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The Colombian Government’s War on Protesters

After six weeks of massive protests against neoliberalism and state violence in Colombia, right-wing president Iván Duque is relying on brute force to stay in power.

Police confront demonstrators during a protest against the government of Colombian president Iván Duque in Bogotá on June 9, 2021. (Juan Barreto / AFP via Getty Images)

Six weeks into Colombia’s general strike, protesters have won significant victories while bearing the brunt of a brutal crackdown by state and paramilitary forces. Five members of President Iván Duque’s cabinet have stepped down or been replaced. Duque withdrew his regressive tax bill that sparked the protests as well as a controversial health bill and the proposal to pay billions for Lockheed Martin war jets in the midst of the worst health and economic crises Colombia has faced in decades. A movement has consolidated with a clear focus on the government’s sabotaging of the peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and continued overseeing of massive inequality, which has become intolerable for large segments of the population.

Duque and his political party have shown their inability or unwillingness to respond to the protesters’ demands, which reflect Colombia’s corruption and neo-feudal inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. A third wave of the coronavirus claimed over fifteen thousand lives in May and kept ICUs at near 100 percent capacity in Colombia’s major cities. Security forces have catalyzed enormous shows of solidarity with the general strike through their vicious attacks on peaceful protesters.

More than forty demonstrators have been summarily executed by state and parastate armed forces, with Human Rights Watch receiving sixty-three credible reports of deaths during the protests, two of which were police. Human rights groups Temblores and Indepaz have reported more than 2,000 documented cases of police brutality, more than 1,600 arbitrary detentions, 25 confirmed sexual assaults, 65 eye injuries, and 346 forced disappearances of protesters since the general strike began, with Indigenous, Afro, and poor communities the primary targets of repression.

Miguel Ceballos was the high commissioner for peace and government representative in pre-negotiations with the National Strike Committee until he resigned on May 22. Ceballos was widely criticized in the human rights community for undermining the peace process on behalf of the government. President Duque named Juan Camilo Restrepo to replace Ceballos as peace commissioner. Restrepo was the president of Augura, a banana producer trade association, when it donated $33 million Colombian pesos to the campaign against the 2016 peace accords. Augura is known for direct support of paramilitary groups, and numerous board members are considered supporters or direct participants in paramilitary organizations operating in Antioquia.

The Duque administration has repeatedly sabotaged their own government’s pre-negotiations with the Strike Committee representing protesters, refusing to provide guarantees of basic rights to protesters while ramping up the militarized crackdown — the continuation of a long tradition in Colombia of responding to social mobilization with state and parastate repression.

Lucía González, a leading member of Colombia’s Truth Commission that was formed as part of the peace accords between the government and the FARC, put it bluntly in late May when she spoke of

a state that is anti-reform, that has criminalized every attempt to deepen democracy, whatever the form, eliminating union activists, human rights leaders, stigmatizing mobilizations, criminalizing the leaders of the mobilizations, with the goal of guaranteeing a status quo and avoiding any kind of reform that results from their demands. It is a state that protects the elites and the privileges of certain sectors against the rights of others. It is a state by the elites, for the elites.

Cali has been the epicenter of state and parastate violence since the beginning of the general strike. A May 23 report released by the organization Justicia y Paz on the situation in Cali describes a particularly horrifying iteration of González’s analysis: on May 2, Cali’s Center of Municipal Administration was used as a center of clandestine operations, and protesters were taken there and detained in basements before being transported elsewhere in trucks. The report described mass graves in two municipalities outside Cali, the Mulaló area of Yumbo and the Guacarí area of Buga, where bodies of disappeared protesters have allegedly been dumped from trucks used by police.

The reports from Buga describe executions of young protesters who were reported as disappeared. Some who survived the executions were later found in health centers with gunshot wounds, and are now in hiding and facing death threats.

The report also describes the formation of armed paramilitary groups under protection of police operating out of the upscale Ciudad Jardín district in Cali. Ciudad Jardín was the site of armed attacks by wealthy neighborhood residents, accompanied by police, on unarmed Indigenous marchers. During the May 9 attacks, at least eight participants in the march sustained gunshot wounds at the hands of the armed civilians.

There are now reports of casas de pique in Ciudad Jardín, a term used to describe the clandestine centers used by paramilitary groups in the region to detain, torture, kill, and often dismember the bodies of their victims. Currently 120 people are reported as disappeared from the Cali protests since April 28.

Alfredo Molano Jimeno reported in El Espectador on May 24 that medical brigades serving protesters in Cali are being targeted by professional assassins and security forces. Medical workers have reported that they are now removing the identifying marks that they traditionally wear in conflict zones to avoid being targeted. Numerous medical workers have reported that they were informed that a bounty had been offered for the murder of health volunteers caring for protesters in Cali, and have described being targeted by police and civilians.

On May 25, Argentine human rights lawyer Juan Grabois, who arrived in Colombia with the International Commission of Solidarity and Human Rights to monitor human rights abuses, was denied entry, detained, and then deported later that day. Human rights observers already in the country have been targeted by police and armed civilians throughout the general strike. The Duque government denied or delayed the requests of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to come to Colombia to monitor the human rights situation, before finally capitulating this past week to pressure from international groups, including the US government.

The IACHR has met with government and civil groups all week, and Duque announced a superficial police reform bill the day the commission arrived in Bogotá. Temblores, Indepaz, and Paiis presented a devastating report to the IACHR commission detailing a long list of confirmed state-backed atrocities.

The Duque regime has embarked on a multipronged communications strategy designed to stigmatize the largely peaceful protests as acts of terrorism internally, and to present a picture of rigorous institutional protocol to the international community. The campaign has produced mixed results, thanks to the wide circulation of images and videos showing the scope of state brutality. The failure of both approaches does not seem to have deterred the Duque administration and their Centro Democrático Party from doubling down on the dirty war they have unleashed on the protests.

Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s former right-wing president and Duque’s political patron, has used his Twitter platform to support violence against protesters and promote a neo-Nazi theory of “dissipated molecular revolution” that claims protest is inherently an act of civil war requiring a militarized state response. While Twitter removed a tweet of Uribe’s early in the general strike for “glorifying violence,” the social media network has since allowed him to use it as his command center, from which he sends messages invoking the language of terrorism and counterinsurgency to police and paramilitary groups that continue to maim, torture, rape, and kill protesters.

A recent Invamer poll showed Uribe and Duque with disapproval ratings of 73 percent and 76 percent, respectively, underscoring the weakness of their political position in advance of next year’s general elections, with center-left opposition leader Gustavo Petro leading presidential candidates by a comfortable margin in all recent polls. The moral and political bankruptcy of the Centro Democrático Party, with its deep and well-documented ties to narco-paramilitarism, stands in stark contrast to the youth-driven movement that has metastasized into the most significant and widespread social uprising Colombia has seen in the past seventy years.

On May 27, Duque appeared at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, with former ambassador and former USAID director Mark Green, claiming to respect peaceful protests and the rule of law, and having zero tolerance for police abuses. At the same time, he couldn’t resist echoing an English-language campaign-style faux-interview video released days earlier, where he blamed the entire uprising and ensuing violence on Petro and shadowy subversive forces seeking to undermine his presidency.

The next day, Marta Lucía Ramírez, vice president and acting foreign minister, met with US secretary of state Antony Blinken to continue the attempted charm offensive. (She was conspicuously unable to secure a meeting with Vice President Harris.) Meanwhile, in the Siloé neighborhood of Cali, an off-duty investigator for the investigative division of the attorney general’s office killed two young protesters at a roadblock from his motorcycle in a drive-by shooting. The shooter was then captured and killed by other protesters.

The human rights group Justapaz sent out an alert that evening denouncing plainclothes paramilitary shooters in Siloé targeting medical workers who were attending to the fourteen protesters already injured by gunfire that evening. That night, Duque appeared across town in Ciudad Jardín — the same exclusive Cali neighborhood that has served as base of operations for paramilitary groups attacking protesters — where he greeted wealthy residents with hugs and announced for the third time in two weeks his intention to deploy maximum military force to retake Cali from the protesters. He has already militarized eight departments of the country — effectively a third of Colombia — in response to protests.

Duque fell out of US favor soon after members of his government meddled in the 2020 US presidential elections on behalf of the wrong guy. But Washington has long been forgiving of the transgressions of far-right narco-regimes considered strategic to US interests, and the United States needs to shore up its foothold in Colombia more than ever in advance of a likely impending leftward political shift in current right-wing strongholds like Brazil and Chile. Given this week’s victory of socialist candidate Pedro Castillo in Peru’s presidential election, it is conceivable that within a year or two, the vast majority of South American countries will be led by left-leaning governments — a dramatic turnaround from the recent wave of extreme-right neoliberalism and protofascism that has ravaged the region.

The question is whether the United States will continue to support repressive Colombian governments like Duque’s regardless of their human rights abuses. Such support is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of mounting media focus on their recent atrocities. But the United States has never been afraid to support attacks on democracy in the region, including in recent years in Bolivia, Brazil, Haiti, Honduras, and Paraguay.

If anything, it would be a surprise to see the United States just sit by and let their number one South American ally slip into the sinister hands of social democracy. Conditions on the ground in Colombia, however, might leave them with no choice.