On 28 April 2021, people across Colombia took to the streets to protest a tax rise that saw the price of basic goods rocket, adding further economic pressure to a population already reeling from the socio-economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. The administration of Colombian president Iván Duque responded by violently attacking protesters with teargas, live rounds and arbitrary detentions.
But Duque’s vicious crackdown hasn’t subdued the fury that continues to burn across Colombia in response to poverty, government corruption and repression. On the contrary, determined protesters continue filling the streets demanding better conditions and an end to the repression.
The international community has been slow in its reaction so far, despite reports of heinous human rights atrocities being committed. To date, 42 people have reportedly been killed in the context of the protests. Human rights organisations, meanwhile, have recorded accusations of sexual abuse, torture and at least 87 disappearances (some sources say hundreds).
Phoenix Media Co-op spoke to Carlos Cruz Mosquera, a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London and member of the Red Condor Collective, to find out more.
“A step too far”
Phoenix Media Co-op: Can you explain why the protests in Colombia broke out?
Mosquera: The protests broke out due to a combination of factors. Colombia has a capitalist economic system tied to the global economy which means that, as a so-called ‘developing’ nation, they are really being looted economically by the powerful countries in the North. It’s a country whose economy doesn’t operate to the benefit of the majority, only for the ruling class and the economic elite who are tied to global capital.
The pandemic has left people even poorer. Other right-wing governments managed to avoid these big protests as they didn’t mess directly with basic subsistence. Schools and public services were privatised; however, the effects of these policies were subtle although equally violent, impoverishing and oppressing people. But raising taxes for basic foodstuffs was a step too far, affecting subsistence and immediate survival. Therefore, they exploded into protest.
Phoenix Media Co-op: What’s the situation on the ground now?
Mosquera: I have first-hand accounts of how those protesters have been treated by the police, easily verifiable as images online show police shooting at protesters with live rounds, as well as tear gas canisters at close range at face level. Over the last few days, we have seen forces dressed in civilian clothes in unmarked cars shooting at protesters and civilians, a common tactic to scare people into submission. It’s a combination of state violence in terms of riot police (ESMAD), as well as forces in civilian clothes (hitmen who we know are paramilitary forces) to do the dirty work of the state. This is in conjunction with the militarisation of the main cities, not seen in recent history: Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. This is where the military have moved in to attack protesters and quash uprisings.
Violence against protesters is being justified by claiming they have links to the guerrillas or that they are simply criminals who don’t have legitimate political demands. When young protesters retaliate against unjustified violence, the mainstream news focuses on those actions instead of the root causes. The Duque government is proposing a bill calling for a state of emergency, making it even more dangerous for protesters.
Phoenix Media Co-op: How has the international media reported on the crisis?
Mosquera: The international media were slow to pick up the story. Apart from very weak coverage on the BBC, there hasn’t been a proper analysis of the situation. Instead, it’s being framed as ‘clashes’ with the police, rather than state violence and repression. The response from Western countries such as the US and UK reveals their interests. When something happens with China, they will cover it extensively and speak of sanctions.
The response in the UK
Phoenix Media Co-Op: How are Colombians in the UK responding?
Mosquera: As part of the solidarity networks abroad, we are collecting funds for those on the frontline of the protests (medical teams and legal teams), as well as those providing food for those on the ground. We just sent 700 dollars to CRIC Guardia Indígena, an indigenous resistance force who are very organised and defend protesters. We are also pressuring local and national governments to speak out, along with holding several rallies in London. Thousands of Colombians demonstrated in Trafalgar Square on [5 May], an act not seen before.
Phoenix Media Co-Op: How do you think the UK government should respond?
Mosquera: I think it should respond by sanctioning the president of Colombia, demanding they respect international law and the human rights of the population and treat Duque as they have treated other figures or countries that have broken international law. When it’s in their geopolitical or economic interests they are quick to sanction but when it’s a country like Colombia which is an ally to those powerful countries in the North, they are very slow and weak in their response. If they [were] serious about human rights and the murder of innocent civilian protesters, they would act accordingly.
Main article image used with permission