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A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service wearing a protective mask is seen at the contact line between Ukrainian troops and pro-Moscow rebels in Mayorsk, Ukraine on 17 March, 2020 REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Covid-19 et conflits : sept tendances à surveiller

La pandémie de Covid-19, déjà mortelle et déstabilisatrice, menace de s'aggraver et pourrait avoir des répercussions politiques durables y compris quand la contagion sera maîtrisée. Crisis Group a identifié sept points de préoccupation majeure.

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Synthèse

La pandémie de Covid-19 marque indéniablement un tournant pour la santé publique et l’économie mondiale. Ses implications politiques, à court et à long terme sont moins bien comprises. 

Cette pandémie pourrait semer le chaos dans les Etats fragiles, déclencher des perturbations de grande ampleur et mettre gravement à l’épreuve les systèmes de gestion des crises. Ses conséquences seront particulièrement alarmantes pour les populations touchées par un conflit si, ce qui est vraisemblable, le virus interrompt l’approvisionnement de l’aide humanitaire, limite les opérations de maintien de la paix et détourne l’attention des parties au conflit des efforts naissants ou en cours de diplomatie, ou remet ces efforts à plus tard. Des dirigeants sans scrupules pourraient se servir de la pandémie pour faire avancer leurs intérêts en risquant d’exacerber les crises nationales et internationales – répression de l’opposition à l’échelle nationale ou escalade des tensions avec les Etats rivaux – avec l’assurance de s’en tirer à bon compte puisque le reste du monde est occupé ailleurs. Le Covid-19 a ravivé des tensions géopolitiques – les Etats-Unis accusent la Chine d’être à l’origine de cette pandémie tandis que Beijing tente de se faire des amis en apportant son soutien aux pays affectés – ce qui tend encore davantage les relations entre les grandes puissances et rend plus difficile la coopération nécessaire à la gestion de cette crise.

On ne sait pas encore quand et où le virus frappera le plus durement ni de quelle façon les aspects économiques, sociaux ou politiques se combineront pour déclencher ou aggraver les crises. Il n’est pas non plus certain que les conséquences de la pandémie soient entièrement ou uniformément négatives pour la paix et la sécurité. Les catastrophes naturelles ont parfois permis d’apaiser les conflits, lorsque les parties rivales ont été contraintes de coopérer, ou du moins de maintenir le calme, pour concentrer leur attention sur la protection et la reconstruction de leurs sociétés. Certains gouvernements ont montré leur volonté de relâcher les tensions politiques dans le contexte du Covid-19, comme, pour ne citer qu’un exemple, les Emirats arabes unis et le Koweït qui ont proposé à l’Iran – centre de l’un des principaux foyers primaires de Covid-19 en dehors de la Chine – leur aide humanitaire. La pandémie risque d’aggraver certaines crises internationales, mais elle pourrait aussi être l’occasion d’en enrayer d’autres.

Crisis Group est particulièrement préoccupée par les convergences entre les enjeux de santé mondiale et les guerres ou les situations politiques qui pourraient donner lieu à de nouvelles crises ou exacerber les crises existantes.

Les prochains mois seront particulièrement risqués : tandis que les Etats-Unis et les pays européens se concentreront sur les répercussions du Covid-19 à l’échelle nationale, la pandémie risque de se propager vers les pays pauvres et en proie à la guerre. A l’exception de l’Iran, le premier stade de la pandémie a principalement touché des pays – la Chine, la Corée du Sud et l’Italie – qui avaient les capacités de gérer le problème, même si cette gestion était inégale et a mis les systèmes de santés et les économies à rude épreuve. A ce jour, on a recensé moins de cas dans des pays dotés de systèmes de santé moins robustes, des Etats moins bien équipés face à la crise ou touchés par de graves conflits internes, où les conséquences d’une épidémie pourraient être dévastatrices.

Ce n’est cependant qu’une maigre consolation. Le nombre peu élevé de cas est à n’en pas douter le résultat de tests insuffisants ou du délai entre la transmission du virus et ses manifestations. Le nombre de cas confirmés augmente dans les parties fragiles du monde arabe et de l’Afrique. Si les pays peinent à imposer les mesures de distanciation sociale ou d’autres mesures permettant d’arrêter la propagation du virus, ou s’ils tardent à le faire, ils pourraient faire face à une explosion du nombre de cas comme celle que l’on observe dans certaines régions d’Europe, mais sans pouvoir compter sur le même nombre d’infrastructures de soins d’urgences qui permettront de sauver des vies. Les souffrances qui en découleraient sont incalculables. Si le virus se propage dans des centres urbains densément peuplés dans des Etats fragiles, il pourrait être pratiquement impossible à maitriser. Le ralentissement brutal de l’activité économique, déjà perceptible, va perturber les flux commerciaux et entrainer une augmentation du taux de chômage, ce qui causera des dommages difficiles à anticiper et laisse présager des lendemains sombres. La récession pourrait frapper de plein fouet les Etats fragiles dans lesquels les risques de tensions et de conflits sont plus élevés.

Les gouvernements sont tous confrontés à des choix difficiles sur la façon de gérer le virus. Des pays allant de l’espace Schengen au Soudan ont déjà imposé des restrictions aux frontières. De nombreux Etats interdisent partiellement ou complètement les rassemblements publics et insistent pour que les citoyens restent chez eux. Ces mesures sont à la fois nécessaires et très coûteuses, d’autant plus que des projections montrent que la pandémie pourrait durer bien plus d’un an avant qu’un vaccin ne puisse être commercialisé. Limiter les déplacements des populations pendant de nombreux mois aura probablement un effet dramatique sur l’économie. Mais si ces restrictions étaient levées trop tôt, cela pourrait entrainer de nouveaux pics de contagion, nécessiter un retour aux mesures de confinement, aggraver les répercussions économiques et politiques et nécessiter de nouvelles injections de liquidités et de nouvelles incitations fiscales de la part de l’ensemble des gouvernements du monde.

Ces difficultés sont universelles, mais en tant qu’organisation dont la mission est la détection précoce et la prévention des conflits, Crisis Group est particulièrement préoccupée par les convergences entre les enjeux de santé mondiale et les guerres ou les situations politiques – telles que des institutions faibles, des tensions entre les communautés, un manque de confiance envers les dirigeants et des rivalités entre les Etats – qui pourraient donner lieu à de nouvelles crises ou exacerber les crises existantes. Nous espérons également pouvoir identifier des situations où la pandémie, et la mise en œuvre d’une diplomatie efficiente, pourraient contribuer à la réduction des tensions. Ce briefing, le premier d’une série de publications de Crisis Group sur le Covid-19 et ses effets sur les situations de conflits, repose principalement sur les recherches de nos analystes dans le monde entier et dresse une liste de sept tendances qu’il faudra surveiller au cours de cette pandémie.

I. La vulnérabilité des populations vivant dans des situations de conflit

Les populations des pays touchés par des conflits – qu’il s’agisse d’une guerre ou de ses conséquences – sont susceptibles d’être plus vulnérables à la propagation du virus.[fn]Sauf indication contraire, ce briefing est basé sur les observations des analystes de Crisis Group entre le 1er et le 21 mars 2020. Pour des études antérieures relatives au lien entre conflit, santé publique et pandémie, voir Maire A. Connolly et David L. Heymann, « Deadly Comrade: War and Infectious Diseases », The Lancet, vol. 360 (décembre 2002) ; Paul H. Wise et Michele Barry, « Civil War and the Global Threat of Pandemics », Daedalus, vol. 146, no. 4 (automne 2017) ; Nita Madhav, Ben Oppenheim, Mark Gallivan, Prime Mulembakani, Edward Rubin et Nathan Wolfe, « Pandemics: Risks, Impacts and Mitigation », dans D.Y. Jamieson et al. (eds.), Disease Control Priorities, vol. 9 (3e édition) (Washington, 2017).Hide Footnote Dans de nombreux cas, la guerre ou les troubles prolongés, en particulier lorsqu’ils ont été aggravés par une mauvaise gestion de crise, la corruption ou des sanctions internationales, ont affaibli les systèmes de santé nationaux et les ont rendus peu aptes à faire face au Covid-19.

En Libye, par exemple, le gouvernement de Tripoli reconnu par l’ONU s’est engagé à consacrer environ 350 millions de dollars à la lutte contre la pandémie, mais il reste difficile de savoir à quoi servira cette somme : le système de santé s’est effondré après le départ de nombreux médecins étrangers pendant la guerre.[fn]« Libya’s Tripoli government declares emergency, shuts down ports, airports », Reuters, 14 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Au Venezuela, comme Crisis Group l’avait annoncé en 2016, l’affrontement entre le gouvernement chaviste et l’opposition a gravement mis à mal les services de santé. Le Covid-19 risque de submerger très rapidement les hôpitaux encore sur pied.[fn]Briefing Amérique latine de Crisis Group N°35, Venezuela : al borde del precipicio, 24 juin 2016.Hide Footnote En Iran, la réponse léthargique du gouvernement conjuguée à l’incidence des sanctions des Etats-Unis a provoqué la débâcle : on compterait près de 50 nouveaux cas et cinq à six nouvelles victimes toutes les heures.[fn]« U.S. to Iran: Coronavirus won’t save you from sanctions », Reuters, 20 mars 2020.Hide Footnote A Gaza, où le système de santé affaibli par des années de blocus était mal préparé pour traiter une population très dense bien avant l’apparition du Covid-19, le ministère de la Santé s’affaire pour réunir des experts et obtenir le matériel nécessaire pour faire face à la pandémie quand elle arrivera. La pente semble difficile à remonter : les fournisseurs de matériel médical ont confié à Crisis Group que leurs stocks étaient épuisés avant même que le ministère n’annonce deux cas de Covid-19 le 21 mars.

Au-delà de ces difficultés institutionnelles, lorsque la confiance envers le gouvernement et les responsables politiques est érodée, il peut s’avérer difficile de convaincre des populations de suivre des directives de santé publique. Dans son analyse de l’épidémie du virus Ebola de 2014 en Guinée, au Libéria et en Sierra Leone, Crisis Group avait indiqué que « dans un premier temps, le virus s’était propagé de façon incontrôlée, non seulement du fait du suivi épidémiologique limité et du manque de capacité et de réactivité du système de santé, mais aussi parce que les populations restaient sceptiques vis-à-vis des déclarations du gouvernement et de ses directives ».[fn]Rapport Afrique de Crisis Group N°232, The Politics Behind the Ebola Crisis, 28 octobre 2015.Hide Footnote Cette remise en question était en partie liée à la désinformation et aux mauvais conseils des gouvernements impliqués au sujet de la contagion, mais elle découlait aussi des tensions politiques récurrentes dans une région marquée par la guerre pendant la dernière décennie.

Dans les cas de conflits en cours, les médecins et les acteurs humanitaires nationaux et internationaux pourraient avoir du mal à obtenir des secours pour les populations concernées. En 2019, l’Organisation mondiale de la santé (OMS) et des ONG internationales ont eu des difficultés à contenir une épidémie du virus Ebola dans l’Est de la République démocratique du Congo (RDC), malgré le soutien des Casques bleus de l’ONU, car des milices locales violentes bloquaient l’accès à certaines des zones touchées par l’épidémie. Dans certains cas, les combattants ciblaient les médecins et les infrastructures médicales elles-mêmes. Même si les autorités congolaises et l’OMS sont visiblement parvenues à mettre fin à l’épidémie au cours des derniers mois, celle-ci a duré plus longtemps et a fait plus de victimes (au total, 2 264 décès confirmés) que si l’épidémie avait touché une région stable.[fn]« DRC Ebola Updates: Crisis Update – March 2020 », MSF, 9 mars 2020.Hide Footnote De la même façon, les obstacles liés à la sécurité dans les zones actuellement touchées par des conflits risquent d’entraver les mesures de lutte contre le Covid-19.

Les zones de conflit en cours qui risquent le plus d’être touchées immédiatement par la flambée du Covid-19 pourraient être le Nord-Ouest de la Syrie, autour de l’enclave assiégée d’Idlib, et le Yémen.

Les zones de conflit en cours qui risquent le plus d’être touchées immédiatement par la flambée du Covid-19 pourraient être le Nord-Ouest de la Syrie, autour de l’enclave assiégée d’Idlib, et le Yémen. Ces deux pays ont déjà subi des crises sanitaires au cours de leurs guerres civiles et les violences ont freiné l’intervention de la communauté internationale dans le cas de l’épidémie de polio en Syrie en 2013-2014 et de l’épidémie de choléra au Yémen depuis 2016. Des représentants de l’ONU ont désormais signalé que le Covid-19 commençait à se propager au sein de la population d’Idlib, où une offensive des forces gouvernementales soutenues par la Russie a systématiquement ciblé les hôpitaux et les infrastructures médicales et conduit au déplacement de plus d’un million de personnes, rien qu’au cours des six derniers mois.[fn]Voir également Evan Hill et Yousur Al-Hlou, « Wash our hands? Some people can’t wash their kids for a week », The New York Times, 20 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Beaucoup de ceux qui fuient les conflits dorment dans des champs ou sous des arbres et l’absence d’eau courante et de savon, ainsi que la vie dans des abris exigus rendent impossible l’application des mesures d’hygiène élémentaire et de distanciation sociale. La livraison de kits de tests d’une importance vitale a été retardée de plusieurs semaines. Le personnel humanitaire craint qu’une flambée du virus à Idlib ne dépasse complètement les capacités médicales de la province, ce qui empêcherait de soigner les victimes de guerre.

Au Yémen, la guerre qui dure depuis 2015 a mis à genoux un système de santé déjà très affaibli. Plus de 24 millions de personnes ont déjà besoin d’une aide humanitaire.[fn]« Humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world, warns UN », UN News, 14 février 2019.Hide Footnote Après la suspension des vols internationaux par les autorités de facto de la capitale Sanaa et le gouvernement d’Aden reconnu au niveau international – visant à prévenir la propagation du virus – les équipes internationales de secours n’ont gardé que les membres essentiels de leur personnel. Une épidémie de Covid-19 pourrait rapidement submerger les efforts d’aide et empirer encore davantage une des plus graves catastrophes humanitaires au monde.

A Idlib, au Yémen et au-delà, les personnes déplacées dans leur propre pays, les demandeurs d’asile et les réfugiés sont particulièrement exposés à la pandémie de Covid-19, du fait de leurs conditions de vie déplorables et de leur accès limité aux soins de santé. Les données fournies par le Haut-Commissariat des Nations unies pour les réfugiés en 2019 indiquent que plus de 70 millions de personnes dans le monde entrent dans la catégorie des déplacés internes et ce chiffre a certainement encore augmenté depuis lors, en particulier au vu des événements récents en Syrie.[fn]« Worldwide displacement tops 70 million, UN refugee chief urges greater solidarity in response », Haut-Commissariat des Nations unies pour les réfugiés, communiqué de presse, 19 juin 2019.Hide Footnote Les quelques rares possibilités qu’avaient auparavant les déplacés internes d’être réinstallés dans des lieux plus sûrs sont désormais exclues  dans tous les cas de figure du fait du Covid-19.

L’histoire a montré que l’effet de contagion était souvent démultiplié parmi les déplacés internes et dans les camps de réfugiés. Ce risque existe pour la pandémie de Covid-19, même si, dans certaines régions, les services médicaux des camps sont parfois meilleurs que ceux de la région environnante. Les représentants de l’ONU sont particulièrement préoccupés par le camp d’al-Hol au nord-est de la Syrie, qui abrite 70 000 personnes, y compris des femmes et des enfants qui ont fui le dernier bastion de l’organisation Etat islamique au moment de sa chute, et parmi eux des Syriens, des Iraquiens et environ 10 000 personnes issues d’autres pays. Lorsque nous avons décrit le camp à l’automne 2019, il s’agissait déjà d’une « scène de tragédie humanitaire, infestée par les maladies – les habitants manquent de nourriture, d’eau potable, et n’ont souvent pas accès à des services médicaux », ce qui rend sa population particulièrement vulnérable face au Covid-19.[fn]Rapport Moyen-Orient de Crisis Group N°208, Women and Children First : Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 novembre 2019, p. 4.Hide Footnote

La situation des camps de réfugiés Rohingya au Bangladesh est également préoccupante : plus d’un million de personnes y vivent dans des abris surpeuplés et les services d’assainissement et de soins de santé sont réduits au strict minimum.[fn]Rapport Asie de Crisis Group N°303, A Sustainable Policy for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, 27 décembre 2019.Hide Footnote Le gouvernement ayant interdit l’accès aux services d’Internet et de téléphonie mobile dans les camps, les habitants n’ont qu’un accès limité aux informations de prévention vitale et, parallèlement, le taux élevé de malnutrition risque d’augmenter le risque de contagion parmi les réfugiés et la population locale. Si le Covid-19 entre dans les camps, les organismes humanitaires craignent qu’il se propage comme une trainée de poudre, ce qui pourrait déclencher une réaction hostile de la part des Bangladais qui vivent dans les régions environnantes et sont déjà exaspérés par la présence prolongée des réfugiés.

Dans ces cas – comme dans ceux des communautés de personnes déplacées en Iraq et dans certaines régions du Moyen-Orient, d’Afrique ou d’Asie – les personnes déplacées et les réfugiés exposés à une flambée du Covid-19 dans les camps où ils résident pourraient tenter de fuir à nouveau pour se mettre en sécurité, ce qui pousserait les populations locales ou les autorités à réagir par la force pour les en empêcher, et risquerait de provoquer une escalade de la violence. Les Etats qui tentent de mettre un terme à la propagation du virus s’inquièteront certainement de l’arrivée de nouveaux flux de réfugiés. La Colombie et le Brésil, par exemple, qui avaient dans un premier temps généreusement accueilli ceux qui fuyaient la crise au Venezuela, ont fermé leurs frontières, mais la nécessité d’échapper à l’aggravation de la pauvreté et aux risques sanitaires au Venezuela pourrait pousser un nombre croissant de migrants à traverser la frontière illégalement.

La crise du Covid-19 pourrait également exacerber la crise humanitaire en Amérique centrale, liée en partie aux politiques d’immigration de l’administration Trump, et faire augmenter le nombre déjà élevé de crimes violents. Après avoir annoncé la fermeture de sa frontière sud pour tout le trafic non essentiel à partir du 21 mars, les Etats-Unis pourraient chercher à renforcer les mesures visant à empêcher les migrants et les réfugiés d’Amérique centrale d’entrer sur le territoire et à les renvoyer vers des pays hôtes. Le Salvador et le Guatemala ont interdit à la mi-mars l’atterrissage de tous les vols de ressortissants d’Amérique centrale expulsés des Etats-Unis. L’interdiction a été levée au Guatemala, mais il n’est pas certain que les Etats-Unis puissent poursuivre ces expulsions alors que les deux pays ont interdit tous les vols internationaux de passagers.

Dans un contexte où les économies déjà fragilisées d’Amérique centrale sont soumises à de fortes pressions, les expulsions venant des Etats-Unis et du Mexique pourraient exposer un nombre croissant de ces populations déplacées à un accueil glacial dans leur pays, car les populations nationales pourraient craindre qu’elles ne contribuent à propager le virus. De nombreuses personnes expulsées n’auront peut-être pas d’autre choix que de retourner vers la frontière américaine, avec l’aide de réseaux de traite d’êtres humains, ou de devenir les victimes ou les complices de groupes criminels et de gangs présents dans l’ensemble de la région.

Dans de nombreux cas, les répercussions du Covid-19 sur les réfugiés et sur les personnes déplacées affecteront davantage les femmes, qui sont souvent majoritaires parmi les populations déplacées dans les régions de conflit. Stigmatisées du fait du lien (réel ou présumé) qu’elles auraient entretenu avec les groupes armés, ces femmes rencontrent d’immenses difficultés à accéder aux services et à nourrir leurs familles. Les femmes et les enfants déplacés, exposés à l’exploitation ou à la violence sexuelle, et dont la réintégration au sein des communautés n’est pas la priorité de gouvernements faibles ou indifférents, seront les premiers touchés par les crises économiques qui accompagneront la propagation du virus.

 

II. Répercussions négatives sur la gestion des crises internationales et sur les mécanismes de résolution des conflits

La vulnérabilité au Covid-19 des réfugiés et des déplacés internes s’explique en partie par le fait que le virus pourrait affaiblir sérieusement la capacité des institutions internationales à opérer dans des zones de conflits. L’OMS et les représentants d’autres organismes internationaux craignent que les restrictions liées au virus n’interrompent les chaines d’approvisionnement humanitaires. Mais les organisations humanitaires ne sont pas les seuls acteurs du système multilatéral qui seront gravement mis à mal par la pandémie, les mécanismes de consolidation de la paix risquent également d’être affectés.

Les restrictions de voyage ont commencé à peser sur les efforts de médiation internationaux. Les envoyés des Nations unies qui travaillent au Moyen-Orient se sont vus interdits de voyager depuis et vers la région du fait des fermetures d’aéroports. Les organisations régionales ont suspendu leurs initiatives diplomatiques dans des régions telles que le Sud du Caucase ou l’Afrique de l’Ouest, tandis que l’envoyé du Groupe international de contact pour le Venezuela – un groupe composé d’Etats européens et latino-américains chargés d’envisager une solution diplomatique à la crise – a dû annuler un déplacement très attendu vers Caracas au début du mois de mars pour des raisons liées au Covid-19.[fn]Une délégation de diplomates prévoyant de se rendre dans le Nagorno-Karabakh au nom de l’Organisation pour la sécurité et la coopération en Europe a annulé son voyage, tandis que des dirigeants ouest-africains prévoyant de se rendre en Guinée pour discuter d’un référendum controversé ont également annulé leur déplacement.Hide Footnote Le virus pourrait également affecter les pourparlers de paix entre les parties au conflit en Afghanistan, prévus après l’accord préliminaire de février entre les Etats-Unis et les Taliban, ou du moins réduire le nombre de participants (néanmoins, si le groupe se limite aux décideurs et au personnel de soutien essentiel, cela pourrait permettre de mener de réelles négociations).[fn]Pour donner un signe d’éventuel progrès, le représentant américain de la réconciliation en Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, a tweeté le 22 mars que les Etats-Unis et le Qatar avaient facilité des discussions entre le gouvernement afghan et les Taliban sur la libération de prisonniers « via visioconférence Skype ».Hide Footnote

Plus généralement, le virus implique que les dirigeants internationaux, parce qu’ils doivent traiter de graves priorités nationales, ont peu, voire pas de temps à consacrer à la gestion des conflits ou aux processus de paix. Des responsables européens annoncent que les efforts visant à garantir le cessez-le-feu en Libye (annoncés en février comme étant une priorité de Bruxelles et Berlin) ne mobilisent plus l’attention au plus haut niveau. Les diplomates qui travaillent pour éviter un bras de fer meurtrier dans le Nord du Yémen ont cruellement besoin d’obtenir le temps et l’attention des hauts représentants saoudiens et américains, mais signalent que les réunions sont annulées ou écourtées. Le président kényan Uhuru Kenyatta a annulé le sommet du 16 mars qui devait se tenir en présence de ses homologues éthiopien et somalien et visait à limiter la dangereuse exacerbation des tensions entre Nairobi et Mogadiscio, pour, selon les dires des responsables kényans, se concentrer sur la nécessité d’arrêter la propagation du virus.[fn]« Kenya’s president cancels two foreign meetings over Covid-19 », The East African, 15 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Un sommet entre des dirigeants européens et les pays du G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritanie, Niger et Tchad) sera également annulé, ce qui met à mal les efforts déployés pour consolider les opérations de lutte contre le terrorisme dans la région.In a possible sign of progress, U.S. Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted on 22 March that the U.S. and Qatar had facilitated technical talks on prisoner releases between the Afghan government and Taliban “via Skype video conferencing”.Hide Footnote

Le virus pourrait également avoir une incidence sur les initiatives multinationales de consolidation de la paix et d’assistance à la sécurité. Début mars, le secrétariat des Nations unies a demandé à neuf pays fournissant des contingents – y compris la Chine et l’Italie – de suspendre la rotation de certaines ou de toutes leurs unités auprès des opérations de maintien de la paix, en raison des risques de propagation du Covid-19.[fn]Ces restrictions initiales émanent de la demande de certains pays hôtes ou de transit (y compris l’Ouganda, une importante plateforme logistique de l’ONU) faite à l’ONU de ne pas prendre le risque de propager le virus. Correspondance du département de l’appui opérationnel de l’ONU avec les représentants permanents de l’ONU, 5 mars 2020 (consultée par Crisis Group, le 9 mars 2020).Hide Footnote Les opérations des Nations unies ont annoncé, depuis lors, de nouvelles restrictions relatives aux rotations des contingents, ce qui implique que la période d’affectation des Casques bleus sera prolongée d’au moins trois mois dans des missions difficiles telles que la République centrafricaine ou le Soudan du Sud, ce qui pourrait affecter leur moral et leur efficacité. Une décision du Conseil de sécurité de mettre sur pied une nouvelle mission politique chargée de soutenir la transition du Soudan vers un régime civil pourrait être reportée du fait de la modification du calendrier des réunions du Conseil de sécurité approuvée par ses membres dans le cadre des mesures de confinement.[fn]Le Conseil de sécurité a reporté ses réunions à partir du 16 mars et a testé les possibilités de réunions virtuelles, même si les diplomates vont parfois se réunir pour voter.Hide Footnote Ces décisions diplomatiques et opérationnelles n’auront pas d’effet immédiat sur les opérations de l’ONU, mais si la pandémie devait durer, il deviendrait difficile de recruter et de déployer de nouvelles forces et du personnel civil, ce qui risquerait d’affaiblir les missions.

La crise mettra les organisations internationales dans des situations délicates, tout comme les organes de presse et les ONG, qui pourraient avoir du mal à couvrir un conflit ou une crise du fait des restrictions de voyage, même si de nombreux lecteurs et spectateurs seront, au moins temporairement, moins intéressés par les informations qui ne seront pas liées au Covid-19. Certains gouvernements autoritaristes semblent prêts à se servir de la crise pour limiter l’accès aux médias. L’Egypte a, par exemple, censuré les journalistes occidentaux chargés de couvrir l’évolution de la pandémie dans le pays – en retirant son accréditation à un journaliste britannique de The Guardian – tandis que la Chine a renvoyé certains des principaux correspondants des Etats-Unis. Crisis Group a elle-même dû limiter drastiquement les voyages de ses analystes pendant la durée de la pandémie pour garantir leur sécurité. Comme le montre ce briefing, nous restons déterminés à continuer de faire la lumière sur les conflits – qu’ils soient ou non liés au Covid-19 – et à les couvrir autant que faire se peut, mais nous serons inévitablement limités dans nos travaux.

III. Risques pour l’ordre social

Le Covid-19 pourrait exercer une forte pression sur les sociétés et les systèmes politiques, créant ainsi potentiellement de nouvelles flambées de violence. A court terme, la menace de la maladie aura probablement un effet dissuasif sur l’agitation populaire, car les manifestants éviteront les grands rassemblements. L’émergence du Covid-19 en Chine a accéléré le recul des manifestations anti-Beijing à Hong Kong (même si le malaise de la population face aux éléments radicaux du mouvement de protestation pourrait également avoir joué un rôle).[fn]Helen Davidson, « Hong Kong: With coronavirus curbed, protests may return », The Guardian, 15 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Le nombre de manifestants descendant dans la rue en Algérie pour dénoncer la corruption du gouvernement a également diminué.[fn]« Algerians forego weekly protest amid coronavirus », Reuters, 20 mars 2020.Hide Footnote L’opposition russe a largement approuvé la décision des autorités, prétendument justifiée par des raisons de santé, de bloquer les manifestations contre la décision du président Vladimir Poutine de réécrire la constitution pour prolonger son mandat.[fn]« Coronavirus forces Putin critics to scale back protests before big vote », Reuters, 20 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Au moins une exception à cette prudence généralisée s’est produite au Niger, où les manifestants sont descendus dans la rue pour protester contre les règles interdisant les manifestations, que le gouvernement a étendues en invoquant le Covid-19. Trois civils ont été tués par les forces de sécurité le 15 mars.

Pourtant, le calme dans les rues peut être un phénomène temporaire et trompeur. Les conséquences de la pandémie sur la santé publique et l’économie sont susceptibles de mettre à rude épreuve les relations entre les gouvernements et les citoyens, en particulier lorsque les services de santé sont défaillants. Préserver l'ordre public pourrait s’avérer difficile lorsque les forces de sécurité sont débordées et que les populations sont de plus en plus frustrées par la réaction du gouvernement face à la maladie.

Les premiers signes de troubles sociaux sont déjà visibles. En Ukraine, des manifestants ont attaqué des bus transportant des évacués ukrainiens de Wuhan, en Chine, en réponse à des allégations selon lesquelles certains d'entre eux étaient porteurs de la maladie.[fn]« Coronavirus: Ukraine protesters attack buses carrying China evacuees », BBC, 21 février 2020.Hide Footnote Des évasions de prison ont été signalées au Venezuela, au Brésil et en Italie, les détenus réagissant violemment aux nouvelles restrictions associées au Covid-19, tandis qu’en Colombie, des émeutes dans les prisons et une déclaration d’évasion, déclenchées par la perception d’un manque de protection contre la maladie, ont entrainé la mort de 23 détenus à la prison de La Modelo le 21 mars. En Colombie également, des pillards ont attaqué des camions de nourriture en direction du Venezuela, au moins en partie pour protester contre les effets économiques de la décision prise par Bogota et Caracas de fermer la frontière entre la Colombie et le Venezuela pour des raisons sanitaires. Même des précautions raisonnables peuvent susciter des réactions de colère. Au Pérou, les autorités ont arrêté des centaines de citoyens qui avaient enfreint les règles de quarantaine, ce qui a parfois entrainé des violences.

L'impact économique catastrophique du virus pourrait bien semer les germes de troubles à venir

Plus largement, l’impact économique catastrophique du virus pourrait bien semer les germes de troubles à venir. Les risques sont là, que les pays en question aient connu ou non des flambées massives de la maladie, même s’ils seront plus importants dans ceux qui en auront souffert. Une récession mondiale d’une ampleur encore sans précédent se profile à l’horizon ; les restrictions de transport liées à la pandémie perturberont le commerce et l’approvisionnement alimentaire, d’innombrables entreprises seront contraintes de fermer et le nombre de chômeurs risque de grimper en flèche.[fn]Certains analystes financiers prédisent une « grave récession mondiale » résultant de l’épidémie. L’économie américaine, pour citer un exemple, devrait se contracter de 14 pour cent au deuxième trimestre 2020. « Assessing the Fallout from the Coronavirus Pandemic », JP Morgan, 20 mars 2020.Hide Footnote

Les gouvernements qui ont des liens commerciaux étroits avec la Chine, notamment certains en Afrique, ressentent déjà les conséquences du ralentissement provoqué par l’épidémie de Wuhan.[fn]Voir, par exemple, Hannah Ryder et Angela Benefo, « China’s coronavirus slowdown: Which African economies will be hit hardest? », The Diplomat, 19 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Les producteurs de pétrole sont déjà aux prises avec l’effondrement des prix de l’énergie. Des pays comme le Nigeria, qui entretient des liens solides d’import-export avec la Chine et qui dépend des prix du pétrole pour soutenir ses finances publiques, en souffrent. Abuja aurait envisagé de réduire ses dépenses de 10 pour cent en 2020, ce qui signifie que les autorités pourraient ne pas tenir leurs promesses d’augmenter le salaire minimum.[fn]« Silk roadblock: coronavirus exposes Nigeria’s reliance on China », Reuters, 6 mars 2020.Hide Footnote De telles mesures d’austérité, combinées aux autres effets économiques du Covid-19 – tels que la disparition des touristes dans les régions qui dépendent fortement des visiteurs étrangers – pourraient entrainer des chocs économiques qui durent bien au-delà de la crise immédiate, créant ainsi potentiellement des perturbations prolongées du travail et une instabilité sociale.

Comme l’a noté Crisis Group au début de l’année 2020, les protestations tapageuses de 2019 provenaient d’un « sentiment omniprésent d’injustice économique » qui pourrait « enflammer davantage de villes cette année ».[fn]Robert Malley, « 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020 », Commentaire de Crisis Group, 27 décembre 2019.Hide Footnote La colère suscitée par les effets du Covid-19 et la perception que les gouvernements les gèrent mal pourraient déclencher à terme de nouvelles manifestations. Le déclin économique aura des effets encore plus immédiats sur les sociétés des pays à faibles revenus. Dans de vastes régions d’Afrique subsaharienne en particulier, des millions de personnes dépendent de leur revenu quotidien pour nourrir leur famille. Un confinement prolongé pourrait rapidement engendrer le désespoir et le désordre généralisés.

Le potentiel évident du Covid-19 à déclencher un sentiment xénophobe est également un phénomène préoccupant, en particulier dans les pays où les communautés d’immigrants sont importantes. Au début de la crise, les travailleurs chinois au Kenya ont été victimes de harcèlement à cause des soupçons selon lesquels les vols de China Southern Airline faisaient entrer le coronavirus dans le pays. Certains hommes politiques occidentaux, notamment le président américain Donald Trump, ont tenté d’attiser le ressentiment de Beijing par des plaisanteries sur le « virus chinois ». Il y a certaines indications selon lesquelles on assisterait à une augmentation des préjugés à l’égard des personnes d’origine chinoise aux Etats-Unis et dans d’autres pays occidentaux, ainsi qu’un risque sérieux que la maladie n’alimente encore davantage la violence raciste et dirigée contre les étrangers.[fn]Voir par exemple Holly Yan, Natasha Chen et Dushyant Naresh, « What’s spreading faster than coronavirus in the U.S.? Racist assaults and ignorant attacks against Asians », CNN, 21 février 2020.Hide Footnote

IV. Exploitation politique de la crise

Dans ce contexte de pressions sociales, les dirigeants politiques ont toute latitude pour tenter d’exploiter le Covid-19, soit pour consolider le pouvoir dans leur pays, soit pour poursuivre leurs intérêts à l’étranger. A court terme, de nombreux gouvernements semblent pris de court par la rapidité, la portée et le danger de l’épidémie et, dans certains cas, la maladie a infecté les élites politiques. Un foyer d’infection dans la capitale isolée du Brésil, Brasilia, a affecté un grand nombre de fonctionnaires et de responsables politiques. En Iran, des dizaines de cas ont été recensés parmi les hauts fonctionnaires et les parlementaires. Au Burkina Faso, où le gouvernement est déjà aux prises avec l’effondrement de l’autorité de l’Etat dans une grande partie du pays, une vague de cas a touché des membres du cabinet. La deuxième vice-présidente du parlement a été le premier décès enregistré en Afrique subsaharienne. Dans de tels cas, le virus est plus susceptible d’affaiblir la capacité des autorités à prendre des décisions concernant à la fois les questions de santé et d’autres crises urgentes.

Néanmoins, à mesure que la crise s’installe, certains dirigeants pourraient ordonner des mesures restrictives qui ont un sens pour la santé publique au plus fort de la crise, puis les prolonger dans l’espoir d’étouffer les dissensions une fois que la maladie aura reculé. Ces mesures pourraient inclure l’interdiction indéfinie des grands rassemblements publics – que de nombreux gouvernements ont déjà instaurée pour mettre un terme à la propagation du Covid-19 – afin d’empêcher les manifestations publiques. Là encore, la crise d’Ebola en Afrique de l’Ouest a créé des précédents : des groupes de la société civile locale et des partis d’opposition affirment que les autorités ont interdit les réunions plus longtemps que nécessaire afin de réprimer les protestations légitimes.[fn]Rapport de Crisis Group, The Politics Behind the Ebola Crisis, op. cit., p. 25.Hide Footnote Peut-être était-ce un signe avant-coureur de ce qui pourrait arriver en Hongrie, où le 21 mars, le Premier ministre Viktor Orban a demandé au parlement de prolonger indéfiniment l'état d'urgence qui prévoit des peines de cinq ans de prison pour ceux qui diffusent de fausses informations ou entravent la réponse de l’Etat à la crise.[fn]“Hungary govt seeks to extend special powers amid coronavirus crisis”, Reuters, 21 March 2020.Hide Footnote

La tentation d’utiliser le virus comme prétexte pour des retards supplémentaires et un resserrement de l’espace politique n’est pas loin

Les élections prévues pour le premier semestre de 2020, voire plus tard, risquent également d'être reportées ; là aussi, la justification immédiate de santé publique peut être valable, mais la tentation d’utiliser le virus comme prétexte pour des retards supplémentaires et un resserrement de l’espace politique n’est pas loin. En effet, il y aura probablement de bonnes raisons pratiques de retarder les élections dans de tels cas. La pandémie, non seulement compliquera la planification nationale, mais elle entravera également le déploiement de missions internationales de soutien électoral et, le cas échéant, d’observation. Néanmoins, les partis d’opposition vont probablement soupçonner des tricheries, en particulier dans les pays où la confiance politique est réduite, où l’instabilité est récente, ou encore dans les cas où le gouvernement jouit d’une légitimité discutable ou a déjà manipulé les calendriers électoraux par le passé.

Là encore, il existe déjà des exemples. La présidente par intérim de Bolivie, Jeanine Añez, a annoncé le 21 mars que l’élection présidentielle prévue le 3 mai pour trouver un remplaçant à temps plein à Evo Morales – que les militaires ont évincé après des scrutins controversés en 2019 – serait reportée à une date future non précisée. Au Sri Lanka, une décision de la Commission électorale de reporter les élections parlementaires pour des raisons de santé publique pourrait accorder des pouvoirs accrus au président Gotabaya Rajapaksa – un nationaliste de la ligne dure associé à des violations des droits humains à l’encontre des minorités et de ceux qui critiquent le régime. Même si Rajapaksa a initialement souhaité que les élections puissent se dérouler normalement (ce qui témoigne de l’espoir d’une victoire écrasante), s’il décidait de refuser de rappeler le parlement tant que les élections n’auront pas eu lieu, la durée et la légalité de son régime provisoire pourraient bien susciter des controverses.

Certains dirigeants pourraient également voir le Covid-19 comme une couverture pour se lancer dans des aventures étrangères déstabilisantes, que ce soit pour détourner le mécontentement national ou parce qu’ils ont le sentiment qu’ils ne seront guère confrontés à une opposition structurée dans le contexte de la crise sanitaire mondiale. Aucune situation de ce type ne s’est encore présentée, et les analystes risquent désormais d’attribuer au Covid-19 des crises qui sont engendrées par d’autres facteurs. Néanmoins, alors que la pandémie préoccupe les grandes puissances et les organisations multilatérales, certains dirigeants pourraient considérer qu’ils peuvent s’affirmer d’une manière qu’ils jugeraient trop risquée dans une situation normale. Une série d’attaques contre des cibles américaines par des milices chiites soutenues par l’Iran en Iraq pourrait bien faire partie d’un effort déjà très actif de Téhéran pour pousser les Etats-Unis hors du Moyen-Orient. Mais étant donné que les dirigeants iraniens subissent déjà une énorme pression intérieure, le bilan du coronavirus pourrait également affecter ses calculs. Comme nous l’avons écrit, « se sentant assiégé et sans issue diplomatique manifeste, l’Iran pourrait conclure que seule une confrontation avec les Etats-Unis pourrait changer une trajectoire qui prend une direction très dangereuse ».[fn]Robert Malley et Ali Vaez, « The coronavirus is a diplomatic opportunity for the United States and Iran », Foreign Policy, 17 mars 2020.Hide Footnote

De même, pour les groupes jihadistes, la crise pourrait créer des occasions de lancer de nouvelles offensives contre des gouvernements affaiblis d’Afrique et du Moyen-Orient. Jusqu’à présent, ni l’Etat islamique (EI) ni aucune des différentes branches d’Al-Qaïda n’a affiché une vision stratégique claire concernant la pandémie (bien que l’EI ait diffusé des conseils sanitaires à ses militants sur la manière de gérer la maladie en se basant sur les paroles du Prophète Mahomet).[fn]« ISIS tells terrorists to steer clear of coronavirus-stricken Europe », Politico, 15 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Néanmoins, comme l’a déjà fait valoir Crisis Group, les forces jihadistes ont tendance à « exploiter le chaos », en gagnant du terrain et des adeptes là où il existe déjà des conflits ou lorsque des Etats faibles sont confrontés à des troubles sociaux.[fn]Rapport spécial de Crisis Group N°1, Exploiter le chaos : l’Etat islamique et Al-Qaïda, 14 mars 2016.Hide Footnote L’EI, par exemple, a tiré parti du chaos post-2011 en Syrie pour arriver à un niveau de pouvoir que l’organisation n’aurait jamais atteint autrement. Il est possible que le chaos social et politique offre des occasions similaires pour les jihadistes à mesure que la crise actuelle se poursuit. Inversement, les groupes qui contrôlent des portions importantes du territoire – comme les Chabab en Somalie – pourraient, tout comme les gouvernements, faire face à une montée de la grogne populaire s’ils ne parviennent pas à enrayer l’épidémie de Covid-19.[fn]Les résultats des Chabab dans la gestion des famines en 2011 et 2017 – toutes deux exacerbées par les conflits et les restrictions imposées par le groupe en matière d’aide – ne rassure guère sur la manière dont il pourrait gérer la pandémie actuelle. Voir Briefing Afrique de Crisis Group N°125, Instruments of Pain (III): Conflict and Famine in Somalia, 9 mai 2017.Hide Footnote

V. Un tournant dans les relations entre les grandes puissances ?

Les effets potentiels du Covid-19 sur des points de tension spécifiques sont amplifiés par le fait que le système mondial était déjà en cours de réalignement.[fn]Malley, « 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020 », op. cit.Hide Footnote Ainsi, la période actuelle se distingue des autres crises internationales, encore relativement récentes. Lorsque la crise financière a provoqué un ralentissement économique mondial en 2008, les Etats-Unis avaient encore suffisamment d’influence pour façonner la réponse internationale par l’intermédiaire du G20, même si Washington a pris soin d’impliquer Beijing dans le processus. En 2014, les Etats-Unis ont pris les choses en main pour répondre d’une manière tardive et multilatérale à la crise d’Ebola en Afrique de l’Ouest, avec l’aide de pays tels que le Royaume-Uni, la France, la Chine ou Cuba.[fn]Voir Ted Piccone, « Ebola could bring U.S. and Cuba together », The Brookings Institution, 31 octobre 2014.Hide Footnote Aujourd’hui, les Etats-Unis –  dont l’influence internationale s’était déjà considérablement affaiblie – ont simultanément mal géré leur réponse nationale au Covid-19, n’ont pas réussi à rassembler d’autres nations et ont suscité un ressentiment international. Le président Donald Trump n’a pas seulement insisté sur les origines chinoises de la maladie, mais a également critiqué le cafouillage de l’UE concernant le confinement.

En revanche, la Chine, après avoir dû faire face aux conséquences de la flambée initiale du virus, à sa décision précoce et couteuse de retenir l’information et à ses propres réactions inégales, et après avoir parfois cherché à blâmer les Etats-Unis en menant une campagne de désinformation irresponsable, voit maintenant dans la crise sanitaire une occasion de gagner de l’influence sur d’autres Etats par des gestes humanitaires.[fn]Voir Conor Finnegan, « False claims about origins of the coronavirus cause spat between the U.S., China », ABC, 13 mars 2020. Certains diplomates chinois semblent mal à l’aise avec les insinuations de Beijing selon lesquelles le Covid-19 viendrait des Etats-Unis. Voir « Spat between Chinese diplomats shows internal split over Trump », Bloomberg, 23 mars 2020.Hide Footnote

La Chine a fait monter en puissance sa machine diplomatique pour se positionner comme chef de file de la réponse internationale à d’éventuelles épidémies généralisées de Covid-19 sur le continent africain.[fn]Par exemple, voir Laura Zhou, « Will China’s support for nations fighting Covid-19 improve its global image ? », South China Morning Post, 22 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Le 16 mars, le milliardaire chinois Jack Ma a annoncé que sa fondation donnerait 20 000 kits de test, 100 000 masques et un millier d’unités d’équipements de protection à chacun des 54 pays du continent. Il a déclaré qu’il ferait transiter les dons par l’Ethiopie, et qu’il chargerait le Premier ministre Abiy Ahmed, lauréat du prix Nobel de la paix en 2019, de coordonner la distribution.[fn]« As virus spreads, Africa gets supplies from China’s Jack Ma », Associated Press, 22 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Le 19 mars, Beijing a encore renforcé sa diplomatie dans ce domaine, en annonçant le projet de construction d’un centre de recherche africain pour la prévention et le contrôle des maladies à Nairobi.[fn]« Kenya to host Sh8 billion Africa disease control centre », The Standard, 19 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Beijing a également proposé une assistance aux membres de l’UE, atténuant ainsi les critiques européennes concernant sa gestion initiale de la contagion à Wuhan.[fn]« China steps up support for European countries hardest hit by coronavirus », South China Morning Post, 18 mars 2020. Sur l’impact de l’aide chinoise sur les perceptions européennes, voir Steven Erlanger, « In this crisis, U.S. sheds its role as global leader », The New York Times, 22 mars 2020.Hide Footnote

Dans l’ensemble, malgré les appels à l’unité de l’OMS, la pandémie prend une dimension géopolitique qui divise.

Dans l’ensemble, malgré les appels à l’unité de l’OMS, la pandémie prend une dimension géopolitique qui divise. Certains dirigeants l’ont formulée très clairement en ces termes. Le président serbe Aleksandar Vučić, par exemple, a déclaré que, faute d’un véritable soutien de l’UE, « tous mes espoirs personnels sont tournés vers la Chine et son président ».[fn]Julija Simic, « Serbia turns to China due to ‘lack of EU solidarity’ on coronavirus », Euractiv, 18 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Alors que Riyad, qui préside actuellement le G20, a appelé à un « sommet virtuel » des dirigeants (similaire à celui déjà tenu par le G7), la crise pourrait renforcer les tensions entre Washington, Beijing et d’autres puissances. Les experts de l’UE ont indiqué que la Russie propageait la désinformation sur le Covid-19 dans les pays occidentaux.[fn]« Russia deploying coronavirus disinformation to sow panic in West, EU document says », Reuters, 18 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Le fait de se jouer des grandes puissances pour profiter du désordre général pourrait non seulement compliquer la coopération technique contre le Covid-19, mais aussi rendre plus difficile pour les puissances de s’entendre sur la manière de gérer les différends politiques que le virus crée ou exacerbe.

Plus généralement, le coronavirus et la manière dont il sera traité sont susceptibles d’avoir une influence profonde sur l'ordre multilatéral qui émergera dans son sillage. Il est trop tôt pour évaluer ces implications. Pour l’instant, on peut discerner deux discours contradictoires qui commencent à gagner du terrain – l’un selon lequel les pays devraient s’unir pour mieux vaincre le Covid-19, et l’autre selon lequel les pays devraient se démarquer afin de mieux se protéger.[fn]Yuval Noah Harari appelle cela le choix entre « l’isolement nationaliste et la solidarité mondiale ». « The world after coronavirus », Financial Times, 20 mars 2020.Hide Footnote La crise représente également un test frappant des opinions divergentes des Etats libéraux et non libéraux pour mieux gérer la détresse sociale extrême. A mesure que la pandémie se développera, elle mettra à l’épreuve non seulement les capacités opérationnelles d’organisations comme les Nations unies et l’OMS, mais aussi les hypothèses de base sur les valeurs et les négociations politiques qui les sous-tendent.

VI. Opportunités à saisir

De nombreux voyants sont au rouge dans le contexte de la crise de Covid-19, mais il y a également des lueurs d’espoir. L’ampleur de l’épidémie permet des gestes humanitaires entre rivaux. Les Emirats arabes unis ont, par exemple, acheminé par avion plus de 30 tonnes d’aide humanitaire à l’Iran pour lutter contre la maladie (le Bahreïn, en revanche, a profité de l’occasion pour accuser la République islamique d’ « agression biologique »).[fn]Nafisa Eltahir et Lisa Barrington, « Bahrain accuses Iran of ‘biological aggression’, Gulf states try to curb coronavirus », Reuters, 12 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Les Etats ayant des relations plus étroites avec l’Iran, dont le Koweït et le Qatar, ont également offert leur aide. Le président Trump a écrit au dirigeant de la Corée du Nord, Kim Jong-un, pour lui faire part de sa volonté d’aider Pyongyang à lutter contre la maladie, ce qui a suscité un message de gratitude.[fn]Choe Sang-Hun, « Trump writes to Kim Jong-un offering help in virus fight, North Korea says », The New York Times, 21 mars 2020.Hide Footnote Malgré la fermeture de ses frontières avec le Venezuela, le gouvernement colombien a également eu son premier contact officiel avec Caracas depuis plus d’un an, sous l’égide de l’Organisation panaméricaine de la santé, dans le cadre d’une téléconférence visant à discuter d’une réponse commune en matière de soins de santé dans les zones frontalières. Les responsables politiques anti-chavistes ont également pris des mesures provisoires pour travailler avec leurs rivaux afin de résoudre la crise, comme cela s’est produit dans l’Etat frontalier de Táchira.

Deux autres exemples : dans le Caucase, les Etats-Unis ont envoyé des secours à la région sécessionniste géorgienne d’Abkhazie pour la première fois depuis plus d’une décennie en vue de lutter contre le Covid-19, même si les autorités abkhazes coordonnent leur action avec Moscou plutôt qu’avec Tbilissi. Aux Philippines, le président Rodrigo Duterte, belliciste en temps normal, a annoncé un cessez-le-feu unilatéral d’un mois avec les rebelles communistes, afin de laisser aux forces gouvernementales le temps de se concentrer sur la pandémie.[fn]« Duterte asks NPA for ceasefire during coronavirus lockdown », Rappler.com, 17 mars 2020.Hide Footnote

Il ne s’agit là que de mesures positives relativement modestes. Mais à mesure que la catastrophe s’étend et que les économies se contractent, les pressions pourraient se renforcer sur les gouvernements et l’opposition dans des situations polarisées pour trouver un terrain d’entente si c’est une condition préalable à la stabilité et pour bénéficier de l’aide internationale. Des études universitaires montrent que les parties en guerre réagissent souvent aux catastrophes naturelles par des accords visant à réduire la violence. Une dynamique similaire pourrait s’appliquer dans certains conflits face au Covid-19, même si, étant donnée l’ampleur de la crise – et sa nouvelle incidence sur la diplomatie internationale –, les médiateurs extérieurs et les organisations multilatérales pourraient rencontrer plus de difficultés à soutenir les initiatives de paix que dans un contexte plus habituel.[fn]Voir Joakim Kreutz, « From Tremors to Talks: Do Natural Disasters Produce Ripe Moments for Resolving Separatist Conflicts? », International Interactions, vol. 8, no. 4 (2012).Hide Footnote

Au début du mois, Crisis Group a insisté auprès des Etats-Unis et de l’Iran pour qu’ils saisissent ce moment et parviennent à une entente mutuellement bénéfique : Téhéran libérerait tous ses détenus binationaux ou étrangers (qui sont confrontés à des risques réels d’infection dans les prisons iraniennes) tandis que Washington assouplirait ses sanctions (qui exacerbent la situation humanitaire difficile à laquelle l’Iran est confronté en raison de sa propre mauvaise gestion de la crise du Covid-19).[fn]Malley et Vaez, « The coronavirus is a diplomatic opportunity for the United States and Iran », op. cit.Hide Footnote Depuis lors, Téhéran a fait des concessions sur les prisonniers – en échangeant un détenu français contre un Iranien détenu en France et en permettant à une prisonnière Irano-Britannique de sortir temporairement de prison. Alors que les Etats-Unis ont déclaré qu’ils enverraient une aide humanitaire à l’Iran, les dirigeants de la République islamique ont rapidement rejeté l’offre, la jugeant hypocrite et soulignant le fait que les sanctions américaines restaient pleinement en vigueur. Le Guide suprême, l’Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a fait référence à des théories conspirationnistes selon lesquelles les Etats-Unis seraient responsables de la maladie.[fn]Jon Gambrell, « Iran leader refuses U.S. help to fight Covid-19, citing conspiracy theory », Associated Press, 22 mars 2020.Hide Footnote

VII. Mesures potentielles d’atténuation de la crise

A l’avenir, les gouvernements devront décider s’ils soutiennent des approches plus coopératives pour gérer la crise, non seulement en termes de santé publique mondiale, mais aussi dans sa dimension politique et sécuritaire. Les pressions augmentent sur les dirigeants pour qu’ils se concentrent sur les priorités nationales, qu’ils y consacrent de l’argent et du capital politique, et, en particulier, qu’ils ignorent les risques de conflits dans les Etats faibles pouvant sembler difficiles à résoudre ou simplement pas assez importants pour qu’on s’en préoccupe. Mais il y aura un après Covid-19, et si la période à venir n’est pas gérée avec sagesse, elle pourrait être marquée par des perturbations majeures dans des zones déjà en proie à des conflits, l’éruption de nouvelles violences et un système multilatéral beaucoup plus fragile. Crisis Group suivra les tendances négatives et positives que nous avons déjà développées et surveillera également si les Etats et les institutions multilatérales prennent des mesures de prévention et d’atténuation pour limiter l’impact de la pandémie sur la paix et la sécurité.

Dans cet esprit, et pour atténuer le risque que le Covid-19 entraine une nouvelle génération de crises sécuritaires, les gouvernements attachés à limiter l’impact de la pandémie pourraient envisager les mesures suivantes :

  • Suivre les évaluations des besoins des Nations unies, du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge et d’autres organismes compétents, et injecter les fonds essentiels liés au Covid-19 dans l’aide humanitaire, en particulier pour les réfugiés et les personnes déplacées, en tenant compte des risques sans commune mesure pour les femmes déplacées ;
     
  • Travailler avec les Nations unies, le Fonds monétaire international et la Banque mondiale – qui ont déjà commencé à mobiliser des fonds pour remédier aux défaillances des systèmes de santé et aux secousses économiques résultant du Covid-19 – pour évaluer les chocs sociaux et politiques que la pandémie pourrait faire subir aux gouvernements des Etats faibles, et proposer une aide financière et un allègement de la dette ;
     
  • Offrir une aide aux Etats touchés par le Covid-19 et faisant l’objet de sanctions, par le biais de cadres multilatéraux tels que l’UE ou l’ONU, ou par la suspension de sanctions unilatérales, selon le cas, ne serait-ce que temporairement, pour des raisons humanitaires, et supprimer tout obstacle à l’acheminement de biens humanitaires ;
     
  • Essayer de maintenir les processus de paix et les efforts de prévention des conflits en travaillant avec les envoyés des Nations unies et d’autres médiateurs pour, par exemple, maintenir des communications électroniques sécurisées avec les parties en conflit ;
     
  • Lorsque les autorités retardent les élections ou d’autres scrutins pour des raisons légitimes liées au Covid-19, proposer un soutien extérieur – comme des déclarations d’assistance électorale supplémentaire une fois que la maladie aura disparu, ou une diplomatie discrète entre les parties – pour signaler aux citoyens qu’ils pourront bien finalement voter ;
     
  • Dans la mesure du possible, établir ou renforcer les voies diplomatiques à double sens entre les Etats et les acteurs non étatiques les plus touchés par la crise afin de communiquer sur les risques potentiels d’escalade dans les régions tendues ;
     
  • Investir dans les efforts menés par l’OMS, les médias indépendants, les organisations non gouvernementales et la société civile pour partager des informations impartiales sur le Covid-19 dans les Etats faibles afin de contrer les rumeurs et la manipulation politique de la crise ainsi que pour ne pas perdre de vue les conflits qui nécessitent une aide internationale.
     

La pandémie du Covid-19 promet d'être longue et épuisante. Elle rendra la diplomatie, et surtout la diplomatie de crise, plus difficile. Mais il est crucial de maintenir les canaux de communication – et l’esprit de coopération – intacts dans une période où le système international semble plus que jamais prêt à se fragmenter.

New York/Bruxelles, 24 mars 2020

Protests Plaza de Bolivar on 28 April 2021. Bogota, Colombia. Sergio Angel

The Pandemic Strikes: Responding to Colombia’s Mass Protests

In Colombia’s history of protest, the 2021 mobilisations against inequality and police brutality stand out for their breadth and intensity. Unrest has quieted for now but could soon return. The government should urgently reform the security sector while working to narrow the country’s socio-economic chasms.

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What’s new? Colombia has seen a wave of unrest triggered by an unpopular tax reform, fuelled by massive inequality and police brutality, and inflamed in large part by the health and economic effects of the pandemic. Protests are likely to simmer at least until the May 2022 presidential election.

Why does it matter? Violence has flared, with police believed to be responsible for dozens of deaths. Although the number of protests has dropped, more are scheduled for late July. The government and strike organisers remain at loggerheads. The risk of continuing disturbances in poverty-stricken cities and rural areas is high.

What should be done? In the long term, Colombia needs to reduce its extreme inequality if it is to overcome vulnerability to unrest. In the short term, the government should embark on comprehensive police reform, support efforts at national and local dialogue, and invite international observers to negotiations as a trust-building measure.

Executive Summary

Colombia has been in the throes of its most serious public unrest in recent memory. Since an unpopular tax reform sent people into the streets on 28 April, tens of thousands of protesters across the country have joined a strike to vent frustration over rising inequality – laid bare by the devastating impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities – and police brutality. While the great majority of protests have been peaceful, vandalism and looting have damaged public transport, businesses and state buildings. Roadblocks inside and between major cities have also exacted an economic toll. Although President Iván Duque’s government has engaged in halting negotiations with strike leaders, it has also responded with a heavy hand. As of 7 June, the state ombudsman said it was aware of 58 deaths during the strike, including many apparently at the hands of police. Although protests have tailed off in recent weeks, the government should press ahead with talks with strike organisers, who have called for further demonstrations on 20 July; embark on comprehensive police reform; and intensify efforts to combat deep inequality.

The protests reflect the “accumulation of decades of injustice”, in the words of one 28-year-old protester in Bogotá. During five decades of armed conflict between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, most political forces pushed aside fundamental questions about the distribution of wealth, income and economic opportunity in deference to the scale of the insurgent and criminal threats facing the Colombian state.

Since the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, however, the stigma of association with the guerrillas no longer constrains left-leaning activism, while longstanding rifts and resentments in Colombian society have grown more pronounced. Colombia is the region’s second most unequal country after Brazil according to the World Bank, and its elites tend to be entrenched and protective of their entitlements. With strong economic, ethnic and geographic barriers to good education and the formal job market, Colombia’s social mobility is the lowest in any of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 38 member states. A year of on-and-off lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have only served to intensify the experience of inequality, particularly among the urban poor who disproportionately work in informal jobs and were hit hardest by movement restrictions. In rural areas, which were promised sweeping transformation in the 2016 peace accord, protesters say their lives have seen little improvement; instead, they have been left waiting for promised government support as expanding armed groups have made their livelihoods and physical safety even more precarious.

The government was late to acknowledge the extent of discontent, and even still it struggles to recognise what is driving people into the streets.

The government was late to acknowledge the extent of discontent, and even still it struggles to recognise what is driving people into the streets. Top officials have described protesters as troublemakers, vandals and urban terrorists while signalling scant empathy with their grievances. Together with documented police misconduct, the government reactions have at times added fuel to the fire. What began as a single national strike has become an array of local actions, anchored in numerous demands but united by a thirst for political change.

Amid the unrest, potentially worrying trends have emerged. On several occasions, armed vigilantes in cities such as Cali and Pereira have been filmed, often side by side with police, shooting directly at or attacking demonstrators. Armed and criminal groups also appear to be taking advantage of chaotic local circumstances to boost their social and economic control. Rural zones are particularly vulnerable: in places such as Meta, Putumayo and Catatumbo, armed groups appear to have on occasion nudged residents to participate in protests and roadblocks in order to cordon off swathes of territory and tighten their grip.

Although protests waned in mid-June after strike leaders called for a temporary standstill following a month and a half of constant mobilisation, Colombia is far from having resolved these tensions. The pandemic is proving relentless, with close to 700 people dying per day on average, and security conditions could worsen in the run-up to the 2022 presidential election. The next mass demonstrations are slated to take place on 20 July, and in the interim, smaller protests have continued to flare. Bogotá and Cali see clashes between demonstrators and police several times a week, if not more, particularly in areas where those in the streets say they do not feel represented by official strike organisers. The country remains on edge, and an egregious act of violence could kick off a fresh bout of unrest. The onset of electoral campaigning, long associated with peaks of violence in Colombia, could deepen the country’s polarisation and impede the prospects of an agreement to end the strike.

Dialogue between government representatives and the national strike committee, which began in May but has since been suspended, will need to feature several components if it is to be fruitful. A strong diplomatic presence at talks by international partners like the UN, the Organization for American States, and the European Union and its member states will be vital to help overcome mistrust between government and demonstrators, while the government will need to extend its political support for negotiations between authorities and strike committees at the regional and municipal levels. The Duque administration can also help pave the way out of the crisis by holding abusive officers to account and committing to meaningful police reform. No such reform has been carried out since the peace accord. The force remains an appendage of the military; its command structures and general approach to protests are ill suited for protecting civilians. Beyond police reform, the country needs to address the great disparities in wealth and opportunity that the pandemic has thrown into stark relief and that lie at the foundation of the unrest.

Bogotá/New York/Brussels, 2 July 2021

I. Introduction

Colombians are no strangers to social protest. For at least half a century, unions, small-hold farmers (campesinos), students and left-leaning movements have used strikes to press their demands on successive governments.[fn]Mauricio Archila Neira, “El Paro Cívico Nacional del 14 de septiembre 1977: un ejercicio de memoria colectiva”, Revista de Economía Institucional, vol. 18 (2016), pp. 313-318.Hide Footnote Mass mobilisation has marked major political turning points, such as the protests culminating in the drafting of a new constitution in July 1991.[fn]Between August 1989 and April 1990, three presidential candidates were assassinated: Luis Carlos Galán (of the New Liberalism party and favoured to win), Carlos Pizarro (leader of the demobilised guerrilla M-19 faction) and Bernardo Jaramillo (of the leftist Patriotic Union party). Demanding changes to address the roots of violence, the student movement mounted a write-in ballot campaign in support of a constituent assembly in the mid-term elections of March 1990. Although those votes were not tallied, this symbolic act spurred widespread support for the proposal. A popularly elected constitutional assembly convened for four months in early 1991, and finalised a new constitution that remains in force today. Francisco Leal Buitrago and León Zamosc, Al Filo del Caos: Crisis Política en la Colombia de los años 80 (Bogotá, 1990).Hide Footnote Crowds also massed on several occasions in reaction to decades of far-left insurgency. After accounts of the living conditions of hostages seized by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) became public, around four million people took to the streets in 2008 to express their outrage.[fn]Diez años del comienzo del fin de las Farc”, Semana, 4 February 2018.Hide Footnote Thousands also marched in support of a peace accord with the FARC after voters narrowly rejected the initial agreement in a 2016 referendum; Congress adopted a revised version.[fn]Miles de Colombianos salieron a marchar en nombre de la paz”, The New York Times, 6 October 2016.Hide Footnote Protests across rural Colombia have erupted with some regularity, occasionally met with violence: as many as 50 protest leaders were killed after an estimated 120,000 campesinos blocked roads in five north-eastern departments in 1987 demanding rural development and basic services.[fn]Letter to the International Observer Mission”, National Coordinator of Civic Movements, 1 March 1988; “Memorias de Vida y de Dolor”, Centre for Historic Memory, n.d.Hide Footnote

Mass demonstrations again enveloped the country in late 2019, in a prelude to today’s unrest. Students and unions headed mass marches across big cities in November of that year to demand an array of improvements in state social support, access to education and employment opportunities. Protests cooled when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia in March 2020, but tensions flared again in Bogotá in September when police were filmed brazenly attacking a civilian, who later died of his injuries.[fn]Elizabeth Dickinson, “Police Killing Rouses Colombia’s Lockdown Furies”, Crisis Group Commentary, 24 September 2020.Hide Footnote

Although the history of mass public mobilisation in Colombia is voluminous, the 2021 protests stand out. Rarely before have thousands of people from such diverse urban and rural constituencies joined a single national protest. The young people who make up the core of the demonstrations, and have proven their most earnest supporters, are the first in decades to come of age in a country that is not gripped by armed conflict. They are bolder in their demands and less wary of repercussions. As a young single mother protesting in Cali put it: “If we hadn’t woken up [now], we would have been submissive forever. … People no longer have fear”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote

The 9th of June was described by march organisers as the Taking of Bogota. Demonstrators from across the country sent delegations to the capital in a show of force, though torrential rains kept some away. June 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

Although protests dwindled in mid-June, they are far from disappearing. Even at the trough in the strike between 8 and 24 June, the defence ministry still counted 823 fixed-location protests and 139 marches.[fn]“Balance General: Paro Nacional”, Ministry of Defence, 8 June 2021 and 24 June 2021.Hide Footnote Roadblocks are few in number, but could easily re-emerge, especially in the most troubled and emblematic sites of the strike, including one major point each in Cali and Bogotá. Some protesters say they are intentionally taking a break in order to strengthen internal organisation ahead of future marches.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and correspondence, protesters in Cali, May and June 2021.Hide Footnote The COVID-19 pandemic also began rising for a third time in April, reaching a plateau of over 30,000 new cases and close to 700 fatalities a day at the time of publication.[fn]Covid-19 en Colombia”, Colombia National Health Institute, 24 June 2021.Hide Footnote Intensive care and regular hospital wards are stretched beyond capacity and oxygen is in short supply in some areas, adding to the sense of despair that underlies the strike.

If steps are not taken to address the strike’s causes, the protests are likely to resurface and could become more acrimonious. This report delves into the reasons behind the eruption of unrest, the conditions that have given rise to lethal violence amid disturbances in several big cities, the effects on armed groups in rural areas and the character of the government’s response. The report concludes with suggestions as to how the government and strike leaders could scale back hostilities, begin to address sources of acute public ire in the short term and tackle the grievances that affect Colombian society over the long term. It is based on roughly 60 interviews conducted in Bogotá, Cali, Guaviare and Catatumbo, as well as remote conversations in Putumayo and Cauca, between April and June 2021. It also draws upon Crisis Group’s body of previous work on the protests and security conditions throughout Colombia.[fn]See Elizabeth Dickinson, “Pandemic Gloom and Police Violence Leave Colombia in Turmoil”, Crisis Group Commentary, 2 May 2021, as well as the past reports and briefings cited below.Hide Footnote

II. The Triggers of Unrest

Colombia’s national strike was prompted by a controversial tax reform that critics perceived as leaning too heavily on a struggling middle class to raise revenue.[fn]See the tweet by the Colombian Ministry of Finance and Public Credit, @MinHacienda, 3:08pm, 15 April 2021. See also “Iván Duque promete una subida de impuestos para cubrir el hueco fiscal de la pandemia en Colombia”, El País, 16 April 2021.Hide Footnote The fiscal reform proposal presented in Congress on 15 April would have increased the value-added tax on public services for middle- and upper-income households. It included a number of redistributive measures aimed at helping the poor, but would have extended the income tax to those earning more than roughly $650 per month, whereas previously only people who made over $1,050 were taxed.[fn]Declaración de renta 2021: así puede saber si le toca declarar o no”, El Tiempo, 26 January 2021.Hide Footnote Although President Iván Duque withdrew the measure within days, the protests swelled, pointing to a deeper seam of frustration. “The tax reform was what uncovered our eyes”, said a 26-year-old protest organiser in Cali. “We have lived for years with the realities of violence, poverty [and] lack of education. We stayed silent for so long”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, protest organiser, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Many of those who joined the marches were protesting for the first time. Unlike the 2019 demonstrations, which were dominated by labour unions and university students, today’s protests include young people who neither work nor study, as well as a cross-section of the urban and rural population. Polling data has consistently shown high levels of approval for the strike, especially among young people. A mid-May survey showed that 84 per cent of those between 18 and 32 years old said they felt represented by the protests.[fn]El 84 % de los jóvenes se sienten representados por el paro nacional”, El Tiempo, 14 May 2021.Hide Footnote

Colombia has begun a dialogue with the National Strike Committee to seek a resolution to the crisis. But many youth on the streets say they trust neither the government nor the Committee and plan to continue demonstrations. Bogotá, Colombia. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

Protesters name two broad motives bringing them into the streets: socio-economic concerns and anger at the security forces. Likewise, demonstrators identify both immediate and longer-term goals. A national strike committee, formed in 2019 and made up of more than twenty groups, mostly trade, labour and student unions, has become the government’s primary interlocutor. This committee has released a set of eight sweeping demands ranging from a universal basic income to free university tuition to an end to gender discrimination and to revisiting forced coca eradication policies. Each organisation within the national committee also has its own list of specific demands, while local strike committees from each of Colombia’s 32 departments also funnel their petitions up to the national level; most have now drafted documents spelling out what they want.

Aside from the shelved tax reform, street protests have prompted Congress to vote down a health reform bill that, according to its critics, would have further privatised health services without guaranteeing better working conditions for medical staff, many of whom work on precarious temporary contracts.[fn]“Reforma a la Salud ¿maquillaje de la Ley 100?”, Universidad de Antioquia, 10 May 2021.Hide Footnote To appease students, the government also pledged one semester of free education to low-income students at public universities.[fn]On 3 May, Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla presented his resignation to the government over the failed tax reform. On 11 May, President Duque announced that public universities would charge no tuition in the fall semester for students in the lowest three (of six) income brackets. On 19 May, Congress voted down the government’s health reform proposal.Hide Footnote

National strike representatives insist that before they will negotiate, they want to see accountability for police misconduct

The second main object of protesters’ ire – police violence – has ebbed and flowed throughout the demonstrations. It has often been at its highest level at charged moments such as on 28 May, a month after the strike began, when thirteen died in Cali alone. Human Rights Watch has documented police using live ammunition in protests, resulting in at least sixteen deaths.[fn]“Colombia: Egregious Police Abuses Against Protesters”, Human Rights Watch, 9 June 2021.Hide Footnote The same report found that police arbitrarily dispersed gatherings, used non-lethal weapons such as tear gas in ways that jeopardised protesters’ safety, and perpetrated sexual abuse and beatings. National strike representatives insist that before they will negotiate, they want to see accountability for police misconduct and “guarantees” of no more crackdowns on peaceful protest.

Not all Colombians support the demonstrations. Many critics cite the economic damage caused by the strikers’ roadblocks, while others share the government’s perception that some demonstrators have criminal links. Acts of violence by protesters against the police also receive wide condemnation, including from strike organisers and others who back the marches. Attacks on security forces have left two officers dead and more than 1,450 officers injured, according to the defence ministry.[fn]“Balance General – Paro Nacional”, Ministry of Defence, 25 June 2021.Hide Footnote Social media have been central in publicising the comportment of police and protesters alike. Videos of alleged police abuse and protester violence have spread among polarised audiences, widening a gulf in perceptions of the strike between those who see a legitimate mass movement and others who suspect that criminal schemes or subversion are afoot.[fn]For example, social media posts – which later proved to be taken out of context – were key to inciting anger among wealthy residents of Ciudad Jardín, Cali, before some of them shot at indigenous protesters on 9 May. “Qué pasó en el sur de Cali el 9m?”, Colombia Check, 11 June 2021. Similarly, a number of widely circulated videos of supposed police abuse have subsequently proven to be fake or taken out of context. “Las noticias falsas que no debe creer en medio del paro”, El Tiempo, 28 May 2021.Hide Footnote According to polls, the latter are smaller in number. Their clout is greater, however: mainstream media, which lean heavily toward the government, have largely backed official accounts of events and focused on crime and the economic damage done when protesters block streets.

Nevertheless, the protesters’ agenda remains broadly popular, with a poll on 31 May finding that 76 per cent of Colombians of all ages have a favourable view of the protests and 79 per cent an unfavourable view of how the government has responded.[fn]Encuesta: ¿Está en riesgo la democracia?”, NotiCentro 1, 31 May 2021. A previous poll reported similar results: “Paro nacional | El 75 % de los colombianos apoya las manifestaciones”, Semana, 11 May 2021.Hide Footnote In combination, the strikers’ demands represent a wide-ranging call for a new relationship between the Colombian state and its citizens, not unlike the clamour for a new constitution in Chile in late 2019. The security forces are the most obvious and immediate target for reform. Protesters want a police force focused on bringing security to their neighbourhoods rather than one trained primarily to fight crime and insurgency. The riot police, or ESMAD, which has been implicated in cases of abuse of protesters, comes in for particular scorn. “Without the dismantling of ESMAD, we are not leaving the streets”, a 26-year-old demonstrator in Bogotá said. “They cannot act as they once did, because citizens are taking on the role of monitoring their behaviour”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, protester, Bogotá, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Public indignation extends to the entire political and economic elite, which ordinarily stands aloof from the rest of society. Demonstrators describe Duque’s government as distant and indifferent to the struggles of most Colombians in daily life – an impression reinforced during the pandemic.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, protesters, Bogotá, Cali and San José del Guaviare, May and June 2021. In May, disapproval of President Duque rose to 76 per cent, the highest level in his term. “Encuesta de Invamer revela que aprobación de Duque se mantiene en el nivel más bajo”, Asuntos Legales, 24 May 2021.Hide Footnote In an interview aimed at reassuring the public that new value-added taxes on food, envisaged as part of the tax reform, would be affordable, the finance minister incorrectly estimated the price of eggs, giving a figure roughly three times lower than the real cost.[fn]$1.800, lo que cuesta una docena de huevos, según el ministro Alberto Carrasquilla”, Infobae, 18 April 2021.Hide Footnote

Poorer citizens, meanwhile, have few opportunities to participate in politics, leaving them to rely on community organisations and local activists, commonly known as social leaders, to amplify their concerns. Yet social leaders, who often operate under the threat of violence from armed actors, tend to have limited access to state institutions, and struggle to navigate a cumbersome bureaucracy in advocating for themselves and those they represent.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°82, Leaders under Fire: Defending Colombia’s Front Line of Peace, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote As one demonstrator in Cali put it: “It shows the lack of democracy in Colombia that our only chance to participate is this way”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, young protest organiser, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote

As of 2020, 42.5 per cent of Colombia’s population was living below the poverty line

Economic opportunity, whether through higher education or formal jobs, is generally reserved for those with family wealth and/or political connections. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it would take eleven generations for descendants of a poor family to reach the average income.[fn]OECD Economic Surveys: Colombia”, OECD, 2019, p. 34.Hide Footnote Local government jobs and contracts are divvied up in part based on who has supported an office-holder’s campaign.[fn]Informe: Elecciones & Contratos, 2018-19”, Transparencia por Colombia, 2019. “There is a problem of politicisation of jobs within the public sector: you have to work on a political campaign in order to get a job”. Crisis Group interview, Community Action Committee member, San José del Guaviare, May 2021.Hide Footnote These patterns of discrimination have long been visible in economic statistics, but their effects have grown far more alarming during the pandemic. In 2020, the bottom of five income groups experienced a 24.6 per cent drop in earnings, while the top group lost only 10.1 per cent. In cities, the lowest income group lost even more – roughly 50 per cent in Bogotá and Cali. As of 2020, 42.5 per cent of Colombia’s population was living below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate for those under 28 in Bogotá was hovering at 27.6 per cent.[fn]“Caracterización pobreza monetaria y resultados clases sociales”, National Statistics Agency of Colombia, 6 May 2021; “La vida de un joven afectado por la crisis que ha dejado el covid-19”, El Tiempo, 14 June 2021.Hide Footnote

Few if any politicians escape anti-elite sentiment unscathed, and the plurality of many protesters insist they do not support any one party or candidate heading into the 2022 elections.[fn]In one recent election poll, for example, the number of people who said they would not vote for any of the current candidates or would submit a blank ballot (36 per cent) surpasses backing for the front runner, Gustavo Petro (25 per cent). “Intención de voto y percepciones sobre el paro nacional”, Semana/Centro Nacional de Consultoria, 15 May 2021.Hide Footnote One enemy common to almost all protesters, however, is former President Álvaro Uribe, who continues to wield enormous influence in the ruling Democratic Centre party, and has given rise to a strain of right-leaning political thought called uribismo. Throughout the marches, he has expressed zero tolerance for disruptions and argued in favour of “the right for the police and military to use their arms” during protests.[fn]“Apoyemos el derecho de soldados y policías de utilizar sus armas para defender su integridad y para defender a las personas y bienes de la acción criminal del terrorismo vandálico”. Tweet by Álvaro Uribe, ex-president of Colombia, @AlvaroUribeVel, 8:51am, 30 April 2021. Twitter later deleted the tweet, arguing that it violated its policy against promoting violence.Hide Footnote Young protesters associate Uribe’s time in office from 2002 to 2010 with a heavy-handed security policy that – while effective in weakening the FARC – produced thousands of civilian casualties and was plagued by human rights abuses.[fn]Among the most serious abuses were security forces’ complicity – and, at times, open cooperation – with paramilitaries in extrajudicial killings intended to demonstrate progress in quashing the FARC insurgency. Between 2002 and 2008, Colombia’s military killed at least 6,402 civilians, known as “false positives”, so that it could count them as combat deaths. “La JEP hace pública la estrategia de priorización dentro del Caso 03, conocido como el de falsos positivos”, Special Jurisdiction for Peace, 18 February 2021.Hide Footnote Vitriol for Uribe is ubiquitous in protest chants. “Our medium-term goal is to put uribismo in crisis”, one protester explained.[fn]Crisis Group interview, protest leader, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote

The number here, 6,402, is the number of civilians the transitional justice court says were killed by the military as “false positives” during the conflict - civilians counted as guerrillas. Bogotá, Colombia. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

III. The Heartlands of Protest

28 April marked the first large-scale demonstrations in Colombia since the pandemic arrived in March 2020. Nearly all of Colombia’s large and mid-size cities hosted protests that day, with the largest in Cali. By evening, clashes had broken out there and in parts of Bogotá, leading to four deaths attributed by civil society groups to the riot police.[fn]Listado de las 75: Víctimas de Violencia Homicida en el Marco del Paro Nacional al 24 de Junio”, Indepaz, 24 June 2021.Hide Footnote In the wake of these first casualties, peaceful daytime protests as well as nightly confrontations between protesters and police grew in scale and intensity, driving up the toll of deaths and injuries.[fn]In Cali, demonstrators reinforced their roadblocks after a 3 May confrontation left three dead and more than a dozen injured in the neighbourhood of Siloé. Crisis Group interviews, protest organisers in Siloé, Cali, May 2021. “El grito del barrio popular de Siloé en la noche más trágica de protestas en Cali”, France 24, 5 May 2021. Data from civil society groups show that protester deaths increased steadily until roughly 7 May, after which they hit a plateau. See tweet by Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight, Washington Office on Latin America, @AdamIsacson, 10:16pm, 16 May 2021.Hide Footnote

Demonstrators in Cali and Valle de Cauca initiated what became a nationwide wave of roadblocks. Trucking unions and farmers’ associations led many of the inter-city blockades, cutting off transport in and out of major metropolitan areas throughout early May. By the second week of May, Cali was experiencing serious shortages of fuel and food. Other big cities, as well as smaller rural towns, saw some food staples disappear temporarily from the shelves while prices rose for basic goods. The defence ministry counted nearly 3,400 blockades between 28 April and 10 June.[fn]“Balance General: Paro Nacional”, Ministry of Defence, 10 June 2021.Hide Footnote

Pressure on transport began to ease in mid-May, largely through negotiations between individual groups carrying out the blockades and local authorities, who managed to set up humanitarian corridors or temporary passageways to allow food, petrol and medicines to pass through.[fn]See, for example, “Levantan bloqueo y abren corredor humanitario en Cali en día 13 de protestas”, EFE, 10 May 2021.Hide Footnote The strike committee announced in early June that it would call for gradually lifting the blockades as a good-will gesture, but also in recognition of the tactic’s growing unpopularity, and on 15 June it pledged to temporarily pivot its strategy toward political organising. While calling for a fresh round of mass demonstrations beginning 20 July, the committee said it would in the meantime hold a series of assemblies and engage with Congress to propose new legislation.[fn]Los líderes de las protestas en Colombia anuncian la suspensión temporal de las movilizaciones”, El País, 15 June 2021. See tweet by Diego Molano, Colombian defence minister, @Diego_Molano, 2:28pm, 21 May 2021.Hide Footnote

Protests are expected to gain force again, possibly as soon as early July, given the hardships faced by the public and the threat of violence against local demonstrations. At the time of writing, Colombia continues to suffer its worst bout with COVID-19 to date, with the total death toll now exceeding 106,000.[fn]Covid-19 en Colombia”, Colombia National Health Institute, 13 June 2021.Hide Footnote Despite the surge in cases, and prompted by demonstrators’ economic concerns, mayors of Colombia’s two largest cities have promised that they will not reimpose lockdowns.[fn]Alcaldesa presentó propuesta para reabrir Bogotá responsablemente desde junio 8”, press release, Mayor of Bogotá, 27 May 2021; “Medellín, sin restricciones covid desde el 8 de junio: Quintero”, El Colombiano, 1 June 2021.Hide Footnote At the same time, President Duque has said that congressional debate on a renegotiated tax reform bill aimed at plugging Colombia’s fiscal deficit will restart on the same day mass protests have been called in July.[fn]Duque aspira a que la nueva reforma tributaria se discuta desde el próximo 20 de julio en el Congreso”, Semana, 15 June 2021.Hide Footnote

A. Cali

Colombia’s third-largest city of Cali, in the south-western Valle de Cauca department, has been the epicentre of urban protest and remains the place where unrest is most intense. Many of the grievances that fed protests across the country reach an extreme in the city. Inequality is marked not only by income but also race and geography. As the de facto capital of the Pacific coast, Cali has also absorbed the effects of a reconfiguration of conflict in the nearby regions of rural Valle de Cauca, Cauca, Nariño and Chocó resulting from the 2016 peace accord. The city is the last refuge for beleaguered displaced persons, threatened social leaders and the desperate poor.[fn]In 2020, more than 7,000 people were victims of forced displacement in Valle de Cauca, of which the largest share were Afro-Colombian. Buenaventura and Cali absorbed the majority of these internally displaced persons, most of whom fled rural violence. Displaced people from Cauca, Chocó, Nariño, Putumayo and elsewhere also live in Cali. “Briefing Regional: Valle de Cauca, Diciembre 2020”, Equipo Local de Coordinación, December 2020.Hide Footnote Valle de Cauca is also home to the country’s largest Afro-descendant population, yet this group has barely a toehold among Cali’s economic and political elite.[fn]Población Negra, Afrocolombiana, Raizal y Palenquera: Resultados del Censo Nacional de Población y Vivienda 2018”, Colombia National Satistics Agency, 6 November 2019.Hide Footnote

Protestors renamed the intersection known as Puerto Rellena to Puerto Resistencia. The site is the most extensive blockade in the city and stretches for blocks in each direction. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

Discrimination on the basis of social class is brazen and is commonly felt by young people who live in certain poorer neighbourhoods. Although the low-income community of Siloé is just 5km from city hall, residents sense that they live far away from municipal power and often say they are “going to Cali” when they leave for the day.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Siloé, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote These stark divisions grew even more profound during the pandemic: the number of people living in extreme poverty grew 280 per cent in the span of just one year.[fn]Pobreza monetaria y pobreza monetaria extrema: Presentación de resultados”, Colombia National Statistics Agency, 29 April 2021.Hide Footnote

Long before the strike, residents of Cali’s poorer neighbourhoods endured a troubled relationship with the police. Young people in Siloé say they are assumed to be criminals because of where they live, reflecting the fact that four rival criminal groups based in the area have divided control of city blocks and micro-drug-trafficking networks among one other. At the same time, community members accuse the police of corruption, making spurious arrests as a way to extract bribes while also taking a cut of drug-trafficking profits.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Siloé and Calipso residents and humanitarian officials, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote In the words of one local religious authority: “The police are not guaranteeing security but rather are a threat to security”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, religious official, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote

These hostile conditions primed Cali for protests, which evolved into an ecosystem of roadblocks and checkpoints stretching the length of the city. From 28 April, Cali saw some of the largest demonstrations as well as the most serious acts of vandalism, prompting the defence and interior ministers to deploy to the city, together with an additional 700 police and 300 soldiers, where they vowed to show zero tolerance for vandalism and roadblocks.[fn]See tweet by Diego Molano, Colombian defence minister, @Diego_Molano, 10:18pm, 29 April 2021; and tweet by Daniel Palacios, Colombian interior minister, @DanielPalam, 7:18pm, 29 April 2021.Hide Footnote As the police became more visible, particularly in the evenings, roadblocks began to proliferate, either to cut off connections between parts of the city or to barricade neighbourhoods to police entry. Young protesters used stones, ropes, burned tires and any other materials they could find. Demonstrators also identified their primary demands, including “demilitarisation” of their neighbourhoods – meaning removal of police and military presence – and reparations and accountability for police violence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community organisers, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote Other petitions are for better access to education, jobs and political participation.[fn]Solicitud Barrial”, Portal Colombia nos Duele, Universidad de Javeriana Instituto de Estudios Interculturales, 25 June 2021.Hide Footnote (See Section IV.B for more on police activity in Cali during the protests.)

By the end of the first week of May, roadblocks had become fixtures in 26 areas, with dozens more temporary barriers popping up daily. These “resistance points” were not merely means of protest; they also served to carve out local autonomy in places where residents say they previously had little control over their lives. Local “community representatives” (voceros) coordinated shifts of workers to staff the barricades, set rules to regulate behaviour and collected donations for communal soup kitchens. For security, they relied on a “front line” (primera línea) of shield-wielding protesters who said their role was to keep the riot police away from civilians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, barricade spokespersons, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote Protesters asserted that the police’s use of force to dismantle the barricades only expanded community support for the cause: “It is not only that we are fighting for education, to topple the health reform and so forth. Here there is also pain for what we have lost”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, front-line member, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Throughout May, these new forms of resistance grew deeper roots and developed leadership cadres that showed signs of persisting even after roadblocks eased. Local representatives determined who entered an area, who was allowed to speak to outsiders or the media, and how to allocate community aid. In some areas, front-line protesters started to take on community policing. “The front line should become the reference point for security within the community”, an organiser in Siloé said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, front-line organiser, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote This transformation has created tensions within poor neighbourhoods, particularly between protesters and both elderly residents, who grew irritated by the constant confrontations, and those who struggle to travel to jobs they depend upon and find it difficult to navigate the street closures.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Siloé residents, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Urban criminal groups thrive when they are able to entrench themselves in the community

Contrary to government claims, criminal groups active in these areas of Cali neither organised the protests nor compelled city denizens to join them, but the splintering of the urban environment has suited them well. Urban criminal groups thrive when they are able to entrench themselves in the community, exerting social control and facilitating collaboration with locals, both voluntary and forced. Neighbourhood blockades created a web of grey zones outside of government purview, where non-state interests could operate unhindered.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents and local authorities, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote Moreover, criminal groups have allowed and at times offered solidarity to protesters as a means to gain local credibility.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community and protest leaders, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote In Siloé, rival criminal groups formed a non-aggression pact in support of the strike, winning them the appreciation of some locals and allowing residents to breathe a momentary sigh of relief:

The [criminal] groups have behaved well. … We have to live with them because this is the reality of what we have here. … They have provided help to people during the pandemic when no one else did. They bought bread from the bakeries to give them business, and they offered people food. They are the only ones who don’t steal.[fn]Crisis Group interview, youth leader, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote

In other areas, protesters sought to nudge criminals’ opportunistic attacks and theft toward the targets they preferred. As of late May, local small businesses in Siloé and Puerto Resistencia had not been vandalised or looted, whereas larger commercial outlets in the same areas were burned and ransacked.[fn]“No one can touch local stores; we have this level of social control internally”, said one protester. Crisis Group interview, front-line member, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote Businesses considered not to be local also suffered more extensive looting, suggesting the involvement of criminal groups.[fn]For example, heavy equipment has been stolen from gas stations that were subsequently burned down. Crisis Group interviews, residents in blockade area, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote As of 25 May, the defence ministry reported that 90 gas stations – which in Colombia belong mostly to big oil companies including multinationals – had been vandalised nationwide, of which the largest number were in Cali.[fn]“Balance General: Paro Nacional 2021”, Ministry of Defence, 25 May 2021.Hide Footnote

Simultaneously, Cali has been at the centre of anti-strike mobilisation, some of it violent. Regardless of the protesters’ selection of targets, the blockades caused serious harm to the city’s economy, with Cali suffering shortages in basic food items and fuel in early May.[fn]“‛No podemos permitir que lleguemos a la alerta roja por desabastecimiento de comida’: Alcalde de Cali”, press release, Cali mayor’s office, 11 May 2021. Cali’s chamber of commerce estimates that businesses in Valle de Cauca and neighbouring Cauca together lost $1.1 billion in the first month of the strike. “Enormes costos de paro en Valle: al día se pierden $ 100 mil millones”, El Tiempo, 29 May 2021.Hide Footnote Several thousand counter-demonstrators dressed in white held a “march of silence” on 25 May to call for an end to the roadblocks.[fn]These marches have subsequently found echoes in other major cities such as Medellín and Bogotá. Oliver Griffin, “Thousands march in Colombia’s Bogota to demand end to protests, roadblocks”, Reuters, 30 May 2021.Hide Footnote

Violent opposition has also emerged and established alarming links to the official police response. Civilians, at times organised into armed vigilante bands, have fired upon protesters without police intervening to stop them. In the first such episode, on 9 May, white-clad civilians shot at members of Cauca’s unarmed indigenous community who had travelled to Cali and blocked access to a wealthy neighbourhood, Ciudad Jardín.[fn]Santiago Torrado, “Civiles armados disparan a grupos indígenas y el caos se apodera de Cali”, El Pais, 10 May 2021; “Qué pasó en el sur de Cali el 9m?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote On 28 May, armed civilians were filmed standing next to policemen and firing at crowds. The police said it is investigating ten policemen for appearing to allow the shootings.[fn]Investigan a 10 policías por permitir que civiles dispararan en medio de los disturbios en Cali”, Blu Radio, 30 May 2021. Siloé residents filmed civilians shooting at protesters and allegedly taking one front-line member into their custody on 4 June.Hide Footnote In another case the same day, vigilantes captured a music student from the University of Valle de Cauca after he had performed at a protest. The student later emerged in police custody, bloody and beaten. He was released after a public outcry.[fn]Cuando la Policía se alió con hombres armados vestidos de civil”, Cuestión Publica, 16 June 2021.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, plainclothes police officers were filmed in May exiting a police van and clashing with protesters; the police subsequently confirmed that the men were on active duty.[fn]Paro Nacional: Policía admite que camión con hombres vestidos de civil es suyo”, El Espectador, 6 May 2021.Hide Footnote On 28 May, a plainclothes off-duty officer of the Attorney General’s Office shot a protester before being chased down and kicked to death by demonstrators.

In part because of the rising violence, both from anti-government demonstrators as well as from local criminal groups, by the end of May some community activists who supported the barricades reported a growing perception that things were “getting out of hand”, as one put it. On one hand, protesters and their families were weary of the toll of violence against young demonstrators. On the other hand, as one leader put it: “We need to lower the tone [among young demonstrators] because it is starting to get out of our control. Here there’s also an issue of the criminal bands, and you cannot control them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, social organiser, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote Local leaders’ determination to prevent blockades from falling under criminals’ sway helps explain why protesters in Siloé announced on 11 June that they would lift most roadblocks and enter a perpetual “popular assembly”.[fn]“Comunicado Conjunto La Glorieta de la Lucha Siloé & Punto Resistencia La Nave”, 11 June 2021.Hide Footnote

Although most blockades have now been similarly lifted, local authorities worry that it may be difficult to regain control over swathes of the city. Residents appear unlikely to welcome the police’s return. The mayor’s office has expressed particular alarm over incidents of vigilante violence due to the widespread ownership of firearms in the city as well as their resemblance to acts of paramilitary violence, familiar from recent Colombian history.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official, Mayor’s Office, Cali, May 2021. Beginning in the 1960s, landholders and others opposed to the FARC guerrilla movement formed self-defence groups that would later morph into violent, right-wing paramilitary organisations, the largest of which was the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia, formed in 1997. Paramilitaries were responsible for atrocities across the country, and were involved in drug trafficking, until their demobilisation beginning in 2003. Crisis Group Latin America Report N°8, Demobilising the Paramilitaries in Colombia: An Achievable Goal?, 5 August 2004.Hide Footnote These groups could grow more organised and unabashed in their use of violence against left-leaning activists. Simultaneously, criminal and trafficking groups have almost certainly grown more entrenched. Security officials privately report a significant increase in the seizure of heavy arms trafficked into Cali since the start of the strike.[fn]The munitions, including new U.S.- and Russian-made heavy weapons, arrive in parts to be assembled. While this influx of weapons predates the strike, the amounts seized have increased. Crisis Group interviews, local and international security sources, May 2021.Hide Footnote

B. Rural Mobilisation

Although less visible than urban demonstrations, rural protests have formed an important part of Colombia’s strike, and their impact in reshaping the security landscape may be even more enduring. Campesinos, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, transport companies and other rural dwellers have protested across the country. As in cities, economic hardship and mistreatment by security forces are the primary concerns. Protesters decry the slow fulfilment of the 2016 peace accord, particularly the chapters on rural reform – intended to provide better access to roads and markets and address land inequality, among other things – as well as the failing program for voluntary substitution of illicit coca crops.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°87, Deeply Rooted: Coca Eradication and Violence in Colombia, 26 February 2021.Hide Footnote The continued killing of community leaders is another grievance that has enraged protesters for several years, notably in the 2019 wave of unrest.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Leaders under Fire: Defending Colombia’s Front Line of Peace, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Food security is a common theme, with protesters calling for price guarantees for local agriculture and better commercial infrastructure to enable local farmers to earn a consistent living.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, protesters from Huila, Bogotá, June 2021.Hide Footnote A demonstrator at one rural roadblock explained: “Campesinos have their own production of chickens, and they should be able to sell in the city centres, but it turns out that it is cheaper to bring chickens from outside than to buy locally. This should not be the case”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, protester at roadblock, San Jose del Guaviare, May 2021.Hide Footnote

In regions historically affected by armed conflict, abiding distrust of the armed forces also shapes demonstrators’ concerns. Most pointedly, campesinos and coca growers seek an end to all forced coca eradication, which they argue destroys their livelihoods without offering alternatives. Protesters in Catatumbo, site of Colombia’s largest concentration of coca crops, said the end of eradication is the “heart” of their demands and a “minimum condition” to end demonstrations. They want the government and security forces to promise not to restart aerial fumigation until they attempt to negotiate voluntary coca substitution agreements.[fn]Crisis Group interview, protest leader from Catatumbo, Bogotá, June 2021. “Mínimos para la Distención”, Mesa Campesina, Agraria, Minería Artesanal y de Paz, perteneciente al Comité Departamental de Paro, Norte de Santander, 26 May 2021.Hide Footnote

The military gathers in the main town square of San Jose del Guaviare ahead of a planned demonstration. Soldiers kept their distance from the march. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

Other frustrations with the military have also surfaced. People from southern Meta and northern Guaviare travelled to Villavicencio, the closest mid-size city, to demand an end to the military’s anti-deforestation operation, Plan Artemisa. This program, they contend, disproportionately hurts long-time residents of protected lands without harming the logging companies responsible for most deforestation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Local Action Committee from Meta, San José del Guaviare, May 2021; “Pliego de Exigencias”, Coordinación de Paro del Meta y Guaviare, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Rural protests use a variety of strategies to catch government attention. In some cases, demonstrators have gathered in small and medium-sized cities to join existing marches. Truck drivers and campesino associations have also blocked inter-city roads, interrupting the flow of key supplies.[fn]Two weeks into the strike, the finance ministry estimated that the daily cost of blockades and other disruptions was in the order of $134 million. “El paro le ha costado $6,2 billones al país”, Portafolio, 12 May 2021.Hide Footnote Indigenous protesters in Cauca have intermittently shut off the primary artery from Cali to Popayán, while in Putumayo, demonstrators said their only way to pressure authorities was to block transit routes for tanker trucks taking crude oil out of the region or even to enter oil extraction sites directly.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, civil society groups in Putumayo, April and May 2021.Hide Footnote For this reason, smaller cities were among the hardest hit by shortages and price speculation in early May.[fn]For example, several small towns in northern Cauca, Guaviare and central Putumayo experienced crippling fuel shortages for much of May. Crisis Group interviews, May 2021.Hide Footnote Department-level strike committees, which feed into the national committee, scrambled throughout May to develop a collective set of demands that represent the range of rural grievances, though at least some local protests remain outside the control of any national organisation and could continue to press their own demands.

“The Colombian people no are no longer afraid.” Guaviare. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

In areas where armed groups and criminal organisations are engaged in contests for territorial and social control, they have sometimes sought to use the rural strikes to their advantage. For example, in an effort to assert control over local residents to advance their interests, pamphlets in the name of some of these groups, ordering residents to back or oppose the demonstrations, have proliferated.

Conflicting real and fake pamphlets are sometimes issued in the name of the same group, leaving residents both confused and fearful that they will misstep and get on the wrong side of local power brokers. For example, in May, a seemingly false pamphlet purporting to be issued by Comandos de la Frontera, a criminal group based in Putumayo, initially called on all protesters to abandon their roadblocks. Several days later, on 15 May, the group issued a pamphlet proclaiming that past pamphlets were false and offering support for the strike.[fn]Pamphlets seen by Crisis Group. Crisis Group correspondence, Putumayo-based civil society and community leaders, May 2021.Hide Footnote Similarly, after several apparently fake pamphlets purportedly issued by the National Liberation Army (ELN) circulated on social media calling for an armed strike, on 19 May the ELN distributed a real one through its official accounts saying that it supported peaceful popular mobilisation and accusing the government of using dialogue as a way to divert attention from its alleged military crackdown.[fn]“La Solución es Negociar con el Pueblo, no Militarizar”, communiqué, ELN, 19 May 2021.Hide Footnote False pamphlets have appeared claiming to be signed by various FARC dissident fronts, the Gaitanista drug cartel and an array of local groups.

Although armed and criminal groups appeared to be urging residents to join the protests..., many demonstrators would have marched regardless of this nudge.

Although armed and criminal groups appeared to be urging residents to join the protests in at least some areas, many demonstrators would have marched regardless of this nudge. A local security analyst in the department of Meta explained that “campesinos in [the region of] Guayabero don’t need anyone to tell them to march”. A delegation of protesting campesinos reportedly included individuals with ties to a FARC dissident front, perhaps because these guerrillas have assumed a role as quasi-authorities in the places where they live.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local security analyst, San José del Guaviare, May 2021.Hide Footnote

In other areas, for example the Catatumbo region, some parts of civil society have hoped to use the strike as a means to strengthen their resilience in the face of the armed groups’ intimidation. There, a coalition of roughly eighteen civil society groups banded together in support of the strike; this rare unity has given them greater negotiating power when up against rival armed groups including the ELN and FARC dissidents, each jostling for influence.

The decision by demonstrators in early June to lift most of their roadblocks due to their growing unpopularity was not well received by FARC dissidents in the region. “There was tension when we decided to lift the blockade”, a protest leader said, adding that the dissidents had supported the limits on transportation because, in effect, it cordoned off the territory they control from the state. “We have had to make clear to them: this paro (strike) comes from us, it is not theirs”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Catatumbo protest leader, Bogotá, June 2021.Hide Footnote

IV. Government Responses

The Duque administration has struggled to acknowledge the protesters’ legitimate complaints and has repeatedly described the strike as a conspiracy against the government. As such, top officials have treated the turmoil primarily as a law enforcement challenge requiring a robust response from the security forces. Although Bogotá started negotiations with strike organisers on 10 May, it never abandoned its accusations that a mix of political rivals and organised criminals lay behind the protests.[fn]Officials in the Duque government have blamed a wide range of actors for stirring up protests, including criminals, opposition politicians, and Venezuelan and Russian government agents. In a 22 May video released in English, Duque blamed the protests on opposition figure Gustavo Petro, without naming him directly. Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz spoke of an “organised international plot to discredit” Colombia. “Colombia is Rising Up”, Vice Media, 28 May 2021. Defence Minister Molano has accused an array of armed groups, including FARC dissident factions and the ELN, of being behind premeditated vandalism; he said Russia was behind cyberattacks and misinformation implicating the security forces in wrongdoing. “Rusia responde a Mindefensa por decir que ese país interviene en redes”, El Tiempo, 21 May 2021. On 6 May, the president’s commissioner for security, Rafael Guarín, appeared to claim that the Venezuelan government was paying vandals. See tweet by Rafael Guarín, @RafaGuarin, 11:37am, 6 May 2021. Former President Andrés Pastrana accused Petro of being Venezuela’s preferred candidate in Colombia’s forthcoming election, going on to charge Caracas with perpetrating “funded vandalism”. “Duque me ofreció la Embajada en Washington y le dije que no: Andrés Pastrana”, W Radio, 31 May 2021. Government-aligned media outlets have amplified these elaborate conspiracy theories. See, for example, “Paro nacional: ¿A qué juega Gustavo Petro?”, Semana, 8 May 2021.Hide Footnote These claims have contributed to undermining trust between the government and protesters.[fn]As an indicator of the low trust, the strike committee’s proposed pre-accord with the government, which aims to pave the way for substantive talks, includes a demand for a government guarantee not to stigmatise protesters or make claims about armed group infiltration without evidence. “Propuesta de Preacuerdo de Garantías a la Movilización Social en Colombia Entregada por el Comité Nacional de Paro al Gobierno Nacional, Punto A.2”, 30 May 2021.Hide Footnote

A. The Blame Game

Duque and his cabinet have been steadfast in arguing that a malicious hand is manipulating violence at demonstrations, though they have struggled to clarify who is responsible for specific acts or provide more than circumstantial evidence.[fn]“Colombia is Rising Up”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Defence Minister Diego Molano has repeatedly ascribed his claims of ELN and FARC dissident participation in the unrest to “military intelligence” and pointed to the arrest of eleven people in the strike’s first month on charges of being members of these groups.[fn]Ministro de Defensa de Colombia vincula vandalismo en las protestas con las FARC y el ELN”, CNN Español, 7 May 2021; Tatiana Duque, “El paro está cosechando toda la violencia que hay en Cali”, La Silla Vacia, 8 June 2021.Hide Footnote He has also asserted that these larger armed groups are paying networks of local criminal bands in neighbourhoods where protests are located.[fn]‘Terrorismo de baja intensidad en protestas es financiado por disidencias y el ELN’: Diego Molano”, La FM, 3 May 2021.Hide Footnote

The conviction that criminals or other troublemakers are responsible for acts of violence underlays the government’s initial predilection for using aggressive crowd control methods.[fn]"Colombia: Egregious Police Abuses Against Protesters”, op. cit.Hide Footnote After police reported looting on 28 April in Cali, Molano temporarily relocated to the city, where he remained throughout much of the strike. Two days later, Duque joined Molano as well as his attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, in arguing that vandalism of public property was equivalent to “low-level urban terrorism” and proved the existence of “an orchestrated plan because there are structures [in place] that could be part of and financed by armed groups”.[fn]Duque dice que el vandalismo durante el paro nacional es ‘terrorismo urbano de baja intensidad’”, Semana, 30 April 2021.Hide Footnote Shortly afterward, Duque authorised the military to assist the police in controlling protests.[fn]“Artículo 170: Asistencia militar”, Código Nacional de Policía y Convivencia, Colombia, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote On 5 May, the president offered rewards of up to 10 million pesos ($2,750) for information about individuals involved in vandalism.[fn]Tweet by Ivan Duque, Colombian president, @IvanDuque, 2:13pm, 5 May 2021.Hide Footnote

B. Security Force Deployment and Police Violence

As the protests continued, police settled into a pattern of confrontation with demonstrators in major cities. With some exceptions, marches held during daylight hours tended to pass without incident. The police were strikingly absent from the streets of Cali until late afternoon, when they began to fan out toward roadblocks where they expected tension, for example Puerto Resistencia, Siloé, Calipso and Loma de la Cruz. In these settings, the police response included documented cases of violence, resulting in scores of injuries and more than a dozen deaths. Police in Cali and elsewhere – notably other parts of Valle de Cauca as well as small cities around Bogotá such as Facatativá and Madrid – fired live ammunition at protesters, as well as tear gas and rubber bullets at close range; a number of demonstrators were injured or killed with lethal weapons.[fn]“Colombia: Bachelet llama al diálogo y al respeto de los derechos humanos tras nuevas informaciones sobre muertos y heridos en Cali”, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 30 May 2021.Hide Footnote Protesters at barricades in Cali have collected 9mm bullet casings.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Cali blockades, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Members of the front-line at a conflictive blockade site in Cali showed the bullet casings they have collected in recent clashes with police. The 9mm bullets were live rounds. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

As of 25 June, the defence ministry said it knew of 24 deaths related to protests, with another eleven instances undergoing verification.[fn]“Balance General: Paro Nacional 2021”, Ministry of Defence, 25 June 2021.Hide Footnote Two of the confirmed dead are police officers, while the rest are civilians. Civil society groups, however, put this number far higher at 75 as of the same date.[fn]“Listado de las 75: Víctimas de violencia homicida en el marco del paro nacional al 24 de junio”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Also as of 24 June, the Inspector General’s Office had opened 217 disciplinary actions to investigate misbehaviour by public officials during the protests, including 172 against members of the security forces.[fn]“Balance General: Paro Nacional 2021”, Ministry of Defence, 25 June 2021.Hide Footnote

Despite acute concerns about police abuse among the Colombian public as well as foreign governments, the government has backed the security forces unequivocally.[fn]Colombia’s major allies – as well as international bodies including the Organization of American States, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and others – have expressed concern about violence during protests. The European Commission said, for example: “Excessive use of force in repressing such protests … and any further disproportionate use of force by the security forces must stop”. “Colombia: Statement by High Representative/Vice President Borrell on violence during social protests”, press release, European Commission, 6 May 2021; “Secretary Blinken’s Meeting with Colombian Vice President Ramírez”, press release, U.S. State Department, 28 May 2021. Fifty-five members of the U.S. Congress also wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for an end to certain types of U.S. assistance due to police brutality. “Reps. McGovern, Pocan, Schakowsky, Grijalva Lead 55 Members of Congress Urging State Department to Clearly and Unambiguously Denounce Police Brutality in Colombia”, press release, Office of Jim McGovern, 14 May 2021.Hide Footnote Duque has repeatedly denied that police abuse is a systemic problem in the force.[fn]Iván Duque: ‘No voy a aceptar que nadie desangre a Colombia’”, El País, 31 May 2021.Hide Footnote The defence ministry has released dozens of videos hailing ESMAD, the police and the military as professional and patriotic, and expressing approval of their behaviour.[fn]Speaking to Congress, for example, the defence minister said “those who generate violence” – not the police – were to blame for deaths during the protests. “Diego Molano: ‘La responsabilidad no es de la Policía, sino de quienes generan violencia’”, CNN Español, 26 May 2021. Several days later, Molano asserted that the police were “always acting within the law” while containing the protests. “Gobierno colombiano sobre reforma policial: ‘Los cambios no son cosméticos’”, EFE, 6 June 2021.Hide Footnote At the same time, the authorities have firmly condemned instances in which protesters have acted violently against officers; according to defence officials, such attacks had wounded 1,454 officers by 24 June. By contrast, it took Duque until 11 May to acknowledge – let alone express regret over – casualties among protesters, which he did in the emblematic case of a peaceful demonstrator shot by armed civilians in Pereira.[fn]Presidente Duque lamenta la muerte de Lucas Villa”, El Espectador, 11 May 2021.Hide Footnote

As demonstrations escalated, the president turned to the military for additional support. On 9 May, he promised a major troop deployment to Cali. Following a resurgence of violence on 28 May, his government issued a decree mandating local authorities in eight departments and thirteen cities to remove all blockades, with the assistance of police officers and soldiers if needed.[fn]Decreto Número 575 de 2021, Ministry of Interior, 28 May 2021.Hide Footnote Throughout the crisis, members of the governing party, aligned with former President Uribe, clamoured for Duque to declare a state of exception, which would give him extensive powers to pass or suspend legislation unilaterally, extend surveillance and use force to disperse demonstrations and clear roadblocks.[fn]Uribistas piden a Duque declarar la conmoción interior en Colombia, qué significa tomar ese camino”, Infobae, 4 May 2021. Articles 213 and 214 of the constitution state that the president can declare a state of exception when there are extraordinary challenges to public order; it allows the executive, among other things, to suspend existing laws. This means, in practice, that the president could restrict social protest, limit what the media is allowed to report on, intercept private communications and suspend local authorities. In some cases, it would even allow home searches to take place without a warrant. “¿Qué es la conmoción interior que piden sectores del uribismo?”, El Tiempo, 5 May 2021.Hide Footnote

A riot squad tank parks just down the street from one particularly confrontational blockade that shut down a major highway interchange. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

Duque did not take this step. Overall, while the military has deployed to some areas, including roads to airports and other key transport nodes, local authorities as well as the military itself have been reluctant to let soldiers take on a larger or more visible role.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities and senior military officials, May 2021.Hide Footnote The governor of Caquetá and mayor of Bucaramanga, for example, separately argued after the 28 May decree that military deployment was neither necessary nor productive. They said they would favour talks with protesters to lift blockades.[fn]“Comunicado de Prensa”, Governorship of Caquetá, 29 May 2021; tweet by Juan Carlos Cárdenas, mayor of Bucaramanga, @JCardenasRey, 6:36pm, 29 May 2021.Hide Footnote Some senior military officers fear the protests could distract the army from other priorities, such as disrupting illicit trafficking routes, and risk tarnishing its reputation, which is better than that of the police.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, May 2021.Hide Footnote

C. Reforms and Negotiations

The government’s political efforts to address the turmoil have run in parallel – and at times in sharp contrast – with the emphasis on force. In the first two weeks of unrest, Duque sought no national-level dialogue with the protesters. Instead, he made a series of concessions that largely failed to quell demonstrations. On 2 May, the president withdrew the tax reform that had sparked protests. Congress then nixed a second reform bill for the health system, which critics said would have strengthened the role of private firms in health care. Aiming to placate student unions, on 11 May Duque announced that the lowest three (of six) demographic classes, known as estratos and based on housing quality, would pay no tuition at public universities during the fall semester of 2021. While strike leaders claimed these moves as victories, they did little to calm protests, partly because the government undertook them without negotiation, but also because the measures addressed only a fraction of protesters’ concerns. Free tuition, for example, applies only to the minority of college-age students who have gained access to public university.[fn]As of 2018, public universities accounted for just over one third of the roughly 1,250,000 places available in the higher education system. Combining public and private institutions, Colombia has places available for roughly half of university-age students. At public universities, those from lower-income groups make up a significant percentage – 94 per cent – of the student body. “Sistema Universitario Estatal de Colombia: Características de las Universidades Públicas del SUE y de la Educación Superior en Colombia”, Sistema Universitario Estatal, December 2018.Hide Footnote

Duque went on to unveil an “integral transformation” plan for the national police, intended to come into force through a mix of presidential decrees and proposed legislation, although the latter would be unlikely to pass Congress before the 2022 presidential election.[fn]“Presidente Duque lanza proceso de transformación integral de la Policía Nacional”, communiqué, Colombian Presidency, 6 June 2021.Hide Footnote The plan, if carried out, would aim to improve training for the police, increase transparency through the use of body cameras and other technology, and change the police uniform and its public image. But the reform would also keep police command within the defence ministry’s ambit; cases of abuse would also remain within the military justice system, albeit with some modifications.

Progress in negotiations has been slow. Duque met with the national strike committee for the first time on 10 May, with the latter exiting saying they had felt no “empathy” from the president.[fn]Protestas en Colombia: el Comité del Paro da por fracasado el primer intento de diálogo con el gobierno”, BBC Mundo, 10 May 2021.Hide Footnote To help establish confidence, the Catholic Church, UN Verification Mission in Colombia and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia subsequently sent representatives to the talks. Negotiations stumbled along until early June. The national strike committee insists that it cannot negotiate with the government until the two parties agree on basic guarantees for peaceful protest. On 27 May, the two were apparently close to a text laying out these basic guarantees. Duque declined to ratify it without a promise that all roadblocks would be lifted, however. The strike committee agreed on 1 June to begin removing some roadblocks, partly as a gesture of good-will, and partly in light of the growing unpopularity of these means of protest.[fn]“Encuesta: ¿Está en riesgo la democracia?”, NotiCentro 1 CM&, 31 May 2021; “Propuesta de Preacuerdo de Garantías a la Movilización Social en Colombia Entregada por el Comité Nacional de Paro al Gobierno Nacional, Punto A.2”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Days later, however, the negotiations broke down. The strike committee accused the government of using delaying tactics and inserting new language into previously settled text that demands a permanent end to all blockades.[fn]“Ante el incumplimiento del gobierno de la firma del preacuerdo de garantías, Comité National del Paro decide suspender negociación”, communiqué, National Strike Committee, 6 June 2021.Hide Footnote The government-appointed leader of talks called the committee’s decision to step back from talks a “disappointment to the country”.[fn]Que comité del paro se haya levantado de diálogos es decepcionante para el país: Emilio Archila”, Blu Radio, 7 June 2021.Hide Footnote

Duque is politically isolated and lacks a stable coalition in Congress.

Both sides have weaknesses that hinder compromise. Duque is politically isolated and lacks a stable coalition in Congress. He faces criticism from his own party, the Democratic Centre, for not declaring a full state of exception and using force to decisively end blockades.[fn]See footnote 103.Hide Footnote With elections looming in 2022, Duque’s party will not want to offer major concessions. Indeed, some in the party may view protests as a boon, given how public opinion has turned against roadblocks due to their economic impact.[fn]Weighing in on the protests, Democratic Centre members have emphasised the economic damage caused by blockades and described the left as being sympathetic to or even actively supportive of armed groups among the protesters. See, for example, “La Reunion con la CIDH”, press release, office of Senator Paloma Valencia, 14 June 2021.Hide Footnote For its part, the strike committee may struggle to assure protesters’ compliance with any agreement it reaches. Composed of more than twenty organisations and 30 departmental subcommittees, its constituency is too broad to speak with a single voice. Yet it is dominated by older union leaders and thus not representative enough to speak for all the protesters. Younger protesters complain that they are not represented in the talks and will not adhere to agreements that are made. “We are fed up with all of the formal forums for participation, where all of the promises are just on paper”, one youth in Guaviare explained.[fn]Crisis Group interview, protester, San José del Guaviare, May 2021.Hide Footnote

At the same time, as national talks got under way, Colombia’s regions began hosting dozens of dialogues at the city, municipal or departmental level. Some of these have borne fruit, first by creating humanitarian corridors to allow food and medicine through barriers and later by setting up working groups to tackle demonstrators’ larger demands. In Cali, local authorities managed to lift 22 of the city’s 26 roadblocks through dialogue, with only four requiring police intervention.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, senior official, Cali mayor’s office, June 2021.Hide Footnote Although Bogotá has at times sent delegates to these discussions, its representatives are not authorised to take decisions, and local authorities say the national government has not empowered them to do so, either.[fn]Duque has sent various members of his cabinet to sit in on conversations, though they are not always present in local talks and are not able to take key decisions. In Huila, for example, the ministers of transport and agriculture, as well as the head of the national infrastructure agency, have attended some dialogue sessions.Hide Footnote Nor do mayors or governors have oversight over some issues that protesters wish to discuss, such as police behaviour. The constitution says mayors are the primary authorities over police in their municipalities, but it also establishes the police as a national institution, consolidating a chain of command emanating from the defence ministry in Bogotá.[fn]“Constitución Política de Colombia 1991”, Articles 218 and 315.Hide Footnote In practice, the ministry’s orders often supersede mayors’ instructions.[fn]One local official described his level of de facto influence as being able to “offer recommendations, orientation, but not decision-making”. Crisis Group interview, senior local official, May 2021.Hide Footnote

A series of events around Colombia’s largest port of Buenaventura demonstrated the peril of this disconnect between local and national authorities. After weeks of work stoppages at the port, Duque visited Buenaventura and asked members of his cabinet to join talks to negotiate an agreement with the departmental strike committee, local authorities and religious officials to enable greater shipping movement.[fn]“Acta de Concertación suscrita entre el Comité Distrital del Paro Nacional y el Gobierno Nacional”, 27 May 2021.Hide Footnote A day after the agreement was signed, however, the interior minister retracted support for the accord, arguing that one of its provisions – allowing departmental strike committee members to help inspect cargo – was a violation of national sovereignty. The apparent miscommunication with Bogotá set back negotiations significantly and may cloud future agreements.[fn]Polémica por pactos firmados entre Gobierno y Comité del Paro en Buenaventura”, El Espectador, 28 May 2021.Hide Footnote

V. Risks of Escalation

Even though blockages have eased and protest activity has slowed, the yawning gap between the sides threatens instability in several ways. Perhaps the most likely scenario is slow-burning unrest that erupts at regular intervals, at least until the country holds the first round of presidential voting in May 2022. Although the strike is not linked to any single political party, the fact that the vote is now visible on the horizon complicates efforts to dampen tensions.

The ruling party, seeking to appear strong, has painted the protests as a wellspring of leftist chaos, connecting the turmoil to guerrillas, the Venezuelan government and the leading left-wing candidate for the 2022 polls, Gustavo Petro. The allegations against Petro – that he and his allies are funding the protesters and fuelling their militancy – are particularly politically charged and will certainly play a role in the forthcoming campaign.[fn]The government-aligned media outlet Semana has published an array of articles and accusations that Petro is set upon creating chaos on the streets. See, for example, “Gustavo Petro, ¡Basta ya!: editorial de SEMANA”, Semana, 22 May 2021; “Petro sí tiene que ver con el paro: Néstor Humberto Martínez”, Semana, 12 June 2021.Hide Footnote While the leftist leader, who lost to Duque in the 2018 polls, has called for demonstrations at various points during the strike, he has also kept some distance from them, seemingly in recognition of the right’s attempts to paint him as a harbinger of disorder.[fn]Petro also held a series of meetings with business leaders throughout the month of May apparently aimed at alleviating concerns about his economic policies. See, for example, “Gustavo Petro se reúne con altos empresarios judíos en Colombia”, La FM, 15 May 2021.Hide Footnote At least publicly, Petro has argued against roadblocks, and he only belatedly marched himself.[fn]See, for example, tweet by Gustavo Petro, @petrogustavo, 10:39am, 9 June 2021. Although he had called on demonstrators to take to the streets, Petro did not join protests in person until 19 May. “Gustavo Petro se suma a los manifestantes en Colombia”, El País Colombia, 19 May 2021.Hide Footnote He has accused Duque of wanting to exploit the protests for his party’s electoral benefit.[fn]Gustavo Petro asegura que Duque está prolongando el paro nacional a su beneficio”, Semana, 28 May 2021.Hide Footnote

Long-running political and economic uncertainty, as well as the pandemic’s continuing ravages, could also drive more significant escalation, including the risk of increasing violence both by and against the police. The police have faced few repercussions for misbehaviour and instead continue to hear unequivocal support for their approach from their chain of command in the country’s political leadership. If protests spike again, tensions with protesters and a lack of accountability might embolden the police to skirt the law and use additional force, provoking retaliatory violence. Protesters, especially younger ones, express a fatalistic sense that they have nothing to lose, given their scant prospects to make a dignified living as adults; at some tense roadblocks, they have actively sought confrontations with the security forces.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote On several occasions, they have directly attacked or detained police officers, at times violently.[fn]In one instance in May, protesters in Siloé detained and attempted to interrogate two policemen who had entered their neighbourhood, but local human rights monitors were able to secure their release. Crisis Group interviews, protesters and local social leaders from Siloé, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote Frustration and recurrent clashes may increase the frequency of such incidents.

Members of the so-called “front-line”, who protect the blockade sites throughout the day and during evening confrontations, stand between demonstrators and the police. Many are young people who lack access to education or the job market. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

In cities such as Cali, the risk of armed vigilante violence remains significant. Local officials and analysts fear that prolonged damage to the city’s economy could fuel the trend toward civilian attacks upon demonstrators and left-leaning activists. One of those filmed shooting at protesters on 28 May later told media that his neighbourhood had formed a group to defend their property.[fn]“‘No soy paramilitar’: aparece Andrés Escobar, uno de los civiles que accionó un arma contra manifestantes en Cali”, Semana, 31 May 2021.Hide Footnote Vigilante violence and police violence against protesters have raised intense concerns over the reported number of disappearances during the national strike. The civil society group Indepaz reported on 15 June that 539 people had gone missing, though the Attorney General’s Office says most of the reported cases (335 of 419 as of 15 June) have been located.[fn]Boletín Paro Nacional 2021: Cifras de Violencia”, Indepaz, 15 June 2021; “335 personas han sido localizadas y se mantiene activo el mecanismo de búsqueda urgente en 84 casos”, press release, Office of the Attorney General, 15 June 2021.Hide Footnote A total of 84 people remain unaccounted for.[fn]On 20 June, the decapitated head of a 22-year-old who had been reported missing was found in Tuluá, Valle del Cauca. Some accounts indicate he was part of the protest movement there. Authorities argue that he was killed in a micro-drug-trafficking dispute, while his family said he was uninvolved in either crime or the demonstrations. “Detector: Santiago Ochoa no fue detenido por el ESMAD ni era de la Primera Línea”, La Silla Vacía, 24 June 2021.Hide Footnote

Non-state armed groups have not been the main forces behind rural mobilisation, but they may prove to be the beneficiaries of prolonged unrest. As noted, some groups felt they benefited from inter-city roadblocks that temporarily cordoned off parts of the countryside where they operate. As a senior military officer put it: “There are protests for many legitimate reasons. … [But] armed groups have discovered that protests are a good shield to hide behind”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior military official, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Indigenous authorities in northern Cauca who strongly oppose the presence of armed groups said that threats against them have increased, as FARC dissidents in the area try to exploit the distraction of armed forces and the government’s unpopularity to consolidate social control.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, indigenous authorities in northern Cauca, May and June 2021.Hide Footnote Residents in Tibú, Norte de Santander, said that the strike had emboldened the various armed groups to compete with one another and state forces. The Gaitanista drug cartel, which emerged from the remnants of the disbanded, violent paramilitary groups that once contested the FARC, have issued pamphlets threatening to attack demonstrators and social movements. Locals reported that the unrest has emboldened the cartel’s push northward from Cúcuta into Tibú, now dominated by the ELN and FARC dissidents.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources and social leaders, Tibú, June 2021.Hide Footnote  Blockades along all major highways for nearly six weeks paused forced eradication operations in the municipality, which has the highest concentration of coca crops in Colombia.

Security forces in Tibú have also faced an onslaught of attacks from the ELN and FARC dissidents in recent months, such that they rarely conduct urban patrols and cannot venture far from well-barricaded rural checkpoints. Elected neighbourhood councils have come under pressure to organise residents in line with armed groups’ demands.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, religious authorities and social leaders, Tibú, June 2021.Hide Footnote A number of local leaders facing threats to their lives have had to leave the municipality in recent weeks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, social leaders and elected local council officials, Tibú, June 2021.Hide Footnote Armed groups in this area and elsewhere could benefit further if the military is asked to assume a more prominent role in policing urban areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior military official, Bogotá, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Criminal groups’ support for the blockades in Cali, meanwhile, has strengthened their local reputation, which they are also likely to exploit to their advantage. Already, the protests have in effect expelled the police from a number of areas. Local social leaders worry that these groups could take advantage of desperation among younger demonstrators who want to move toward taking up arms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and correspondence, social leaders, Cali, May and June 2021.Hide Footnote Similarly, whispers about right-wing vigilantism are now omnipresent on social media, feeding a dangerous cycle of mutual perceptions that the “other side” is preparing for a more serious confrontation in the city. This fear could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in more outright violence.

VI. Moving Forward

Colombia’s mass protests are to a great extent being driven by the economic distress affecting many of its people, and the grievances created by socio-economic inequality that begins at birth. One’s place in the hierarchy colours one’s life choices and largely determines one’s opportunities, as well as experiences of interaction with the state. While inequality is not new, the pandemic, which has affected poorer people’s health, life and livelihoods far more than those of the better off, has rendered it intolerable to demonstrators. As one protester from Valle de Cauca put it: “We are the generation that is fed up with injustice and such deep inequality”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, protester from Valle de Cauca, Bogotá, June 2021.Hide Footnote

Some activists propose a new constituent assembly, of the sort established after months of protests in Chile, to thrash out the terms and conditions for a fairer society.[fn]“¿Por qué se ha empezado a hablar en Colombia de una constituyente?”, El Tiempo, 18 May 2021.Hide Footnote Others, particularly those who participated in the process that led to Colombia’s 1991 constitution, argue that instead of a new text, the country needs the government to abide by the existing one.[fn]La salida de la crisis pasa por aplicar la constitución a plenitud”, El Tiempo, 30 May 2021.Hide Footnote Authorities could, they say, employ the mechanisms outlined in the charter, such as popular consultations, referendums or open councils, either to address specific grievances or to build consensus around reforms aimed at greater social equity.[fn]See proposals in “Universidades y academia proponemos democracia local frente a la crisis”, Dejusticia, 16 May 2021; José Manuel Acevedo, “¿Y si hacemos un referendo?”, El Tiempo, 31 May 2021; Fernando Carillo, “Consulta popular: una salida democrática para Colombia”, El País, 30 May 2021.Hide Footnote

The 2016 peace accord offers another comprehensive framework for reform aimed at transforming the conditions underlying Colombia’s conflict, including rural inequality, coca cultivation and limited political participation, while also seeking to reduce violence against social leaders and ensure redress for victims.[fn]For recent analysis of the peace accord and its implementation, see Crisis Group Report, Leaders under Fire: Defending Colombia’s Front Line of Peace, op. cit.; as well as Crisis Group Latin America Reports N°s 76, Calming the Restless Pacific: Violence and Crime on Colombia’s Coast, 8 August 2019; and 67, Risky Business: The Duque Government’s Approach to Peace in Colombia, 21 June 2018.Hide Footnote Robust implementation of the accord would likely address many of the protesters’ concerns, above all in the countryside. Critics, however, have questioned the government’s commitment to fulfilling key provisions of the accord, such as the voluntary substitution of coca, which has been replaced by a drive to eradicate the crop by force, exacerbating community estrangement from the state in certain areas.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Deeply Rooted: Coca Eradication and Violence in Colombia, op. cit.Hide Footnote

To reach a point where real dialogue can take place, however, de-escalating immediate tensions is crucial. That will be difficult. Trust between the government and protesters has been shattered. Some protesters point to a history of local accords with government, many of which have fallen by the wayside, as grounds to be wary of official promises.[fn]Protesters from Cauca, Catatumbo, Putumayo and Meta all cite among their grievances the state’s failure to honour past agreements with residents. See also “‘Este es un Gobierno experto en no negociar y en no cumplir los acuerdos’”, Caracol Radio, 9 June 2021.Hide Footnote Officials, for their part, argue that they cannot negotiate effectively unless the demonstrators renounce the future use of economically harmful roadblocks. Building trust and a spirit of compromise is made all the more challenging by the electoral calendar. The president’s Democratic Centre party may have an incentive to portray the protests as a threat to public well-being, requiring a strong-handed leader to restore order. Meanwhile, unions have vowed to continue protesting throughout 2021 to keep grievances in the spotlight during the presidential campaign.[fn]“Esto es de largo aliento, con miras a llegar a 2022”, El Tiempo, 10 June 2021.Hide Footnote

A. Police Reform

An immediate end to police brutality is the single most concrete demand emerging from the strike, and action on this issue could help lower tensions on the streets. Demonstrations tend to intensify after incidents involving excessive use of force against civilians; conversely, strong political signals that the security forces will be held accountable – and prevented from future misbehaviour – could help pave a way out of the crisis.

Bogotá, Colombia. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

Although the government has consistently praised the police as highly professional, ample evidence demonstrates that abuse is not restricted to a few isolated cases. Colombia’s police were built for a different security environment from the one they are confronting today. The force remains part of the defence ministry and for decades has played an active role in counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts.[fn]Alejo Vargas Velázquez, “Reforma policial: urgente y estructural, pero poco probable”, Periódico Digital, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 18 September 2020.Hide Footnote Officers tend to distrust civilians in areas where armed or criminal groups operate, assuming that they may be agents or sympathisers of these outfits. As a result, today’s police are ill prepared to face unarmed protesters who are not antagonists, but citizens whom they have a constitutional duty to protect. An over-reliance of force that can bleed into brutality emerges from this mismatch, as the police are primed by their training to look for and neutralise armed enemies of the state.

Various political constituencies – including the president’s own party – have opposed any questioning of the security forces’ role and status. Taboos around security sector reform are another relic of past conflict, in which the army and police represented the last bulwark protecting a fragile state from armed adversaries. Duque’s 6 June proposal for an “integral transformation” of the police is a nod in the right direction, though it is partly a repackaging of initiatives that were already under way prior to April.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international official involved in reforms, June 2021.Hide Footnote The plan would strengthen police training, which today includes only minimal instruction on dealing with protests.[fn]“Colombia: Egregious Police Abuses Against Protesters”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The proposed use of body cameras and other efforts to improve transparency would also be welcome.

The government appears intent on conducting disciplinary procedures entirely under military jurisdiction

Yet the president’s proposal falls short in at least two aspects, both of which are vital to re-establishing public trust in the institution. First, the government appears intent on conducting disciplinary procedures entirely under military jurisdiction, which limits victim participation as well as public transparency. Secondly, the plan would keep the police within the defence ministry, rather than responding to widespread calls to move it to the interior ministry. The latter would enable the force to take operational orders on how to manage protests from locally elected authorities rather than commanders in Bogotá.

Moreover, while the government’s plan may have worthy components, it has failed to draw on input from crucial constituencies in Colombian society. The ten points of reform it comprises were presented without prior consultation with political allies, police associations or civil society. For the reform to gain broader support, the government should commit to working with Congress to draft more comprehensive legislation.[fn]A number of legislators are working to put together a coalition bill, which they aim to propose by the end of July.Hide Footnote Some such proposals are being drafted with support from centrist and left-leaning parties. They should aim to give the police a more civilian character, including shifting the force to the interior ministry, changing benchmarks for promotion to de-emphasise counter-narcotics work, restructuring disciplinary procedures and improving training.

Fixing the broken relationship between the police and certain communities will likely be long and arduous. The challenge is particularly acute given that Colombia is still not free of armed conflict, especially in rural areas, despite the peace accord.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “Colombia: Peace Withers amid the Pandemic”, 30 September 2020.Hide Footnote The security forces need to maintain the capacity to combat armed groups and illicit trafficking networks. In doing so, however, they need to also prioritise safeguarding the well-being of local people who now bear the brunt of the armed groups’ violence. One way to do this may be to reinvigorate longstanding plans to strengthen a specialised rural police force that would undertake day-to-day policing roles while leaving conflict-related operations to the military. Showing commitment to these changes could send a signal that there is a pathway out of tensions between protesters and the police.

B. Layered Talks

Colombia’s strike is both national and local, and negotiations to end it will need to match that reality. National-level talks can set the tone for the rest of the country and should address issues such as guarantees of the right to peacefully protest or broad socio-economic grievances. Yet a single conversation cannot address the diverse demands bubbling up across the country. Authorities outside Bogotá are already stepping in to establish local discussions. These conversations, however, will have a limited effect if they are not authorised and coordinated at a national level.

The national government should empower mayors and governors to establish dialogues with protesters. It is important that it commit to participate in department-level meetings at a decision-making level and guarantee that the deals signed by government representatives will stand, in contrast to recent events in Buenaventura. Because even seemingly local issues often include components that require Bogotá’s green light, negotiations cannot take place if the central government may later veto part of what is being agreed upon.

The government and the strike committees – both national and local – will also need to work to build support for these discussions so that both sides are able to make commitments and concessions that they can fulfil. For the strike committees, that means winning over young demonstrators who are clamouring for greater representation. The Duque administration faces the similar challenge of ensuring that it has the political backing in Congress it needs to be able to comply with accords. Given the state’s history of reneging on local commitments in the eyes of protesters, the government may need to be the first mover in offering concrete confidence-building gestures such as showing progress on police accountability.

C. An International Role

International observers can play a vital role in shepherding negotiations both at a local and national level. With trust between protesters and the state in short supply, international oversight is key to “making it some percentage more acceptable” for protesters to sit down with the government, as one religious official put it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior religious figure, Cali, May 2021.Hide Footnote The government has also welcomed the UN, Organization of American States and religious authorities’ participation in discussions in Bogotá as well as in numerous departments and cities. Their presence has been an important factor in reaching local humanitarian agreements as well as in assuaging public concern over deal-making behind closed doors.[fn]Local authorities in Cali are adamant that vocal international support for dialogue with protesters in early May was crucial to avoiding an escalation and a harsher crackdown. Crisis Group interviews, officials, Cali mayor’s office, May and June 2021.Hide Footnote

The government should continue to allow international oversight and independent monitoring visits to assess allegations of abuses, similar to that undertaken by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights between 6-10 June. That visit provided all sides, including government ministries, NGOs and protesters, with the opportunity to share their experiences from and perspectives on the turmoil. The Commission’s forthcoming recommendations could also contribute to shaping a degree of consensus as to the most important reforms to undertake.

Bogotá, Colombia. May 2021. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

VII. Conclusion

Colombia’s protest wave reflects deep-seated grievances affecting much of society, rooted in economic need and sky-high levels of inequality that the health and economic devastation caused by COVID-19 flagrantly exposed. Although protests are likely to ebb and flow over the coming months, Colombia risks perpetual cycles of instability if it fails to address the underlying causes of unrest. Political dialogue and negotiation are crucial to allay the immediate tensions between government and protesters, notably police violence and the use of protest roadblocks, and work out how Colombia can extend economic and educational opportunities to far more of its citizens than it does at present.

On the surface at least, most political forces say they are committed to reducing Colombia’s inequalities. But a month and a half of protests, street battles and deaths of protesters and police officers have inflamed anger on both sides and undermined trust between them. There is a real danger of violent escalation by civilians seeking to take the law into their own hands. Meanwhile, criminal and armed outfits will continue to take advantage of public discontent and turmoil to advance their own interests, to the detriment of civilians.

Politicians should be wary of letting the looming 2022 presidential polls thwart progress toward substantive reforms. No party or president will find it easy to manage the discontent that has driven the 2021 demonstrations without making a meaningful commitment to reform. The country needs to negotiate a new form of social contract. Five years after the signing of a historic peace deal, Colombia’s future stability may depend on it.

Bogotá/New York/Brussels, 2 July 2021

Appendix A: Map of Colombia