Latin America Advisor

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Will Protesters Keep Taking to the Streets in Colombia?

Violent protests erupted this month in Colombia after a civilian died in police custody. An overturned police car at a protest in Bogotá is pictured above. // File Photo: @petrogustavo via Twitter. Violent protests erupted this month in Colombia after a civilian died in police custody. An overturned police car at a protest in Bogotá is pictured above. // File Photo: @petrogustavo via Twitter.

Violent protests exploded in Colombia earlier this month following an incident in which Javier Ordóñez, a 46-year-old lawyer, died following an interaction with police over alleged violations of coronavirus-related distancing measures. Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo later apologized on behalf of the police, and President Iván Duque said the death would be investigated and that no abuse by police would be tolerated. What is at the root of the recent demonstrations? Will social tensions continue in Colombia into the foreseeable future, and will the government be able to contain them? Will the demonstrations lead to any changes in government policy?

Arlene B. Tickner, professor at the Faculty of International, Political and Urban Studies at the University of Rosario: “At the root of the demonstrations in Colombia last November were grievances related to flawed implementation of the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, political violence, a controversial tax reform, deficient state provisions for education, health and retirement, and police brutality. Although President Iván Duque responded with a ‘national conversation,’ the distinct organizers of the mobilizations and Colombian society at large considered this a mostly empty gesture. Protests resurfaced on Sept. 9, after an unarmed civilian, Javier Ordóñez, died in police custody after being tortured with a taser gun. Thirteen people were killed, and more than 300 were injured in the ensuing violence between law enforcement and demonstrators, many at the hands of uniformed police who fired directly into the crowds. Although Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo apologized ‘for any violation of the law’ that the institution committed, he and other state officials also claimed that FARC dissidents and ELN guerrillas had infiltrated the demonstrations, suggesting that on some level police action had been warranted. There is little to suggest that social unrest in Colombia will diminish or that the government will be able to address rising discontent in any meaningful way. Since assuming office, Duque has been hard-pressed to govern, in no small part due to his lack of experience and leadership, and to the fact that he has operated under the shadow of former President Álvaro Uribe, who is currently under house arrest. Lack of progress on key facets of the peace accords, systematic killing of social leaders, human rights defenders and excombatants, and an alarming rise in massacres will continue to be a source of domestic and international reproach. Colombia’s socioeconomic ills are bound to worsen.”

Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis: “Pent-up frustration in Colombia reached a boiling point on Sept. 9. Although the anger and pain have subsided significantly since that day, the government’s unwillingness to demonstrate self-awareness on the need for reform is likely to signal that additional protests are ahead. The protests in Bogotá were motivated not only by the gruesome images of police brutality toward Ordóñez but also by the government’s unwavering support for the police’s heavy-handed response in the following days. Whereas the government delayed a necessary apology for Ordóñez’s death, it has failed to atone for the death of 13 others who were also killed in confrontations with the police. Instead, the government has insisted on its hypothesis that members of ELN urban militias, anarchists and dissident FARC groups have been coordinating the protests and attacks against police stations. Although these groups are present in protests and opportunistically take advantage of the confusion to attack police targets, they are not the protest’s main instigators. The Duque administration is likely to use the same playbook it employed last November, when it skillfully navigated through disruption promising a national conversation on social reforms without actually enacting any new policies. Protesters’ concerns include economic malaise, killings of social leaders and the increase in massacres, the government’s unwillingness to fully implement the peace agreement, forthcoming reforms to the pension and labor system and other issues, including the environment. Though the government’s strategy proved successful a year ago, the issues that led to the protests have not subsided and protests are likely to resume when another event triggers a wave of unrest.”

Fernando Cepeda Ulloa, professor of political science at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá and former Colombian interior minister: “The government says the ELN and other armed groups are responsible for the acts of vandalism that occurred earlier this month and also last November. Colombia has a tradition of social protest, and it is respected as a democratic right. Cases of violence have not been lacking. Vandalism—perhaps by an urban guerrilla—discredits social protest, the work of police and the action of the government. Social protest and vandalism have already become part of Colombia’s politics, and the country’s political debate is being further radicalized. What the government agreed to with the guerrillas in the 2016 peace agreement was the FARC’s transition to a political organization that would continue to fight for its objectives within the parameters of the Constitution. For this reason, benefits were included, such as privileged state financing of the political party they clumsily continued to call the FARC and a series of seats in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, among others, and, of course, guarantees for them to exercise the right of opposition and social protest. This last factor does not exist in Chile or other countries. Nor is there an incomplete peace in those countries, as there is in Colombia. At least three fronts of the FARC dismantled the peace agreement—those that were in the criminal drug business—and then the head of negotiation, Iván Márquez, fled with Jesús Santrich and founded a new FARC. The ELN has also been strengthened, economically and militarily.” /span>

Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at International Crisis Group: “Ordóñez’s death stirred a deep well of public frustration with security forces. Critics complain that the police apply the law only when it suits them, targeting their arbitrary enforcement efforts at the most vulnerable. Over the last six months particularly, Colombia’s very strict quarantine rules handed the police extraordinary authority to block economic activity and basic movement. These controls led to a rise in cases of alleged police abuse and made officers the face of the lockdown, even as irritation over the restrictions and their impact grew. This initial spark of unrest may well reignite a wave of urban protest that began last fall and was only cut short by the pandemic. The long list of grievances that sent Colombians to the street in 2019 is now much longer. As in much of Latin America, the pandemic set off a devastating economic crisis that has disproportionately affected low-income workers. Colombia’s political polarization will color authorities’ responses and could cripple attempts at compromise. The Duque administration sees violence and insecurity in all its manifestations as a matter of criminal activity whose perpetrators need to be met with tougher police and military enforcement. By contrast, government opponents demand deep institutional police reform, demilitarization of security forces maintaining civic order and full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement to halt a new cycle of conflict by addressing what they deem to be its underlying causes. A middle path that acknowledges the need for reform without denying real security threats from armed and criminal groups is possible, albeit made harder to pursue each day.”

Andrea Saldarriaga Jiménez, international political analyst: “To understand the current circumstances in Colombia, one must remember that in 2019 the country faced weeks of protests where citizens listed demands on education, pensions, the containment of violence against social leaders and the implementation of the 2016 peace accord with FARC. These social grievances were not resolved then, and the Duque administration responded with excessive force rather than pragmatic solutions to disperse the hundreds of mostly young voices that marched in several cities. Enter 2020, the coronavirus pandemic, national quarantine orders and finally the lifting of the strict mobility restrictions that had been in place since March. Colombia faced a mounting number of massacres (hitting 34 massacres in 35 weeks) and the episode of police brutality against Javier Ordóñez in Bogotá. This, coupled with the dire economic reality the pandemic has brought about (Colombia currently has the highest unemployment rate among OECD members), created the perfect storm. It is one that the government has been unable to navigate, given its reluctance to read and respond to the population’s concerns and rather fall back to old-school strategies of responding to social resistance with force. If there is one lesson Colombia must have learned by now, it is that violence may bring about temporary political victories, but in the long term, only social dialogue and consensus, peace building and reconciliation can bring about lasting economic, political and social change. Until now, the government has not shown any signs of moving in this direction, so one should expect continued social mobilization in the foreseeable future.”

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