A Month of Incendiary Revolt in Colombia

In Colombia, the revolt that has taken over the streets since April 28, now more than a month old, shows no signs of stopping.

Submitted by Guerre de Classe on June 20, 2021

In Colombia, the revolt that has taken over the streets since April 28, now more than a month old, shows no signs of stopping. Conservative President Iván Duque, whose term ends in 2022, has tried a number of classic manoeuvres to appease the rioters, but nothing has been done: neither the suspension of the tax reform that had been the initial spark (including, for example, an increase in VAT from 5% to 19% on basic goods), on May 2; nor the resignation of the Minister of Finance who had carried it, on May 3; nor the opening of negotiations with the National Strike Committee on May 10 (followed by a pre-agreement on May 24 that is currently being validated); nor the rejection by Congress of the bill on the reform of the health system, which was modelled on the liberal North American model (this rejection was requested by many demonstrators), on 19 May; nor a few crumbs dropped on particular categories, such as the extension of free university education to the poorest for one semester, which did not calm the students; nor, of course, the police terror against the protesters.

In a Colombian context marked by poverty and the informal economy, the government’s blackmail of confinements and curfews against the spread of covid-19 has not worked for a long time to prevent protesters from gathering en masse either, so much so that the government even officially lifted many restrictions on May 19, which were not respected anyway (the curfew being maintained, however, with an anti-riot objective in Medellin and Bogotá, and all weekend in Santa Marta and Cartagena). For the past month, street blockades and roadblocks have been scattered throughout the country, with demonstrations and gatherings that are more peaceful during the day (nearly 10,400 in one month), often followed by riots, looting and looting at night.

Blockades throughout the country…

Concerning blockades, the Ministry of Defense counted, for example, on May 21, nearly 90 daily blockades at the entrances to major cities and on the country’s main roads (a total of 2,577 for the past month), regularly attacked or taken over by the police… before being reassembled the following days. Faced with shortages here and there (food, petrol, medicine), the army is now escorting long convoys of trucks across the country, as in the days of the territories controlled by the ex-Farc guerrilla (dissolved in 2016), while some mayors or governors are negotiating with some of the demonstrators to allow the passage of “humanitarian convoys” to maintain a minimum supply (supporting de facto the emergence of reasonable interlocutors and budding politicians). This is also one of the issues at stake in the tug-of-war between the government and the representatives of the National Strike Committee (composed of the main unions, CUT-CGT-CTC and those of truckers, pensioners or education), where the latter favors these negotiated convoys, while the State demands as a precondition for its signature of a pre-agreement the lifting of all blockades.

In the midst of this mess, the government is obviously quick to denounce the “false blockades” where some hooded men are robbing vehicles to let them pass; merchants and businessmen are crying over their accumulated losses (the country’s major seaport, Buenaventura, estimates, for example, that 270,000 tons of merchandise are currently blocked); while others are taking the opportunity to advance their own local demands, sometimes with unexpected consequences. A good example of this was the forced shutdown from May 24 to 29 of the largest open-pit coal mine in South America, in Cerrejón (northeast Colombia), due to the double effect of the blockade of the railroad line that supplies it by former workers who were laid off since May 5, followed by the blockade of substitute trucks since May 20 by residents of the nearby indigenous municipality of Media Luna demanding more jobs (and not its shutdown, which is devastating their lives). It must be said that this area of the fifth largest coal exporter in the world, La Guajira, is paradoxically considered one of the poorest in the country, so much so that there are even immediate problems of survival such as hunger, with the basic needs of 65% of the population not being covered.

And destructive attacks of all kinds…

In the urban riots, which affect the capital Bogotá, Cali and also many smaller cities, especially in the South, we are witnessing here and there, as in Chile at the end of 2019, the formal creation of a Primera Línea (First Line), that is to say, young demonstrators made of bricks and mortar, who are courageously and decisively confronting the anti-riot squads (Esmad) in the demonstrations. Alongside this “block against block” form of spontaneous collective self-defense, more decentralized, diffuse and mobile practices continue to develop (even farther away from police concentrations) in order not to focus all the attention on the guardians of order alone, but rather on what they protect, by multiplying looting, ransacking and burning of banks, buses or institutional buildings.

If we take only the day of yesterday, May 28, where the forms of self-organization and riotous experimentation remained multiple throughout the country, some enraged people managed to catch the authorities off guard in Popayán (in the south of the country), first by setting fire to a part of the city hall in the center of the city under the enthusiastic cheers of the demonstrators, and then to the huge municipal pound located in the Bolívar district, where there were almost 2000 motorcycles and cars sequestered by the authorities, provoking a huge blaze visible from almost everywhere.

To take another example, still only on Friday, if we go a little further south in the department of Nariño, bordering Ecuador, the clashes were also consistent in the city of Pasto. There, after having resisted for several hours to the anti-riot police forces thanks to an orderly clearing of several streets of the center, small mobile groups began to attack some specific objectives like police stations (CAI) left vacant, the parking lot of the municipal pound and its adjacent construction crane, which were set on fire in the Torobajo neighborhood, and the large central building of the ORIP (Oficina de Registros e Instrumentos Públicos), which serves as both the civil registry and the public land registry, containing the state archives of a dozen cities in the region. The archives and official documents were mercilessly reduced to ashes.

Some figures for the road…

In total, according to the latest assessment of the various types of destruction provided on 28 May by the Ministry of Defence (in Colombia this Ministry and the Ministry of the Interior are one and the same), nearly 1,175 “public transport vehicles” and “public transport vehicles” were destroyed. 175 “public transport vehicles” and 422 ticket machines were hit (burned or put out of service) in one month –a particularly popular target since the beginning of the revolt–, but also 399 businesses and 433 bank branches, without forgetting the whole of the urban furniture (like the 160 video surveillance masts that were shot down), nor the 28 highway toll booths destroyed (the last one on May 28 in Villa Rica, set on fire by indigenous groups who are at the forefront of the struggle against these infrastructures, and which was the last one still intact in the Cauca region) or the 112 police stations and police posts damaged entirely or partially.

The most recent example of the attacks and targeted retaliation that accompany all of these practices is certainly what happened on Tuesday evening, May 25, in Tuluá, a medium-sized city of 200,000 inhabitants located in the Valle del Cauca, about 100 kilometers north of Cali. There, as almost every day, demonstrators began to converge in the early afternoon on Boyacá Square, for another day of blockades and protests. Around 5 pm, the anti-riot forces of the Esmad (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios) intervened to restore order and traffic, which they managed to do after several confrontations (stones against tear gas and charges), but at the same time provoked a scattering of demonstrators in the streets towards downtown. The latter, in small groups, then undertook for two hours to dismantle street furniture (such as the red lights used to set up barricades), to loot stores, and elsewhere to ransack banks (18 commercial establishments were officially “vandalized”).

In an attempt to contain the situation and facilitate the intervention of the police, the municipal authorities finally decreed a curfew around 10pm until 5am, allowing the uniforms to arrest anyone outside, while the local section of the National Strike Committee obviously denounced all this destruction. But it doesn’t matter, since much has already been done until early evening, including qualitatively, and no one will forget this signal to all the other cities, that of a courtroom destroyed from floor to ceiling (after the one in Facatativá, completely ransacked on May 2, a week before its inauguration).

Unfortunately, the next day, May 26, we also learned that a young student from the city, Camilo Andrés Arango, was murdered by the cops around 9 p.m. not far from the confrontation zone (and two others were wounded by bullets), and that nine demonstrators were arrested, three of whom were specifically accused of burning down the Tribunal and looting the motorcycle store, charged with “terrorism, aggravated robbery, and rioting” by the public prosecutor’s office and then incarcerated that night.

Bloody repression, and the retaliation of Popayán…

At the national level, to give an idea of the repression, let’s just say that according to the official figures of the different NGOs that count these exactions, in one month about sixty demonstrators have been assassinated by the cops, 51 of them have lost an eye, more than 2900 have been injured (sometimes by bullets or grenades), 1200 who are incarcerated (300 of them as a result of street blockades), and more than 300 who are still reported as desaparecidxs (that is, they have disappeared after being arrested by the police or after being kidnapped in the street by parastatal militias, such as the extreme right-wing militia of sad memory called Black Eagles) To all of this, we must unfortunately add another level of state terrorism, which is the torture of demonstrators by the uniforms, as well as the rapes and sexual abuses practiced in the neighborhood police stations (CAI, Comando de Atención Inmediata) and in the detention centers under the jurisdiction of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (URI, Unidad de Reacción Inmediata).

If this terrible repression has not yet succeeded in weakening the determination of the demonstrators who refuse to return to normalcy and have not left the streets for a month, some news that is particularly odious due to its accumulation has also triggered offensives that were unheard of until now. Last May 12, in the early evening in Popayán, a young girl was filmed being picked up and dragged at arm’s length by four cops. What was then just another sad story quickly took another turn when the inhabitants of the city learned not only that she had committed suicide on her return home after being held for a few hours in the Unidad de Reacción Inmediata (URI), but that she had also left a last message online stating that she had been raped by the cops. Her name was Alison, she was 17 years old, and was one more since the beginning of the revolt.

On May 14, spontaneous rallies were held in the afternoon in front of various police institutions in different neighborhoods of Popayán, with cries of “cops [tombos, in slang], rapists, murderers”, but the most enraged crowd gradually gathered in front of the huge complex of the Public Prosecutor’s Office where the URI where Alison was raped is located. After a first assault repulsed by the anti-riot forces during which its facade is covered with vengeful graffiti and where molotovs fly against the building, a second assault is launched in the beginning of the evening (during which an umpteenth demonstrator hit in the neck by a grenade is killed) which finally succeeds in taking over the URI and then the whole of the disgraced seat of the judiciary institution. Needless to say, the building was then ransacked and burned to the ground without sparing anything, not even the adjoining forensic medicine institute.

On May 15, Francisco Barbosa Delgado, Attorney General of Colombia, rushed to the scene from the capital, and could only see the tens of thousands of euros worth of damage, including the incineration of a dozen vehicles of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, that of the forensic laboratories with the thousands of “proofs” kept in their buildings, the destruction of 22 of its offices, but also the plundering of all the drug seizures or that of the well-stocked armoury of the place..: it is of the end of the lips that the high civil servant will reveal thus that about fifty firearms passed in the camp of the rioters during this vengeful night in Popayán, of which about fifteen rifles.

The government sends the army as a backup…

Finally, to illustrate a situation in which the government is increasing its bloody pressure day by day, we can also turn to the third largest city in the country, Cali, which has been one of the main centers of the revolt since the beginning: yesterday, May 28, during another great national day of demonstrations, 13 people were killed, many of them by plainclothes henchmen. One of them, a 22 year old participant in the first line at the Campestre dam, was shot in the morning. Then it was the turn of two other demonstrators, shot at a blockade in the central neighborhood of La Luna, except that in this case their comrades managed to catch up with the assailant and identify him before finally settling the score on the spot: it was a plainclothes cop belonging to the armed corps of judicial investigators of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones, CTI), which the government had to acknowledge. Finally, in the evening, a 22-year-old student from the Quechua-speaking community of Inga was shot and killed in the Meléndez neighborhood. The others have not yet been publicly identified.

On Saturday, May 29, President Duque reacted to the previous day’s uprising and especially to the events in Cali, condemning in his usual style “the acts of vandalism and low-intensity urban terrorism” of the demonstrators, and then declared that he was using the Law of Military Assistance to immediately decree the dispatch of a thousand soldiers to the streets of Cali; the creation of mixed police/army patrols in other cities such as Popayán; as well as the global deployment of 7,000 soldiers to put an end to the blockades in eight departments (Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Nariño, Huila, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Caquetá, Risaralda) and thirteen cities (Cali, Buenaventura, Pasto, Ipiales, Popayán, Yumbo, Buga, Palmira, Bucaramanga, Pereira, Madrid, Facatativá, and Neiva).

In reality, it is nothing more or less than an ersatz declaration of a state of emergency (estado de conmoción interior) demanded by the leaders of his party, which would allow him to govern by simple presidential decrees for 90 days, and which he can do without for the time being, since the Ley de asistencia militar allows him to simply deploy the army wherever the police are in trouble. This measure has only been used in the capital Bogotá since May 5, at the request of Mayor Claudia López… to defend the police and prosecutor’s office buildings where protesters are locked up daily while waiting to be transferred to prison.

Finally, it should be noted that while some local authorities relied on this presidential decree (No. 575 of 2021) from Sunday, May 30, to support the sending of Kakia troops, others announced that they refused to use them (as in Bucaramanga or Caquetá), and that to warmly encourage his bloody Colombian counterpart, the new president of the United States Joe Biden decided on May 28 to give him a small increase, raising the annual sum paid to Colombia from 412 to 453.8 million dollars for 2021.

Brave fighters continue to line the streets as we speak, and the struggle continues.

Source in French: https://sansnom.noblogs.org/archives/6741
English translation: https://www.amwenglish.com/articles/a-month-of-incendiary-revolt-in-colombia/