“Our march was the most peaceful one in the country,” a protestor said, as the sun set on the city of Medellín following one of the biggest protests in Colombia’s history. We sat outdoors on some steps in the residential neighbourhood of Moravia. “We’ve set an example,” he added, “now let’s see how the government responds to see if we take to the streets again…” His words were short-lived. The dull, distinctive thud of tear-gas capsules cut him off before a stampede of student protestors descended on the neighbourhood.
Despite a day of peaceful protest in Medellín, police aggression set in at dusk. An anti-riot squad dispersed students with rubber bullets, glass bottles and tear gas. As some have long feared, violence seems the preferred response of Colombian President Ivan Duque to the latest protests in Latin America. Demonstrations have erupted across the continent, first in Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, and now in Colombia, where a general strike organised by trade union and student movements in the country’s major cities quickly became the basis for a mass outpouring of social discontent aimed at Duque.
The Colombian president, who was elected in May 2018 with a 54 per cent majority, has long opposed Colombia’s peace agreements. During the first year of his presidency, his government attempted to overhaul the Special-Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). In Duque’s view, the JEP is too “lenient” on former combatants from the leftist guerrilla group the FARC, as it allows them to testify under immunity. Yet the JEP was pivotal to the FARC’s initial agreement to sign a peace deal. For many Colombians, Duque’s attack of the JEP is an explicit attack on peace itself.
Since Duque was elected, some 299 social leaders have been assassinated, according to the Colombian Institute of Peace and Development. Most of these killings have occurred in ex-FARC territories, where the state had promised to fill the vacuum left by the demobilisation of rebel combatants. Instead, paramilitaries and drug-trafficking groups have been allowed to seize territorial control. Social leaders attempting to uphold peace accords by reclaiming stolen lands, for instance, have been systematically assassinated by paramilitaries or other armed criminal groups.
On top of all this, Duque’s economic reforms, colloquially termed the paquetazo, strip away labour protections, weaken pension schemes and pledge to reduce the minimum wage by 25 per cent for all workers under the age of 25. At the same time, the president has pledged tax reductions for large companies and multinationals. Tired of this record, Colombians from across the social spectrum have taken to the streets.
Colombia’s national strike on 21 November was one of the largest in the country’s history. In Medellín, Colombia’s second city, over 200,000 protestors gathered at El Parque de los Luces (The Park of Lights). “We have never seen a march of this magnitude in history”, exclaimed the secretary of local political party, POLO (Alternative Democratic Pole), Javier Gaviria Betancur. He stood beneath a canopy of coloured flags. “Peaceful, democratic, civic, each with their own banner and initiative. It’s something spontaneous. A multitudinous response to misrule”.
“Multitudinous” was the word. A sea of people extended beyond the park and out of view: university students, who lose entire semesters each year to strike against the budget cuts and demand the funds to keep universities afloat; artists dressed as clowns harbouring concerns over attacks on their freedom of expression; indigenous movements experiencing a resurgence in hostilities against their ancestral rights and territories; parents with children on their shoulders, dreaming of a better future.
One group of young protestors beat their drums and danced in opposition to Duque’s economic reforms. In Medellín, families who live on minimum wage are already struggling to pay rent and cover daily expenses, even when living in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. Noelia, a young single mother, described how she has to make “miracles on minimum wage” to pay the rent each month. Further wage reductions would see her out on the streets.
Others marched in the name of the social leaders who have been assassinated on Duque’s watch. These include trade unionists, indigenous people, environmentalists and activists spear-heading land restitution claims. Many Colombians perceive the failure to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice as a sign that the government is playing an active role in orchestrating the killings to cripple the implementation of peace accords. “They’re killing us”, read banners. One message rang clear – peace is failing in Colombia, and Duque’s government are the architects of its undoing.
Over the weekend, violent incidents continued. In Bogotá, a young protestor, Dilan Cruz, died following a blast to the head from close range by an ESMAD (riot control) officer. Mobile phone footage captured in different locations across the capital also shows ESMAD officers firing tear-gas at groups of protestors walking calmly with their hands in the air, chanting, “We are peaceful. We are peaceful”.
The response to the protests was “state terrorism – a strategy of fear”, said human rights defender, Carolina Moreno when we spoke the morning after the march. “It generates panic to delegitimise social protest as tool for citizens to raise our voices in front of the government. They (the government) sow panic, fear and terror and claim that it was ‘vandals’”.
Still, Colombians continue to take to the streets. Since the march in Medellín, there have been nights of cacerolazos – a traditional form of protest in Latin America, which consists of banging pots and pans. This majestic ripple of emphatic clattering has chased fear from neighbourhoods in the city centre and beyond the rolling mountainsides that surround the city. While protesters’ motivations vary, one thing unites them: a fearless and growing rejection of everything that Duque represents.
Adam Moore is a PhD candidate at Radboud University, Netherlands. He is currently conducting research in Medellín, Colombia.