Bogota, Colombia- “Please. Stop, I’m begging you. Please. Enough.” said Javier Ordóñez as police beat and electrocuted him with tasers in a video that lit up social media in Bogota on September 9th. The 42 year old would be declared dead in a hospital after a severe beating inflicted on him by police officers while in their custody.
His crime? Being on the street after curfew amidst lingering lockdown measures.
Protesters gathered at the mini-precinct, or CAI as the sub-stations are called here (pronounced “Kai”) where Ordóñez was severely beaten in Villa de Luz, a neighborhood in the Colombian capital. First they splattered the police station with red paint as they chanted “murderers” and demanded justice, but as the day went on and the only response was tear gas, their rage grew. By late afternoon they were throwing bricks and smashing windows.
Pent up frustration and righteous anger spread through the barrios of Bogota and by nightfall more than 60 CAI’s were besieged by protesters in a torrent of riots that would end in fire and blood.
The riots have claimed the lives of 13 protesters and wounded almost 200. Medical officials in the city have treated dozens wounded by live ammunition during the first two nights of expanding protests as police fired into crowds indiscriminately.
Police and the Ministry of Defense have since apologized for their actions, and Mayor Claudia Lopez has called for reform after the protests spread to every major city in Colombia.
But why did the spark ignite such an explosion? This social movement evolved differently here than most do. National Strikes last November were organized as most protest movements here are: planned well in advance by student groups, unions and political opposition parties.
This was new. These riots started in the barrios- the outer-rings of the city where corruption among police is common, crime is high compared to the rest of the city and the people live in the margins, neglected and cut off from the wealth of the Colombian capital.
They were spontaneous, yes, but they were also the result of a perfect storm of conditions. An economy eviscerated by almost 6 month intense lockdown measures that left people in the outer-ring of the city destitute. Many had even taken to hanging red cloths from their windows as cry for help amidst food insecurity.
A series of continually worsening massacres in the countryside, 56 so far this year, and a decaying peace process hum on continually in the background nationally as the government proves itself either unable or unwilling to provide for it’s most vulnerable citizens.
Social leaders continue to die at a record pace, 211 so far this year as of filing this story. And as the poor suffered across Colombia, the elite used the opportunity to consolidate power. President Duque often seemed more focused on his “New Plan Colombia”, an aggressive military plan to militarize conflict zones as part of a joint operation with the United States than he was about the plight of the poor in Colombia.
But the oligarchy here being unconcerned about the plight of the peasants is nothing new. It was one of the root causes of a civil war that lasted almost 50 years. It was however even more prevalent in times of pestilence.
As the ruling class sat comfortably in their gated communities, the barrios went hungry.
But that’s not the whole story either. The Colombian state has a long history of violence, particularly towards marginalized communities. From the ‘false positives scandals’ during the war, where Colombian military and paramilitary forces killed over 10,000 civilians and claimed they were guerrillas, to systemic corruption that has led to hundreds of instances of rape by soldiers and police forces over the years.
Human rights group Temblores documented 40,481 instances of physical abuse and over 600 homicides perpetrated by the police against civilians in Colombia between 2017 and 2019.
But that’s just what gets reported. From my time as a journalist here in Colombia I know that many crimes go unreported, either due to fear of retribution or a lack of faith in a deeply flawed justice system.
“When protesters attacked these CAI’s they were attacking symbols of a police force that has oppressed them for decades, said Andrea Blanco, Cultural Administrator for the locality of Gaitán. “These institutions have persecuted marginalized communities in Colombia. They are symbols of extortion, violence, persecution of youth, rape and oppression. The death of Javier Ordóñez was just the spark that lit the fuse. Colombia has been building the bomb for decades.”
It wasn’t ‘the commies’
“It was communist infiltrators from Cuba and Venezuela!” shrieked conservative commentators and former president Alvaro Uribe of ongoing riots in a dull refrain so tiresome and mindless that it would be comical were it not also so dangerous.
The hysterical claim is rolled out every time there are protests in Colombia as a way for the ruling class to avoid acknowledging it’s responsibilities in social dissent. The same claims were made last November during national strikes when the government imposed a military curfew and unleashed hated riot police ESMAD on student-led protests that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets.
It’s what every State does when they seek to discredit protests and deny culpability for the root issues that actually spark unrest. I’ve covered protests in four countries and it’s always the same argument. I understand why it’s popular. Believing riots are the fault of outside agitators and spies is a tempting argument to make if you are part of the group benefiting from the power structure: it means the fault isn’t yours.
It’s much harder to look honestly at the cold reality of a movement led by youth who believe, with considerable evidence, that they will never have any real shot at a decent education, upward mobility or economic opportunities. These protests represent years of neglect, exploitation and corruption finally come home to roost.
Is it easy to admit to onself from the kings throne that citizens throwing rocks at the CAI’s all over the city in open rebellion have a legitimate complaint against a government that failed them?
Of course it isn’t. It is much easier to simply believe unwashed commie barbarians are pounding at the gates out of pure malice. That you are the protagonist of the story rather than the villain profiting from an unjust system.
But a fantasy isn’t a reality merely because it is seductive and pretty. The most important truths are often ugly to look at.
Where do we go from here?
The Ministry of Defense has apologized for wrong-doing by police, and the mayor of Bogota, Claudia Lopez, has promised reform. The idea of removing control of police from the Defense Ministry, which also controls military forces is being seriously considered. These are very promising signs, especially from a government that rarely publicly admits fault for its actions.
But they also need to address systemic issues that have plagued the country for decades: complete neglect of poor areas both urban and rural throughout Colombia, investments in education that make a better future possible for all youth and not just the privileged few lucky enough to be born from wealthy families with well-known last names.
Long-term investments in infrastructure that go beyond projects meant to encourage foreign investment in mineral extraction and finance: projects that may look good on paper because they increase GDP, but also projects that funnel money disproportionately into the hands of the already wealthy often at the expense of rural poor.
Colombia made great strides towards stepping away from violence with the imperfect peace accord of 2017. It’s time now to complete the transition from a flawed democracy rife with oligarchy, corruption and violence into the nation that it dreamt of becoming when it escaped from under Spanish rule.
Much progress has been made, but many of the same root problems that led to civil war in the first place remain. These must be rooted out with zealousness to create a true democratic and meritocratic society for all.
The kids will be alright, but only if they have a real shot at participating in the future.