David Sanz Villamil, SAV (ISA in Germany)
On the evening of September 8, police murdered Bogotá resident, Javier Ordoñez. A video of his brutal killing, tasered ten times, rapidly spread provoking widespread anger in Colombia. This came on top of 61 massacres so far in 2020, with over 152 social and union leaders murdered and more than 200 former FARC members killed after returning to civilian life.
In the following days, there were militant protests against police violence. These events show significant similarity with the protests against police killing in the US. The response of Colombia’s police has been even more violent than in the US.
This is not the first case of overreach by the Colombian police forces during the pandemic, not to mention many times before that. But the cruelty displayed in the video, added to the dozens of reported situations of a similar nature and mixed with growing destitution and governmental abandonment explains how massive protests against the police in Bogotá started immediately once the killing was reported.
The protestors on September 9 and 10 refused to obey the authorities’ commands to disperse. The police responded to the mere presence of protesting people on the streets with excessive force, with reports of 13 people dead and more than 200 civilians wounded, 72 of them by gunshots. Three women were abducted and raped inside police stations (CAIs), and one cannot but wonder to whom they will go to report this horrific incident. The protestors resisted the police presence, reportedly injuring 194 and burning 45 small police stations, known in Colombia as CAIs, across Bogotá, the country’s capital.
Videos and other evidence revealed the police’s actions. Police were shooting non-standard issue guns instead of their own, so that the shooting could not be traced back to them. They gave weapons to disguised agent-provocateurs to create a narrative of generalized chaos as a justification for the excessive use of force. There is no acceptable excuse for the police shooting live rounds at protesters, be it from standard issue weapons or not.
There is a long history of lack of accountability and restraint on the governmental forces. Colombia’s police are part of the Ministry of Defence and not of the Ministries of Justice or Interior. This allows for the police to be judged under the special military courts, instead of regular civilian ones.
This situation sits at odds with the Colombian constitution, which declares the police as a civilian institution. However, there are a great many countries suffering from police abuse whose police are of a civilian character, which is a sign that the solution should go further than merely complying with this constitutional mandate.
The accountability problem goes beyond the way the police actions are judged, as it is rare that they are judged in the first place. The government narrative, as in many other countries, has painted policemen as heroes of the fatherland and protectors of the community, which stands in a stark contrast to the reality of the frequent abuses they subject the population to.
But even taking into account the tradition of the Colombian government, the far-right government of Iván Duque has gone above and beyond in terms of their praise and defense of the forces of “law and order.” President Duque’s words saying that the police forces “have earned the hearts of Colombians thanks to their culture of respect & bravery” after the death of Javier Ordoñez can hardly be considered much more than a mockery in the face of the history of this institution.
Minister of Defence, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, went further in pre-emptively excusing excesses committed by policemen during the protests, claiming the protests have a systematic nature and were infiltrated by members of the leftist guerrillas and anarchist and terrorist groups seeking only to cause violence and destruction.
As is customary in the case of the right-wing narratives, Javier Ordóñez has already been posthumously declared persona non-grata by the Colombian reactionaries, his social drinking stripping him of his right to due process.
He joins the long list of victims of armed forces’ abuse, including Dylan Cruz, killed in last year’s protests from a gunshot to his head, action justified by his alleged vandalism. The raping of the three Indigenous teenage girls by soldiers, was diminished with the disgusting claim that the girls were looking for sex. During the brutal repression in the early 2000s, 10,000 young men were murdered by the army, who falsely claimed the men were guerrilla fighters, so called “false positives.”
2020: A Year of Working-Class Misfortune
The popular outburst of anger is rooted in Colombia’s situation. While a successful lockdown hindered the initial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government was unwilling to act to stem rising unemployment and the fall in job opportunities in a mostly informal national economy, and this has brought the Colombian people to a dire situation.
One of the most fertile countries on earth, rarely if ever struck by famine, found many of its urban citizens hungry due exclusively to the fact that they ran out of money to buy groceries to sustain their families. Red towels are hung from windows as people in difficulty call for aid from their neighbors. Not very surprisingly, the strict lockdown measures opposed by people desperate for work, and street vendors all across the country were the targets of police brutality on many occasions.
Calls for a “basic income” were largely ignored by the government, and the very little they gave, in the form of a single payment of half the minimum wage to the poorest people in the country, was not nearly enough for a single person, let alone for a family.
While widespread violence never really disappeared, it has accelerated this year, with the long list of massacres especially targeting social, environmental and union activists and former FARC members.
Long History of State Violence
Former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, 2002 — 2010, was a right-wing populist who privatized sections of the economy and waged a brutal war on rural guerrillas with widespread use of military, and especially paramilitary, death squads. Soldiers were paid bonuses for the guerrillas they killed. The Army killed thousands of innocent people, claiming the bonuses. His comment was “if they were killed it wouldn’t have been for picking up coffee.” Uribe was popular with the US president George W. Bush, being praised for his “war on drugs,” although he is alleged to have been involved in drug trafficking and Columbia remains central to cocaine production.
His successor, President Santos, negotiated a peace agreement with the guerrillas. However his successor, the present President, Iván Duque Márquez, is a protégé of Uribe and has not continued the peace process. Instead, right-wing paramilitary death squads roam the land in great numbers again, especially in regions under former control of the FARC, and kidnappings and threats of “social cleansing” are becoming the order of the day for many rural communities and small townships whose members are suspected of having leftist leanings.
The promises of alternatives to coca production in the countryside have resulted in anaemic efforts at best. The efforts to eradicate coca, often involving aerial spraying with glyphosate that poison water and cause illness, have never truly stopped during the times of the pandemic, pitting the rural population against the police and military forces.
The right wing stepped up its violence after Uribe was put under house arrest in August, charged with bribery and witness tampering. Uribe’s response was to call for national resistance against the “virus of FARC youth” and the judges.
Military forces were used to support the police in the repression in Bogotá, as the lines between the police and the army are blurred. One can’t help but wonder if the state has declared war on the working class, for such an action to take place.
The old adage of not letting a crisis go to waste was in the mind of Duque during this pandemic, as he seized this opportunity to establish a state of emergency in the country and start executing decrees without the need of the other branches of government.
Among these decrees was the one allowing for US military personnel to go to Colombia, multiple instances of tax relief for private sector companies and generous loans for big corporations and landowners. Decrees that would directly benefit the general population were scarce and one of them is infamous for not being signed correctly by the same ministers that had no problem signing the rest of them.
These actions have been facilitated by the fact that the Centro Democrático (CD) party, founded by Uribe, has assembled a majority coalition in the Senate, and its members, who are also personal friends of the president, fill the seats of the State Attorney, the State Solicitor and the “Defender of the People”, which are responsible for overseeing the behavior of the president and his ministers.
With these and many other things happening, it is hardly surprising that the pent-up frustration of the population produced a powerful reaction to this blatant abuse committed by the state forces.
The Colombian people have resisted right-wing governments. In regional elections, Duque’s party suffered embarrassing defeats, including in the two biggest cities, Bogotá, and Medellín. However, Duque continued with the same policies.
In November, a national strike was called by the national union committees and many of the opposition groups, including some of those inside the parliament. The “Committee for the National Strike” was clear in calling for opposition to the imperialist financial and developmental institutions. Demands included opposition to proposed attacks on labor rights, taxes, pensions and services, all of which would increase the cost of living for workers and the poor. They also opposed the forming of a conglomerate of the largest financial institutions, supplemented by the state to make sure that their interests remained harmonious.
While not achieving the goals of the strike, the biggest anti-government protests in four decades which took place between November 2019 to January 2020, did scare the government into postponing their attacks on the labor movement. There were walkouts and protests all across the country in all significant urban centers. They were met by heavy police repression, and reports of police agent-provocateurs increased the popular indignation as the mainstream media, absolutely aligned with the government, tried to de-legitimize the protests.
The curfews and then the COVID lockdown paused the protests. Now, half a year after the end of that movement, the powder keg of social discontent exploded in the form of the protest against police abuse.
What are the Popular Demands?
This movement has no clear organization and there is no clear group of leaders at the helm. It is a spontaneous expression of popular indignation. Yet there are some calls that have resonated across those who protested and those who support the actions on social media. One thing that is clear: people want police reform.
Three specific things have been frequently mentioned in these protests as well as past movements: the call to abolish the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) who possess military vehicles and are the most repressive part of the police, the general demilitarization of the police forces, forbidding most of them from carrying firearms and limiting the types of firearms they have access to, and the transfer of the police institutions to the Ministry of Interior so that the special military justice system will not cover up their abuses.
The CD government will not relent to these demands, and the popular outrage against the overreach of the government and police seems to be increasing by the day, with popular demonstrations taking place in big cities such as Medellín and Cartagena. The National Strike Committee has called for protests across the country. It is likely that the demands will widen to more than police reform with calls for some form of relief payment for the masses and a reversal of many of the recent anti-working class attacks gaining more popular support.
The situation of the US’s greatest ally in South America is becoming increasingly unstable, with the right-wing government and its allied parties losing credibility at an unprecedented rate. That didn’t stop Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, heaping praise on Duque in a recent visit. Not a word of criticism about human rights abuses in Colombia. The US’s remarkable support for Colombia in the supposed war against drug trafficking has been met with ridicule by the Colombian people, well aware that Colombia is the most important producer of cocaine in the world, and the US the biggest buyer.
Popular support for Gustavo Petro, last year’s presidential candidate for the left is at an all-time high but trust in the electoral process has collapsed. One thing that many people fear in this situation is a greater clampdown by the current government in an attempt to secure their dwindling control, and some attempts at influencing the next elections by illegal means, like those seen previously, are also very likely. If Petro was elected, he would be the first leftist president in Colombia’s history, and there’s no doubt that reaction wouldn’t waste any time in fighting to make his government as ineffective as possible.
One thing is certain: Colombia is deep in a social and economic crisis that’s only expected to get worse, a crisis with no capitalist way out. The need to build support for a socialist alternative, within the mass movements of workers, youth and all the oppressed, linked to a struggle throughout the continent for a socialist federation of free peoples, has never been greater.
It is noticeable that governments around the world have not criticized the murder and massacres in Colombia. International Socialist Alternative fights to highlight the hypocrisy of governments that talk about human rights in some countries but not others, in the struggle for real working class internationalist solidarity.