Protesters Medellín, Colombia next to a banner that reads “How does it feel to shoot at the people?” – May 5, 2021. Photo: Sergio R / Shutterstock.com
Colombian security forces have killed more than 40 people since recent protests began on April 28, according to Temblores, a Colombian NGO that documents state violence. Along with countless cases of torture and sexual assault, around 500 people remain missing since the protests began and could have been “disappeared,” a reality all too familiar to Colombians.
The actual number of deaths is likely higher as chaos and uncertainty unfolded during the continuing general strike, with President Iván Duque threatening to declare martial law if the protests continue. The military was deployed onto the streets of major cities across the country and distressing videos of police brutality continue to flood social media.
“This is the most violent period that we’ve documented … It’s the worst violence we’ve seen in the recent history of Colombia,” said Alejandro Lanz, co-director of Temblores.
“We’ve never seen police forces kill 39 people in a continuous series of protests like we’ve seen in this general strike. We’ve also seen an additional eight deaths during the demonstrations — plus several more that we haven’t been able to verify yet,” Lanz said over a hurried phone call. The NGO has been working hard to keep up with all the deaths being reported. One more death was recorded since this conversation took place, bringing the total up to 40.
Those eight additional deaths — and countless more injuries — were at the hands of what Lanz claims are armed civilian vigilante groups operating in plain sight of the police forces. This is hard to confirm, but some videos on social media seem to show just that.
This goes hand-in-hand with a long history of semi-autonomous paramilitaries that operate in coordination with the military. While paramilitary groups terrorize the countryside, these vigilantes are given free reign by police to terrorize the cities.
The only way to end the massacres, which have increased dramatically with this new wave of demonstrations and will continue if nothing changes, is to delegitimize the authoritarian US-backed Duque government. That should begin with showing solidarity to the socialist, Indigenous, anti-racist, radical feminist and trans groups that put themselves at incredible risk in the streets.
Solidarity marches should be aimed at the immense amount of US aid that allows for arms to end up with Colombian National Police and ESMAD, or aimed at NATO, which has given tacit support to the repression since Colombia became a “global partner.” This is important for leftists everywhere because the escalation of violence that we are seeing in Colombia could happen anywhere where the neoliberal concentration of wealth is contested by popular movements.
US government’s tacit approval
Colombian police are not civilian forces like in other countries, but are actually under the direct control of the Ministry of Defense. The thin line between police and military becomes even thinner in the case of the militarized ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron), a murderous, US-backed riot control branch of the police thought to be responsible for much of the killing in recent days.
There have been repeated denunciations of ESMAD by activist groups in Colombia. The Washington Office on Latin America released a statement calling for the US to denounce ESMAD. This follows similar calls from LASA, the largest association for Latin American studies, which had previously called for ESMAD to be disbanded after police murders during the 2018 general strike.
Solidarity rallies have been held in New York, Berlin and other cities as social media overflows with messages of support and more videos of police brutality and murder. Yet despite the indignation of civil society, the US government has remained relatively silent on the state violence being committed by one of their closest allies in Latin America.
The preference with which the US treats its allies in the region could not be more clear: with any unrest just across the border in Venezuela, Washington is quick to deliver debilitating sanctions and threatening with military action.
To be fair, some lawmakers, like US House Foreign Affairs chair Gregory Meeks, have denounced the flagrant human rights violations, but Biden administration Press Secretary Jen Psaki largely brushed off a question about the crisis at a recent press conference.
The silence from the Biden administration on the crisis has entered a second week. The only statement so far, from May 4, laid blame on the protesters, a cynical continuation of the Trump administration’s grotesque “bothsidesism.”
A press release from the US embassy in Colombia said that “citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully. Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right.” It goes on to offer support to the Colombian government and puts trust in the Colombia police to “address any violations of human rights.” To believe that Colombia is willing or able to investigate their own human rights abuses is absurd.
The Biden administration is unlikely to take a stand against the massacres because of the obvious complicity of the US drug war machine in the brutal repression. Colombia receives the largest amount of US military aid of all Latin American countries, the result being disastrous fallout of an escalated drug war and the most repressive state authorities in Latin America.
Leftists everywhere must be weary of the disappearance of narratives in the media and at official levels when it comes to popular struggles against powerful allies of Western nations. Continuing to tell these stories of resistance becomes even more important when the brokers of information, like social media giants, have suppressing them recently.
A long history of police killings
The center of the current uprising has undoubtedly been in Cali, a city in the south-western Cauca valley, a region with a large afro-Colombian minority. At least 30 people have been killed in Cali in the past week and a half, with over 400 injured and several “disappeared.” The real numbers could be higher.
This follows a pattern of minorities being frequent targets of state violence. In Cauca and other parts of the country, a disproportionate number of activists and social leaders killed by police and paramilitaries are people of color or Indigenous people.
“We identified that black Colombians are one of the groups most affected by the violence. We found that 33 of the deaths recorded were against afro-Colombians,” said Lanz. “Cali has a huge amount of inequality due to segregation and some neighborhoods with an overwhelmingly black population are plagued by brutal policing.”
Protests last year demanding justice for Anderson Arboleda, a young man killed by police in Cali, took inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement and anger in the US over the killing of George Floyd. Arboleda was killed around the same time as Floyd, whose murder sparked worldwide anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests.
A few months later in September of 2020, protests spread across the country after the killing of a lawyer named Javier Ordóñez. Widely shared video footage showed police tasering him repeatedly while being held face down on the ground with two officers kneeling on his back on a Bogotá street. Ordóñez died of his injuries soon after.
In Colombia, protests against police killings unfortunately often lead to more police killings. Security forces murdered at least 13 people and injured hundreds more as the streets of major cities filled with angry protesters demanding justice for Ordóñez.
Condemnation over the 2020 police massacres came from major international organizations, civil society groups and foreign governments. Much of this denunciation is again being launched in recent days at the Colombian government for its egregious use of force against peaceful demonstrators in this on-going wave of rebellion.
The government and police are not unresponsive to such international condemnation, but they have been shifting blame onto protesters who they claim — without evidence — have FARC or other guerrilla insurgents among their ranks. Their strategy is to deny any systemic basis for their abuses of basic human rights, instead blaming “bad apples” in the various security forces for the “isolated incidents” of killings.
Calls for an end to police violence were central to the general strike in 2018 and are once again taking center stage in the on-going second general strike. Another major motivation for the massive demonstrations in recent years has been the failure of the 2016 peace deal, which has not done enough to stop state violence.
Among the mainstream politicians calling for serious police reforms are opposition leaders and city mayors. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López has repeated her criticisms of the police and Duque government that she first made last year after the police killing of Ordóñez.
US military aid
Overall US aid to Colombia increased to $448 million in 2020, the largest amount in nine years. About half of that goes to the military, paramilitaries and police. Spain also sold arms to Colombia up until 2013, despite its atrocious human rights record, according to Control Arms, a campaign against the global arms trade with support from Amnesty International and other NGOs.
While this aid was meant to help the fight against insurgent groups and to fight the so-called “drug war,” Western support for state-sponsored terror in Colombia has been the bane of the vast majority of Colombians for the past 70 years. Massacres, bombardments and the fumigation of crop lands have done little to bring peace and have instead caused countless deaths and destroyed the livelihoods of huge sections of the Colombian population.
In 2018, Colombia joined NATO, making it the first Latin American country to become a “global partner” in the mostly European military alliance. This gives the US military machine an even stronger foothold in a region where its historic role in overthrowing democratically elected governments is well known, and of particular concern to Venezuela. With Colombia as a “global partner,” it is blatantly hypocritical of NATO member states to preach freedom and democracy while paramilitaries that work closely with the Colombian military kill thousands of innocent people every year.
Colombia has long been eyed as the ideal regional base for US Southern Command operations and joint training exercises between the two countries are not uncommon. Billions of dollars were spent on “Plan Colombia” and the “Andean Counterdrug Initiative,” Bush-era military aid and support schemes ostensibly designed to end armed conflict in the country.
The original objective of these programs was to end the drug trade, but that quickly gave way to unrestricted funding for more right-wing paramilitaries that would take on leftist guerrilla groups like FARC. “US military cooperation with the Colombian Army considerably strengthened the phenomenon of paramilitarism through the provision of advanced weaponry,” according to Renán Vega Cantor, a professor at the National Pedagogical University in Bogotá.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and internally displaced by the paramilitary groups, while multinational companies have routinely fomented conflict over the years, raking in the benefits of further capital consolidation in a fractured rural economy.
Long-time Colombian activist Dr. Manuel Rozental recently characterized the Duque government as a “fascist mafia regime.” And it’s not hyperbole. Leading politicians have been parroting a conspiracy theory developed by a Chilean neo-Nazi in order to justify the state brutality. The oligarchic Duque government, through the repressive arms of the military, paramilitaries and the police, is suppressing demands for even the most basic rights in favor of business interests.
Orders were given for the army and police “to shoot and kill anybody, everybody, everywhere,” said Rozental. The truth is that the Duque government is not afraid of doing so because they know they will face no backlash from key international allies like the US. This same struggle against US-backed state violence extends from Colombia to Palestine, where the Israeli government gets similar Western backing for their onslaughts against civilians.
Authoritarian neoliberal power
It is worth bearing in mind that the current protests are not just an organic swelling of rage at the proposed tax reforms. The protests started as a general strike, the second in just a few years after a similar strike in 2018. Between then and now, there was another wave of popular uprisings in 2019–2020 that seemed to be inspired by the massive movement in Chile.
This general strike was called by the CUT, one of the country’s largest labor unions. Their demands are not just targeting the regressive tax reform, which has since been partially scrapped, but call for much more. The National Strike Committee (Comité Nacional de Paro) has called for a reform of the privatized health system, universal basic income and other radical reforms that are a rejection of neoliberal privatization.
To fully understand these uprisings, they need to be seen within the larger picture of the fight against neoliberalism in Latin America. The Duque government and the former government of Álvaro Uribe have overseen some of most repressive far-right programs in Latin America, rivaled perhaps only by Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
The New York Times reported on the fear that this type of uprising could spread. But it already has spread. The uprisings in Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia are all aimed at ending disastrous neoliberal policies — a popular rejection of the “Washington Consensus” across Latin America.
To make matters worse, Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for labor organizers. Hundreds of activists and labor organizers have been killed in the past five years alone. Killings have been ongoing since the worst of the Pablo Escobar days and the demarcations between police, military, paramilitaries and drug traffickers remain blurred.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed or disappeared in the past few decades. A scandal under former president Uribe saw some of these killings labeled as “false positives,” a practice in which the military counted civilian deaths as enemy insurgent deaths.
This cycle of death for military prestige was reportedly condoned at the highest levels of the Colombian military. In some cases the bodies of murdered peasants were even dressed up in insurgent’s fatigues.
International solidarity with Colombia
Solidarity marches in North America and Europe have already made headlines this past week, and inspiring internationalist messages of support came from as far afield as Myanmar, a country also simultaneously mourning and fighting back against devastating police and military massacres. Statements of support from an Indigenous people’s confederation in Ecuador condemned the Colombian state’s attacks on Indigenous groups and La Minga, a multitudinous indigenous movement in Colombia.
All round the world, people are angry, people are activated, and they are ready for the long fight ahead. From Colombia to India and from the US to South Africa, anti-authoritarian and anti-neoliberalism struggles must link up if we want to challenge this threat that has already gone global along with capitalism itself.
International solidarity means more than just hashtags and calls for justice to politicians that will continue to fall on deaf ears. Western countries must be forced to stop funding murderous military and police in Colombia and people in those countries have a collective responsibility to force the crisis into public view.
The importance of the struggle against state repression in Latin America needs to be understood by leftists everywhere, because this can happen anywhere. It can happen to any social movement that presents a serious challenge to the oppressive conditions making people’s lives hell around the world, especially as the economic burden of the post-Covid recovery process will be forced onto working people The task for leftists around the world is to find common ground with those opposing repression and exploitation because we share a common struggle.
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