Despite brutal state repression, Colombia’s general strike has continued strong now for 23 days. This article and interview was first published by Crimethinc. Content warning for discussion of state violence including sexual abuse.
Despite brutal state repression, Colombia’s general strike has continued strong now for 23 days. The revolt has largely been leaderless and solidarity has expanded to include an impressively wide array of Colombian society: Indigenous and Afro-Colombian movements, queer and trans people, workers, students, people whose precarious employment has been lost to the pandemic. As in many other recent uprisings around the world, this one has been driven first and foremost by youth who know that their only hope to have any future at all is to fight for it. Millions are united in their rejection of unlivable conditions and horrific police violence.
This is a 21st-century strike. In a country where the majority worked precarious jobs in an informal economy, now devastated by the pandemic and government restrictions, this strike is less about not going to work than about actively shutting everything down. Blockades have managed to halt commerce in many cities, but they serve a double role: these points are also where people gather and experiment with new ways of living together and caring for one another, outside of dictates of capitalism and the state.
Murals, dances, barricades, nurses, steaming pots of food, shields, and conversation between neighbors are all equally important to this uprising. Knowledge and skills have been shared between movements with decades of experience and young rebels on the front line. People combine courageous expressions of joy and care with an iron determination to fight.
There are tactical echoes from other revolts of the past few years—Hong Kong, Chile, the US—but the horizontal organizing of the strike is significant: this represents a major break from Colombia’s past of centralized armed struggle and labor union movements. Popular assemblies have sprung up to handle decision-making; leaders are distrusted and ignored; people have little faith in the state.
This makes sense in a country where the state has ruled through fear and death alone for decades—but as the numbers of those murdered, wounded, and disappeared during the protests continue to mount, the bravery of those out in the streets is impressive. You can donate to medical supplies for the protests in Cali here, or even better, organize a solidarity demonstration. Much of Colombia’s arms budget comes from the US. International solidarity is even more critical since May 17, when Colombian President Iván Duque deployed the police and military in full force to clear all the blockades.
We’ve translated a report from Medios Libres Cali, originally published in Spanish on May 11, and conducted two interviews with participants in the movement from Cali, on May 12, and Bogotá, on May 17. Together, these document a historic movement in Colombia, which sets crucial precedents for forthcoming movements around the world.
Protesters stream down Paso del Comercio in Cali.
Dignified Rebellion and Social Organization: Colombia Holds Strong in Struggle after Fourteen Days of 2021’s General Strike
An article by Medios Libres Cali.
Who Are We, How and Why Do We Strike?
“We strike because we cannot take it anymore.” Working class communities have described this strike best by comparing the situation in Colombia to a pressure cooker: the strike is the manifestation of a critical mass of grievances coming to a boil. Among these is the package of four disastrous reforms that attack the poorest communities and benefit privileged sectors: the tax reform that would levy a 19% VAT on staple foods; the health reform that privatizes healthcare and eliminates access to it; the pension reform transferring money to private funds; and the labor reform that could enable exceptions to the minimum wage.
But the reform package is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is a society battered by poverty and inequality; a country embroiled in war for decades and governed by a narco-state that shows its true colors more each day. Day by day, the cloak of democracy is shed to reveal the face of dictatorship. That’s why communities refused to accept these reforms, because they truly could not take any more. Already in 2019, the so-called “Duque package” triggered a massive mobilization paralyzing the country for almost two months, known as 21N (November 21, 2019, the date on which that strike began). Late at night, behind closed doors, the government—supported by the Uribista1 far right—signed a decree creating Grupo Bicentenario, a state financial holding company, despite the fact that the protests had called for the project’s withdrawal as one of the strike’s ten non-negotiable points. Grupo Bicentenario is made up of 19 financial companies including Banco Agrario, Findeter, Finagro, Icetex, and the National Savings Fund.
It seems that all the previous atrocities weren’t enough. More than 30,000 people have been disappeared since 1985, according to the Truth Commission, as part of an ongoing attack on social movements, systematically targeting indigenous communities in particular. This is a country nourished by violence, in which there were 6402 extrajudicial executions confirmed between 2002 and 2008. More than 900 influential participants in social movements have been murdered since 2016, according to Indepaz—101 in 2020 alone, according to a report by the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (JEP). The displacement of rural communities is ongoing, with 28,509 people violently displaced and confined in 2020, according to the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office. At the same time, it is a country that lives with hunger—by mid-2020, the National Institute of Health had documented at least 9151 cases of children under 5 with acute malnutrition—in which the economy has been devastated by the pandemic.
Together, all the different resulting forms of discontent have made many people feel like the strike is theirs. That’s why so many came out in solidarity and returned to the streets with rage—and, more importantly, without fear. Thousands of people with nothing to lose chose to participate in a strike that has now lasted 14 days. The strike belongs to the people, the neighborhood, neighbors, mothers, employees, students, the social movement, football hooligans, workers, Black and Indigenous communities, truckers, taxi drivers, farmers, women, and all of the LGBTQI+ crews. More than anything, this strike belongs to the country’s working-class youth.
“Faggot and Front Liner.”
The Colombian people are tired of not being heard, tired of futile marches that arrive at the great centers of power and end up in the manipulative hands of power-brokers who negotiate the non-negotiable. This strike began its ferment deep in the heart of the lower-class neighborhoods, on the lips of grandmothers and neighbors, of mothers and teachers who care about the youth. It was no coincidence then that the strike has gathered and concentrated people at the cities’ entrances rather than the plazas, at crucial intersections rather than the municipal buildings, in working-class neighborhoods rather than tourist areas: places that truly represent something to the people.
Neither the resignation of Carrasquilla (the Minister of Finance) nor the withdrawal of the tax reform has managed to stop this wave of protest. The strike shares the color and face of our people, the feeling in the neighborhoods. Within the strike points,2 those who had long been invisible in society began to emerge as protagonists, those without a voice who want a future. Heroes emerge who defend the area as the Front Line, youth organized against the state apparatus headed by the ESMAD (the Colombian riot police) and its death squad. Improvised medical campaigns, nurses, and paramedics emerge in this urban war that leaves so much death: people who care for the people, the people healing themselves. Mothers arrive with their love and their seasonings to prepare community meals in the streets. They light the cooking fire, stoke it, and they’ve got food for thousands, because this is how people persist and maintain a strike. The human rights defenders shine with their own light: in the midst of the gunfire, they shield people, ensure that we get home amid the darkness of an insidious dictatorship, and search until they find those who have been disappeared by the cowards of the state.
Two frontliners on the barricade use road signs as shields.
The Government Response
The Colombian government calls itself a social state governed by the rule of law, but in Colombia, no one knows what the laws are, and the state is only recognizable by the force it uses against people and by its systematic neglect.
The numbers of dead and disappeared in this country are terrifying. We have seen grim statistics pile up for decades, villages bathed in blood, waves of violence that comprise the history of our soil. But what has occurred over the past 14 days of general strike and widespread protest has etched itself into collective memory as the unmasking of a dictatorial state. We have lived through the militarization of cities, the excesses of police violence, state violence, the deaths of innocents at the hands of the police, forced disappearances, and the alliance of paramilitary and state security forces. This is the brutal honesty of Uribe’s legacy and its structures of para-state warfare.
Temblores and Indepaz, two human rights organizations, released a scathing report on May 9, full of chilling figures: a total of 47 people murdered, 39 confirmed killed by police. Of those cases, 36 were in the department (Colombia’s equivalent of states) of Valle del Cauca (35 in Cali and one in Yumbo). On top of this, there were at least 1876 cases of police violence nationally, including the following:
- 278 victims of physical violence
- 963 protesters arbitrarily arrested
- 356 violent interventions against peaceful protests
- 28 people wounded in the eyes
- 111 people shot by live fire
- 12 people sexually assaulted
- 500 people disappeared
Demonstrators holding the names of those killed during the strike.
This sort of state violence is unprecedented in Colombian cities. The state is treating social protest as an undeclared war; outrageous numbers of police and outrageous use of force (especially firearms, in coordination with snipers and helicopters that shoot at a defenseless populace) are now part of the landscape in the country’s most oppressed cities. Streets and neighborhoods have turned into battlefields. The mountains and jungles, rural paths and townships have been already been living through this for decades.
The strategy of fear is macabre. People from high offices like ex-President, ex-Senator, and Centro Democrático party leader Álvaro Uribe Vélez, FFAA (Colombian Armed Forces) Director General Eduardo Zapateiro, Minister of Defense Diego Molano, the Attorney General’s office, and other far-right and Uribista politicians have made horrific statements, openly declaring war against demonstrators. It’s worth taking note of the discourse used by the Uribista machine to incite white elitist groups in Cali in their armed response to the protests, using terms like “terrorists” to refer to protesters and alleging links between the Indigenous minga3 and guerrilla groups or arms being smuggled into the blockade points.
There are hundreds of videos of members of the armed forces, the ESMAD, the police, intelligence operatives, and organized armed citizens attacking rallies and peaceful assemblies, aiming their firearms at the crowd, sowing terror among the protesters and shooting, wounding, and killing people in the streets. Despite this, national media have not only shamefully concealed the reality of the situation but have also misrepresented acts of protest according to the state narrative. The fact that more than 500 people have disappeared after being detained during the demonstrations indicates the seriousness of the human rights violations. Two of those disappeared were found dead on May 7, 2021, according to Temblores.
Police have fired directly on demonstrators who were exercising their right to protest by closing roads with community kitchens and improvised barricades. But the most dangerous attacks have been those organized jointly between state security forces and the armed civilian population: a rich, racist, classist, Uribista mob that carries out organized attacks against demonstrators in a manner similar to white supremacists, supported and protected by the police. Is this a dictatorship? A para-state?
A tense standoff between protesters and soldiers at a barricade.
Cali is the capital of the Southwest. It connects southern regions such as Cauca and Nariño, fertile lands of Indigenous and ancestral memory, with the Pacific Ocean and Buenaventura, the largest commercial maritime port in the country. This is a strategic corridor of the Colombian economy and a region battered by poverty, an epicenter of war with a history built over many years of people rising up in resistance. On April 28, as the strike got underway, the Misak people gave the city a dawn surprise, toppling the statue of settler and slave owner Sebastián de Belalcázar.
Cali has been used as a military laboratory in recent years for control of social movements. Social organizations have noticed that organized repressive practices that are used in Cali are later replicated elsewhere in Colombia. During this year’s national strike, some practices have been alarmingly systematic, such as power outages at gathering points coinciding with police attacks. The manipulation and censorship of Internet access and social media content are already familiar practices. We also see the media pitting different neighborhoods against each other to create a false narrative, fueling hatred between classes in order to spur an armed response on both sides. The state tests many strategies of war and confusion in the city of Cali in order to then apply proven forms of repression around the rest of the country.
In the face of the military experimentation that protesting Caleñas experience, the city has armed itself with courage. It has denounced the war waged against it and seen that joy, dignity, and anger prevail. The faces of the dead are already painted on the walls, a reminder that we bled for this strike. There are more than 35 young people who gave their lives to the struggle; for them and the 120 people disappeared in this city, the strike carries on.
“Stay strong, rebel Cali—the whole world cries out your name.”
Indigenous people stream in bearing the flag of the CRIC.
The Minga of the Southwest
In the midst of systematic warfare in the city of Cali, with more than 18 points blockaded in resistance, there was joy that gave color to the fight that had seemed lost after 35 deaths. More than 8000 Indigenous people arrived from the mountains and valleys of Cauca to bring food, support, medicine, wisdom, and defense to the struggle brewing in Cali.
Ceremonial staffs in hand and bearing the red and green flags of the CRIC (Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca), the Indigenous minga arrived via chivas (traditional transportation similar to a bus) packed with people and food. The voices of traditional territorial authorities greeted the communities in revolt and offered their strength to continue the 2021 general strike in the face of state repression. People received the Indigenous Guard with respect and affection; with their arrival, hope returned to the streets of Cali. “Adelante compañeros dispuestos a resistir, defender nuestro derecho así nos toque morir, Guardia Guardia, Fuerza Fuerza, por mi raza por mi tierra” rang the anthem of the Guard: “Onward, comrades ready to resist, to defend our rights even to the death, Guard! Guard! Strength! Strength! For my people, for my land.”
The Guard come from the ten Indigenous peoples of the Cauca. “We come to strike because the government has not responded to our demands,” said a Nasa elder who is in charge of one of the kitchens. “We will stay until the government agrees not to implement any tax reform and to withdraw the health, labor, and pension initiatives,” said a community member elsewhere who wore the red and green scarf of the CRIC. “We come to defend the city that the state has abandoned, because the people in Cali are being killed and what they need now is support in their struggle, which belongs to everyone,” said a coordinator of the humanitarian commissions that the minga provides to the strike.
A frontliner and a member of the Indigenous Guard, hand in hand fighting the same fight.
But a segment of Uribista Cali—racist, paramilitary Cali—had planned a grim second act: a right-wing mob armed with guns attacked the Indigenous community members on their way to the popular assembly at Universidad del Valle (University of the Valley). Nine comrades were wounded; they are fighting for their lives in medical centers around the city. The fact that our people could come together to determine our future truly scares them. Now, 12,000 more indigenous people are coming. “Let’s see if they can kill us all,” says a Guard, full of indignation. “They believed that by killing one they would subdue us and instead we became millions.” That is the power of the struggle and the example of these age-old warriors, because we are all minga.
Where Are We Going?
The path of the struggle has been complex due to government attempts to suppress the strike, but we fight on. People at the strike points self-organize in popular assemblies, different cities coordinate their mobilizations, and the strike does not stop.
In many of the popular assemblies at strike points, which function as direct decision-making bodies for different areas, there have been proposals that no strike or blockade should be lifted until some basic demands are met, including:
- Missing persons must be returned alive and safe.
- The state must offer an apology and reparations to those killed and injured by public forces during the demonstrations.
- The order of “Military Assistance” must be withdrawn throughout the country and the military response to social protest must cease.
- The right to peaceful protest must be guaranteed.
- General Eduardo Zapateiro and Defense Minister Diego Molano must resign.
- Police reform including the dismantling of the ESMAD (riot police).
- Withdrawal of the reform package that burdens the country’s poorest.
- Commitment that protest leaders will not be prosecuted.
- Guarantees of the rights to survival, food, health, shelter, work, and education for vulnerable sectors.
- Paths towards equality such as an increase in the minimum wage and the reduction of salaries for congressmen, senators, and other political elites.
- Employment and training opportunities for young people.
- Tax reduction for small and medium-sized businesses.
- A pension subsidy for the most vulnerable elderly.
“I march because I’m alive and I don’t know until when. Rapist ESMAD.”
Two Interviews on the General Strike in Colombia
We interviewed an independent media activist in Cali on May 11, who preferred to remain anonymous, and the Interdisciplinary Group for Anarchist Studies and Tendencies (GRIETA) from Bogotá on May 17. Parentheses () are retained from the original Spanish answers; brackets  were added by the translators.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. How would you like to identify yourselves?
GRIETA, Bogotá: We are the Interdisciplinary Group for Anarchist Studies and Tendencies (GRIETA, Grupo Interdisciplinario de Estudios y Tendencias Anarkistas), founded in 2013. Our goal is to spread an anarchist ethic to contribute to social and ecological transformation. We collectively study anarchisms, their effects, and the possibility of making theoretical contributions that serve to build an anarchism of the South.
While this was being written, several police officers in the city of Popayán sexually abused Allison Salazar Miranda, who could not bear the situation and chose to take her own life. We dedicate this interview to her and to the 50 other people who have been murdered, as well as other victims of state violence during the strike.
Describe how people are organizing themselves. Are there leaders? Are people acting autonomously?
Media activist, Cali: This is one of the chief aspects that differentiates the strike from other protests or strikes that have taken place in this country. This time, separate from the traditional organizations, political movements, opposition parties, and labor unions that normally come out to demonstrations, the movement is a popular civic strike. The blockade points in this city and in many other cities across the province and the country have been established by people from the neighborhood, from the community. Out of popular discontent and the desire for change, they took to the streets in search of opportunities. That’s why there are no leaders or centralized organization; each area has been growing stronger according to its own rhythm and capacities. New blockade points have also been set up, emerging several days after the first ones.
GRIETA, Bogotá: The revolt in Colombia has taken shape in a way that is distant from the traditional leftist forms of doing politics, especially those that involve vertical structures and come from the Communist Party. Even though the initial call for the April 28 strike, like the 2019 strike, came from the so-called National Strike Committee (composed of labor, populist, and environmentalist organizations), the popular movement really organized itself to keep promoting ongoing mobilizations and days of resistance. This was not in vain, as today marks 20 days of continuous protest and revolt. This movement has mainly taken the form of organized spontaneity (an oxymoron), since there is no vanguard or steering group directing the steps to follow. It’s the populace itself, through popular assemblies and direct actions in the streets, deciding to hold strong in their dissent day after day. This dynamic has led to leaders being overshadowed by the actions of the movements, which prioritize collective decision-making regarding how to continue popular resistance. This doesn’t excuse the fact that there’s more than one personality from the traditional leftist movements who would like to take advantage of the circumstances to gain political capital from this struggle, but people point these figures out as the opportunists they are.
In terms of groups acting autonomously, in Colombia, the Nasa Indigenous communities are a reference point. They self-organize in different groups like the Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca (CRIC), “The Liberation of Mother Earth Process,” and, since 2005, “The Social and Community Minga.” As a people, they know what it means to fight for autonomy—they have been doing so since the arrival of European colonizers and they continue to against the modern Colombian state. We think that the Nasa, the Afro-Colombian population—which also self-organizes in different groups such as the Black Communities Process (PCN) and the Community Councils—and the legacy of the Palenque4 liberation movement in the Colombian Caribbean are examples of the historic struggle for peoples’ self-liberation. They have injected forms of autonomous and communal organization into urban areas, which are being expressed in what’s going on today.
Afro-Colombian women sing at a blockade point.
Who are the participants in the revolt? Workers, students, Indigenous peoples, political tendencies? What do the social and political dynamics within the uprising look like?
Media activist, Cali: The participants are primarily young people from working class neighborhoods; they’re the ones who are in front and organizing the concentration points. In the neighborhoods, they’re accompanied by people of all different ages from the community. But the civic movement that has come together in the strike is incredibly varied and comes from many sectors of the population that have shown their support—the student movement, feminist movements, environmentalist movements, some opposition parties, artists, all these have been supporting the strike and the movement. Social movements and the Indigenous movement have joined the protests. The Indigenous movement specifically has come in with major contributions in terms of logistics and coordination as well as support from the Indigenous Guard, which is an organized group responsible for order within Indigenous communities—they’re the authority that must be respected. It’s very important to clarify that they are unarmed.
There are so many different types of trades, social sectors, and people participating that it’s complicated to group it all into one movement. The truckers joined a few days in (in Colombia, there are no railroads, so all domestic transport utilizes cargo trucks), the taxi union participated for a couple days, even a group from the INPEC union (the police agency in charge of managing the prisons) took part in a few of the marches. All share a dissatisfaction with the government and its politics of death.
Since it hasn’t been a planned or structured movement, the internal dynamics have mutated according to the moment. The first day was supposed to be a one-day march that ended up continuing organically, so that first day or first two days there were demonstrations, then popular assemblies were set up at each mobilization and blockade point. There’s also been talk of larger assemblies that could bring in voices from different areas. This is supported by the CRIC [Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, or Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca], an Indigenous movement from the neighboring department.
It’s also important to mention that this movement has been taking place all over the country. Cali has been the center of the strike because of the number of blockades and the number of days it has been continuously maintained, but this is no reason to ignore the hundreds of demonstrations throughout the country. According to multiple analysts, there are demonstrations in more than 600 municipalities—in more than half of the small cities in the country, and all of the capital cities. There is popular discontent all over the country, and the strike looks like a possibility for change.
GRIETA, Bogotá: The social and political dynamics of this strike are historic. It’s been decades since so many sectors have organized together; usually, the main protesters are higher education students, workers’ unions, transport workers, youth, Indigenous people, and peasants, but this time there are a lot of high school students, people from the bulk of the population that hasn’t had access to education, and full-time workers whose work has become precarious due to government restrictions. It’s worth highlighting that all of these people have mobilized and worked together to fill the streets as has never been done before, at least not since the 1977 strike.
Political tendencies have been trying to recruit people, since the 2022 election is on the horizon. The presidency is up for grabs, and this could mean a total defeat of Uribismo (Uribismo denotes a doctrine5 with ex-president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe Vélez as its top figure), getting rid of [President Ivan] Duque, who has an incredibly high disapproval rating, and weakening the Democratic Center party, which is synonymous with land grabs, forced displacement, massacres, and alliances with drug traffickers and paramilitaries. For the majority of centrist and center-left groups, this is an opportunity to elect a government that could stray a little from the ultra-conservative far right that has always controlled the territory called Colombia, and to begin a process of industrialization and agricultural mechanization. Connections are already being made towards this end, without any kind of definitive picture yet.
“Uribe—Paramilitary son of a bitch.”
Twenty days into the General Strike, there is a Strike Committee negotiating with the government; however, there’s discontent in the streets, because this committee doesn’t represent the great diversity of sentiments among those who have maintained the blockades and the humanitarian corridors. Additionally, these union leadership figures are the ones who have negotiated under the table and sold out strikes during past national mobilizations. They hold onto oligarchical viewpoints, there are only two women, and seven of the others have clear ties to Fajardismo6 and the Green Party, Uribismo’s Trojan horse.
Could you describe a typical day at one of the concentration points? Who’s there and what are they doing?
Media activist, Cali: Colombia—especially Cali—is a place with a well-nourished multiculturalism that creates many different dynamics depending on the area and the people who live there. Things have also changed as time has passed; learning and organization grow with each passing day. The blockades are primarily held by the Front Line. The community and the mothers are there around the community kitchen. There are also medic teams made up of students and people from the community with those skills. Cultural activities have shined at all of the points: concerts, murals, screen-printing, performances, and other forms of art have popped up spontaneously all around the city. Games and sports are a part of daily life. Popular assemblies emerge for making decisions. These are a few first experiences, but they have allowed for a lot of organization and helped counteract the stigmatizing narrative that the dominant media have sown.
In another sense, apart from all these activities, the mobilization points are spaces for the community to come together. There are countless experiences of community support that would be interesting to highlight. For example, at one of the mobilization points, a neighbor who works in construction, who knows how to weld and has the tools for it, helped participants in the Front Line to make shields for protection. Several local police stations (CAIs) have also been converted into libraries and cultural spaces for the community.
A police substation has been converted into a community library named after Nicolás Guerrero, who was killed by police during the strike.
GRIETA, Bogotá: The days in the humanitarian corridors are the most hopeful part of the general strike. People begin arriving early in the morning and come together in artistic and educational activities. Huge murals have been painted in every neighborhood rejecting police violence, embracing community organization, and celebrating the resistance of the young people on the front line—people who, with no opportunities in such an unequal country, put their bodies on the defensive line each day.
Food has also played a central role. The community kitchens have been offering meals daily to people with empty stomachs and no resources. Autonomy has been developed in the occupation of public space, ordinary people from grandparents to children are attending popular assemblies, lists of demands are emerging from popular referendums and sentiments rather than bureaucracy.
In this community construction process, most of the injuries and arrests happen at night. Neighbors have chosen to open their houses, handing out food, first aid supplies, water with baking soda, and other resources to help resist the tear gas. These actions have led the ESMAD [riot police] agents to attack neighbors, firing directly at their houses. This unscrupulous violence that’s now entering city neighborhoods is the same that has always existed in the countryside, and perhaps this awakening has strengthened cries for police reform and the dismantling of the ESMAD.
Community kitchens like this one have sustained the strike at every blockade point.
The police have unleashed terrible violence, especially at night. What’s the dynamic like at night? What groups remain in the streets? What are confrontations with the police like?
Media activist, Cali: The activities that were taking place at night have slowed down or stopped because in the first few days of the strike, it was during these moments that the police and armed forces carried out their worst attacks, using firearms and very aggressive strategies. In the Siloé neighborhood, internet access was interrupted on the night of May 3 while a special police group (GOES—Grupo de operaciones especiales, or Special Operations Group) arrived with long guns to repress the blockade. Several people were killed in the neighborhood on that censored night, including a minor.
Because of this situation, activities are limited at night or carried out with lots of caution, since, as several human rights organizations have confirmed, there are no guarantees for the respect of life at night (attacks and abuses occur during the day as well, but to a much lesser degree). Some resistance points manage to stick it out by protecting themselves well and hiding in the vicinity, while others with less organization or fewer experienced people withdraw at nightfall and take their spaces back during the day. This was one of the most painful lessons during the first few days of the strike, since many people were murdered on those nights. (The official statistics barely report any information and the NGOs haven’t been able to put out a specific figure because of the number of cases, but a sensationalist local newspaper mentioned 22 deaths by May 2, plus the ones that have occurred since).
The police violence has been very intense, above all from the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron), a police unit created more than 20 years ago to repress social protest. Several of the weapons they employ are used in violation of the established protocols for minimizing harm. That’s why more than 20 people have already lost eyes from being shot by the ESMAD. They use 12-gauge shotguns loaded with beanbag munitions, the same thing that Dilan Cruz was murdered with in Bogotá in November 2019.
These are just the lawful strategies that are still endorsed even when used incorrectly; however, the police also use firearms against the community. The ESMAD and the regular police often use unregistered guns so they won’t leave evidence. It’s also common practice to hide identification numbers and police frequently dress as civilians or infiltrate marches.
GRIETA, Bogotá: We have been astonished by the state violence since the first day of the general strike. We knew that they had made a huge investment in weaponry and resources for repression, but seeing it in action was horrific. In the first few nights, police violence took the form of human rights violations such as beatings, arbitrary arrests, and illegal raids. The ESMAD deployed a new weapon called Venom in their armored vehicles for the first time. It costs 400 million Colombian pesos [about $110,000 USD] and has three compartments that each fire 10 projectiles at a 45-degree angle, carrying tear gas and flash-bang grenades. This weapon had never been used in Latin America before, not even in the most intense periods of the dictatorships.
At night, people go out to block and hold the main streets, they set up barricades and fires, and it’s just a matter of waiting until the ESMAD decides to attack with the forces and tanks it has available. Things have escalated as the days have gone on, especially in Cali. Attacks by state forces continue as before, but human rights campaigns have also begun to report cases of sexual violence, murders have been confirmed, and there are alarming numbers of missing persons who have later turned up dead in rivers and rural areas.
One of the most serious developments, though, is the militarization and para-militarization of the cities. A massacre took place, backed by the armed forces of Colombia. During the day, repression was carried out with legal “non-lethal” weapons, but at night the state cut electricity to the neighborhoods where people were gathered, hunted people down, blocked the internet and cell signals, and censored Facebook and Instagram Live while armed civilians attacked youth in resistance, the Indigenous minga, and anyone deemed to think or act differently. This is a clear expression of the paramilitarism that has haunted this region and doesn’t intend to give up its power easily.
Tear gas has been used heavily against protesters since the strike’s beginning.
In any uprising like this, there is always a lot of organization that doesn’t necessarily take place in the streets and might be hard to see from the outside. Could you describe some of these efforts that nourish and strengthen the revolt?
Media activist, Cali: In addition to the young people putting their bodies on the line, going face-to-face with the repression, and keeping the blockade points standing, there is strong participation from the whole family. The mothers especially are participating from the community kitchens, feeding everyone who’s taking part. The medic teams, which have set up operations at neighborhood basketball courts, meeting halls, and neighbors’ houses, have also played a crucial role during the establishment of the concentration points. In many neighborhoods and at many points, the community has participated by donating food and medicine. People don’t have much, but the little that’s there is always enough to share.
Additionally, longstanding organizations and movements are participating primarily by providing forms of logistical assistance. Human rights observation and alternative media coverage has been indispensable; however, due to the number of mobilization points, neither task has been accomplished to the extent it needs to.
After arriving in Cali, the Indigenous movement from the Cauca (the province south of Valle del Cauca, where Cali is located) sought out dialogue with the people blockadingto work together and offfer help, drawing on decades of experience with organization and social mobilization.
With such extreme police violence, medic teams are a crucial part of strike support.
GRIETA, Bogotá: We think the reproduction of daily life and labors of care are fundamental. They are what enables the revolt to develop each day. These labors take the forms of neighborhood community kitchens and networks of affection that are growing stronger due to the murders, torture, disappearances, sexual abuses, and the escalation of systematic violence deployed by the Colombian state headed by Ivan Duque’s Uribista administration.
What tactics and strategies are demonstrators using? Have any new ones emerged?
Media activist, Cali: There are blockades at the entrances to the cities, effectively halting production and consumption, and other blockades in working class neighborhoods. Organization is based on knowledge of the terrain and support from neighbors. Improvised barricades are built in a wide perimeter in order to hold several streets at once and keep the police out. The “front line” is for clashes and defense and then there are second and third lines with assorted other tasks. There are safe houses in case of an attack as well as food stockpiles and a treatment area that’s well-equipped for first aid and stabilizing the wounded.
GRIETA, Bogotá: In the demonstrations of these last few weeks, we’ve seen a variety of tactics and strategies. In terms of tactics, we could mention the constant mobilizations and marches that have happened not only in the big cities but also the medium-sized cities and municipalities where there had never been revolts or demonstrations before. Occupations, pot-and-pan demos, and cultural actions (performances, transgressive dances) have had an important place within the demonstrations because they have created learning spaces where the motivations behind the march can be explained to people who might have felt apathetic about the protests. Graffiti and murals have also been used tactically to denounce the tax reform (“the primary motive of the mobilization”) and the state repression that demonstrators have suffered at the hands of the police.
Mutual aid and solidarity between different social sectors and classes have also allowed the mobilization to survive through several weeks in the streets and constant, disproportionate repression from the state and paramilitaries who have free reign to kill in the cities. This has been seen in Cali, Pereira, and other cities, where armed civilians in the company of police fire on demonstrators or on the Indigenous Guard. It makes it clear that the narco-paramilitary state currently uses tactics which for years were only seen in rural areas to dispossess Indigenous people and peasants of their lands.
This repression has led to consistent solidarity and economic, moral, and symbolic support between different parts of the struggle. The mobilization has fed on the rage bred by state neglect and extreme repression. One stand-out case is what happened in Cali, where the Indigenous Guard left their territory to accompany, defend, and fight together with the people who had mobilized in the city. This gesture along with many others has shown that struggle in the streets unites and revives the revolutionary spirit that they have tried always tried to beat out of us, the lower classes of this country and the world.
Youth have driven this uprising, putting their bodies on the line to struggle for a world they can live in.
Describe the paramilitary situation. What have paramilitaries done, how do they coordinate with the state, and how have demonstrators responded?
Media activist, Cali: In Colombia, paramilitarism is a force that conducts covert military actions and pushes a fascist narrative in defense of private property and the re-establishment of order. The modus operandi has been to break the security perimeter of the blockade points and enter in vehicles, firing from long range. This has two objectives: to kill people and to sow terror. The blockade points have held strong because when something like this happens, reinforcements arrive from other points, carry out the wounded, and manage to keep morale and motivation high.
The paramilitary phenomenon is very complex and with the actions of the last few days, we’ve seen tactics that had never been used before. It’s important to clarify that the term “paramilitary” includes a number of different actors, the common denominator being action that is coordinated with or permitted by the armed forces. There are at least four main actors:
• Armed forces dressed in civilian clothes shooting at protesters. The protesters, with the help of the Indigenous Guard, have documented at least two cases of this. The lack of identification enables them to act illegally.
• Groups of hitmen hired by powerful people to carry out specific attacks or assassinations.
• Far-right extremists (many of them linked to drug trafficking) who call themselves “good citizens” and true patriots out of a sense of superiority. With institutional support, they take “justice” into their own hands and attack protesters, who the mass media have depicted as criminals. This is what happened in Ciudad Jardín and on the road to Jamundí [two upscale suburbs of Cali] on May 9, 2021.
• Paramilitary armies that never demobilized and exercise control over certain territories of Colombia.
GRIETA, Bogotá: Paramilitarism in Colombia took the form of “para-state” organizations—parallel to the state—that emerged at the end of the 1980s to combat the guerrillas, in collusion with the Colombian military. The 2005 peace negotiation between the state and the paramilitaries didn’t completely eliminate these organizations; their shadow has always been present in Colombia, especially in the figure of the “Águilas Negras” [Black Eagles].
Over the past few years, the Águilas Negras haven’t seemed to have a clear organizational structure like the paramilitaries of old; they are more a type of name that the Colombian state, drug traffickers, the mining companies present in Colombian territory, illegal mining interests, and others resort to in order to threaten and kill movement leaders who obstruct capitalist accumulation by dispossession—which is to say, accumulation coming from rural areas. Because of this, Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and environmentalist fighters in key territories are the most affected.
However, during the current strike, we have seen something a bit different: it’s not the state or another actor hiding behind the “Águilas Negras” name who has repressed the protests; it is openly the state, unmasked. In fact, Álvaro Uribe openly invited the military and police to fire on protesters, whom he called “vandalistic terrorists.” We have also seen another phenomenon: armed civilians firing at people marching. But these civilians are either out-of-uniform police or appear to be citizens with clearly neo-fascist characteristics. The latter might be similar to white supremacists in the US. Of course, this doesn’t exclude the possibility that the Águilas Negras could appear, perhaps linked to the Colombian armed forces and police and probably in the form of threats to the most visible leaders of the strike.
A banner displays several notorious figures of the Colombian para-state.
What does this revolt need to persist and spread?
Media activist, Cali: Time is the popular strike’s worst enemy. As supply shortages begin, the community could turn against the blockade points. But the poverty and state neglect are so extreme in these resisting sectors that the youth have nothing to lose and much to gain. Rather than negotiating or attempting to reach an agreement, the state has responded to the strike by militarizing the cities to ensure public order. This has outraged more middle-class people who have finally joined in to support the strike based on the possibilities and knowledge available to them.
GRIETA, Bogotá: For the last ten years or so, Colombia has experienced increasing social mobilization. Among the stronger expressions of this were the 2011 and 2018 student strikes, the 2013 peasant strike, and the Indigenous minga. In 2019, after the 2016 peace accords with the FARC, there was a general strike that, unlike former strikes, didn’t appear to focus on any one particular sector, whether students, peasants, or Indigenous peoples. It extended to the whole population. We’re seeing this tendency gain momentum in the current strike: although the Indigenous minga and the student movement have actively participated, this seems to be rooted in a generalized, collective unrest opposing the increasing precarity of life and the contemporary neo-fascism embodied by Uribismo. The intensification of protest has been a slow process that also depends on the conditions of the moment. I think this leaves us with a lesson: we must respect the rhythms of the popular movement, with its ups and downs, and not pressure the movement towards efficiency, which belongs to capital. It’s a slow process.
That said, I think we have to care for the movement, supporting it from multiple angles—in the community kitchens, the popular assemblies, going to marches, reflecting, supporting the front line, and so on—always trying to extend it, but without overexerting ourselves to try to see immediate results. We think there is a key element in this: not to let a movement, which from its beginning is heterogeneous and decentralized, be captured by a party or presidential aspiration. To care for it, it must continue to have strong popular support and above all, this support must continue to grow; if not, it’ll lose vitality.
Dance performances, traditional and novel, have been part or the the rich cultural expression taking place in Colombian streets during the strike.
What roles have anarchists played in the revolt?
GRIETA, Bogotá: Anarchists’ main role has been participating in the actions of the popular movement, spreading ideas, sharing our political ethic, and learning from other novel actions such as the Vogueart performance in which three transwomen danced in front of the police and symbols of the patriarchy. Our role has also been to promote the strike’s visibility on virtual platforms, which serve as a loudspeaker to the world. We think that generating international conversations to analyze what is happening from anarchist and libertarian viewpoints has also been important anarchic activity.
Anything else you would like to add?
GRIETA, Bogotá: In our understanding, one interesting characteristic underlying these days of protest and revolt has been the iconoclastic nature of the movement. This seems to be a trait of anarchisms of the south, and it has shown up in anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-extraction, and anti-patriarchal actions. Since the Indigenous Misak people toppled a monument to Sebastián de Belalcázar in Cali and another to Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada in Bogotá,7 other groups have tried to knock down monuments in the middle of violent confrontations in multiple cities. They have also attacked icons of capitalism such as banks and public and private institutions that serve the economic elite.
Another action that we think is worth highlighting took place on Twitter, where Colombian K-pop fans managed to block Uribista and anti-strike hashtags through collective actions. This contribution seems important on a digital level, because far-right narratives are also created on the internet, and they turn many people against the mobilizations.
Finally, all the systematic state violence has led to the creation of a front line of mothers, among them the mother of one of the many youths murdered during this strike. This demonstrates the social and political gravity of what is happening in Colombia, at the same time as it shows the dignified uprising of a people. For a group of mothers to decide to organize themselves to defend the movement proves that rage and discontent have generalized at a dizzying rate. Clearly, we celebrate these actions.
Up with the autonomous popular struggle, down with the repressive yoke of the state and its governments!
“We are the Mothers of the Brave.”
- 1Álvaro Uribe Vélez, right-wing president of Colombia from 2002-2010, is notorious for his corruption and ties to paramilitary and drug-trafficking activity. He is so emblematic of the confluence of narco-paramilitary-economic-state power in Colombia that his name is synonymous with this tendency. Hence, “Uribista” is used to describe a certain right-wing politics associated with paramilitarism in Colombia. Our interview with GRIETA, published below, gives more context.
- 2Descriptions of the events in Colombia frequently mention “puntos de concentración,” “puntos de resistencia,” or “puntos de paro:” literally, “concentration points,” “resistance points,” and “strike points.” We have retained the language of “point” because it is so widespread and because it is worth drawing attention to this specific strategy. These points combine the functions of blocking commerce, providing for the free distribution of food and other necessities, and serving as spaces for free expression—spaces of encounter and social life beyond the bounds of state and capital.
- 3The word “minga” is used among several Indigenous cultures in the Andean region. It has no English translation. It can refer to forms of voluntary, joyful collective labor for the good of the community; it also carries a sense of the collective identity of the people involved in these activities. The minga is not limited to those of an Indigenous identity; as evidenced here, it invites others from different backgrounds to join into being and participating in minga.
- 4Palenque de San Basilio is a village on the Caribbean coast just outside of Cartagena; it was founded by Africans who escaped slavery in the 1600s. For some time after its founding, the residents attempted to free all the other enslaved Africans arriving in Cartagena, a major slave port.
- 5The core idea of this doctrine is “democratic security,” i.e., the elimination of “terrorism” at any cost.
- 6A current of electoral politics that takes its name from Sergio Fajardo, a potential presidential candidate in the 2022 elections. Fajardo has been the subject of multiple political and corruption scandals.
- 7Sebastián de Belalcázar and Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the founders of Cali and Bogotá respectively, are figures that symbolize the colonial yoke. They founded these cities at the cost of the genocide of Indigenous peoples.