Viola Davis, Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian and Demi Lovato are some of the celebrities that have made visible through their social media the dire situation the South American country is in. Among a sanitary crisis due to COVID-19, Colombia is experiencing an unparalleled bloodshed on the streets as what began as a protest against a government proposal quickly turned into a bloodbath due to the excessive force of the police and anti-riot squad. Deep pain, uncertainty, fear, and rage are the feelings that have been filling Colombian social media for the past two weeks. For fifteen days, increasing numbers of people have been killed, tortured, and abused.
To give some context, Colombia went into a nationwide strike on April 28 against a tax reform proposed by the right-wing president, Ivan Duque. The reform aimed to collect around 23 billion Colombian pesos (about $6 million) by taxing funerary services, retirement money, public services and salaries that are above 4.1 million Colombian pesos in 2022, 2.9 million in 2023 and 2.5 million in 2024, as well as products that were exempt before because they belong in a category called the “family basket”, among other proposals. This new bill was presented to cover the debt contracted by the government due to the pandemic and keep on developing programs to support the most vulnerable, but along the way millions were spent on armaments as well as improving the presidential and ministerial images, as denounced by Wilson Arias, senator from an opposition party.
This was the spark that fueled the nationwide protests, and even though the project was retired from Congress, there is a long list of reasons why people keep on protesting. Rising poverty, unemployment, inequity, non-fulfillment of the peace agreement, a reform to the armed forces, the murder of social leaders, corruption, and a new project to reform the health care system are just some of the motives that gave rise to these massive marches. Similar events occurred on November 2019; these were the protests that set a precedent for what we are seeing today. The same reasons motivated people to go out on the streets and they were met with equal repression. The government gave the same solutions then as they have now: a dialogue with different people that achieved little back then and is showing slow results now.
The point I want to make is that the most urgent need we have is for police forces to stop abusing their power and change the way they operate and respond to manifestations. Law enforcement, the government, and their supporters need to change how they see the marches and the protesters.
Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Cali, and many other cities have seen swarms of people marching through the streets advocating for their rights. Repression from the public forces has been present in all of them, but Cali has been the most affected. During the last two weeks, the capital of Valle del Cauca has had the most reports of violence from police and more recently armed civilians that have targeted people protesting in different sectors of the city..
According to the NGO Temblores through ‘Grita’, their platform to denounce police brutality, as of May 8 there have been 1814 cases of abuse. 39 represent people that have allegedly been killed by public forces. 278 people have suffered physical violence and there have been 963 arbitrary arrests, 12 victims of sexual assault and 28 injured.
Human rights defenders have also complained that they are not being allowed to do their job properly. The situation in the South American country has reached the point where the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and even the Pope have condemned the repression used in the protests.
The denunciations against law enforcement and anti-riot squad (ESMAD) include criticisms of the use of tear gas against people who were not even part of the marches. Maria Jovita Osorio was killed after a can exploded in her backyard and she did not feel safe leaving her home because of the confrontations outside. It was on April 29, Osorio was inside her house trying to sleep despite the noise from stunners and rocks being thrown on the streets when she heard something explode in her backyard and all the rooms filled with smoke. At 2:30 am Osorio had a respiratory failure and survived but at 5:00 am a second and fatal failure took her life.
Many others have been injured by equipment like stunners, bullets, and rubber bullets. Even though the demonstrations have been filled with cases of destruction - according to the police there were 172 buses and 68 police stations damaged – this is not a crime worthy of death.
What has the government been doing? They have legitimized this repression; the Minister for Defence, the President and the Attorney General have all said that the protesters are all “vandals” and “criminal organizations”. While the Supreme Court of Justice ordered in 2020 a series of measures so that the events witnessed on November 2019 would not happen again - neutrality from the president and public officers, a protocol on the use of force (that public forces are ignoring) and investigations over the abuses – the situation remains unchanged.
The speech adopted by authorities has just polarized the country further, but it does not cover the fact that the killings and violence are unjustified. This country can no longer afford to turn itself against its own people, to see more blood running down the streets, to keep on spending millions on the very tools that are being used for murder. While people die and rightfully exercise their right to protest and are being met with violence, the President keeps himself safe at the Palace of Nariño.
These issues are just the tip of the iceberg. A million more things can be said about the problems that Colombia now faces. The eyes of the world are on South America as the people of Colombia call upon its leaders to act and stop this massacre.
Written by Andrea Jaramillo Caro
Andrea Jaramillo Caro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.