Repression of Social Protest in Colombia
Project: CULTURES of ANTI-RACISM IN LATIN AMERICA – CARLA*
Repression of Social Protest in Colombia
One month after the start of massive social protests in Colombia, a result of collective outrage caused by a package of tax, labour and health reforms put in motion by the government, we continue to view with great alarm the persistence of homicidal violence, police repression and flagrant violations of human rights by government forces. To date, and as reported by various civil society organizations, NGOs, and human rights observatories, 3,789 people have been victims of police brutality. Among them, 1,248 people have suffered physical violence and 45 have lost their lives due to the combined actions of government forces and paramilitary individuals from civil society, who have used firearms against the protesters, with complete impunity. Likewise, there are 25 victims of sexual violence, 65 victims of permanent eye damage caused by impacts with pellets and other objects fired by government forces, and 187 cases of shootings, as well as 1,649 arbitrary arrests.
A large part of those affected, and the main protagonists of the mobilization, are the young people of the so-called First Line who, speaking from the barricades, neighbourhood organizations and impoverished areas in large and small cities of Colombia – Cali, Bogotá, Medellín, Pasto, Tuluá, Buga, Manizales, Pereira, Buenaventura, among many others – have peacefully demanded the creation of direct channels of dialogue and working groups with the national government to reach agreements that guarantee a basic income, free education and the cancellation of education-related debts and the democratization of health services, currently controlled by a health system that is effectively privatized, and the collective life of the country, among other demands outlined in petitions. At the same time, various symbolic acts have been carried out. For example, the Misak indigenous people have demolished statues of Spanish conquistadors in Popayán, Cali and Bogotá, thus questioning the meanings of history as it relates to the present and voicing demands for state reparations, along with denunciations of racism. But not only the Misak have carried out symbolic acts. Demonstrations at focal points of resistance have included all kinds of artistic actions and denunciations using murals, performing arts, puppets, music, poetry and audiovisuals. Observing with horror the way in which young people on the front line have been the target of death and persecution, mothers, communities, health professionals, lawyers, teachers, religious officials and artists have carried out many acts of solidarity.
These demands emerge from a long history of accumulated inequalities, which have a strong ethnic-racial bias, the result of a capitalist system superimposed on a colonial and slave-holding base, which has facilitated the economic domination and the monopolisation of agricultural land and other resources by a small, mostly white-mestizo elite. (According to a 2020 UNDP report, 51% of the land in Colombia belongs to 1.5% of the population, comprising principally the private sector, landowning families and drug traffickers.) These inequalities have been exacerbated in recent decades by the control of natural resources at the hands of drug trafficking actors in collusion with the state, guerrilla groups, private capital and families of landowners, a situation that has accelerated historical processes of the displacement of indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant communities from their territories. At the same time, the use of glyphosate spraying promoted by the national government as part of the programme to eradicate illicit crops has affected the health and territories of these communities, adding to the historical factors of displacement in the country.
The immediate and forcible response of a politically delegitimized government to social mobilization has been to criminalize the protest, dismiss the demands, redouble militarization in cities such as Cali and Bogotá, and portray young people as vandals and criminals, associating them with ELN guerrillas and dissidents of the demobilised FARC guerrilla forces, who pursue their own political interests. At the same time, it has ignored the responsibility of government forces for the violence that is attributed to the protestors; it has allowed civilians from the well-to-do classes to shoot unarmed protesters and has refused to dialogue or even acknowledge the legitimacy of the demands of youth and workers, whose lives have been made visibly more precarious by the pandemic. In response, the high command of the government, in coordination with ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Riot Squad) and the National Police, have sought to create the image of an internal enemy consisting of young people – who in reality are simply marching for their rights – and the indigenous protest movement of the Cauca region. Likewise, it has launched a divisive strategy, meeting in private with the business sector and encouraging social cleavages between those who support and those who criminalize the protests, in a generalized atmosphere of racist and class tensions.
As members of the research project on Cultures of Anti-Racism in Latin America, CARLA, we categorically reject the use of violence to silence the legitimate right to protest and the undemocratic blocking of the entry to Colombia of international commissions and observers from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who are trying to monitor the situation. We also reject the government’s brutal repression – particularly during the nights – of the young people who march and organize to protect and preserve their lives within the framework of the National Strike. We urge the national government of Colombia to listen to the citizens in their legitimate claims relating to social inequalities, structural racism and exclusion, and to rebuild the citizens’ confidence in the country’s institutions. We are calling for 1) the suspension of the actions of ESMAD, while the human rights violations alleged against it are clarified and investigated; 2) the recognition, immediate cessation and sanction of the excesses in the use of authority by government forces; and 3) the prompt search for clear solutions to the widespread dissatisfaction of the citizenry, aiming to produce valuable and necessary change in a country that seeks to survive one of the most devastating economic, social and political crises in recent history.
Bogotá, June 4, 2021.
The undersigned act as free citizens of our respective countries in support of the situation in Colombia, our opinions do not necessarily represent the positions of the institutions to which we are affiliated.
Signed – members of the CARLA Project in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and the United Kingdom.
Dra. Mara Viveros-Vigoya, Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, National University of Colombia
Dr Peter Wade, Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
Dr. Carlos Correa Angulo – Anthropologist and Linguist. Research Associate, University of Manchester
Liliana Angulo Cortés, Plastic artist and cultural manager / Aguaturbia Collective / Archive and Memory Group of Comuna 6 of Buenaventura / Wi Da Monikongo. Afro-descendant Audiovisual Council of Colombia.
Dra. Ana Vivaldi – Anthropologist and university teacher. Research Associate, University of Manchester.
Dra. Jamille Pinheiro Dias – PhD in Literature and researcher. Research Associate, University of Manchester
Miriam Alvarez – Mapuche teacher and theatre director, Professor at the National University of Río Negro and director of the Mapuche Theatre Group El Katango
Dr. Ezequiel Adamovsky, Historian, University of San Martín / CONICET
Rossana Alarcón – Visual artist and student of MA in Cultural Studies at the National University of Colombia, Assistant Researcher for the CARLA project – Colombia.
Rafael Palacios, Choreographer, dancer, activist, MA in Education and Human Rights. Founder of Sankofa Afro-Colombian Cultural Corporation.
Dr. Pedro Mandagará – Professor of Brazilian Literature, Universidade de Brasília
Alejandra Egido, Director of the Teatro en Sepia Theatre Company.
Alejandro Frigerio – Professor of FLACSO Argentina – Principal Investigator of CONICET
Dr. Ignacio Aguiló, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies, University of Manchester
Lúcia Sá, Professor of Brazilian Studies, University of Manchester
Dr Felipe Milanes, Associate Professor, Milton Santos Institute of Humanities, Arts and Sciences (IHAC), Federal University of Bahia
Arissana Pataxó, artist, PhD student in Arts, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil
Naine Terena, artist, curator and teacher, Faculdade Católica de Mato Grosso, Brazil
Denilson Baniwa, artista, Amazonas, Brasil
*Note: CARLA is an international research project on art and anti-racism in which researchers and artists from the United Kingdom, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina participate. For more information, see https://sites.manchester.ac.uk/carla/.