‘Go to your homes or we’ll kill you’ — Despite facing brutal repression, Colombians continue their historic mobilization

Tired of violence and living in poverty, protests sparked by a tax reform bill have morphed into calls for deep systemic change in Colombia.

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In April 2021, Colombians took to the streets to show their frustration with a variety of issues facing the country. Protests began as opposition towards President Iván Duque’s tax reform bill but have now evolved to call for dramatic changes. 

The tax reform bill was presented to foot the bill for government spending since the beginning of the pandemic. Duque’s government argued that the bill would raise money to pay the country’s deficit and lift the people out of poverty. The bill included the expansion of income taxes and raising taxes on everyday goods like milk, cheese and meat. 

Protesters argued that the bill would burden the already struggling working class of Colombia. They called for government reforms, including things like free education. Demonstrations want a freer, fairer Colombia for all the country’s residents. Their calls were met with severe police repression with dozens people killed or injured at protests. 

After several days of demonstrations, Duque withdrew the tax bill, hoping it would end demonstrations, but did not address protesters’ demands for government reform. Instead, Colombian police continued their brutal, repressive tactics against protesters all over the country. The Colombian government has characterized these protesters as being members of guerrilla groups or extremist to justify its use of force, but have refused to grapple the dire economic situation many Colombians find themselves in. Colombia is now in its third month of demonstrations and some hope that this could lead to much needed change in the country. Others are not so hopeful. 

I spoke with Santiago Forero, a psychologist and activist based in Colombia to get a deeper understanding of this movement and its implications. He is a part of La Tulpa, an antimilitarist organization based in Bogota, and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign in support of Palestinian liberation. Santiago has also worked with Afro-Colombian communities and is dedicated to the protection of human rights, the right to conscientious objection, disarmament and promoting nonviolence resistance through research and workshops.

Santiago spoke to me about the state’s brutal repression, what Colombians are doing to fight for their freedom, and what concerned people outside of Colombia can do to stand in solidarity with protesters.

The protests initially began as demonstrations against a tax reform bill. Now that President Ivan Duque has renounced the bill, what does it say that people are still in the streets?

The problem in Colombia is beyond the tax reform bill. I believe that this reform was just a spark, but the problem is historical and structural. In Colombia, specifically, the main problem is that the only presence of the state is the military. People are just tired of living in appalling conditions. Many people struggle to get food, children can’t go to school, young people cannot afford college, public education is struggling, and labor conditions are terribly bad. Yes, the pandemic has worsened the situation and poverty rose absurdly, but we cannot say that this is something new. Finally, people are so tired of violence in our country. Since our country signed the peace agreement with the FARC in 2016, violence has increased. 

I found some relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, where Black communities are tired of being made permanent victims of police brutality. Enough is enough, we’re done with violence, we don’t want more war. We just want our rights, respect and to be heard by the government and its institutions. The situation we’re going through is not new, as this is something that people in the countryside and in the territories abandoned by the state have been living for more than 50 years. The difference is that we’re seeing violence in our big cities, in our streets where the public eye is.

How have people taken to the streets? Can you tell us more about the national strike?

In general, I really like rallies in Colombia as there’s so much art and people are usually very creative. Still, one of the problems I’ve seen in the past is that we’ve lacked support between each other to successfully achieve our goals. For example, if students go out to the streets, usually there is not much support from the rest of the country. 

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Nonetheless, this time that has changed and most of the country is exhausted by this government. In fact, the only positive from this tax reform was that it brought the country together. Truck drivers blocked highways, and everyone — students, teachers, farmers, indigenous communities — was united against this reform and now against this government. 

Another thing that I adored from Colombia is solidarity — preparing food and doing “canelazos” [a traditional social activity in Colombia of people making hot beverages like “aguapanela,” coffee or chocolate in big pots on the streets or houses from the neighborhood and sharing with people in the street, in this case, in the rallies]. Also, in Cali, the Indigenous Guard are in the rallies and they have provided protection to protesters. 

The Indigenous Guard is a community protection group of indigenous people from Cauca, Colombia. Can you talk about how they have organized to defend their territories and provided security to people at rallies?

They play their instruments, and they bring so many beautiful colors and activities to our rallies. We really love the Indigenous Guard and we trust in them more than in the police. When you see pictures from rallies in Colombia, there are so many colors, people dancing and singing, painting, performances, and even, in some colleges, professors called their students to have class in the streets. There are so many brave people dreaming of a beautiful country with equity. On some occasions, some statues of Spanish conquistadors have been torn down as a sign of resistance and to decolonize our minds. It’s hurtful, especially for indigenous communities, to see statues from those who massacred them in the past.

At least 42 people have reportedly died in the last three weeks of the protests, and thousands more have gone missing or disappeared. The protests have been met with violent state repression, leading to condemnation by international organizations and foreign governments. Can you describe some of strategies that the police and military have used to quell dissent? 

The main strategy from government and public forces is to control through fear. Since 1999, when the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron, or ESMAD, was founded, the squad has been responsible for many deaths. One of our rules for protection is that you must know where ESMAD is, because if they start acting you must be very careful in order to survive. 

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Because of this, it is really difficult to go into a rally with no fear. Most of the government institutions usually call people at the rallies “vandals” and this week our Ministry of Defense said that there is terrorism in rallies. This is a whole new level and you can understand why public forces act like this. 

What kind of weapons do ESMAS use to intimidate people?

On some occasions, they use something that we call “recalzadas,” which are bullets and/or cans of what they have already shot filled with nails or marbles or whatever they can think of at the time. They even use expired tear gas! There are also anti-riot tanks, and they throw tear gas, stun bombs and water from those vehicles. In fact, we found out that government bought a new weapon named Venom [used by U.S. Navy] for these tanks and are quite scary. You feel like you’re in the middle of war zones, but it’s just your neighborhood being repressed. They don’t just want to clear zones, they want to hurt you, they want to kill you. The other day I read some reports about how in Pereira they tried to run over people in a rally with an anti-riot tank. In these actions you can see the viciousness with which they act. 

In the past, the military and the police disappeared young people, they killed them and put them in guerrilla uniforms to report them as combat casualties. This week I read about three cases of police torturing people and it’s so horrible. Here in Colombia, especially at this moment, you don’t know if you’re going to return to your home after a rally. They are shooting tear gas at residential blocks, and you can see children struggling to breath because of this gas.

And how has the military been involved in the government’s violent crackdown on the movement? 

The president ordered the militarization of cities and we’re afraid of the military too. That night, I remember that some folks from the Antimilitarist Movement were doing an artistic intervention in San Luis [a neighborhood outside Bogota] and police arrived and started shooting. It was horrible as they’re people who you have met and worked with in the past — peaceful people focused on art — and that night they almost died. The military closed the entrance, so there were no human rights networks to protect them. When there are rallies, usually there are police helicopters flying over the city, but now there are military helicopters. The other night it was so scary as one of these helicopters was flying very low over my home. 

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In Pasto, for example, military tanks are roaming the streets, not to shoot but to intimidate and generate fear. In Gachancipa, someone in an anti-riot tank was yelling “go to your homes or we’ll kill you” in a residential neighborhood. There are allegedly shortages in the markets as well, but it’s clear that is a strategy to make people hate the national strike. 

And what is the role of the paramilitary forces or agents provocateur in the movement?

This is the most worrying thing: there are too many paramilitary forces [literally, civilians with weapons] on the streets. The real problem is that we know that some of them are police agents in civilian clothes. For example, on May 6 in Cali, a dozen “civilians” climbed out of a truck and start shooting at people in the rally. Nonetheless, the military acted and they escaped. 

Then, the truck was searched and people found police uniforms. This was one of the few occasions when the police admitted that these civilians were agents from the institution. This is the best example that there are infiltrators from the public forces in the rallies and, on many occasions, they are the ones who provoke the aggression to justify the intervention of ESMAD. 

On May 7, a “civilian” car was shooting indiscriminately at people in Cali. This car spent three hours doing this and no one from the public forces stopped it, despite the fact that Cali is the most militarized city at the moment. Who stopped this car? The Indigenous Guard and they detained one person who apparently is a cop. 

How have protesters and Colombians in general responded to these efforts by the state to quell dissent? How are people supporting each other in the face of government failure in response to the pandemic and protests?

This is really difficult as people aren’t just tired of Duque’s administration, they’re tired of his political party that we call “Uribismo” [the policies and politics of former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez, whose presidency was marked by human rights violations and extra-judicial killings]. The challenge for Duque is huge. I don’t believe he has enough experience to know what to do, and he relies on his political party too much and his ministries. Now, the other problem is that people don’t believe what he says and most of the people in the rallies are asking for his resignation. 

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There are many reports that [those following] Uribismo are asking the president to declare a state of siege, and he doesn’t rule out this option. So, to solve the situation, we need a government that truly hears its people and guarantees that agreements with the people are successfully fulfilled. For me the situation is summed up in the following question: What can Duque do to create a national dialogue when no one believes what he says and no one wants him as a president? 

On the other hand, we’re trying to support each other. In the last week I’ve seen some terrible things, but also some really positive and beautiful things. For example, all the social movements are trying to do their part, to keep moving information and contacts to find people or to get to journalists or social movements from abroad. So, everyone is working so hard and trying to find a way to help in this terrible moment. There are psychologists offering free services, lawyers offering free legal advice. Everyone is trying to protect our youth and their rights, and especially their lives because, at this moment, they’re killing our youth. Many people are offering their homes for people who are being pursued by police. There’s a lot of international support too and that’s a light of hope in the middle of the storm. We’re worried about the state of siege, and going back to our own past. [If that is declared] there’s going to be an even worse massacre here in Colombia.

These uprisings are some of the largest in Colombian history. What do you hope to see come out of these protests? Do you think they will have a lasting impact on Colombian politics and the Colombian people?

Personally, I have a pessimistic perspective about this. In my perspective, our strikes are usually not organized as they should be. There are no leaders and the self-appointed leaders of the movement usually represent their own interests. Every life that we lose really hurts me, so I decided to focus more on community work and peace education. Nonetheless, this context is new for me and for everyone. It is very different and I know that there are plenty of people who share my fear. I wish for a better country; we deserve a better country, but I reiterate that historically our government has preferred us to be dead rather than having a dignified life and with guarantees of our rights. 

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Nonetheless, this has been helpful to show how violent police are with us. I hope that this will be the basis to raise awareness about our responsibility with our votes as well. I don’t know what will happen. At this moment it is difficult to have the whole picture of the future, and we’re desperate for this slaughter to end.

What sorts of things can people living outside of Colombia do to stand in solidarity with protesters?

First, we need human rights organizations to protect us. The few human rights and medical missions [in Colombia] have been harassed, intimidated and even shot at by the public forces while on verification missions. We need to stop this immediately, and in the long term we need real criminal proceedings against those responsible. We are not getting that help, so our efforts are focused in raising awareness so that people abroad can see the truth about this fascist government. 

At the same time, we’re looking for this because we’re afraid that we’ll be censored. This week we saw our stories on Instagram being deleted, alternative media being hacked, threatened, harassed and intimidated. 

With the Antimilitarist Movement we promoted an action on May 7 for people abroad to deliver a letter [in English, Spanish or French] to Colombia’s embassies and consulates. We know that Uribismo loves its image on international stages, so we need other countries, governments and human rights organizations to do something about this. There were a lot of people helping us, but still we need much more pressure and help. Otherwise, the situation will be awful. This is quite overwhelming, so any help for us means a lot. And please, give us hope, support our people because this moment is psychologically very stressing and overwhelming. As I said before, when people help us and show us support, that recharges our batteries and our will to resist authoritarianism.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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