Unforgiving Repression of National Strike in Colombia

May 7, 2021
3:51 PM

A woman dressed in the colors of the Colombian flag raises a fist the week of May 3, 2021 in Popayán (Photo by conpaz)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — For a week, people from all over the world have looked on in horror as the Colombian government’s crackdown on a national strike has been unforgiving. Different organizations have different tallies, but they all indicate tragedy.

By May 5, the National Ombudsman’s Office put the number of those killed at 24, while Colombian organization Indepaz documented 31 deaths.

By May 6, the non-government organization Temblores had documented 37 people killed, along with over a thousand other counts of police violence such as arbitrary detentions, sexual assault, and injuries. But the strike hadn’t started that way.

On the first day of the protests, April 28, the feeling was electric in the center of Bogotá, not violent. There was percussion and chants typical of Colombian protests.

“Que lo vengan a ver, que lo vengan a ver, eso no es un gobierno, son los paracos en el poder,” a group of students, union workers, and other sectors of the civil society yelled in unison, drums keeping the rhythm.

People were angry because the right-wing Iván Duque administration was trying to push a regressive tax reform that would put taxes on food and basic services, amid a pandemic that has already devasted health and the economy. The government claims high-public debt makes the reform necessary.

“We are here in the march to protest this government because they aren’t seeing the needs of the people. They are simply looking at their own needs and enriching themselves day after day while the people are poorer and poorer,” said Ricardo Vivas, a public servant who was protesting.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, those living in poverty have gone up to 42.5% of the population from 35.7%, with unemployment at 14%. Trying to raise the prices of the basic basket of food and services was not well received by the majority of the population.

“It’s the worst thing they could do,” Ricardo told Latino Rebels, “because if the government needs money, there are a lot of ways to get it. You don’t have to only increase the price of food, the price of transport, the price of gas, because people are getting poorer. Just raising the price of an egg by 50 pesos [1 cent] will take away a breakfast from a family and their children.”

Their clamor was met with teargas, beatings and — just like last year— live ammunition.

At first, the Pacific city of Cali was the epicenter of violence.

“We are deeply alarmed at developments in the city of Cali in Colombia overnight, where police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against tax reforms, reportedly killing and injuring a number of people,” a May 4 UN press release noted. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also expressed concern, as did several embassies and the State Department.

“Last week was pretty tough because the police started to use arms against people protesting as well as people who weren’t protesting. I’m talking about beatings, detentions, injuries, aggressions, against participants as well as those who weren’t even in the protest, just were watching or even just passing by,” said Cristian Llanos, a human rights defender who was accompanying the protesters in Cali.

Video after video has been circulating Twitter, Instagram, and other social media showing police violence. Some deaths, such as 27-year-old Nicolas Guerrero, were caught in real time on an Instagram livestream.

There were also reports of isolated cases of vandalism and looting.

In Buga, a city close to Cali, a helicopter hovered above neighborhoods harassing citizens. “This is like a war zone! Help us,” the person taking the video said.

Llanos also said private citizens are threatening the protesters too, which he sees as correlated with statements by ex-president Álvaro Uribe, who called on the police to use their weapons to “defend people and property from criminal actions and vandalism terrorism.” On May 6, there were videos on Twitter of people in civilian clothes getting down from a truck and opening fire on civilians.

Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano, who has signaled that guerrilla organizations such as dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have infiltrated the protesters and are responsible for attacks against police stations.

“And at night they are doing blackouts, and the public security forces are entering and killing people,” said Jenny Ortiz, a human rights defender based in Bogotá, referring to reports of the electricity or internet being cut, allegedly by the public security forces, to break communication.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee chaired by Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) expressed concern about the police’s excessive use of force.

Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) also took notice of the violence, and was interviewed on Colombian Radio Station “W Radio”.

“I feel deeply about the loss of life and many wounded and traumatized because of the violence that has been used against these protesters and I’m deeply concerned. And so are many members of Congress,” he said in an interview with Colombian media on May 5. “Congress and the Biden administration need to take a hard look at U.S. aid equipment and training to Colombian National Police.”

Since May 1, Duque has ordered the militarization of the country to deal with the protesters.

Enrique Chimonja is a member of Comunidades Construyendo Paz en Colombia (Communities Constructing Peace in Colombia, Conpazcol). He participated in protests in the southern city of Popayán.

“As an organization of victims, we understand the pain felt by mothers of those who were brutally repressed, those who were tortured —even murdered— all for demanding not just their own rights but for the rights of other Colombians,” he told Latino Rebels.

“Especially for the families of the more than 100 victims of enforced disappearance, and there isn’t any response by the justice system of where they may be,” Chimonja added, knowing what that feels like because when he was a boy, his father was disappeared.

By May 6, the Public Prosecutor’s office had brought charges against police for only three of the homicides during the protests.

Duque has ostensibly retracted the proposed tax reforms (which Llanos said isn’t totally true) and Finance Minister Carrasquilla resigned as an attempt to placate the protests. There are also some talks of negotiations, and a commission has been formed in Colombia’s congress to try to find a solution.

This week has been hard for Colombians, but María Eugenia, another member of Conpazcol, encouraged people to look to the positive that people have been doing.

“I want to emphasize how so many Colombian people are united in the streets, and how people are expressing themselves artistically —painting, music and more— to tell this government they don’t agree with its policies of death and everything bad that is happening here,” she said.


Thomas Power is 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.