Earlier this month I received a text from one of my cousins living in Colombia, he said, “Laura, the situation is getting worse. It is spreading everywhere. People are saying we need to share what is happening because they are censuring evidence.” Then, he followed up by sending me video after video showing uniformed policemen shooting at unarmed civilians in the middle of the night, the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron) using tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters, and police armored vehicles driving into crowds of people. When I saw this I was shocked, afraid, and angry. Now, as we head into a third week of protests, I am concerned for the safety of my family in Colombia and what the future may hold. I believe Colombian people have the right to take to the streets and make their complaints known. The brutal crackdown by the government using hyper militarization and police violence against overwhelmingly peaceful protests is condemnable and needs to stop.
Since the tax reform was proposed to Congress by President Ivan Duque and his administration, Colombia has been experiencing a national strike that has taken over major cities. The reform would have imposed a sales tax on utilities for the middle and upper class, expanded the contributing tax base, and raised gas prices among other regressive tax reforms. For most Colombians, particularly lower income and informal workers, these reforms were a slap in the face as the pandemic continues to drive up unemployment and worsen housing and food insecurity. With waves of stay-at-home orders wreaking havoc in people’s finances, and heavy fines for breaking home quarantine reaching millions of pesos, the economic situation is dire. Thus we have the manifestations taking place and making international news. They started as a reaction to the reform, but quickly became protests about the decades-long grievances around climbing poverty rates, unemployment, and inequality. According to the World Bank, Colombia takes second place in latin-america and the seventh in the world in terms of economic inequality. Corruption is also widely known to be rampant in all seats of government, and as the people take to the street to protest, it is clear they do not trust politicians’ words any longer.
Although the tax reform was withdrawn on May 2nd, there is speculation President Duque will try again to pass the reform through Congress hence manifestations have continued to intensify. The recent tax reform triggered something in the population that led to active mobilization; as a common saying goes “it is the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The government’s disproportionate use of force, is by all means a disregard to the democratic values it is supposed to uphold. According to the BBC, there have been at least 24 dead and more than 800 wounded. Among them is 37-year old Lucas Villa, who was shot eight times during confrontations and died in the hospital on May 5th. Given the growing death toll and concerns about violation of human rights, in an United Nations statement the international organization has denounced the actions taken by police.
As these demonstrations take place, the two major free-to-air television national networks have been criticized for not reporting enough on the current crisis, except for segments taking the police side on confrontations. Meanwhile, there have been videos circulating online showing policemen dressed in civilian clothing passing as protesters and rioting, mysterious white cars shooting civilians and apparently being used by police, and hundreds of protesters have gone missing in midst of the unrest. Given the seemingly purposeful lack of national media coverage of events, social media networks such as Facebook and TikTok are being used to spread the videos and images depicting the reality on the ground. Accompanied by tags such as #soscolombia, #paronacional, #nosestanmatando, #noalareformatributaria, this message can be summarized in the chanted words “the government steals, the media lies, the police kills.” Colombians, ex-pats, and anybody willing to join the online movement need to keep sharing in order to make sure that people within and outside of Colombia know what is happening. Bloody repression is dangerous for Colombian people and democracy, it can become worse if nobody seems to be watching.
(Cover Image: Luisa Gonzalez, Reuters)