CIVICUS speaks with Alexandra González Zapata, coordinator for democracy and social protest at the Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners Foundation, and a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a Colombian civil society organisation that works to defend the rights to life, freedom, physical and moral integrity, decent, fair and impartial treatment and other rights of people deprived of liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and criminalised for participating in social protest. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom, which focuses on denouncing arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia. A network made up of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations, Defend Freedom works in a coordinated manner to challenge the illegal use of force as a mechanism of persecution against those who, individually or collectively, demand and promote human rights through social mobilisation in Colombia.
What triggered the 2019 protests in Colombia, and why did they escalate?
Outrage has been building up little by little in Colombia. Even as it was inaugurated in August 2018, President Iván Duque's government did not enjoy wide margins of legitimacy and support. The electoral results showed that a broad segment of the citizenry rejected traditional power and all that it represented: policies in favour of war, privatisation and indebtedness. This discontent increased as the government announced a series of policy measures, including among those who had voted for Duque.
The government's proposals were aimed at eliminating the state pension fund Colpensiones, raising the retirement age and lowering the salary for young people to 75 per cent of the minimum wage, among other measures. A widespread atmosphere of indignation emerged as a result, yielding a unified call for mobilisation on 21 November 2019.
What few expected by then was that the mobilisation would continue over the days that followed 21 November. On that day some acts of vandalism were committed, which the national government tried to use as an excuse to criminalise social protest and adopt measures to restrict freedoms, including a curfew. In response to this, citizens went out to demonstrate freely. We really do not know which was the first neighbourhood or the first block to start banging pots and pans on 22 November, but what we do know is that this dynamic expanded throughout the capital city, Bogotá, as well as other cities around Colombia, shifting the narrative that had prevailed on the media, which was all about vandalism, towards a public discourse that highlighted citizen outrage and social demands.
How have these mobilisations managed to be sustained over time? How are they different from others in Colombia in the past?
From 2013 onwards, social mobilisation in Colombia has been on the rise. In 2013 there was an agricultural strike that lasted for more than 20 days and managed to keep several major national roads closed. Then came the agricultural strikes of 2015 and 2016, and the so-called ‘mingas for life’, marches and protests of tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples, and the student strikes of 2018 and 2019.
In other words, we’ve seen numerous massive and sustained mobilisations over the past few years. What is different about the ongoing national protests in comparison to past mobilisations is that they have been characterised by a majority participation of urban citizens and mainly middle-class people. This caused them to be viewed not as the actions of a particular group of people – Indigenous peoples, peasants, or students – but instead as the work of outraged citizens who are tired of the policies that have increasingly plunged them into poverty, even though the country keeps flaunting positive economic growth indicators. Hence its massive and sustained character.
What do the protesters demand, and what response do they expect from the government?
The National Strike Committee has submitted a list of petitions around 13 major issues: guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest; social rights; economic rights; anti-corruption; peace; human rights; the rights of Mother Earth; political rights and guarantees; agricultural and fishery issues; compliance with agreements between government and social organisations; withdrawal of legislation; the repeal of specific laws; and reform of the law-making process.
On the first item, guarantees for the right to social protest, protesters urge the government to dismantle the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) and refrain from establishing any other similar force. They demand that those responsible for the death of Dylan Cruz, an 18-year-old who was shot dead in the head while running unarmed to escape ESMAD in the early days of the protest in Bogotá, be brought to justice and held accountable.
On the second item, social rights, protesters demand an end to labour subcontracting, the establishment of an interest rate for mortgage loans that is fair and correlated to people’s real incomes and the repeal of the tax that is currently used to finance the electricity company Electricaribe.
So far the government has shown no willingness to enter into any real dialogue and negotiation; instead, it insists on beginning ‘exploratory dialogues.’ Protesters expect the government to convene a negotiating table as soon as possible to address the substantial issues that have been raised.
How did the government react to the protests? What human rights violations were committed by the security forces?
On 15 November 2019, six days before the first protest was scheduled to take place, the national government made the decision to involve the army in control and security operations in Bogotá. Nine Brigade XIII contingents were deployed and more than 350 soldiers took part in monitoring, patrolling and security controls in Bogotá. This militarisation still persists in the city. The presence of a ‘riot squad’ of the national army, according to information released by the authorities, is particularly concerning. It should be noted that, except in exceptional circumstances, military forces should not intervene in operations to control, contain or even guarantee the celebration of social mobilisations.
In addition, as confirmed by the authorities, starting at 6am on 19 November, 37 raids were carried out in the residences and workplaces of media professionals throughout Colombia. To date, 21 of those raids have been declared illegal after undergoing judicial scrutiny, because they did not comply with legally established requirements, including being based on reasonable suspicion. According to information provided by the authorities, the raids involved people who were thought to be prone to committing acts of vandalism during the protest. However, it was mainly people linked to artistic groups, alternative media and social movements. Among the items seized were posters, brushes and paintings.
Also on 19 November, the Ministry of the Interior issued Decree 2087/2019, establishing new measures for the maintenance of public order. Article 3 made “a very special call to district and municipal mayors, so that in their duty to preserve public order in their respective territories, they comply [with the provisions of the Law] in matters of public order.” This call prompted the authorities of at least eight cities – Bogotá, Buenaventura, Cali, Candelaria, Chía, Facatativá, Jamundí and Popayán – to declare curfews. These affected the exercise of the rights to free movement and social protest for all citizens, even though acts affecting public order had been extremely localised.
Throughout the protests, the authorities made an improper and disproportionate use of force. Although Resolution 1190/2018 states that “the use of force must be considered the last resort of intervention by the National Police,” in most cases ESMAD has intervened without any apparent reason to do so. On 22 November it intervened in Plaza de Bolívar, where more than 5,000 people had assembled, although the demonstration was completely peaceful. On 23 November, Dylan Cruz was killed as a result of an unjustified intervention by ESMAD during a peaceful mobilisation. Although the weapon uses was among those authorised, the ammunition fired by ESMAD caused the death of this young man because of improper use, since according to international standards this type of weapon can only be fired at a distance greater than 60 metres, and only against lower extremities; otherwise, it is deemed to entail lethal risk. Strikingly, on a video recorded live by the Defend Freedom Campaign, an ESMAD agent can be heard encouraging another one to shoot, saying: “Shoot anyone, just anyone, come on daddy.”
During the protests more than 300 people were injured, including 12 who had eye injuries. Some young people were injured by firearms shot by the police, including Duvan Villegas, who might remain paralysed as a result of a bullet hitting him in the back. Another young man lost his right eye in Bogotá after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by the ESMAD, and two other people could face the loss of their legs due to the impact of teargas canisters thrown by the police from close range.
Overall, there were 1,514 arrests during the protests, 1,109 of them in Bogotá. Out of 914 people who were arrested, 103 (6.8 per cent) were prosecuted for allegedly being caught in the act of committing violence against a public official; however, arrest procedures were declared illegal in a high number of cases, both because there were not enough grounds for conducting them and because they were accompanied by physical violence against detainees.
The rest of the people who were detained (93.2 per cent) were transferred for protection or by police procedure. According to the law, detention in these cases is justified when the life or integrity of the person or a third party is at risk or danger. However, in practice an abusive use of this power was made, since these were mostly administrative detentions, used as a mechanism of intimidation and punishment against citizens who were exercising their right to protest. Therefore, these were mostly arbitrary detentions.
In some of these cases, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment was documented during detention, particularly in Immediate Attention Commands or police stations. Cases came to our attention of people who were forced to undress, others who received electric shocks through electrical control devices and some who had broken bones in their hands as a result of baton charges or being kicked.
Additionally, in Bogotá, more than 620 people who were transferred to the Protection Transfer Centre were punished with police appearance orders, in many cases for the crime of disruption, for having obstructed transport. This mechanism, which results in fines amounting to around 200,000 Colombian pesos (approx. US$60), was used indiscriminately and has affected the exercise of social protest.
How has civil society organised in the face of these abuses?
In 2012, the Defend Freedom Campaign was established. Through its Verification and Intervention Commissions, recognised in Resolution 1190 of 2018, the campaign does on-site monitoring of social mobilisation, documents cases of arbitrary and excessive use of force by police authorities, arbitrary detention and transfer for protection and various forms of repression and abusive use of police power against protesters and human rights defenders, and it systematises the information collected. The campaign also promotes the creation of a National Network of Civil Society Commissions for Verification and Intervention in situations of social mobilisation.
Likewise, through a joint demand, the National Process of Guarantees, the Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit and the Defend Freedom Campaign have obtained verifiable commitments from the national government and the government of Bogotá to establish public policies aimed at enforcing respect for the freedoms of individuals, communities and social organisations that promote and defend rights. The most important of these were Decree 563/2015 (Protocol of Action for Social Mobilisations in Bogotá: For the Right to Mobilisation and Peaceful Protest) issued by the Office of Bogotá’s Mayor and Resolution 1190/2018 (Protocol for the coordination of actions to respect and guarantee peaceful protest) issued by the Ministry of the Interior.
What immediate measures should the Colombian government adopt in response to the protests?
First, the government should convene the monitoring mechanism (‘Mesa de Seguimiento’) to respect and guarantee peaceful protest, as a space for negotiation and dialogue that should define mechanisms to guarantee the right to protest, as envisaged in Resolution 1190. Likewise, the government should immediately suspend the use of 12-calibre shotguns by ESMAD members, due to their high impact on people’s physical integrity and life. Second, it should refrain from pursuing stigmatisation and criminalisation campaigns against those who engage in social protest. Third, the government should initiate a negotiation process with the National Strike Committee to address its demands. And in response to the substantive demands made by the National Strike Committee, the government should start by withdrawing its proposals for labour and pension reform that are due for congressional debate, and initiate a broad and participatory process towards the formulation of new laws concerning those issues.
Do you think the response of the international community has been adequate? How could international groups and organisations support Colombian civil society and contribute to safeguarding civic space in the country?
I believe that the international community and the United Nations system were able to issue a timely warning regarding the risks of repression of social protest. The call made by human rights organisations in the USA to urge their government to start a moratorium on the sale of US riot weapons to Colombia was also timely.
However, it would also be important for Colombian civil society to receive longer-term support to undertake medium-term strategies that allow for a deeper and more detailed follow-up of the human rights situation, and particularly to help make progress in judicial investigations for the human rights violations allegedly committed during the protests.
Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Solidarity Committee Foundation through its website and Facebook page, or follow @CSPP_ on Twitter.
Get in touch with the Defend Freedom Campaign through its website and Facebook page, or