CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Colombia with a group of members of the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners Foundation (FCSPP) and the Defend Freedom: Everyone’s Business Campaign, who responded collectively to our questions. FCSPP is an organisation that promotes respect and enforcement of the human rights of all people in Colombia, with a focus on the rights to life, liberty, physical and moral integrity, dignified treatment, fair and impartial trial and other rights of persons deprived of their liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and tried for participating in protests. The Defend Freedom Campaign is a network of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations working to denounce arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia.
What are the main causes of recent protests in Colombia?
From our perspective, the reasons behind the protests in Colombia are diverse. In addition to tax injustice, reflected in the proposal submitted by the national government to collect more taxes, the government's poor handling of the health crisis and the economic, ecological and socio-environmental crises exacerbated by the pandemic is also a cause. In the context of the pandemic, a key demand was related to the inefficient management of the Colombian health system and the need for a reform focused on protecting those working in the health sector and providing comprehensive and preventive care to the general population. The inefficient management of the public pension system and the lack of public policies to promote equitable access by Colombia’s young people to free, quality education and quality employment also came to the fore.
In addition to the socio-ecological injustices caused by a mining and energy policy promoting predatory extractive megaprojects, the lack of commitment by the national government to sign the Escazú Agreement on environmental rights has been accompanied by an unabated wave of murders and other attacks against social, community, environmental, territorial, community and human rights leaders. This violence is perpetuated by the impunity guaranteed by the judicial system to those within the security forces and more generally the state apparatus responsible for human rights violations.
The protests have also highlighted the absence of guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest, which instead of being protected is being stigmatised and attacked by the state.
How do these protests connect to those that took place in previous years?
The current protests are in direct continuity with the protests of 2020, given that the pandemic resulted in an extended hiatus during which social protest was prevented from taking place physically. During this period, however, the structural issues that motivate social protests were not forgotten, let alone did they disappear, but on the contrary they often deepened and worsened.
How have the authorities responded to the protests?
The National Police have responded with a violent, disproportionate and often unlawful reaction against protesters. According to data collected by the Defend Freedom Campaign, between 28 April and 21 July 2021 this violence resulted in 87 deaths of civilians in the context of protests, 28 of them attributable to the security forces, seven to unidentified civilians and 46 to unidentified perpetrators. During this time, 1,905 people were injured as a result of the disproportionate actions of the National Police, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squads (ESMAD) and unidentified civilians. In addition, 326 human rights defenders were attacked in the context of their work accompanying social protests, 106 were victims of gender-based violence and 3,365 people were detained, many of them arbitrarily, resulting in 1,603 complaints of abuse of power and police violence. These figures are evidence of the unwillingness of the authorities to engage in dialogue and of the way in which the right to social protest is being violated in Colombia. Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk.
Rights violations not only occur during protest itself, but are also compounded when it comes to the institutions that are supposed to pay attention, gather data and follow up on violations. We have documented cases of injured people who have not been attended to in hospitals and medical centres. Likewise, the records of missing persons kept by the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor's Office diverge widely; as of 5 June, the Ombudsman’s Office recorded 89 people missing in the context of the protests, while the Prosecutor’s Office recorded 129. This shows a lack of clarity and coordination between the state institutions that should play a key role in documenting, attending to and providing efficient and timely follow-up to human rights violations.
What were the effects of repression on protesters?
After the media publicised some cases, especially of killings and sexual violence allegedly committed by the security forces, citizens continued to demonstrate in acts of solidarity and collective memory. Further, with the aim of coordinating actions, informing citizens, debating and establishing clear common demands, three National Popular Assemblies were held, two in person – one in Bogotá, from 6 to 8 June, and another in Cali, from 17 to 20 July – and a third virtually, on 15 August. All of them were widely attended by popular organisations and social movements. Discussions were also held in localities, municipalities and cities to build an understanding of interests, needs and proposals. This demonstrated the willingness of citizens who had been protesting to engage in permanent dialogue with government bodies to put forward their demands.
How was it possible to sustain mobilisation for several months, and are protests expected to continue?
In some territories, protesters found a series of conditions that allowed them to meet peacefully and originate new organisational processes through the exercise of their right to the freedom of association. These processes were based on previously established relationships of solidarity, not only among organisations but also within less formal civil society, which mobilised in peaceful marches and by donating non-perishable goods, basic medical supplies, items for protection and other forms of support to the young people who mobilised on what is now known as ‘the frontlines’.
The mobilisation was sustained thanks to new and creative forms of organisation that helped distribute roles in the midst of intense days of police repression, with some people in charge of holding up defensive barriers with improvised or relatively elaborate shields, others in charge of returning teargas canisters and mitigating deterrence tools used by the police, others in charge of providing medical, psychosocial, emotional and legal first aid to those who needed it, and others playing care roles, providing food and hydration to protesters. The result was the emergence of spaces such as ‘Puerto Resistencia’ (Resistance Port) in Cali and ‘Espacio Humanitario al Calor de la Olla’ (Humanitarian Space at the Heat of the Pot) in Bogotá, which were replicated at other resistance hotspots around the country. These spaces bring together inter-organisational and inter-generational networks which, through dialogue and assembly meetings, build consensus and prioritise actions adaptable to each territory’s context.
It is to be expected that the protests will continue, given that they have not only arisen from historic centres of protests, such as workers’ confederations and teachers’ unions, but there are also now multiple protest hubs in cities and highways around the country where people mobilise a diverse range of organised, organising and unorganised citizens with different motivations and people take to the streets due to a variety of situations. Commemorative dates are coming that will surely generate mobilisation, perhaps not on a daily basis as happened between April and July, but with actions that will keep alive the demands made visible both by the National Roundtables of the National Strike Committee and by other spaces promoted by civil society at the local and municipal levels.
How have attacks by armed civilian groups affected demonstrations?
The Campaign has documented multiple situations in which armed civilians attacked protesters, mainly in the departments of Cundinamarca, Risaralda, Norte de Santander, Tolima and Valle del Cauca, and the city of Bogotá. Several of the aggressions recorded were committed by civilians accompanied by members of the security forces, who did not take any action to stop them but rather supported them. Many of these civilians call themselves ‘defenders of private property’.
A clear example of this, taken from the records of the Campaign’s Information System of Aggressions against Social Protest (SIAP), occurred in Cali on the afternoon of 9 May, when agents of the National Police, together with several civilians mobilised in pick-up trucks, attacked the Indigenous Guard, a civil resistance group mobilised in defence of the territory and the life plan of the Indigenous communities. The attack left 10 people injured, one of them in serious condition with a double bullet wound to the stomach. Another case recorded by SIAP occurred in Cali on 6 May; on this occasion, armed persons in civilian clothes got out of a truck and shot at protesters. As a result of citizens’ demands that the army stop them, the interior of the truck was searched and a police jacket was found, and when its number plates were checked, the vehicle was identified as police property.
In other cases, armed civilians act without police being present. It is important to mention the presence of paramilitary groups: in places where mobilisation increased, graffiti and pamphlets from paramilitary groups such as the Black Eagles and the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia were found, aimed at intimidating the population to dissuade people from participating in protests.
How has the government responded to the recommendations issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)?
In public statements referring to the IACHR recommendations, President Iván Duque once again stigmatised the exercise of the right to social protest and highlighted the effects of protest roadblocks on the rights to free movement and work. The government invoked the constitution to reject the proposal to separate the National Police from the Ministry of Defence and was defensive about the possibility of creating a mechanism to monitor human rights.
Despite the recommendations, human rights violations continued unabated. As of 7 July 2021, the day the IACHR recommendations were made public, the Campaign registered 152 detentions, most of them arbitrary, 92 people injured by the actions of ESMAD, the National Police and armed civilians, four cases of gender-based violence, 29 attacks on human rights defenders, 72 complaints of police abuse and violence, and 29 raids. This occurred despite the fact that mobilisations had decreased in intensity and frequency; a large part of these violations happened on a single day, 20 July. But a change in repressive strategy was observed, as the number of raids increased dramatically.
How can international civil society support Colombian civil society?
International civil society can support us through campaigns such as SOS Colombia, but on a more permanent basis, and not limited to peak moments of repression. They could also help us by assisting the countries that act as guarantors of Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accord in doing an exhaustive review of the execution of peacebuilding resources, and by supporting those organisations that have denounced police and state abuses through investigative, communicative and political advocacy strategies in international human rights forums and advocacy spaces, thus giving more visibility to the social, humanitarian and ecological crisis facing Colombia.
Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CSPP_ on Twitter. Contact the Defend Freedom Campaign through its website or Facebook page, and follow @DefenderLiberta on Twitter.