A Devastating Month in Colombia

Catatumbo region has suffered a lot from the armed conflict. The photo depicts women’s resistance to oppression and their constant struggle for peacebuilding in the region.
Photo: Observatorio de Género – Norte de Santander.

*An earlier version of this was originally published in French on Priscyll’s personal blog.

May 1st 2021 was a terrible and devastating Labor Day in Colombia. The day was marked with violence on the streets of many cities in the country as government forces cracked down harshly and brutally against peaceful protesters. The protests culminated from desperation in the face of the country’s triple humanitarian crisis, namely the migratory crisis, the pandemic crisis, and the internal armed conflict crisis leading to an upsurge of political violence, which has further impoverished the already precarious sectors of the population. While Covid-19 virus has caused more than 84,000 deaths in Colombia, the policies of the Duque government are clearly the “virus” that affects most the people in a country heavily marked with violence.

Towards the end of April 2021, several social action groups called for a national strike against a tax reform proposed by the government of Iván Duque that would disproportionately affect those already badly impacted economically and socially by the pandemic. Despite the pandemic measures restricting social gatherings, tens of thousands of people answered the call and took to the streets in several cities such as Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, and Bucaramanga, but also in smaller municipalities of the country to protest the proposed tax reform. The peaceful demonstrations were deemed ‘criminal’, which is in keeping with the long history of criminalization of social protest in Colombia.

Women protesting against State oppression and patriarchal violence in the region of Norte de Santander, Colombia.
Photo:  Observatorio de Género – Norte de Santander, a non-profit NGO based in Cúcuta, Colombia.

The continuing neoliberal and militaristic policies 

The tax reform proposed by Duque has two main targets: the increase of consumption taxes – even on some basic food and products – and the lowering of the tax-free threshold.  This will have a direct impact on the middle and lower-income classes, adding to the increased pandemic-induced precarity. In fact, more than 500,000 businesses have closed this year, 4.1 million people have lost their jobs, insecurity in the cities has increased and, in rural areas, armed groups have taken advantage of the situation to strengthen their territorial control. According to figures from the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), 42.5% of the population was in poverty in 2020: with the pandemic, 3.6 million more people are victims.

And yes, the richest in Colombia, who support the financial system, neoliberal policies focused on extractivism and accompanied by predatory “developmentalist” visions, are (still) unscathed. Moreover, the human rights crimes of this month’s protests are part of a long-standing “politics of death”; a strategy against any form of opposition to dispossession that has resulted in the deaths of more than 1000 activists since 2016.

This policy of death is supported by an ever-increasing budget towards the military: Duque is planning the purchase of 24 warplanes, revealing his militaristic approach to the different territories affected by the illicit economies.

Despite the “withdrawal” of the tax reform finally announced by Duque, the demonstrations have now lasted for almost a month and the toll is heavy. True to its history of social repression against its own population, the Ministry of Defense, for example, has militarized the city of Cali, sending 3,000 military, anti-riot and police personnel against civilians. Physical violence, tear gas, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and assassinations have been the modus operandi against protesters, identified as “vandals”, for the last month of protests.

As part of the planned cover-up of human rights abuses, the media does not report on the events. It is the human rights organizations and alternative media that are trying, as best they can, to keep track of the abuses, including the riot squad [Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios – ESMAD], historically known for raping, murdering and kidnapping women and men in the struggle.

As in 2019, the protests have a particular character: the convergence of several organizations and groups such as trade unions, feminists, indigenous, and academics. In fact, we must remember that the pandemic arrived in Colombia during a time of social convulsions, with several protests that began in November 2019 against the actions and inactions of the Duque government. The protests of this month also have this multiple characters: against the tributary reform, police and military abuses, the non-implementation of the peace agreements signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc-ep), the inaction of the state in the face of the murders of social activists, economic inequality and dispossession.

What the mainstream media conceal is only relayed by civil human rights organizations. The latter gives a horrific assessment of human rights abuses: hundreds of videos show police brutality and initial records indicate 43 murders, 855 people victims of physical violence, 1264 forced detentions, 21 victims of sexual violence, 39 victims of ocular violence from April 28 to May 21, 2021. With 2905 cases of police and (para)State forces brutality, almost one month after the initial demonstration, we are in front of an open war against the protesters.

 Photo: Sebastián Camacho; posted by the Observatorio de Género – Norte de Santander. Resistance of the women in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander. 

Motherhood and professorship in resistance 

In The Conversation, with my colleague Simon-Pierre Boulanger Martel we have argued that the order of “gun repression” have a long history in Colombia. Militarization of social life is commonplace, and worst, it is accepted and legitimated by many sectors of the population, defending the status quo.

However, resistance also has a long history in Colombia. Indigenous, Afro-descendants, transactivists and women’s resistance against extractivism, patriarchy, classism and racism are among the various groups that have been prominent in such resistance movements. They have been at the forefront of social justice claims during the last month, but also, since half of a century against policies of dispossession and violence by the State and transnational corporations.

Public universities professors have also been mobilizing against State oppression under the catchphrase “I have not chosen to be a professor to see my students die”. They have been denouncing the death threats against protesters and the extremely difficult atmosphere for students to continue their courses because they are politically and physically assaulted while exercising their rights to protest.

Daily, social activists and human rights organizations receive Whatsapp messages of mothers looking for their disappeared sons and daughters: many of them have been victims of arbitrary detentions and torture. If mothers do not search for their children, they would simply disappear as other victims of State terrorism. 

Motherhood has been mobilized as a form of resistance against State oppression in the recent protests. They have formed what they call “Mothers on the frontlines” [Mamás primera línea], in the face of State assaults on their sons and daughters protesting for social justice. The anti-riot squad has already attacked the mothers on the frontlines of the protests while they were trying to protect the youngest protesters in Bogotá.

Mothers know they face death threat; but their mobilization in favor of life is a constant, persistent, and mobilizing rage against the Colombian State’s necropolitics.

The author wishes to thank the Observatorio de Género – Norte de Santander for generously accepting the sharing of their photos of the protests and for their struggle for gender justice in the northeastern region of Colombia. 

About the Author

Priscyll Anctil Avoine is a researcher in Feminist Security Studies. She is the Director of the NGO Fundación Lüvo, a feminist and antiracist collective, and Co-Deputy Director of DEEP Global Network.