The third day of protests in Colombia. Riot police, known locally as ESMAD, charge and box in peaceful protesters in the center of Bogota, by FOTO PLAF/Shutterstock.com
Day 4 of widespread protests in many parts of Colombia was met by curfews and the heavily-armoured ESMAD riot police. Hundreds of thousands of people continue marching in most of the country’s cities, demanding President Iván Duque’s resignation. According to newspaper El Tiempo, additional soldiers have been deployed to meet protestors in Bogotá, the country’s capital, as marchers in other cities also see militarized repression.
ESMAD stands for the “Esquadrón movíl antidistúrbio”, or the “antidisturbance mobile squadron”. Their irreal helmets and shiny black carapaces are fearsome enough yet they are also launching large tear gas canisters and travelling in enormous tanks wielding powerful water cannons. Eighteen year old Dilan Cruz was shot from behind in the head and sympathizers are defying curfew to stand vigil outside of the hospital where he clings to life.
On Thursday 21 November 2019, day 1 of the organized national strike, the action grew rapidly with most of the stores in Bogotá pulling down their metal shutters and empty buses parked by the sides of carless avenues in the capital city of 8 million people. A thousand kilometers (700 miles) away in Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast, thousands massed on the Paseo Bolívar and the Plaza de Paz. In Cali, the mayor shut down protests with a curfew at nightfall, which falls between 6 -7 pm every day of the year in this equatorial nation, but already three deaths have been reported.
Every day, people are posting disturbing video records of ESMAD aggression and injuries on social media, but there are also repetitive counterposts depicting looting that may be manufactured. Even so, more and more are bringing out their pots and pans to join in the “cacerolazos” that have been sweeping other Latin American countries as people are unifying rather than hiding in fear.
(Photo: Day 1 Protestors in Barranquilla. Middle sign reads, “How do you teach leadership to children in a country that kills its leaders?”)
In October, President Iván Duque announced a package of economic reforms with guidance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The “paquetazo” couples reduced corporate taxes with punitive measures aimed at the poor and working class such as raising the retirement age, decreasing pensions, lowering the minimum wage and pay for young people, and instituting “labour flexibility”, or job insecurity. According to numbers released by Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics (Departamento administrativo nacional de estadisticas, DANE), inflation is reaching 4% with the unemployment rate climbing over 10%. The categories with the highest consumer price indices were housing, food and transport, showing that inflation is targeting the poor and working class.
Corruption is also a preoccupation of the protestors. Millions of dollars siphoned from the economy in corrupt construction deals, not least of which involved Brazilian corporation Odebrecht, led to incidents like the horrific collapse of the Chirajara Bridge, when ten died and others remain unaccounted for.
The Duque government is also accused of not doing enough in the face of the assassinations of social leaders and killings which have cost the lives of 704 over the last three years. Last month, his minister of defense, Guillermo Botero, resigned after eight children were killed in a government bombing raid supposedly aimed at FARC guerillas.
Opposition candidate and former vice president of Colombia Humberto de la Calle spent decades negotiating a peace deal with the Fuerzas armadas revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC), a guerrilla group that began in 1964 and used kidnappings, narcotics trafficking and murder to sustain its existence. De la Calle claims that Duque is putting the 2016 Havana peace accord at risk with renewed attacks.
Back in 2008, however, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague investigating crimes against humanity found that the vast majority of the killing during the country’s years of unrest, 80%, was committed by paramilitary forces which “worked closely with the authorities”.
“In Colombia’s decades-long civil war, appalling human rights crimes are committed by all sides: the leftist guerrillas who took up arms in 1964, the security forces and the far-right paramilitary militias.
“But the latter, whose leaders are drug traffickers or have ties to the drug trade, are blamed by the United Nations for 80 percent of all killings, while the insurgents are held responsible for 12 percent and the security forces are blamed for the rest.”
Former FARC combatants have turned over their weapons and are reentering civil society, notably with a new political party called the Fuerza alternativa revolucionaria en común (the Alternative Revolutionary Common Force party, also FARC). But murders of indigenous peoples and their leaders have risen precipitously as other groups battle over drug cultivation and trafficking in Colombia. Now 66% of Colombia’s population lives in the cities, many of whom are displaced campesinos driven out by drug violence as well as large-scale, corporate agricultural and mining projects like Chiquita and Drummond who finance paramilitaries to protect their interests.
Protestors are pleading “Estamos pacíficos” (We are peaceful) as they attempt to find the humanity behind ESMAD’s thick armour and convince agents to put down their guns. With Day 5 dedicated to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, teachers, students, seniors, campesinos, women, trade unionists and Colombians from different backgrounds and races are coming together to declare, as El Espectador blogger Cielo Rusinque tweeted:
“Today we are awaking conscious of the fact that this is a HOAX MADE BY THE GOVERNMENT and that THEY WANT TO SELL US FEAR IN ORDER TO OFFER US SECURITY. Today again pots and pans in hand TO THE STREETS! #NoTenemosMiedo (We are not afraid!)”