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Pandemic Gloom and Police Violence Leave Colombia in Turmoil
Pandemic Gloom and Police Violence Leave Colombia in Turmoil
Demonstrators shout towards riot police officers during clashes following a protest against a tax reform bill launched by President Ivan Duque, in Cali, Colombia, on 30 April 30, 2021. A tax reform project in Colombia added fuel to the discontent. Luis ROBAYO / AFP

Pandemic Gloom and Police Violence Leave Colombia in Turmoil

Colombia’s cities, towns and countryside are aflame with popular protests. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Elizabeth Dickinson traces the unrest’s origins to inequality, police impunity and the government’s seeming aloofness from the street.

What is behind the protests that have swept across Colombia over the last week?

Colombia entered 2021 with some foreboding. The warning signs of deep public discontent had become clear over the past two years. The government – intent on plugging fiscal gaps that were worrying investors and on mounting a pandemic response – did not take sufficient heed of rising resentment of the country’s gaping inequality, police violence and insecurity. When in April President Iván Duque presented a tax reform that would have increased the burden on already squeezed middle-class families, demonstrators took to the streets to vent their grievances. The government ombudsman reported on 5 May that at least 24 people have died in the protests to date, and a day earlier civil society groups put the number as high as 31. Nearly 90 people were reported missing on 4 May, though the government affirms 47 have since been found.

Protesters are essentially picking up where they left off when the COVID-19 pandemic first arrived in March 2020, putting a halt to months of street demonstrations that had first flared in November 2019. But now the situation is far worse. The pandemic has pushed 3.5 million additional people into poverty, meaning that 43 per cent of the population is earning less than enough to satisfy basic needs. In certain pockets of the country, the situation is dire. The number of people living in extreme poverty in the capital Bogotá nearly tripled in just a year. The health crisis also laid bare the full range of hardships suffered by the poor. Those in the bottom sextile by income, who disproportionately work informally or in sectors that cannot earn income remotely, were at least ten times more likely to be hospitalised due to COVID-19 than those in the highest two. Unable to miss a day earning income or to pay for a doctor when they do fall ill, one urban protester in Cali told Crisis Group: “We cannot afford to get sick”.

In parallel, violence in rural areas is rising, after declining markedly in 2015 and 2016, immediately around the peace accord between Colombia and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 2020, with citizens locked down and government officials working remotely, a mix of old and new armed outfits took advantage to consolidate and expand their territorial control in various rural localities. The pandemic accelerated this reconfiguration of the conflict landscape, with civilians paying the cost in violence.

The government has too often ignored grave warnings about the effects of inequality and mounting rural violence.

The government has too often ignored grave warnings, including from civil society and the state’s own control agencies, about the effects of inequality and mounting rural violence, or exacerbated public frustration through tone-deaf measures like the April tax reform proposal. The proposed legislation, formally titled the Law of Social Sustainability, contained some redistributive provisions but still put much of the onus for generating revenue on economically precarious middle-class families who are barely eking out a livelihood as it is. At the same time, poor and middle-class Colombians have been confronted with stories about high-level officials and congressmen reportedly flying to Miami to get their COVID-19 shots while the rest of the country waits for vaccines to slowly trickle in.

When facing protesters, state forces have at times acted with brazen brutality against civilians. This violent response, and the government’s unwillingness to condemn or curb it, has created an escalatory cycle and become the demonstrators’ most salient concern.

What has been the government’s response so far?

The government’s response has ranged from quiet dismissal of the protests to denunciation of “terrorist vandalism” to strong-armed security measures. It has offered some concessions, including the formal withdrawal on 2 May of the tax reform. But there is no indication as yet that Bogotá is close to calming tensions.

The government has focused its ire on high-profile cases of violence against security personnel and “extreme vandalism” of government property.

When protesters first took to the streets, the Duque administration as well as some mayors tried to dissuade them, citing health concerns. Colombia is in the midst of its third and most severe wave of the pandemic, with hospital capacity nationwide nearly at its limit and reports of critical oxygen shortages. Regardless, demonstrators turned out in force for a national strike on 28 April and mobilisation has continued to swell. The great majority of protests have taken place peacefully. Nevertheless, the government has focused its ire on high-profile cases of violence against security personnel and “extreme vandalism” of government property, such as attacks on police stations, the torching of buses, looting in cities such as Cali and tire burning. The president, defence minister and attorney general have all claimed that these incidents are the work of armed and criminal groups including self-proclaimed offshoot factions of the disbanded FARC (known as FARC dissidents), the guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN) and urban gangs. These groups, they say, pay protesters a small sum to destroy public property – something that has happened in the past. While this may be true, it would involve the actions of only a miniscule portion of demonstrators.

Some members of the ruling Democratic Centre party, including the influential ex-President Álvaro Uribe, have called for an even harsher security crackdown. On 30 April, the defence minister announced that the military would be deployed on city streets to “accompany” the police. On 4 May, several Democratic Centre senators asked the president to declare the equivalent of a national emergency, allowing security forces to inspect homes and undertake certain operations without a warrant. They cite incidents such as a horrifying 4 May attack in southern Bogotá in which protesters tried to burn a police station with personnel still inside. The same day, Defence Minister Diego Molano claimed that policemen were being systematically targeted in violent attacks.

Yet the publicly available video evidence from protests suggests that most of the aggression runs in the other direction. Dozens of recordings from the evening of 3 May seem to show the police indiscriminately firing into crowds and security forces targeting defenceless protesters in dense urban areas. The local television station in Cali captured prolonged confrontations in which the police lobbed tear gas and fired into crowds in broad daylight. No senior government official has condemned police behaviour, although the state comptroller general has opened roughly 30 investigations into individual misconduct. Instead, senior military and police officers have released videos congratulating their troops on a job well done and urging them to persevere. The defence ministry (rather than municipal government) commands the police, and local authorities wonder out loud if it is simply ignoring their requests to avoid military crackdowns on protesters. On 4 May, Cali’s mayor convened Bogotá-based ambassadors and representatives from multilateral organisations and pleaded for their help in resolving the situation.

While the presidency has announced plans to hold a new National Dialogue, this does not seem likely to offer a path out of the current crisis.

The rift between protesters and the presidential palace is stretching ever wider. Although Duque withdrew his proposed tax reform, protesters vowed to continue marching and opposition parties on 4 May refused to engage in fresh consultations on the tax question until there is a change in police behaviour. While the presidency has announced plans to hold a new National Dialogue, reviving a government initiative born of the 2019 protests, this does not seem likely to offer a path out of the current crisis. The initial agenda is reminiscent of earlier rounds of discussions, which were highly choreographed and did little to address the pre-pandemic discontent.

Cali has reported some of the most alarming levels of police violence. What is the situation there?

Cali has been the protest movement’s centre of gravity for the past week. Huge numbers of peaceful demonstrators filled the streets on 28 April, although there were some incidents of looting and vandalism. Senior defence officials, including the defence minister, reacted with alarm. Several travelled to the city that night and reports of a severe crackdown led by the police began to emerge soon afterwards. On 30 April, human rights organisations denounced a series of alleged murders in Cali at the hands of police, which authorities contested. Civil society groups reported their members being threatened and harassed, and even fired at directly.

Clashes have continued to intensify. On 3 May, police were filmed shooting at protesters – and even a delegation from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – in two low-income neighbourhoods, La Luna and Siloé. Community leaders in Siloé told Crisis Group that police used tear gas as a diversion before beginning to shoot directly into crowds, killing three people. On 4 May, they told Crisis Group, at least four protesters suffered gunshot wounds and three died. After a week of protests, residents have set up improvised medical posts and dispersed demonstrators to several points to avoid concentrating in a single location. “We are protesting with complete indignation”, a community figure from Cali’s Siloé neighbourhood told Crisis Group.

The strength of the protest movement in Cali is in part attributable to violence suffered by nearby communities along the length of the Pacific coast.

The strength of the protest movement in Cali is in part attributable to violence suffered by nearby communities along the length of the Pacific coast, particularly over the past year. Cauca, Valle de Cauca, Nariño and Chocó have seen massacres, targeted killings of community leaders, incidents of forced displacement and confrontations between the military and armed groups. Many of the displaced and vulnerable fled to Cali, whose impoverished neighbourhoods have become a place of last refuge. Indigenous communities from Cauca travelled to join the protesters in Cali. Demonstrators have also fed off the momentum of a months-long ongoing protest movement from the nearby port of Buenaventura, where a military-led offensive against urban criminal groups has left Afro-Colombians exposed to revenge killings and forced displacement.  

The suffering of these communities has bred exasperation, as has the perception that the government has neglected them. “We are tired. They have pushed us beyond all reasonable limits”, a community leader told Crisis Group. “We cannot survive any more. People are ready to kill themselves rather than continue with this situation. We think now is the moment to protest because this is the only moment – we have no other option”.

Have the protests reached rural parts of the country? How do the demands differ there?

One of the notable aspects of these protests, as compared to those in 2019, is how widespread the mobilisations have been in rural and small-town Colombia. Protests took place in 27 of the country’s 32 departments on 3 May, according to the defence ministry. While many of these protests lament the government’s economic policies, their concerns extend far further. Colombia is approaching the fifth anniversary of the 2016 peace accord, and little of what was promised to places that suffered the most conflict has come to pass. Indeed, implementation of those parts of the peace agreement that were most important to rural communities – such as agrarian reform and a crop substitution program for coca growers – have suffered woeful delays. Even where local development programs have made progress, rising insecurity has undermined peace.

Popular distrust of the security forces is longstanding in rural areas. Since the 2016 accord, the government’s default response to outbreaks of violence has been to deploy more troops.

Popular distrust of the security forces is longstanding in rural areas. Since the 2016 accord, the government’s default response to outbreaks of violence has been to deploy more troops. Security forces often focus their efforts on measurable performance targets like, for example, the number of captured kingpins, that look like progress on paper in Bogotá but leave in their wake waves of reprisal attacks and the emergence of new criminal schisms. People in Putumayo, Cauca, Norte de Santander, Guaviare and Nariño say they are protesting to demand fulfilment of the peace agreement’s promise and an end to forcible coca eradication efforts (including the government’s promised return to aerial fumigation) that expose them to violence and leave them without livelihoods.

Is the government doing what is required to end the crisis?

The main driver of worsening violence – police misconduct – is perhaps also the most difficult to resolve.

Not yet. Protest leaders have said they are open to a new national dialogue, though not necessarily in the format that Bogotá has proposed. Yet the authorities’ focus on treating the protest movement as a law enforcement problem and the accumulation of grievances leave little hope for a peaceful resolution in the short term. Senior political leaders’ focus on vandalism and lack of contrition for the security forces’ heavy-handed tactics is increasingly conspicuous. In a 5 May address, Duque spoke about being pained by destroyed highway toll booths but did not mention the two-dozen civilian deaths reported over the last week. This seeming indifference to the public mood echoes through much of the mainstream private media, widely sympathetic to the Duque administration, which have covered the protests only sporadically and often through a lens of “maintaining public order”.

The main driver of worsening violence – police misconduct – is perhaps also the most difficult to resolve. Despite the 2016 peace accord and transitional justice procedures for addressing military abuse, Colombia’s security forces have never faced an internal reckoning for their misconduct. Institutional reforms that began during negotiations with the FARC were largely abandoned, according to advisers involved at the time. Some military officers privately concede that there is a pressing need for internal reflection.

Protesters put it in starker terms. “Our message is that this bloodshed that we are seeing today – it is coming from the very Colombian state”, a community leader in Cali told Crisis Group. Without a demonstrable commitment that the state can rein in law enforcement and reduce inequality in the protection of people’s health and livelihoods, or a realisation by the political establishment that it faces intense public scrutiny, Colombia is likely to see recurring street tensions for some time to come.