BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Tens of thousands of Colombians from all sectors of society took to the streets in a national strike on October 21 to call for changes to conservative President Iván Duque’s social and economic policies.
“We want a different country,” said 54-year-old Rocio Reyes, mother of a teenage son, who held a sign at the entrance of Bogotá’s main public square that said: ‘Enough is enough’.
Afro-Colombian organizations, student groups, LGBTQ activists, workers unions, political parties, teachers and indigenous people – many who traveled from other regions to the capital – took part in the peaceful demonstrations. Protestors decried the continued killings of human rights activists and environmental defenders, police brutality and education and pension reforms, among other issues.
A peace deal between Marxist guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC) and the previous government of Juan Manuel Santos was signed in 2016, but violence still ravages the country. As the FARC demobilized other illegal actors, like the remaining rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), FARC dissidents, illegal miners and drug traffickers began to vie for control of the precious territories.
Violence has intensified, affecting mostly rural communities – many of them minority or marginalized groups.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) think-tank, says protests in Colombia are happening because the peace deal is not being implemented.
“Duque is not following through on the State’s promises made in the accord, so as a result Colombia is experiencing an alarming amount of violence,” Sanchez said. “We have killings of activists, resurgence of massacres, displacements and armed groups acting with impunity. The government’s response is to deny, ignore, stick to their guns, stigmatize protestors and to meet [protests] with repression.”
Reforms in Colombia’s military-like police force – which reports directly to the Ministry of Defense – is high on demonstrators demands. Police have been scrutinized for using excessive force against civilians and anti-police sentiment is on the rise.
Last year’s national strikes in November and December – which went on for several weeks but were increasingly repressed by police – saw the death of 19-year-old Dilan Cruz after a police projectile hit his head, causing huge public outcry.
“I am fed up of corruption, war and police abuse,” said protester and special needs teacher Liliana Guitirrez, 30, who was dressed as the grim reaper. She wielded a scythe made out of aluminium foil with ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s name and political party, the Democratic Center, stencilled on it.
Another protester, Wendi Beltran, a 21-year-old public university biology student, told VICE News the police are always on the government’s side. “They ought to be on the side of the people,” she said.
Just last month, a video circulated showing Javier Ordoñez being repeatedly stun-gunned and restrained by police officers, while shouting, “please, no more”. He later died of head injuries inflicted while in police custody. Forensics confirmed he had nine skull fractures. Violent protests against police broke out in Bogotá and other cities for several days, leaving 13 civilians dead and over 400 injured.
Cauca is one of the regions where there’s been the most killing of indigenous people in the past year – a lot of them land rights defenders.
Figures from INDEPAZ, a Bogotá-based think-tank, show 89 indigenous leaders have been killed in 2020 alone and 209 killed under President Duque’s administration. In total, they say 642 human rights and environmental activists have been killed since 2018.
Government statistics on these killings are more conservative.
One of the protesters’ demands was to meet with President Duque, who has been dubbed a protégé of former president Álvaro Uribe – who remains one of the most polemic figures in the country. The demand was not granted.
“Duque has gone back to the same policies as Uribe which is basically not to meet or negotiate with the indigenous movement…and basically treating them as if they are less important,” WOLA’s Sanchez said. “I highly doubt that he will ever meet with them.”