Winners, losers and human rights abusers in Colombia’s National Strike

By James Patrick Jordan, Alliance for Global Justice

June 4, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal  It is just over a month since Colombia’s National Strike (Paro Nacional) began. The international community is appalled by the endless reports of atrocities and abuses by the ESMAD riot police and Colombian Armed Forces (which combine the military and police under one command), and the right-wing gangs allied with them. As always, we must point out that US funding enables these outrages.

At the same time, we are inspired and encouraged by the tenacity and continued momentum of the popular movements and the victories that they have achieved. Along with the anger and grief we all must feel, there is something else we should recognize: popular movements are winning this struggle!

Casualties of the resistance

There were hopes that the repression would abate following the signing of a “pre-agreement” on Monday, May 24, between the National Strike Committee and the government. The main point was to guarantee the right to protest. However, no sooner was this announced than police repression of protests was underway yet again. The very day of the announcement, Armando Álvarez, assistant director of a Cali health clinic, who was supporting street medics, was murdered by an unknown assassin.  

Repression following the pre-agreement was heaviest in Tuluá. (Tuluá is home to a police airbase that receives US funding.) Before the next day had ended, two people would be killed there as part of the national strike. One was an 18 year old protester and pre-Law student named Camilo Andrés Arango García. His death has been attributed to the police by the Colombian organization Indepaz

Juan Camilo Vargas was killed while carrying out activities as a street medic. He was killed attending to the wounded from a base that had been supplied with first aid supplies funded by contributors through the Alliance for Global Justice. Many of you who are reading this contributed towards this fund. We have raised several thousand dollars to supply street medics in Cali, where violence has been at the highest level. We are deeply concerned about the targeting by police and death squads of medical personnel, human rights monitors, and independent journalists. In fact, leaders and members of the organizations we work most closely with in Cali [REDDHFIC (Red de Derechos Humanos Francisco Isaías Cifuentes), CPDH (Comité Permanente de Derechos Humanos), and other members of the Centro Pazífico] have been assaulted and/or threatened by police, and some of them have been forced to abandon their homes and go into hiding. This is personal for us, and I believe it is for you, too. According to a statement by REDDHFIC,

Juan Camilo Vargas, a young nursing assistant, was lending service to the wounded in the city of Tuluá and agents of ESMAD arrived discharging [their weapons]. A civilian who was accompanying ESMAD shot the young man right in the neck, which caused a significant hemorrhage. The companions who were with Vargas tried to help him, but they were forced to flee since ESMAD continued launching tear gas. 

These continuing assaults are the heartless and desperate attempts of President Iván Duque to impose his will on a nation that has repeatedly frustrated his attempts to destroy Colombia’s peace agreements and break the opposition. He has failed in every way. Even judges and lawyers and clerks of the country have gotten involved. On May 25, almost one month after the National Strike began, members of the judicial branch shut down courts to join protesters in the streets. 

On May 26, a Gallup poll showed that Duque’s disapproval rating had hit 76%, the worst in polling history, breaking the record of former president and Duque ally, Andres Pastrana, who, with the Clinton Administration, developed Plan Colombia. (Plan Colombia is an internal war strategy that has been funded by more than $12 billion in US taxes.) The popularity of Duque’s mentor, former president Álvaro Uribe, is also at an all-time low as he continues to battle court processes linking him to death squads. The current repression is considered by some analysts to be an attempted kind of self-coup against peace and the popular will. But with the resistance continuing to grow, it is clear that the Centro Democrático Party of Uribe and Duque could not possibly win a fair contest in next year’s elections.

I spoke with Davíd Escobar, an independent journalist in Cali, who has organized street medics and helped us distribute our (your) contributions. I had told him that I was concerned particularly about the targeting of journalists, street medics, and human rights monitors; the sabotage of social media and internet; and the seizure of administration of Cali and other cities by the Armed Forces. I wondered if Cali was being used as an experiment in rapidly achieving full spectrum control in a siege of an urban area. What was taking place seemed like an attempt to impose a concentrated, municipal version of the Pentagon’s DIMEFIL strategy for “nation building”. DIMEFIL stands for military coordination of Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Financial, Intelligence, and Law Enforcement components in the invasion, occupation, and administration of a targeted country rebuilt according to the US/NATO Empire’s specifications.

David responded,

Without doubt this experiment has been carried out, but the balance is not very favorable for the government: two overturned reforms, three members of the cabinet have resigned, a commander at the head of the city (Cali) resigned, all the mayor’s cabinet asked to resign, this week will bring about a motion of censure against the Minister of Defense…. The bourgeois dream of total control has shattered, and the international community has its eyes on a dictatorship, and this occurs while Uribismo is imploding under the possibility that this beacon light and guide may be incarcerated. The fascists are desperate.

To review, on April 28, 2021, a national strike was called by Colombian labor unions and broad sectors of popular, student, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and rural movements. The strike was against a tax reform that would have benefited the wealthy while inordinately burdening youth, students, working, and “middle class” families. That reform has been tabled, one of the strike’s first victories. The strike has other demands, as well, including free education, a fully functioning health system with an adequate response to the coronavirus, and, most important of all, the right for people to participate in electoral and political activities without the fear of being killed, forcibly displaced, or jailed--a primary component of the embattled Colombian Peace Accord signed in 2016. Even before the strike began, human rights defenders, social leaders, unionists, and signatories to the peace agreement were being killed by military and paramilitary agents at a rate of more than one victim per day.

Since the national strike began, according to Indepaz, as of May 25, 54 people had been killed during repression of the strike. The organizations Temblores and REDDHFIC put the figure at 60. Fundación Lazos de Dignidad published a report that maintains that between April 28th and May 13, 2021, 53 protesters had been killed by members of the public forces, there had been 1,431 cases of arbitrary detentions, 551 persons disappeared, 29 persons wounded in the eyes, and there had been 30 acts of gender directed violence. Various sources report as many as 30 acts of sexual violence against women perpetrated by the public forces. Most of the violence has been perpetrated by the hated ESMAD riot police, a highly militarized unit that was created as one of the initial acts of the U.S. and Colombia’s Plan Colombia.

Resisting police violence from Cali to Minneapolis

The scenes of heavily armed, militarized police decked out in armor assaulting crowds of protesters against police violence in Colombia will immediately call to mind the images of repression we witnessed in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Chicago, and around the country during last year’s uprising in the U.S.

Both the U.S. and Colombia are nations with entrenched and privileged owning classes who wield vast mechanisms of control over population. They are both countries where the gap between the rich and the poor grows daily. In fact, Colombia has the second worst wealth gap in Latin America, following Brazil. Both are countries that have prioritized military, police, jails, and other forms of state coercion and repression over developing truly participatory democracies or meeting social needs. In both countries, those who monopolize power do so based on systems where racism and class oppression are entrenched, and where African heritage people, indigenous communities, and low income urban and rural workers suffer disproportionately from poverty, degraded infrastructures, police, paramilitary, and para-police violence, and mass incarceration.

But if we only talk about similarities, we should know that we are not making a comparison of equals. Colombia is in the profoundest sense a client state of the US-NATO global Empire. The Marcha Patriótica is one of Colombia’s largest popular movements for a just peace. Their central motto is that they struggle for the second and definitive independence. They are speaking quite specifically about the struggle for real democracy and autonomy, for true freedom and independence from the Empire, and the wealthy class of Colombians who have so gleefully collaborated with and sold out to foreign interests for the sake of their own profit.

ESMAD, the US funded and much hated Colombian riot police 

I already mentioned Plan Colombia and the U.S. role in creating ESMAD. The dismantling of ESMAD has been a demand of this national strike, and of previous strikes. Between its inception in 1999 and September 9, 2020, ESMAD had killed some 34 persons in popular protests. Its entire reason for existence is to repress both urban and rural protests. In rural areas, ESMAD has even committed massacres against communities protesting because they wanted to participate in government programs that would exchange rural infrastructure development and crop substitution programs for giving up their coca, marijuana, and poppy crops. (Such a program is a core component of the 2016 Peace Accord; however, the Colombian government has completely abandoned its commitments in this regard.)

On September 9, 2020, in the early morning hours, a man was beaten to death in Bogotá by police for violating a covid-related curfew. The city exploded in protest. By the end of the day13, more people had been killed by ESMAD. 

ESMAD and the Colombian National Police are responsible for the majority of those killed and otherwise assaulted since the current strike began. Early on, we received reports, and then video confirmation, of aerial assaults by police helicopters firing randomly into neighborhoods in Cali. There is a police air base in the city of Tuluá, 57 miles north of Cali. The U.S. has invested considerably in building up police air capabilities. For instance, in 2012, the U.S. government allocated $149 million over one year to support the Colombian National Police aviation program. One casualty of this investment is the young soccer player, Kevin Agudelo, who was killed in a peaceful vigil on May 3 2021. Video footage shows how ESMAD shut off electricity to the street before firing on the crowd. Helicopters belonging to the Colombian military and police are with few to any exceptions provided by the United States.

The popular movement against police brutality and against ESMAD are historical struggles that preceded the uprising in the U.S. The Alliance for Global Justice was present for the strike of November and December of 2019, the largest mass mobilization in the country since the 1970s. Calls for ESMAD to be dismantled were prominent, and I witnessed firsthand the police assaults against protesters. However, the uprising of September 9 in Bogotá, and the current one in Cali and across Colombia, have been carried out by organizers who are keenly aware of and inspired by the U.S. uprising. Just as surely as the oligarchies of the US and Colombia are deeply connected and intertwined, so, too are our popular movements.

The impact on our partners on the front lines

In September of last year, the Alliance for Global Justice (along with Camino Común, in the U.S., and, in Colombia, Francisco Isaias Cifuentes Human Rights Network, or REDDHFIC, the Permanent Committee on Human Rights, or CPDH, the Rural Workers Association of Valle de Cauca, or ASTRACAVA, the National Coordination for Indigenous Peoples, or CONPI, and the National Coordination for Afro-Colombian Peoples, or CONAFRO) opened the Pacific Center for Human Rights, or Centro Pazífico, in Cali. The Centro Pazífico provides office, meeting, and training space to our partners in Cali, as well as short- and medium-term lodging for threatened and displaced social movement leaders, and for national and international human rights accompaniment. It has functioned as a safe space for organizers and threatened activists during the strike.

When we heard about the brutal repression happening in Cali, we began raising money to get supplies to street medics in Cali treating the injured, and also to human rights monitors, as well as to stock up more supplies at the Center. Every group we have worked with has recently been threatened by police and/or paramilitary and para-police agents.

Let me share with you part of the alert we received about the beating of Darnelly Rodriguez, from REDDHFIC, and others. Darnelly is also the acting coordinator for the Centro Pazífico .

At around 8:40 p.m., the verification mission arrived at the Fray Damian police station, informed the police officers of their presence, and requested to conduct a verification because they had information of people detained at the site. The police officers let them pass on the condition that they do so individually.

Delegates from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Attorney General’s Office entered the National Police facilities while human rights defenders Darnelly Rodríguez (REDDHFIC), Ana María Burgos (Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners Foundation and Defend Freedom Campaign), James Larrea (Unitary Workers Center, or CUT – “AFLCIO of Colombia”), Rubén Darío Gómez (Observatory of Social Realities of the Archdiocese of Cali) and an official from the Ombudsman’s Office waited their turn to enter.

Outside, a police officer began to shout at the defenders saying that they were “good for nothing”, accusing them “why didn’t they defend the police” and kicking them out of the place, saying “you are good for nothing, go away, you useless people”. Immediately, police officers came out of the station, surrounded the defenders, and started shouting at them.

This part of the Verification Mission was forced to try to leave the site, but one police officer assaulted human rights defender James Larrea and others assaulted human rights defenders Darnelly Rodríguez and Ana María Burgos. The police officers surrounded them and shouted at them to leave the place, so the defenders accelerated their pace to leave and received threats that they were going to be killed.”

Nevertheless, these brave human rights defenders are not daunted. The very night of this beating, after being treated in the emergency room, Darnelly was back in touch with us, telling us about the latest news, strategizing on how to keep up the struggle in the streets and how to build international solidarity. Bruised, beaten, in fear for their lives—they keep on.

Human rights, street medics, independent journalists—in the crosshairs of the oppressors

As we are angered by the abuses against our partners, and inspired by their examples, we must pause and reflect on the significance of these assaults and threats. In the case of the attack against Darnelly, she was in the company of international officials from the United Nations and a government representative from the Attorney General’s Office. In another incident, UN Human Rights Monitors denounced the discharge of live ammunition by Colombian police against them on May 3 2021. We have received numerous reports, some confirmed, many not, of threats against Colombian government, independent, and even UN and Red Cross human rights monitors and humanitarian assistance providers. This is especially worrisome because it represents an escalation designed to take away normally protected and tolerated defenders of the Colombian popular movements, and international accompaniment. 

There have also been reports of impersonations of human rights defenders by police or police collaborators. Cristián Castaño, of CPDH in Cali, told me that,

No guarantees exist for human rights organizations. The police are attacking the civil population during the protests with live ammunition. They are not discriminating who are human rights defenders. They don’t even respect United Nations delegations. And in some of the points of resistance, there are people who pose as human rights defenders, but no one knows them, and they aren’t wearing the orange jackets we wear, and don’t have any identification from a known group they are part of. They come in black vests that say “humanitarian rights” on the backs, not human rights. They have a flag in front that says “human rights, and badges very similar to the police badges. One of them was carrying a clipboard with a list. Other human rights monitors saw people with those same vests accompanying the police.

The situation has been similar for journalists, especially independent and alternative journalists. I briefly described the violence against the journalist, Davíd Escobar. Not only was he robbed of video equipment following a confrontation with police, he was threatened that he would be killed if he didn’t stop what he was doing. He was in the company of a European journalist, who was also threatened. According to the Foundation for Free Press, or FLIP, in the last three years, 583 journalists have reported threats against them in Colombia, more than 80 during the national strike, and 33 have reported actual physical assaults. Many in the US will recognize that this was a feature of the repression against our anti-racist uprising.  During the first week, alone of the US uprising, FLIP reported 328 press freedom violations.

Threats and assaults have become commonplace against those providing care to the wounded during the strike. We have already mentioned the killings of health workers Armando Álvarez and Juan Camilo Vargas on May 24th and 25th. A few days before, we received an alert issued by the Student Health Brigade of the University of Valle. The brigade has received many of the supplies bought with AFGJ contributions.  They reported “…on the day of May 22, 2021, being 17:28 in the afternoon, the service post located in Calypso. In the common house of the Pondaje [neighborhood], [the Brigade] is surrounded by the public forces…. At the moment there are 20 persons among the brigadistas and patients refuged inside the house…. We make an advance alert about said situation as a consequence of the diverse assaults that the medical mission has suffered in the latest days.”

Popular movements are succeeding

Despite all the casualties from the repression, President Duque had steadfastly refused to give permission for a verification visit from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. In yet another reversal forced by popular movements, on the morning of May 27, 2021, Duque reversed himself again and stated that the IACHR would be welcome to visit.

The most striking aspect of what’s happening in Colombia is the tenacity of the protests. This movement isn’t new. It’s a continuation of mass struggles that have continued and grown over years. And most impressive is that the protests are making real and significant gains.

I recently participated as an international observer in a virtual Popular Audience of various representatives of popular movements and grass roots organizations. The following is a translation from the political declaration that came out of that meeting.  I believe it is more than appropriate to let the Colombians have the last word in this piece, and that word is, more than anything else, a word of hope:

With the great leading role of the youth, the profound national crisis has raised up new and massive sectors of the county to join together in the strike against the economic policies of the present government, of the corruption and the absence of democratic guarantees. The street and the cacerola* is the decisive voice of the majorities without voice. The proof of the massive strength and unconformity is the unprecedented powerful triumph to defeat Duque’s tax reform. This is a historic strike that is showing us that the social mobilization works…. This is the strike of the people: young people, women, students, workers, unemployed, ethnic, and rural peoples that are victims of this system…. This people who are resisting and rising up will be the builders of a new reality where the implementation of the Havana [Peace] Accord may be possible, the peace complete, the health, education, dignified life and work, for all, as our beloved Gabo** said on receiving the Nobel prize: "A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one can decide for others even how to die, where truthfully love may be sure and happiness may be possible, and where the races condemned to a hundred years of solitude will finally and forever have a second chance on Earth.”

* [People literally and often spontaneously taking to the streets, patios, front yards to beat pots and pans in protest, including when public demonstrations are being prohibited]

** Gabriel García Márquez