The most recent wave of state violence against Colombian citizens that culminated in the killing of 47 demonstrators during a single week of protests taking place across the country is extremely worrying given the massive human rights violations it signifies. Yet far from being an isolated episode, the events that recently transpired are rooted in a deeper socio-economic and political crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. State violence that has plagued the country for so long can be interpreted as the expression of institutional imbalances and may signify a worrying move toward securitisation – one that should be avoided at all cost.
“If the people go out to protest within a pandemic, it is because the government is more dangerous than the virus.”
– Slogan of the most recent (28A) protests
As a country known for having undergone decades of social unrest and political tensions, Colombia has been hurled back into the spotlight in the past two weeks as police and military forces cracked down on protesters. A current national strike against a tax reform starting on 28 April – aptly called 28A – has since escalated massively, leading to international calls for peace as repression fuelled further protests and tensions. Disturbing and painful images and audio clips of the police shooting demonstrators seemingly indiscriminately in different Colombian cities, hitting human rights defenders, and even threatening a humanitarian and verification mission in Cali have now been spread all over the world.
What led to these protests?
The answer is not straightforward. On 5 April 2021, a tax reform was proposed by Ivan Duque’s government. Given the enormous social tensions in Colombia, the proposed regressive tax reforms, through which the upper classes would benefit from tax cuts, and middle- and low-income classes would pay more for public services and consumption, fuelled a runaway fire, leading to a national protest scheduled for 28 April, but lasting much longer. This act of defiance should be interpreted not as a reckless act during a pandemic, but a desperate effort of protesters to protect their own futures. The tax reform proposal was finally withdrawn on 4 May, but only after 31 demonstrators had been killed, 814 had been arbitrarily detained, and 10 cases of sexual violence by police representatives had been reported.
The use of state violence against Colombian citizens is unfortunately not new. The recent round of protests was preceded by a national strike on 21 November 2019 called 21N, which was also met with force. Yet each moment of resurgence of violence is equally devastating for Colombia, a Latin American nation that has been struggling hard to shake its image as politically unstable. What’s more worrying are hints of a move toward securitisation that can normalise violence. Instead of strengthening the independence and capacity of the country’s judiciary and other bodies that are supposed to hold the state accountable for its deployment of force and citizens for the private use of the violence, securitisation would reinforce the vulnerability of social leaders and human rights defenders who play an important role in helping maintain the country’s democratic system and who can press for structural change.
Why is this so worrying?
Besides protesting against a proposed tax reform, Colombian society is using the 28A protests to urge a fundamental change in the socio-economic policies driven by a neoliberal government logic. Young people are advocating for affordable, good-quality, public higher education institutions and access to decent jobs. Workers and pensioners are rejecting the growing ‘flexibiliation’ of the labour market and the increased age of retirement. Public sanitation workers and health workers are asking for better working conditions and better public health care given the strain placed on them by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was never only about the tax reforms. Citizens feel betrayed by a government that does not seem to govern in their interests.
The right to protest (peacefully) to make such concerns heard is thus crucial for many groups across Colombia. Unfortunately, protests have taken place against a backdrop of violence that has haunted the country for decades. Continued state violence against protesters can be linked to the country’s violent history. Repression following the rejection of the 2016 Peace Agreement is also visible in the dramatic increase of other violent events, including recent massacres in rural areas of Colombia fuelled by broken promises of strengthening the state’s civil infrastructure for those residing in rural areas. And after the end of the Colombian conflict, new armed factions have sprung up to dispute the territories formerly controlled by FARC guerrillas. The result has been a predictable resurgence in illegal market activity and violence against civilians. Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and peasant communities are caught in the crossfire or are direct targets.
What’s worse, during COVID-19, the government has demonstrated a growing inclination towards authoritarianism, imposing curfews and militarising control of the lockdown. The pandemic has exacerbated the country’s socio-economic crisis, and both escalating violence in rural areas and lockdowns in cities intensified ordinary citizens’ socio-economic vulnerability. In effect, a decade of social policies to reduce poverty were reversed in a single year given the government’s erratic handling of the pandemic. Reducing ordinary people’s vulnerability and addressing inequalities were simply not priorities for this government. The proposed tax reform was the last straw, signifying to Colombians a government that was not doing its duty to make their lives better, both when it comes to the safety of civilians and their welfare.
What needs to be explored once the violence has been stopped is whether this inclination toward violent repression signifies the securitisation of state institutions and an even greater risk for social leaders and human rights defenders in the cities and rural areas of Colombia to continue keeping the state accountable. This would be devastating for Colombia, which has long sought peace and freedom, and whose citizens thought that the end of its conflict some five years ago signified a new era in which the state and citizens would be able to co-exist in harmony. The government should also take a long, hard look at whether it is actually actively pursuing peace – recent events seem to indicate the opposite.
Thanks go to Lize Swartz for helping shape this article.
Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.
About the author:
Juliana Poveda is a lawyer specialized in human rights and international humanitarian law of the National University of Colombia. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree at the ISS. Prior to that, she received her M.A. in Political Studies at the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations (IEPRI).
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