Demonstrators in Bogota, Colombia, celebrating and paying homage to South America’s Liberator, Simon Bolivar. Protests in that country against unpopular tax reforms began April 28 and have met waves of violent state repression. Photo Credit: Zulu King Che Guerrero.
Amid waves of violent state repression, Colombians have lost their fear of protesting. Meanwhile, Canada’s silence on the violent crackdown, as well as its close economic, ideological and military ties to the Colombian government, speaks volumes of its moral and political decadence.
Music from wooden flutes traditionally played by Indigenous people in the southwest region of Colombia fills the air as demonstrators – some of them clad in the multicoloured Winphala flag representing Indigenous unity and resistance – dance, sing and chant around a statue of Christopher Columbus in one of Bogota’s main squares near the airport.
In a 15-minute video – shot and uploaded to social media on June 9 by Zulu King Che Guerrero, a community leader and self-described “cultural manager and labourer of hip-hop” – demonstrators who had begun arriving at 5:00 AM, in the rain, can be seen trying to remove the statue. It’s a symbolic but highly significant celebration and show of solidarity with the Misak People, who led the event, and part of the ongoing protests that started in the South American nation on April 28. Since then, demonstrators have seen wave after wave of violent state-sanctioned police repression.
Like in Canada and many other parts of the world, Indigenous Peoples in Colombia have also mobilized to remove colonizers’ statues. It’s a move to “harmonize” the land and its people as part of a “popular education” exercise in “rewriting history,” says Guerrero, who prefers to go by his MC stage name, which protects him.
“It’s a commitment to history,” he says in Spanish during an interview over Google Meet from the capital city, where the action took place.
His video also shows National Police in tactical gear surrounding the statue to protect it. People celebrate around them, though local news reports state they were later dispersed with smoke bombs. Guerrero, a mestizo (of mixed ethnicity) from the Muiska Nation, says he came “within centimetres” of being hit when cops began to “shoot at (the) bodies” of protesters.
“I felt that this is where my life ends,” he recalls. “It was (a combination of) fear, anger and frustration at having no way to respond, not even a rock….to their disproportionate use of force.”
Nothing seen in the video he shot shows violence from protesters.
“They protect the (catholic) church that tried to exterminate our race,” an Indigenous woman playing a traditional drum yells in Spanish, interrupting her dancing to face the row of cops while pointing her drum at them.
“If only you protected us like that,” she adds with a scoff before dancing away with a smile into the jubilant crowd.
Colombia’s ongoing protests reflect historical realities that extend far beyond the decades-long armed conflict with the country’s guerillas, the most known of which is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and far beyond the April 28 tax law that started them. The various dispersed demonstrations have organically converged into a national anti-colonial struggle against the country’s legacy of Spanish colonialism, including modern capitalist settler-colonial relations, which have institutionalized poverty, misery and racism in the everyday reality for most Colombians.
“One of these statues is worth more to (the state) than the hunger Colombians’ live through,” a man identified as a member of the Misak Nation says in Spanish during an interview conducted by Guerrero in the video. “We can’t ignore these symbols of remembrance.”
The man notes the displacement of Indigenous people from their lands has not stopped but merely changed shapes and administrators.
“Before, our ancestors suffered from the bullets and the wars,” he says. “Today, it’s modern police that displace us. But here we are, resisting.”
A second man, also identified as a member of the Misak Nation, asserts the “constitutionality” of these peaceful actions of rebellion, by citing both the 2016 Peace Accord signed in Havana between then President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, which assured the access to truth as a fundamental right; as well as the country’s 1991 Constitution, which enshrines ethnocultural diversity in Colombia through recognition of Indigenous and Afro-descendants’ people’s rights.
The statues, he says, “sicken the territory because they re-victimize” people in a way that “hasn’t allowed for the creation of other cultures and other traditions.”
“These (colonial) figures deepen that exclusion and discrimination,” says the man around the 5-minute mark. “Today, there are still many societies that consider themselves feudal and…pretend to be the arbiters of political power in Colombia…So, this is a political act calling for a new society that recognizes and protects diversity.”
Asked about people and governments claiming their actions to be disrespectful and an erasure of history, the man responds that they are taking an “antiquated position, out of step with the constitutional and social history.”
“This is a legitimate act of political development and action,” he says.
Between 2016 and 2019, 623 Indigenous and community leaders were murdered in Colombia, according to a report from Colombia’s Institute for Studies of Peace and Development (Indepaz). According to a report in the Atlantic, “(m)ost of those murders took place in regions that the FARC had controlled but abandoned when it disarmed.”
That year, amid a “wave of assassinations,” says Guerrero, the first mass movements began against the state’s corruption and neglect. With the pandemic, in 2020, people “lowered their guards,” only to be hit with a new set of highly unpopular reforms in 2021. Among them was a tax law that would have placed the burden of the pandemic on the backs of the poorest sectors by lowering the taxable income threshold, along with other unpopular reforms to healthcare and pensions.
“And that was the drop that tipped the glass,” says Guerrero, with the “first lines of resistance coming out of Cali.”
He estimates more than 20 million people, some reportedly as young as 11 years old, have come out to marches in a country of just over 50 million. “There’s resistance throughout Colombia,” he says, including in major cities like Cali, Cauca, Bogota, Medellin, Pereira and the Coast. He says all types of groups are represented: the unemployed, the youth, the student movement, the labour movement, the women’s movement, feminists, campesinos, farmers, teachers, Indigenous people, Afro-descendants, artists, dancers, writers, painters…the list goes on.
“All of society has united,” he says.
Unfortunately, the state’s repression has been just as swift.
In mid-May, Colombia’s ombudsman and international news organizations reported that 42 people had been killed and 168 reported missing. Guerrero says that number has now ballooned to “more than 80 assassinations by ESMAD” – Colombia’s Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron – and “more than 300 disappeared.”
“These are more aggressive,” he says of the waves of state-sanctioned repression, adding that police are now using military weapons, and paramilitary death squads have “infiltrated” the protests and killed social leaders. The army has also been implicated. “It’s been managed military-style,” he says, “as if we were armed insurgents.”
Demonstrators, who have been largely peaceful, have resorted to defending themselves with “shields and rocks,” purposefully avoiding the use of weapons and violence in order to not delegitimize the protests. “The intention is to maintain the resistance, not to go on the attack,” Guerrero explains.
“So, it’s not a civil war,” he adds, referring to how international news agencies have portrayed the situation.
“This is a massacre against the people.”
Few Options for Life
In Colombia, you can choose to die one of three ways, says the father of two children: Hunger, COVID-19, or protesting.
“Before, there was a fear of going out and protesting. Now, there isn’t,” Guerrero says. “People have lost the fear of losing their lives (because) there are so many ways to die in Colombia, but very few options for life.”
Everyday life has become “very difficult,” he says, notwithstanding the already devastating pandemic. There is a fiscal deficit, one of the highest unemployment rates in the hemisphere, and “no income and no support from the state,” he says. Adding insult to injury, politicians’ salaries have risen while “people are losing their jobs.”
“The main issue is lack of food,” he says. “Also lack of housing and of services. In fact, in some areas, they now cost more, and that has affected the working class the worst. That’s why we have so much indignation and anger in these protests.”
By his count, Guerrero has attended six of the current demonstrations by the time we speak in mid-June, including one with his son. “Protesting is a right,” he says. “It’s not on the margins of the law.”
The 40-year-old has grown up in an environment of social unrest, attending and organizing movements in a nation that has seen ongoing armed conflict between the military and leftist guerrilla fighters for nearly six decades, leaving a body-count of over 200,000 and displacing more than 7 million people.
The 2016 peace accord was supposed to put an end to that conflict, but right-wing President Ivan Duque, elected in 2019, has broken many of those terms. Still, Guerrero says, the guerrilla fighters have by and large “remained calm” and “have not used the current demonstrations to advance their fight.”
But the violence hasn’t stopped.
The state has merely turned its sights to civil society and social movements demanding systemic change while ramping up its belligerence.
“We knew the war was coming to the cities from the campos (fields). And that’s exactly what happened,” says Guerrero. “But we didn’t know the repression would be so violent…We trusted too much in the peace process.”
That Canada, an ally of President Duque, has officially misrepresented demonstrators’ actions as “vandalism” is unsurprising given the countries’ close economic and ideological ties. The overwhelming presence of Canadian mining corporations plundering the natural resource-rich nation and the 2011 Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement binds them together.
But it is dangerous.
“It’s a death sentence,” says Guerrero. “And it legitimizes (Colombia’s) dictatorship’s hard-handedness…in order to sell (the idea of) an internal enemy.”
Guerrero says Canada, the US and Israel are the three main countries helping the Colombian state’s brutal repression.
Amnesty International has reported that it has “verified visual evidence…that United States weapons and equipment are being misused to commit human rights violations against protesters.” And pictures circulating on social media show police using the Tavor Tar rifle from Israel Weapons Industries (IWI), described as the “primary assault rifle” of Israel Defence Forces (IDF) on the company’s website. Sand Cat armoured vehicles from Israeli company Plasan Sasa Ltda, bought in 2015 by the government, are currently “on the streets of Colombia’s major cities,” according to an investigative report from popularresistance.org.
Though Canada’s involvement in the past has been much more shadowy – including supplying and maintaining CH-135 helicopters and other military equipment through the US in order to evade its own export controls to conflict countries, which includes Colombia – its role is devastating as it is key.
“Canada’s role in Colombia has increased the enormous suffering of its people,” according to a report commissioned by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in 2012, a year after the signing of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
“Canadian government and companies have expanded their penetration of the Colombian economy by exacerbating the poverty and inequality that are the main causes of the country’s civil war.”
In fact, the militarization of Colombia’s police and the ongoing repression of protesters is arguably uniquely Canadian-brewed, considering that in 2017, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent police officers to provide “training, capacity building and strategic advice” to their Colombian counterparts, according to a Global News report.
So, the responsibility falls squarely on these countries’ shoulders, says Guerrero.
“All these companies (and governments) are guilty of fomenting violence in Colombia,” he says. “And they must be judged in the International Criminal Court (ICC)…Colombians are victims of a multinational war.”
Committed to Change
There is no end in sight for the current protests, as Guerrero sees it, at least not until the government commits to sincere and open dialogue with the multiple and powerful social forces demanding change.
He says there needs to be both a national dialogue to discuss the state’s responsibility for the deaths, as well as reparations for the surviving victims; and a “popular dialogue” among the social groups themselves in order to discuss how to “get out of this conflict, but never to surrender.”
Looking ahead of next year’s elections, he says social movements have to work together in order to “seduce people to get out and vote.”
For his part, he says nothing will keep him from marching in the streets with the people and with his kids in order to show them that, indeed, “a different world is possible.”
Like all Colombians, he says, he’s learned to “resist in the face of everything a narco-state” can throw his way. Being born in the middle of a country where “every day life” is characterized by “war, narco-trafico, bullets and assassinations” will do that.
Yet, hip-hop and art will be his only weapons, as he hopes to free the “new generations” from the violence he grew up in.
“The fear is gone,” he says.
“This is a time for transformation, and we are committed to change.”