• Feature

Amid a deadly crackdown, protesters in Colombia are finding ways to break the stigma of dissent

Colombia’s media and politicians have cast activists as the enemy for decades. One group is trying to change that.
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A recent satirical video has been gaining steam among Colombian youth, titled “Todo es Culpa de Petro,” or “Everything is Petro’s fault.” The video highlights the story of a young man who has everything going wrong in his life, from missing class to getting rejected by his crush. The person behind his misfortune is revealed to be none other than leftist politician Gustavo Petro, former M-19 guerilla, senator and presidential candidate. Although the video is meant to be a joke, it does reflect the dominant media narrative — and much of the mainstream political discourse — which blames the protests that have gripped Colombia since April 28 on Petro. This is despite the fact that he has no connections to them, and they have been spontaneously organized. 

For nearly two months, demonstrators have been taking to the streets to protest the country’s regressive tax reform, its slow COVID relief plan and the inability of the government to provide basic needs to large sectors of the population. Instead of highlighting these very real grievances, much of the media coverage and commentary by politicians in power have blamed the left or outside forces for inciting the protests. 

For instance, the magazine Semana — Colombia’s equivalent to Time — published a cover with a diabolic Petro covered in flames, implying that he was behind the scenes invoking the protests. As the satirical video shows, this smearing of Petro is really about smearing the protests and stigmatizing the people who take to the streets to practice their legal right to speak out. Sadly, such behavior is part of a long history of targeting social movements — both in Colombia and the region.

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The “internal enemy”

Angelica Orjuela is the technical coordinator at Congreso de los Pueblos, or People’s Congress — an umbrella organization for various social movements that have been active in the protests. She says the media have presented the protesters as an “internal enemy” instead of legitimate critics of the government and President Iván Duque’s neoliberal regime. “For them, the enemy is not the ESMAD [riot police], it’s the social movements,” she said. “The enemy isn’t the lack of rights to education or health care. It’s not the economic problems. It’s not the people destroying natural resources. Instead, the enemy is the person out protesting.” 

According to Orjuela, the media does not treat the right-wing counter-protesters in the same way. “You see people who go out with their white shirts and guns to counterprotest,” she explained. “People go out with the intention to cause harm to protesters, but according to the media narrative, they’re not the ones who are putting the country in danger — it’s the protesters who are doing harm to the country.”

The media aren’t the only ones who are actively promoting this narrative. In a recent interview, Justice Minister Wilson Ruíz said that the national strike was a conspiracy by international criminal groups to destabilize and delegitimize Colombia on a national scale. Stigmatizing the people out in the streets as agents or pawns of these so-called criminal organizations absolves the Colombian state of responsibility when it comes to the death of protesters. The human rights organization Indepaz reports that between April 28 and June 21 there have been 74 deaths related to the national strike protests. 

The narrative of the internal enemy in Colombia has a long history that dates back to the Cold War. During this era, a military practice known as the National Security Doctrine was used throughout Latin America to purge the nation of “internal enemies” who were viewed as part of a larger communist conspiracy to destabilize the region. This policy led to the establishment of military dictatorships throughout the region and the murder of hundreds of thousands of leftists and activists. 

In Colombia, it was a big part of the state’s counterinsurgency strategy during the internal war against the various guerrilla groups that started in the 1960s and continues today. It was also a key justification for state repression against legal organizations like the political party Unión Patriotica, which was subject to what many human rights organizations have referred to as a political genocide

“Initially it’s the image of a communist and then that of a terrorist or bandit. Today it’s that of the vandal,” said activist and lawyer Gloria Silvia, who works with the People’s Law Team. “This stigmatization justifies the annihilation of social leaders through methods like forced disappearances or murder. That’s why we call it a genocidal process — it’s not looking to get rid of an individual, but a whole group that questions the status quo.”

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Framing social leaders 

Both Orjuela and Silvia reported that protesters — many of them friends and fellow activists — are being arrested en masse. While most are released without charges being filed, some are being subjected to what they describe as “judicial setups,” a tactic the state has employed against social movements for years. 

According to Silva the judicial setups are carried out by the police and the attorney general’s special office against organized crime, what used to be the anti-terrorism unit. This office identifies people in leadership positions in social movements and then conducts “investigations” on them. In the process of the investigation they find witnesses who will make declarations against the social leaders for economic and legal benefits and turn them into charges to bring before a judge. 

“When they make an arrest, they do so in a spectacular way, with tons of police and even sometimes helicopters,” Silva said. “These are usually also massive arrests that include various people. They try to show the media that it’s a deep investigation, with a lot of research, to create a condemnation before they’re even put on trial.”

These setups use extreme charges like terrorism in an attempt to associate movement leaders with one of Colombia’s armed groups, therefore de-legitimizing them. Because leaders are accused of being part of these groups, they are put in maximum security prisons, where they are subject to paramilitary threats and the psychological trauma that comes with isolation. This stigmatization also means that many judges fear touching their cases out of reprisal from the attorney general’s office. 

Before Orjuela was the technical coordinator of Congreso de los Pueblos, the position was held by her friend Julian Gil, who was accused of being a member of Colombia’s largest remaining insurgent group and arrested in what Congreso labels a judicial setup. After his arrest, Gil endured 900 days in prison under horrible conditions. He was eventually released last November, after his defense proved that he did not meet with someone the prosecution said he met with, and it became evident they did not have a case.

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Because the framing and arrest of social leaders is so common, Orjuela believes it is necessary not just to support the cause of social leaders, but to raise awareness around their situation. That’s why Congreso de los Pueblos launched a campaign called Ser Lider Social NO es Delito, or Being a Social Leader is NOT a Crime in 2016. While much of the campaign involves educating people through social media about repression taking place — as well as the important community work that social leaders engage in — the group also goes directly to the prisons where social leaders are being held, stages protests outside the prison and attends trials. 

“When people are sent to prison they get lost — people forget about them and stop visiting,” Orjuela said. “They are scared to visit them because of the image that prison has, and the perception that if you’re in there, it’s because you’re a criminal.” The campaign seeks to break these stereotypes through various initiatives. When prison visits were off limits due to the pandemic, they developed a class about human rights and criminal law that was broadcast over the radio, to ensure that prisoners would be able to listen to it.

Although the protests are dying down, the vilification of activists is an issue that will plague Colombian society, with the government and politicians continuing to paint protesters and social leaders as criminals — even in the face of international pressure. According to the human rights organization Temblores, there have been at least 4,285 incidents of violence against protesters since the demonstrations began, but it remains to be seen if the Colombian government will take these violations seriously. 

Still, Orjuela has hope that things can change through organizing, citing the National People’s Assembly, which was held in early June and was a broad, diverse space created to welcome new people into the movement. “Now, we’re organizing a new assembly to keep up that energy,” she explained. “The goal is to get the government to meet some basic human rights requirements so we can dialogue with them.”

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