Leaving the Shadow of the Valley of Death

How the Specter of War Fueled Colombian Protests

Joshua Collins
Dec 17, 2019 · 6 min read
One of many marches on Nov 21st in Bogota, Colombia (Photo: Joshua Collins)

Bogota, Colombia- 8 million victims of violence. That’s the toll of a nearly 50-year Colombian civil war that officially came to an end when the Government and FARC rebels signed a 2016 Peace Accord. There was a promise of unity and reconciliation the country hadn’t known for generations.

But for many Colombians outside the major cities, that promised peace never materialized — new rebel dissidents are flourishing, drug violence continues and government promises of investment and infrastructure in long-neglected rural areas never came to pass.

Indigenous people and social organizers have been victims of an ever-worsening spree of murders, revenge killings are common, and there are still sizable regions of Colombia that remain lawless, controlled by criminal groups.

And the country currently finds itself besieged by ongoing protests that are inspired in a very large part by that failed peace.

Investigators recently uncovered another mass grave of slaughtered innocents from the conflict, “false positives” as they are called here. The phrase describes the at least 2,500 farmers killed by government forces between 1997 and 2009, whom government forces falsely claimed were rebels

At the time, there was a bounty on FARC heads, and some government soldiers realized that dead peasants and dead guerrillas look exactly the same.

It was slaughter for cash, and it was just one of the many examples of bloodshed that had become common in Colombia.

“I’ve never known anything but a country at war,” said Marcela Aranda, 20, a protester. “They told us we would be at peace. But in Cauca, (a long-neglected region that has seen a spike in narco-related killing of indigenous people) nothing has changed, and our government kills just as many as the narcos.”

“They bomb children,” she said, referring to a Colombian military operation that resulted in the deaths of of eight children in August.

Tear-gas covered 20 square blocks around Universidad Nacional on Nov 21st as police laid siege to the University for over 6 hours (photo: Joshua Collins)

People Power

In the biggest mass-protests in more than 60 years, the Colombian people have taken to the streets demanding an end to corruption, economic reform and finally, that the government live up to its promises on the peace.

Now that government death squads no longer roam the countryside in the name of security and the FARC no longer plant car-bombs on busy streets, democracy is truly exerting itself, perhaps for the first time since the cold war began.

With the delicate accord in the balance, and a moment of relative peace that most democracies in the world would take for granted, an entire generation of youth who grew up amongst terror and bloodshed are standing up, taking the streets and screaming at the top of their lungs “YA BASTA!” (enough!).

And they terrified the government. The first day of protests were extremely violent, as the officials called a military curfew and police aggressively attacked students whom only hours before, had been dancing in the streets.

Video of violent clashes between police and protesters Nov 21st

The reaction has to be viewed through the lens of Colombia’s history to be understood.

Current Colombian president Ivan Duque won the 2018 election on a promise to re-negotiate and dismantle aspects of a controversial peace agreement that was pushed through by the government after a popular vote on the truce failed by less than 1%.

Since then, Duque has used every parliamentary tool at his disposal to slow down and negate aspects of the accord, and he has paid a steep political price for doing so. He has a less than 30% approval rating and is openly mocked in the streets as an oligarch, stooge of ex-president Uribe (who presided during the “false-positives”murders) and a war-monger.

“Every family here was touched by the war,” said Oney Bedoya, an international security consultant and Colombian army veteran. “Our entire culture suffers from a post-traumatic stress; generations that grew up in violence.”

“When someone loses a loved-one, they don’t forgive easily, no matter which side did the killing.”

And there was a lot of killing.

Furthermore, as protests rage around the world, especially in Latin America, a government with a paranoid fear of instability and obsessed with imaginary communist threats misjudged the situation. Some protesters paid the ultimate price for the fear, including 17-year old Dilan Cruz, who was killed by riot police and has become a symbol of the movement.

The government panicked. It grossly over-reacted to protests that in the developed world are normal.

It replied to healthy democracy not with dialogue but with an iron-fist, deploying the army, arresting and deporting hundreds of Venezuelans without reason, using under-cover police as infiltrators, and even trying to blame Russia (huh?!) for what is clearly a protest inspired by domestic failures.

Human rights groups criticized the governments response, and protesters spilled into the streets in even greater numbers in response to the state violence.

It turns out war isn’t so easy to leave behind and that this movement would not be stopped with force.

A protester with a sculpture of Alvaro Uribe, Colombian ex-president and current party leader, who is often a target of the demonstrations and criticized for his alleged role in the “false positive” killings. “The poverty, the war and the misery are the sources of my wealth” reads the sign. (Photo: Joshua Collins)

Moving Forward

President Duque’s responses to protester demands have been astonishingly tone-deaf. He has treated them as a security threat, forgetting that in a democracy the government serves at the pleasure of the people, not the other way around.

His failure to treat the union and student leaders with even basic respect just fuels their perception that Colombia is ruled by an out of touch and corrupt oligarchy.

Following the example of other governments around the world, he has tried repeatedly to put the blame on foreigners, on criminals on anyone but himself and the post he represents.

He has attempted to spread terror through military deployment, constant talk of protester violence, and his elite riot-police squadrons (ESMAD), who eerily resemble storm-troopers and have repeatedly attacked peaceful protests without provocation.

I’ve been on the ground now almost daily at the marches, the strikes, the parties, the rallies and the neighborhood pot-banging in support of the movement.

Despite what some local media says, these protests are not dangerous. They are incredibly peaceful. I’ve seen marchers ejected from the rallies for threatening violence. I’ve seen plain-clothes officers confronted by angry students. I’ve seen 80 year old grandmothers marching alongside 20 year-old front-liners equipped with shields, goggles and home-made gas masks.

Entire families spend their days shouting slogans, blowing whistles and proudly holding aloft hand-made signs demanding education and peace.

In short, I see a healthy democracy exerting it’s constitutional and human right to demand more from a government that at least in theory, works for them.

In 2016, Colombia promised to leave the shadow of the valley of death; not an easy journey. The decision was controversial and has polarized the country. Duque may not like the promises he inherited, but they are promises nonetheless. That is how democracy works — a government fulfills the promises it makes to its people or it is replaced.

Darwin Molina is a social-worker in Buenaventura, a city particularly hard hit by decades of failed promises from the federal government.

“If the government doesn’t cultivate peace,” he told me, “They will reap war, whether that war is official or not.”

The students, who have spent weeks in the streets of Bogota are not going to allow that to happen.

What no one talks about here is this is a peace rally.

Joshua Collins is an independent journalist based in Bogota, Colombia. For more stories of protest and immigration you can follow him on twitter.

Acrobats perform suspended from an overpass for protesters on Nov 21st (Photo: Joshua Collins)

Latin American News from the front lines

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