Protests Against Inequality, Violence and Police Brutality Spread Throughout Colombia

Sep 23, 2020
10:12 AM

Police line up near a humanitarian refuge in Ciudad Bolívar, Bogotá, Colombia. (Photo by Witness for Peace)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — On September 21, social movements, trade unions, and student organizations held protests throughout Colombia, resulting in 142 actions including in the cities of Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali. These were a revival of the nationwide protests against right-wing president Iván Duque from November 2019, with demands adapted for the social, economic, and biological crisis that COVID-19 has wrought. As in 2019, the protests in Bogotá and Medellín ended in riot police dispersing crowds with tear gas.

Protesters advocated for emergency petitions, which a national strike committee had sent to President Duque in June and include a universal basic income, a waiver of university tuition, and intervention by the government to bolster the healthcare system. The committee —composed of unions, student organizations, and other social movements— had been set up during the 2019 protests but continues to advocate for social change. Protesters were also rejecting the wave of massacres over the past two months, systematic assassinations of social leaders, and police brutality after the police killing of a law student in Bogotá last week. Above all, these organizations wanted a dialogue with the government to address how to resolve these issues.

“What are the emergency petitions? They are six points that are vital for workers,” said Julio Roberto Gomez, president of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), which is part of the committee. “So, we’re waiting for a response. If the government meets with bankers, with entrepreneurs, with business organizations, why not meet with unions and social organizations to negotiate a solution to these problems?”

In Bogotá, 11 marches were taking place in different sectors and by late afternoon concentrated in Bolívar Square, the heart of the city. Instead of negotiation, however, Colombian riot police dispersed the crowds with teargas, resulting in various protesters injured and captured. Some protesters were throwing bricks at police, and police claim some protesters were committing vandalism.

When asked why her friend had been detained, Blandine Juchs —eyes bloodshot red from teargas— said, “I don’t know… it’ll be ok, it’ll just take a while to get him released.”

Juchs is part of Red de Hermandad, a network of Colombian and international organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights.

In Medellín, Gabriela Gil from Colombian human rights organization Corporación Juridica Libertad accompanied various marches throughout the city. There were mutual provocations between the protesters and the riot police, which ended with the riot police attacking to break up demonstrations.

Gil said at one point, she noticed two police officers who were not clearly identified. She asked the police to identify themselves, which they refused to do. She called the municipal ombudsmen, but the police still refused to identify themselves.

In addition, Gil was concerned about collusion between police by paramilitary groups.

“It is known that paramilitary structures operate in this city, and there is a whole history of paramilitarism and the armed forces in this country,” she said.

She also said that tear gas canisters and a sort of flash-bang grenades were launched at protesters’ feet. Gil herself had one of the flash bangs go off close enough to become disoriented for some time.

“It’s pretty unpleasant, and I’m still having a hard time hearing” she said.

Back in Bogotá, 600 families created a humanitarian refuge  in Ciudad Bolívar, the city’s marginalized south side. Almost all were displaced from other regions of Colombia during the armed conflict, but have found little institutional support in the capital. Their primary demand was housing—almost all of those in the space were housing insecure, and many only eat one meal per day.

“My father was disappeared,” said one victim in the refuge who wanted to speak under the condition of anonymity. “This was in ’89… imagine, I have filled out so many applications for indemnification, but nothing, no help. I have had to do everything myself.”

As of September 22, the mayor’s office of Bogotá was preparing to evict the humanitarian refuge.

Those populating the refuge is a snapshot of the poverty many low-income Colombians find themselves. Since the COVID-19 crisis set in, Colombia’s unemployment rate shot up to around 20% and the healthcare system is under a lot of strain.

Meanwhile, structural wealth inequality in Colombia places its second in Latin America after Honduras. Colombians perceive a rising inequality, with 52% of Colombians saying their country has become more unequal in the last five years. In 2019, 45% of Colombians said at times they couldn’t afford food and 43% said they lacked money for shelter.

If history is any guide, this will not be an isolated protest. The day after the protests, Fabio Arias, part of the executive committee of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT), published an article noting the enthusiasm for the marches.

“Another 21N is coming,” Arias wrote in the article, 21N being the hashtag used during the November 21, 2019 protests.

“I think there will be another protest in October,” Juchs added, “and they will construct a social fabric and conscience of struggle.”

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Thomas Power an investigator and writer based in Bogotá, Colombia. He is a candidate for a master’s in Political Studies from Colombia’s National University and was an International Human Rights accompanier with Fellowship of Reconciliation. Twitter: @ahbueno55.