Colombia’s Ruling Class Is Getting Desperate

The latest round of protests against Colombia’s right-wing government has seen a brutal crackdown, leading to at least 43 deaths. But the mass movement against neoliberalism and state violence is only growing stronger.

Demonstrators clash with riot police at Portal De Las Americas in Bogotá on May 22, 2021. (JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images)

On April 28, Colombian trade unions and social movements staged a new round of paro nacional (national strike) protests, the latest in an ongoing series of mobilizations to address the litany of problems impacting Colombian society.

Opposition to a planned tax reform — which strike organizers said would unfairly target the middle and working classes in what is one of Latin America’s most unequal countries — was the central issue, particularly in the context of the global pandemic, which has pushed an estimated five million Colombians out of work. Calls to repeal the tax reform were aligned with longer-running demands around growing poverty levels, addressing the human rights crisis affecting much of the country, and properly advancing the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.

Since the national strike movement was launched in November 2019, protesters have become accustomed to the police crackdowns of President Iván Duque’s right-wing administration. Yet, even by recent standards, the spread and duration of the violence unleashed since April 28 has been extreme. For over three weeks of daily protests across Colombia, Colombian security forces — especially the notorious riot police unit, the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) — have committed massive human rights violations as Duque’s government seeks to suppress anger toward his government.

As befits the camera phone era, social media has told the story of Colombia’s social revolt. Thousands of images and videos have spread virtually, with several standing out for their exhibitions of social unity or poignant solidarity: mothers bearing improvised shields join youthful protesters on the front line to face off against militarized police; statues of colonizers are toppled and replaced with the likenesses of victims of state violence; musicart, and dance energize crowds whose voices rise as one to demand a fairer Colombia.

While the official organization of the national strike movement comes from trade unions together with peasant, indigenous, and other established social organizations, the protests have been characterized by the mobilization of young Colombians from poor urban neighborhoods. In cities across the country, most notably in Cali, this new generation of political protesters have become the so-called front line resisting ever-increasing levels of police brutality.

Social media has also exposed the horrific violence inflicted on protesters by security forces. In one harrowing video, as four ESMAD agents drag her into a police station in Popayán, seventeen-year-old Alison Meléndez shouts that they are removing her trousers. The next day, after reporting they had sexually assaulted her, she took her life. Footage filmed in the town of Madrid in Cundinamarca shows a tear gas canister fired at protesters from an armored police vehicle. The projectile hit twenty-four-year-old Brayan Niño in the face, killing him despite the efforts of those around him.

By May 18, Colombian human rights organizations had registered security forces’ apparent responsibility for more than 2,300 acts of violence, 43 killings (including four minors), 18 sexual assaults, and 30 cases of eye injuries. Men in plain clothes have been filmed firing at protesters as uniformed police officers stand alongside them and do nothing, particularly alarming given Colombia’s long history of state collusion with paramilitary terror.

There has been widespread international condemnation of the Colombian government’s response to the protests. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had witnessed the use of “excessive force,” while the US Embassy in Bogotá called for “restraint” from Colombian police to avoid “additional loss of life.”

Fifty-five members of US Congress signed a letter calling the human rights situation “out of control,” while British and Irish trade unions demanded justice for victims of police violence. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has requested permission from the Colombian government to investigate abuses. For its part, the British government, which has training programs with the Colombian police, has not directly criticized the state violence.

Opposition to the planned tax reform comes at a time when more than five million people are estimated to have lost their main source of income due to the global pandemic and poverty levels increasing to over 40 percent. Coronavirus has particularly impacted the many Colombians eking out a living in the large informal sector, which accounts for roughly half of the labor force in roles such as transport workers, domestic staff, and street vendors.

National lockdowns, coupled with an absence of state support, pushed many Colombians into even deeper conditions of precarity. Although Duque repealed the tax reform after five days of intense unrest, it was far too late. His government had spilled too much blood.

In the midst of the killings and brutal violence being carried out by state agents, far from calling for the abuses to come to an end, government officials repeatedly issued stigmatizing statements against the protesters. On May 3, defense minister Diego Molano said, “Colombia faces the terrorist threat of criminal organizations,” while vice president Martha Ramírez implied that Indigenous organizations were funded by illegal drug money.

The use of smears to delegitimize popular movements is by no means a new tactic — trade unionists and activists have long been labelled “guerrillas” or “terrorists.” During the recent weeks, however, and in the context of a peace agreement now signed with the country’s largest and oldest guerrilla organization, the attempts to stigmatize appear to have largely strengthened the resolve of the protesters.

Anger over economic injustice sits alongside major concern for human rights and peace. The 2016 peace agreement brought the curtain down on decades of armed conflict between the Colombian state and the FARC. The peace process has seen important advances, such as the FARC’s reformation as a political party and the development of an internationally acclaimed transitional justice system that has begun investigating crimes committed during the conflict.

In one of its most significant findings so far, it found that between 2002 and 2008 — during the government of former president Álvaro Uribe — the Colombian military murdered 6,402 civilians and falsely presented them as guerrillas killed in combat.

Since its inception, however, the Colombian right has made efforts to undermine the peace process. Indeed, Uribe, who continues to wield significant political power and whose support for Duque was fundamental to his successful presidential campaign, has been the lead voice in that opposition.

Duque’s electoral campaign was based on antagonism to the peace agreement and a promise to make fundamental changes. Since 2018, when Duque was elected, Colombia has depended on a political movement hostile to the peace process. The protests have given voice to a major rejection of the ongoing influence of uribismo in Colombian politics and its attacks on human rights and peace.

Furthermore, since the agreement was signed, more than one thousand social activists and community leaders have been murdered across Colombia, with violence concentrated in regions historically impacted by conflict, structural poverty, and state abandonment. The FARC’s agreed withdrawal created power vacuums in areas the state has failed to secure. Paramilitaries and other illegal armed groups now vie to exert control over territories or illicit economies, targeting local leaders and displacing entire communities.

Additionally, more than 270 FARC former combatants have been murdered since putting down their weapons. The UN Verification Mission in Colombia warns that violence toward social activists and former combatants is the main threat to the peace process. The Duque government, however, has sought to downplay the human rights crisis and denies that killings reflect a systematic targeting of specific groups.

With elections scheduled in 2022, the protests could prove pivotal in determining who takes the presidency. The pro-peace movement enters electoral campaigning in a position of strength, but whether it will be able to successfully coalesce around a single candidate could prove decisive. Left candidate and 2018 runner-up Gustavo Petro currently leads the polls, and his supporters will be confident that the intensity of the protests reflects a widespread desire to fundamentally reshape Colombia’s social, political, and economic model.

The multitude of factors underpinning popular discontent in Colombia has now exploded to the fore. In meetings on May 10 and 16 with government officials, the National Strike Committee presented demands to resolve the crisis, including an immediate end to the violence. Human rights organizations have called for drastic police reform, which involves removing police jurisdiction from the Ministry of Defense and disbanding the ESMAD. However, with the Duque government still committing flagrant human rights abuses, there is little indication a resolution is close. The Colombian people have shown they do not plan to back down any time soon.