As police and military forces in Colombia use violence to repress the mobilisations that grew out of a national strike, demonstrators have seen flagrant violations of their human rights.
The mainstream media has been selectively silent about the atrocities, and so those seeking to either learn or share information on the situation have had to turn to social media to break the media blockade.
During the day, photos are shared of colourful marches and joyful mobilisations. At night, videos of terror start appearing with distressing frequency: the mobile anti-riot squad and police shooting at defenseless protesters; security forces chasing young people in poor neighbourhoods to shoot or arrest them, instilling terror in the population; and mothers crying and screaming because their children were killed.
According to Temblores and Indepaz, two human rights organisations that have been tracking reports of police violence, from April 28 to May 8, state security force actions resulted in the death of at least 47 people and the arbitrary detention of 963 people. There have been 28 victims of eye-related injuries and 12 victims of sexual violence. In total, they registered 1876 cases of police violence.
It was reported that human rights defenders, journalists and first aid workers have also been the target of attacks and human rights violations by the police. The armed attack on a group of human rights defenders, who were accompanying a United Nations verification mission in Cali on the night of May 3, was condemned widely, but far from being an exception, it is part of a strategy of terror and intimidation.
After several nights of terror, the silence of the international community was broken. The UN Human Rights Office (UNHRO) released a strong statement on May 4, saying it is “deeply alarmed” at what is happening in Cali, where “police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against tax reforms, reportedly killing and injuring a number of people”.
The UNHRO reminded the state authorities of their “responsibility to protect human rights, including the right to life and security of person, and to facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly”. After the UN, the European Union, United States and others joined in condemning the situation, calling on the government to withdraw the army from the streets and for an end to the violence against civilians.
However, instead of withdrawing the security forces or limiting their violent actions, the national government and local authorities have intensified the repression. They are also suggesting that protesters are “vandals and terrorists”, in an attempt to justify the actions of authorities.
Behind the protests
The national strike that began on April 28 was against a bill to increase taxes on consumption, public services and pensions. It would directly impact the working class that is already suffering due to the impact of the pandemic and lockdown.
While President Iván Duque announced on May 2 that he would withdraw the bill, he also said that a fresh one would be presented — allegedly drafted with other political parties. Either way, the tax reform is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg.
Colombia’s neoliberal economic model has been consolidated throughout the past three decades. The state does not guarantee citizens basic rights, such as education, health care and housing.
According to the October 2020 Latin American Regional Development Index report, Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the region and has the widest development gap among its regions.
The National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) report, released on April 29, estimates that 21 million people, or 42.5% of the population, live in poverty, a rise of 6.8% from last year. It also confirmed that 7.4 million people are living in extreme poverty.
Figures from DANE also indicate that 49.2% of the working population is only informally employed, but according to Milena Ochoa, the director of the Corporation for Popular Education and Research - National Labor Institute, the real figure could be closer to 70%.
These populations have been hit hard by the restriction measures in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as the government has done little to provide economic aid. Another DANE report showed that from March 2020 to April 2021, 87.3% of the deaths from COVID-19 were of people from the three lowest socioeconomic strata.
Despite having a population of just 50 million, as of May 10, the country ranked 12th highest in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases (3,002,758), and 11th highest in deaths (77,854).
It is from these impoverished sectors that the government wants to take resources to resolve its fiscal deficit.
Throughout 60 years of internal armed conflict, human rights organisations, trade unions, and social movements have been categorised by the state as internal enemies. The state has developed a counterinsurgency policy against the organised people, taking away all democratic space from the organised opposition and responding with criminalisation and political persecution.
According to the state’s discourse, what Colombia has suffered from for more than six decades is not a conflict with social origins, but rather a war waged by criminals against it. This enemy of the state changes in name, depending on the orientations from the Pentagon, in accordance with US foreign policy, much like in Operation Condor.
The political opposition to the capitalist and land-holding regime was criminalised first in the “war against communism”, then in the “war against drug trafficking” and finally in the “war on terror”.
The state, with US support — from military training to concrete financing of the repressive state apparatus — has systematically attacked all organisational efforts to change the status quo of inequality and authoritarianism.
It has sought to limit the political participation of this opposition at any cost, through dismantling organisations and outright extermination.
We see this manifested in diverse tragic experiences during the 20th century: from Guadalupe Salcedo, a guerrilla leader assassinated in 1957, to the political genocide that took place in the 1980s and ‘90s of the Patriotic Union, A Luchar and other movements and political parties that emerged from the peace agreements during the 1980s.
Under its “Red Dance” military plan, the state exterminated at least 4000 members of movements and political parties in the countryside and cities.
Paramilitarism has been a state policy, where, with the collusion and financing of different governments, many different illegal armed structures have been created that are responsible for doing the state’s “dirty work”, which is why we see hundreds of complaints of human rights violations by state forces.
In this context, one can understand the extreme violence being carried out today by the security forces against protesters during the national strike.
The military treatment of social protest also originates from the fact that security and defense forces all fall under the Ministry of Defence. Essentially, they treat civilian protest as they would a battlefield. This is the only way to comprehend how the National Police open fire on protesters, how helicopters fly above residential neighbourhoods and how there are huge numbers of detained, tortured and disappeared in the context of the national strike.
The social uprising on the streets and in the plazas of small towns and cities is the accumulation of years of prioritising militarisation over guarantees of basic rights to health, education and housing. It is also the result of years of criminalising the social movements, alleging that social leaders and human rights defenders are terrorists, of killing with absolute impunity, and discouraging citizens’ political participation.
Winds of change
This is an unprecedented mobilisation, which has politicised a generation that neoliberalism would have preferred remained depoliticised and self-absorbed.
The social and political crisis has snowballed, and today the people’s movements could create meaningful change in the country. The government of Duque and Álvaro Uribe before him, which seems to have far outlived its moment, is responding to this enormous people’s celebration of change and transformation with a classic recipe: repression, assassination, incarceration, threats and fear.
Despite this, Colombians of all ages are responding with organisation, resistance and joy, flooding the streets with the tricolour flag and embracing each other in this cry for justice. They organise community kitchens, take care of each other during the violent repression, and dance salsa and joropo together.
The era is giving birth to a heart, wrote Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez. In Colombia, the people are giving birth to a new country. The strategy of the state no longer works. Today, the desire to change and advance from the warlike, colonial Colombia to a dignified, human Colombia for all overcomes the fear.
[This article was produced by Globetrotter and has been abridged. Laura Capote is a Colombian journalist and an activist with Colombia’s Patriotic March. She is a member of ALBA Movimientos, and works in the Buenos Aires office of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Zoe Alexandra is a journalist and co-editor of Peoples Dispatch.]