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Protesters waving the Colombian flag gather in a protest.
Protesters attend an anti-government march at Plaza Bolivar in Bogota, Colombia, where citizens have taken to the streets for weeks after proposed tax increases and to decry police brutality. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Why Colombians are taking to the streets to protest state violence

A wide range of social organizations in Colombia recently called for a general strike after President Iván Duque’s government proposed tax increases on public services, fuel, wages and pensions. The government intended to increase revenue and reduce debt, but the changes disproportionately affected middle- and working-class Colombians.

Colombians heeded the call, and following massive demonstrations across the country, the government eventually withdrew the reforms and the finance minister resigned. However, the use of lethal force by police against mostly peaceful protesters fuelled demands for better social and economic policies.

These demands include the dissolution of the Colombian anti-riot police (known as ESMAD), an improved health-care system, a basic income, more educational and employment opportunities for youth, guaranteed protection of social leaders and activists and the implementation of the 2016 peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC).

Calls to reform Colombia’s security forces

The state’s violent response to the general strike has received global attention. According to Temblores, a non-governmental organization that monitors police violence in Colombia, there have been 3,789 acts of police violence during the nationwide strike. These acts include physical violence, arbitrary arrests, gun misuse, homicides and gender-based and sexual violence.

In Colombia, as in the United States and Canada, the calls for police reform have grown louder over recent years. Last year, Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered the government to guarantee the right to peaceful protest and to end abuses of police power. The court’s ruling stemmed from excessive police violence during a 2019 national strike.

The government has begun talks with the national strike committee, a coalition of labour and student unions and Indigenous organizations, ostensibly to make this happen. However, there’s skepticism that the government will implement the outcomes of the negotiations. The strike committee recently suspended negotiations even though a tentative pre-agreement has been drafted.

Government officials have attempted to minimize the demands of protesters. For example, in an interview with Vice News, Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz accused international crime groups of using the protests to destabilize the state’s authority while also denying the police’s use of lethal force. Similarly, the defense minister accused three well-known human rights defenders of terrorism, and offered a reward for their capture.

A look at the Colombian unrest by Vice News, including Ruiz’s accusations.

Overseen by defence ministry

Unlike other countries in Latin America, Colombian police forces are controlled by the Ministry of National Defence and not the Ministry of Interior. State violence and the stigmatization of protesters, youth in particular, are the legacy of national security policies that were used to rationalize and justify massive human rights violations during the decades-long armed civil conflict in Colombia.

Earlier this year, a special peace tribunal found that between 2002 and 2008, at least 6,402 people were murdered and falsely declared killed in combat during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe Velez, many of them young men from low-income backgrounds.

A man gestures while speaking into a microphone.
Ivan Duque, then a presidential candidate with the Democratic Center party and now president of Colombia, campaigns in Bogota in May 2018. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

While the implementation of the peace agreement with FARC provided an opportunity to reconsider the role and structure of state security forces, Duque’s Centro Democrático party has fiercely opposed its implementation.

Read more: Violence climbs in Colombia as president chips away at landmark peace deal with FARC guerrillas

Violence rooted in structural racism

During the ongoing protests, the city of Cali has become the epicentre of police brutality and repression, exposing the deep-seated structural racism against Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples.

The city has the second-largest urban Afro-descendant population in Latin America. A preliminary analysis by the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement shows that police brutality has been highest in low-income, marginalized neighbourhoods with a significant Afro-Colombian population. These neighbourhoods also have a higher concentration of “resistance points,” where barricades and roadblocks have been set up during the demonstrations.

Soldiers patrol downtown Cali.
Soldiers patrol in downtown Cali after the Colombian government deployed military forces to the city. (AP Photo/Andres Gonzalez)

Indigenous peoples have also been the target of racist violence in Cali.

When a coalition of Indigenous groups, referred to as “minga Indígena” in Colombia, marched into the city, armed civilians blocked their entrance and shot at them. Twelve Indigenous people were injured, including Daniela Soto, a well-known Indigenous leader.

Instead of condemning the attack, Duque requested that the Indigenous minga leave the city and return to their territory to avoid “unnecessary confrontations.”

Indigenous demonstrators at an anti-government march.
Indigenous demonstrators attend an anti-government march in Cali, Colombia. (AP Photo/Andres Gonzalez)

The media plays an important role in shaping public opinion on important issues. The coverage of the protests over the past month has demonstrated the extent of political polarization in Colombia.

For example, conversations on social media earlier this spring hinged on drastically different representations of the first day of protests in two of the country’s largest newspapers: El Espectador and El Tiempo. El Espectador’s headline highlighted the determination of Colombians to speak up against the tax proposals amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while El Tiempo’s focus was almost solely on vandalism, delegitimizing the actions of thousands who had marched peacefully.

The demonstrations have also shed a light on the use of gender-based and sexual violence by police.

Temblores has recorded 25 cases of gender-based violence and six cases of sexual violence over the course of the protests. The death by suicide of a minor who was sexually assaulted while in police custody sparked outrage and the mobilization of feminist organizations such as Articulación Feminista Popayán and Juventud Rebelde.

Read more: El Grito: Violence in Colombia continues to kill activists

What is Canada’s role?

Colombians living in Canada have also taken to the streets in support of the protests back home.

They’ve organized gatherings in solidarity with protesters in various cities. They’ve also circulated petitions asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to denounce the violence of the Colombian state against its own citizens.

While Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau released a statement denouncing the violence, Canada, one of Colombia’s key trading and economic partners, can do much more.

Canada exports military equipment and provides training and financial support to the Colombian national police and the army.

In 2013, the Colombian Ministry of Defense awarded a Canadian company a $65.3 million contract for light armoured vehicles to be used by the national army. In 2017, the two countries launched a bilateral police initiative in which Canadian police “provide training, capacity building, and strategic advice” to the National Police of Colombia.

Canada should discontinue its support of Colombia’s police and army, and conduct a human rights review of its military exports to Colombia, as suggested by the organization International Peace Brigades.

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