protection before tests. Stump claims he has permanent hearing loss in his left ear, and he is convinced his two years as a line worker are to blame. NonLethal told WIRED that it conducts product testing in a “safe and effective manner.”
Tom Stutzman, director of the county Emergency Management office that oversees Homer City, says he has responded to multiple building fires at NonLethal Technologies over the years. “When you burn tear gas at certain temperatures, it turns into cyanide,” he says. To protect the public from the risk of cyanide exposure during fires at the plant, Stutzman says he and the local fire department adopted a special response strategy: Set up air monitoring on the downwind side of the fire “to make sure that we’re allowing the residents of that downwind area to shelter in place or get the hell out.”
NonLethal sells a range of tear-gas canisters, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets. The company also offers its own version of a Venom-like weapon, a multi-launcher called the IronFist, designed “to rapidly deploy a blanket of less lethal munitions into, or over, a hostile crowd.”
Like manufacturers of firearms, Combined Systems and NonLethal Technologies have federal firearm licenses and federal explosive licenses. However, there is no federal regulation that distinguishes lethal from less-lethal firearms, and all firearms are exempted from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. When Combined Systems and NonLethal Technologies market their weapons as less lethal, there are no regulatory structures to ensure the reduced lethality of their products. They face no stipulations on the chemical makeup of their patented tear-gas recipes or other chemical irritants, for example, or safety guidelines on the speed and accuracy of the projectiles they develop.
Nor, for that matter, are there any federal guidelines on how less-lethals should be used by police in the line of duty. In the absence of such rules, individual law enforcement agencies have developed their own protocols. Activity that could get you shot with a rubber bullet in one city might not in another.
The landscape outside the US is similarly piecemeal. In lieu of international agreements specifically regulating the manufacture, sale, and use of less-lethals, the United Nations published the Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement in 2020. The document doesn’t have anything to say about best practices for manufacturing and sales, and instead focuses on establishing use-of-force guidelines. It is also completely nonbinding.
Sign up to get our best longform features, investigations, and thought-provoking essays, in your inbox every Sunday.
Talk to many law enforcement officers and they’ll tell you that less-lethal weapons are a saving grace that keep demonstrations from becoming even bloodier. At the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Bob Swartzwelder, president of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police, argued that without tools like tear gas and rubber bullets, “the police would be forced to [do] what you saw in the ’68 riots in Chicago, along with canines biting individuals, swinging of batons.” Swartzwelder’s stance was echoed by police chiefs around the US.
But in fact, history offers another alternative to the brutal police tactics employed in Chicago, Birmingham, and on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma during the 1960s. Those displays of violence sparked a presidential commission, which in turn gave rise to a newer model of protest policing—sometimes called “negotiated management”—that would hold sway in many US departments for decades. Under that model, police set out to preserve both public safety and demonstrators’ First Amendment rights; officers announced what they would and wouldn’t tolerate from protesters and described how they’d respond if those lines were crossed. At times, they’d even plan arrests with protest organizers in advance.
Then in 1999, at the Seattle WTO protests, a group of demonstrators rejected the “choreographed” plan for the march and broke through police barricades, and police chief Norm Stamper approved the indiscriminate use of tear gas and other less-lethals. Scenes from the melee dominated the news, and the “negotiated management” model was widely understood to have broken down. Stamper would come to regret his decision, calling it “the worst mistake of my career. We used chemical agents … against nonviolent and essentially nonthreatening protesters.” But across the US, negotiated management fell out of favor, and reliance on less-lethals has increased.
Actual research on the benefits of less-lethal weapons is scarce: One widely cited 2009 study showed police departments that incorporated Taser-like devices and pepper spray into their daily police work did see significantly fewer injuries to officers and civilians. Those findings are narrow, however; they don’t address the context of protests and crowd control, nor the weapons—tear gas, rubber bullets—that are used most heavily in those situations.
Research on the damage done by less-lethals, by contrast, has piled up in recent years—much of it tracking injuries from physical impact. Tear gas is often delivered via metal canisters fired into crowds at high speeds. Flash-bang grenades can also be launched as high-speed projectiles. Rubber bullets, pepper balls, and bean bag rounds are often fired directly at protesters, and these can fly erratically. “When I talk with police chiefs, I tell them, ‘Unless your officers have a specific target, then don’t take the shot. And the grenades that explode into rubber pieces—don’t use them,’” says Brian Castner, a former airman who has become a weapons expert for Amnesty International. “These weapons are abused when they are shot randomly at crowds.”
In 2017, The British Medical Journal systematically reviewed 27 years of literature on deaths, injuries, and permanent disabilities caused by rubber bullets and other less-lethal projectiles; the review turned up 53 deaths cited in 26 different studies around the world. Since 2018, Amnesty International has verified over 500 videos from 31 countries of tear gas being misused, including incidents in which it was fired directly at protesters or deployed in confined spaces. Both practices increase the potential lethality of the less-lethal weapon and were flagged as “potentially unlawful” by the UN guidance in 2020. A 2015 ProPublica investigation found that at least 50 Americans had been seriously injured, maimed, or killed by flash-bangs since 2000. In 2020, the American Academy of Ophthalmology called on law enforcement to cease use of rubber bullets, citing victims in the US and around the world who have been blinded by police.
While most efforts to rein in the use of less-lethal weapons have focused on how police use them, some are aimed at manufacturers. In 1991, the surviving relatives of eight Palestinians who died after Israeli soldiers used tear gas on them sued Federal Laboratories and another Pittsburgh-area manufacturer of less-lethals called TransTechnology. The families alleged that the companies were liable for their loved ones’ deaths because they had negligently sold tear-gas canisters to a government that was known to use them in dangerous and reckless ways (firing canisters into enclosed, crowded areas, for example). The case was dismissed a few years later by a judge who cited the United States’ lack of jurisdiction. Activists have also protested against manufacturers, including Combined Systems and NonLethal Technologies, which continue to sell tear gas and other less-lethals to countries with poor human rights records. After Hong Kong police used tear gas made by NonLethal Technologies and other American companies against pro-democracy demonstrators in 2019, Congress passed a law banning the export of certain crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong. Other countries, however, are still fair game—and so is the US itself.
Following widespread use of tear gas to quell the 2020 protests for racial justice, members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform opened an investigation and sent letters out to the top three US manufacturers: Pacem Defense, Safariland, and Combined Systems. The lawmakers concluded that there is too little data to say definitively that tear gas has no lasting health impacts, that the industry is insufficiently regulated, and that manufacturers are exploiting a legal void to maximize profits. The committee did not make any recommendations for action.
My own encounter with less-lethal weapons in 2020 changed my life forever. On May 30, I was working as a photojournalist covering protests in Washington, DC, following the murder of George Floyd. That day, a crowd of a few thousand demonstrators gathered just outside the White House at Lafayette Park. As the evening drew on and people began to leave, a line of officers blocked 16th Street, closing off the area of permitted protest. The police fired a variety of less-lethal projectiles into the crowd, and one of them struck me in the face. I fell to the ground, grasping at my right eye. When I took my hand away, my left eye could see. But my right eye was completely sightless. The impact of the projectile had partially detached my retina and caused a litany of other injuries. Two years, surgery, and a permanent implant later, I’m left with an eye that can’t see much more than silhouettes. It was my dominant eye, the one I relied on most as a photojournalist.
In the years since then, I’ve sought out other people blinded by less-lethal weapons around the country and then the world—as part of my recovery, and as a journalistic mission. That’s how I found out about Sebastian Munera.
Munera and his friends had been protesting nonstop in the streets of Popayán for weeks that spring. Then on May 13 came a new outrage: A local 17-year-old girl named Alison Melendez posted on Facebook that she had been sexually assaulted while in police custody; later that morning, she took her own life. As news of her suicide spread, Popayán erupted.
The next day Munera went alone to protest in the historic heart of the city. His friends were too tired from the previous days’ demonstrations to join him. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll go for you.”
What began as a peaceful march of high school and university students ended in deadly clashes between protesters and Colombia’s notoriously violent anti-riot police.
“They carried him hacia el pescao, like we say here, by his feet and arms, and put him down where there wasn’t any smoke or tear gas,” Gustavo Gonzalez said, passing me a cell phone with a shaky video of his friend’s final moments. “When I saw that video, that’s when I knew he was dead.”
Street medics attempted to resuscitate Munera, but the wound in his neck was too severe. That night, Munera’s friends and family gathered for a candlelight vigil in the pavilion next to his apartment. When the police showed up, Munera’s father pleaded with them to go. “Your institution killed my son,” he said, trying to maintain his composure. “If you don’t want to have a problem, leave here!” The situation quickly devolved into a neighborhood-wide street fight that lasted until 2 am.
Within weeks of Munera’s death, a local law firm filed a formal complaint on behalf of victims of police brutality. The complaint sought a judicial order prohibiting the Colombian National Police from using the Venom launcher in Popayán. Unlike in the United States, Colombian judges can use their position as guarantors of constitutional rights to issue judicial decrees in the absence of legislation. On June 2, 2021, a Popayán judge sided with the victims and ordered the police to suspend their use of Venom in Popayán, at least until officers were trained properly. A month later the decree was lifted.
The lawyers who brought the suit argue that the focus shouldn’t just be on what killed Munera, but on the wider abuses of power committed by Colombia’s National Police. Fifty-seven people were killed by the police during the first month of the general strike last year, according to the Institute for the Study of Development and Peace, a Colombian NGO. In an echo of what happened in Chile, Colombia saw a dramatic spike in traumatic ocular injuries.
Daniel Jaimes, an aspiring tattoo artist, is among the 28 people who were blinded by those traumatic injuries. On April 30, 2021, he was manning a protest barricade in Bogotá, the capital city, when the federal riot police appeared. Jaimes and his friends jeered the officers. The riot police responded with tear gas. One of the canisters shot into the crowd hit Jaimes in the face. It exploded his right eye, caused hemorrhaging in his left, and broke multiple bones in his face. Lying in a hospital bed, he told his mother, “If I end up completely blind, I’m gonna kill myself.” Doctors removed portions of his skull to reconstruct his orbit and nose. His right eye was lost, and vision in his left was severely damaged. It was a painful and slow recovery. Emotionally traumatized, Jaimes says it has been hard to hold down a job. He has survived on the solidarity of friends and family. After months of healing, Jaimes says the sight in his left eye is gradually improving and he is hopeful that he will eventually be able to tattoo again.
Critics say that Combined System’s Venom and similar multi-launchers from other manufacturers are, by their nature, especially indiscriminate. The weapons are meant to be mounted at a specific angle so that rounds don’t hit crowds directly. “But what did they do in Popayán? They set it up on the ground. This made it so the projectile wasn’t parabolic,” says David Anaya, a childhood friend of Munera’s. “Being repressed with this weapon, you start to question if the government really wants to kill us, blind us, shut us up one way or another.”
A week after Sebastian Munera was killed, Amnesty International called on US secretary of state Antony Blinken to immediately halt exports of conventional arms and less-lethal equipment to Colombia. “The United States’ role in fueling ceaseless cycles of violence committed against the people of Colombia is outrageous,” said Philippe Nassif, Amnesty’s advocacy director, in a statement.
Sebastian Munera’s community banded together in the months following his death, organizing fundraisers for protesters who are still in jail and developing proposals to improve neighborhood infrastructure. A cement public sports pavilion now bears a mural depicting Munera and his pitbull, Pava. In red, 4-foot letters it declares, “SEBAS LIVES.”
Nearly 100 years ago, the Chemical Warfare Service launched its PR campaign to sanitize the reputation of weaponized gas. Today, less-lethal weapons are employed by law enforcement agencies and militaries across the globe. And though the weapons have come under mounting scrutiny over the years, the most powerful, lasting mark of that propaganda campaign is the binary that’s still implicit in the very concept of less-lethal weapons: as if the only two options were these munitions or lethal force. That false binary has given cover to a brutal, shadowy industry—one that has remained unaccountable to basic regulation for decades as it profits from the tensions in fraying democracies. Even by conservative estimates, the less-lethal industry is predicted to grow by more than $3 billion over the next decade.
This article was supported in part by the Pulitzer Center.
Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.