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SOS Colombia

By Laura Silva Aya

Note: This piece represents the opinion of the author, and may not represent that of The Graduate Press Editorial Board, of which the author is a member.

This piece contains descriptions of graphic violence.


Since April 28th, 2021, in response to peaceful protests across the country, security forces in Colombia have been responsible for 11 cases of sexual assault, the homicide of 37 civilians40 incidents of aggression toward members of the press, 98 cases of unrestrained firearm use against protesters, 379 disappearances, 934 arbitrary arrests, and 1728 cases of police brutality.

What began as a national strike to protest peacefully against an ineffective and incompetent government has transformed into a landscape of brutal and bloody repression, where the Colombian state is systematically violating the human rights of the Colombian people and killing innocent civilians.

Why?

The national strike on April 28th was convened for a variety of reasons, chief among which was a proposed tax reform. The reform was ostensibly introduced by right-wing President Ivan Duque and his political allies as an emergency response to the crumbling of the Colombian economy due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has critically jeopardized Colombia’s economic and social security – sectors beset even under normal circumstances from rampant corruption of government officials, mishandling of public funds, and severe inequality.

As of March 2021, unemployment has climbed to 16.8% across the country. Government revenues have fallen sharply due to previous government fiscal reforms that granted significant tax exemptions to the wealthiest Colombians, in addition to general economic losses as Colombians toil under the harsh consequences of the pandemic. This led to the government seeking economic support from the IMF, dragging Colombia’s public debt up to 64.3% of its GDP. In short, the country is facing the highest fiscal deficit it has seen in the last 70 years and an alarming 42.5% of the population is living in poverty.

Despite attempts by the government to label it a “sustainable solidarity law”, the proposed tax policy was a deeply problematic attempt to increase taxes for a rapidly shrinking middle class. It also sought to impose up to 19% general sales tax on basic products and services – while leaving tax exemptions for the wealthiest, as well as hotels, restaurants, and duty-free businesses. Working class and middle class Colombians would be forced to pay a 19% tax on gas, water, sewage, internet, cell-phones, different forms of transportation, and even funerary and cremation services. In a country where 67% of the population survives on less than $632,000 pesos (149.30 CHF) a month, and 2.4 million out of 7.8 million Colombian homes can now only afford to eat two meals a day instead of three because of the poverty they face, this was an extremely unjust and even cruel measure to try and implement.

It is blindingly obvious that the policy was produced by an arrogant political and socio-economic class that is negligent, disconnected, and ignorant to the reality of life for the majority of Colombians. This became grotesquely clear when the now-resigned Minister of Finance defended the implementation of the tax on poultry and eggs by claiming that a carton of 12 eggs only cost 1800 pesos (approximately 0.43 CHF) – when, in reality, the price of a dozen eggs costs a whopping four times as much.

Public Anger

All the while, Colombians have had to grapple with an unrelenting pandemic that has taken more than 76,015 lives. Unsurprisingly, the response to the pandemic was characterized by incompetence from the government, with the Lowy Institute (an Australian-based independent think tank) qualifying its Covid-19 crisis management performance among some of the worst in the world – currently ranked at 100 out of 102, surpassed by only Mexico and Peru. 

This mishandling led to absurd scenes, such as when the Minister of Health, the President, and the Vice-President participated in a photo-op with the first batch of vaccines to arrive on Colombian territory – never mind the fact that they arrived almost four months after other nations began vaccination campaigns, and that they constituted only 0.08% of the vaccines Colombia needs. In the midst of this, the government has also proposed reforms for the health care system which are also wildly unpopular, as critics argue they would be to the detriment of people’s right to healthcare in favour of financial profit for insurance companies and healthcare providers.

Colombians have also been forced to watch their hopes for peace in their country slip through their fingers, as a fresh wave of violence escalates across the country. Unknown assailants are operating with practical impunity, with at least 1000 community leaders and human rights activists killed across the country since 2016. 289 ex-FARC combatants, who lay down their weapons after the historic peace agreement in 2016, have also been assassinated

Meanwhile, the peace accord and transitional justice mechanism have faced serious obstacles in their implementation and functioning from a hostile government. There is also widespread indignation and anger as these institutional bodies have revealed that 6402 innocent civilians were murdered by the Colombian army and passed off as “enemy combatants” killed in combat.

Brutal State Repression

These were the circumstances that motivated people to join the national strike and take to the streets across the country on April 28th. Workers, trade unionists, activists, teachers, students, indigenous groups, business owners, and citizens of a variety of socio-economic and political sectors exercised their constitutional right to peaceful assembly and made their dissatisfaction with the government and its violent social and economic policies clear.

Yet this was not met with the dialogue it deserved. Instead, the state unleashed unbridled repression. In the context of the overwhelmingly peaceful protests beginning on April 28th, the government has been taking advantage of several unfortunate acts of vandalism to label the protesters as ‘terrorists’, claim – with no evidence and no justification – that the protests were being orchestrated by FARC dissidents and other illicit groups, respond to the valid social discontent with brutality and unrestrained violence on the part of the Colombian military and police. A plethora of international organizations, including Amnesty International and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have condemned the actions of the government.

On May 1st, 2021, Duque ordered the militarization of Colombian cities, further escalating the repression and targeting of civilians. Former president Alvaro Uribe Velez explicitly and irresponsibly glorified of the use of deadly force against innocent civilians by tweeting “Let’s support the right of soldiers and police to use their firearms to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from criminal acts of terrorist violence”. The tweet was subsequently removed by Twitter. 

At the time of writing, the government has yet to take responsibility for or even acknowledge the massacre of its own civilians, cowering behind a justificatory discourse of ‘public order and security’.

As a result of public pressure from the ongoing strike, and due to international condemnation of the abuses by security forces, the president repealed the tax reform and the Minister of Finance has resigned. But the social mobilization has transformed into something ever more desperate and urgent now – a battleground where innocent people are forced to literally fight in the streets against military-grade weapons for their right to live with dignity and not be murdered by an unrepentant and indifferent state.

Though it is unsurprising, each death, each instance of abuse, each violation of our human rights, and each act of brutality is still painful for Colombians who are already forced to endure ongoing physical, economic, social, and institutional violence. Yet, now we are forced to endure even more, as we clamour for our voices to be heard each day in the streets and bear witness to the heartbreaking images and videos shared at night:

An inconsolable mother begs the police to kill her too after her son was murdered by the police. A joyful young man who spent the past week dancing and peacefully marching alongside his friends, is vilely shot 8 times by unknown individuals in a passing car. The police unleash gunfire at people running away, powerless and cornered. Tanks fire deafeningly loud in the heart of a city. 

The numbers will only continue to climb. Once again, the Colombian police and military are responsible for 11 cases of sexual assault, the homicide of 37 civilians, 40 incidents of aggression toward members of the press, 98 cases of unrestrained firearm use against protesters, 379 disappearances, 934 arbitrary arrests, and 1728 cases of police brutality.

Colombians will continue to resist, though in the midst of it all we cry out in despair: the 37 men and women who fought for a better Colombia did not “die” or “pass away”. They were killed. 

We are being killed.

Nos están matando!


Laura Silva Aya is completing her Master’s degree in International Relations/Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. She is co-Editor-in-Chief of The Graduate Press, and was born in Bogotá, Colombia. 


Credit and ownership of all photos belongs to Alexis Agudelo Mejía – Alianza de medios Alternativos @alexis_agudelomejia

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