Bogota- Ivan Dario Hernandez, 55, stops me in the street while aerial-dancers swing in the background, suspended from an overpass. We are surrounded by tens of thousands of people banging drums and singing in the streets.
Organizers say 800,000 people participated in protests in Bogota as an anti-government national strike swept the country.
“The people do the work! We make this country!” he screams at me. “Are you recording!?”
I assure him that I am.
“OK! I just wanna say that (President of Colombia) Duque is a thief! And the IMF and the North Americans want to take our resources! (Bleep) Trump!” he screams again.
I thank him for the quote and he asks me where I’m from. I tell him New York.
“Oh shit! Coño!” he laughs. “I’m sorry brother. I love you. You seem really nice”
I assure him it’s OK and we laugh. He gives me a hug. That’s when a topless young acrobat drops down in the background behind us.
“Where the f*@k am I!” I think to myself laughing, remembering for the thousandth time why I fell in love with Colombia.
Ivan puts his arm around me and grins. “Welcome to riots, Bogota style.” he says.
The University of Nacho
Universidad Nacional is the largest and most prestigious public university in Colombia, and it is one of the few options poor Colombians have to attain an education that is otherwise only available to the elite.
It also has a very long history of radicalism. It’s students affectionately call the school “Nacho”, and every time there are protests in Bogota, the Nacho kids steal the show. From extreme resistance to showmanship, ‘Nacho’ is where you go if you want the most extreme civil unrest experience Colombia has to offer.
So that’s where I started my day. I was not disappointed.
The Strike was inspired by pension reform originally, but spiraled into a reaction to the governments failure to live up the controversial peace accord of 2016, indigenous killings by narcos and right-wing paramilitary, a Colombian military operation that resulted in the deaths of 18 children, education reform and a planned decrease of the minimum wage for students.
Nacho was having none of it. They started the day with drum lines and acrobats — they ended it with riots that engulfed 20 square blocks in teargas.
Nobody goes harder than Nacho.
From Circus to Chaos
The protest plan presented to the public stated that dozens of independent marches would meet in downtown Bogota for one super-protest.
When one of the students told me we were going to the airport instead, I thought it was just a bad rumor. One gets a lot of those during protests.
But we did indeed break off from the other groups and head west towards El Dorado, the airport named after the mythical city of gold.
And it was electric! Accompanied by musicians, dancers, floats and youths carrying improvised shields, the crowd took the highway.
I have covered riots in five countries, and I have seen a lot of student protests in Bogota.
But I had never seen anything like this.
As we broke off from the planned route, a police helicopter started following us.
That’s when the riot police deployed. The Colombian government was NOT going to allow the merry misfits from Nacho take El Dorado.
I was running ahead of the crowd, snapping shots of one of the most photogenic protests I have ever attended, when I saw a triple phalanx of riot police forming a wall against the tens of thousands dancing in the streets.
What happens when an unstoppable dancing force meets the gendarmes?
That’s what I began to wonder.
I checked my phone. The protests in the entire rest of the city had converged downtown in peace. Not us.
And this magical mixture of academics, freaks, musicians, true-believers, kids from the barrio and journalists were about to spectacularly face-plant into the riot squad.
The police set up their defense line under an overpass. A triple phalanx of ESMAD, officers (the police that specialize in response to civil unrest in Colombia) was backed up by 100’s of municipal police. With flashbangs, batons and teargas at the ready, they watched the approaching crowd from behind their shields and tacti-cool armor with grim faces.
The students confronted the phalanx with slogans and shouts, demanding to be allowed to pass.
Police were unmoved by their argument, and rather than responding with words, they responded with flash bangs and tear gas.
The scene dissolved into chaos as the crowd retreated in a panic. Police began arresting protesters and the organizers yelled for the crowd to be calm. They wanted everyone to turn around.
Some of the hotheads in the crowd threw rocks in response to the police riot weapons, but the vast majority yelled for non-violence.
What happened after that I suppose depends on your perspective. Local media carried a lot of images of protesters throwing rocks and calling the situation violent riots.
And those things happened.
But as someone who was five feet from the battle when it started, it was the police who fired first. Maybe that point doesn’t matter. Maybe the altercation was inevitable — but it quickly escalated.
The majority of the crowd retreated among continuing tear gas barrages as small groups of more hot-headed protesters engaged police in running skirmishes that broke off into nearby neighborhoods.
I lost my goggles in a melee of ESMAD charging a group of protesters with shields and got caught in a gas bomb.
Blinded I sat on a curb, waiting for the pain to pass. At least I wasn’t retching — I still had my respirator.
As the melee continued, the police lines grew confused and some over eager cop shot a tear gas bomb directly into ESMAD lines.
Knowing all too well how much that hurts when you don’t have a gas mask, it was with no small amount of pleasure that I watched riot cops cough and retch into the nearby grassy knoll.
Most of the students retreated back into Nacho and barricaded the gates. The police followed. When they were denied entry by students holding shields painted with the Colombian flag, a tear gas bombing started that would last into the night.
The 20 blocks around Nacho was clouded in the foul chemical fog as what started as a peaceful march devolved into a melee between police and the students of Nacho, as police tried to storm in.
Why did the police feel the need to attack the University? This happens every time there is a protest at Nacho. It seems to be a game both sides enjoy playing, but this free-for-all was much fiercer than other responses I have seen: a brawl in the streets.
With water-cannon equipped armored trucks and hundreds of rounds of tear gas, the police laid siege to the University for the next six hours.
Protests in downtown Bogota would also later turn violent before being dispersed with tear-gas, but that didn’t stop the strike. At 10pm thousands of protesters were still wandering the city, and most businesses were shuttered.
No small feat in a city with tens of thousands of bars and nightclubs — Bogota takes its love of rumba (partying) very seriously.
I finally found a bar in my neighborhood that was open, a rock and roll themed gay bar tucked in a back alley away from foot traffic. I logged photos; the sole client in a paralyzed city.
That’s when I heard the pot-banging. The entire neighborhood erupted with it. It’s a traditional peaceful protest in Latin America, the cazeralazo.
In all parts of the city, hundreds of thousands banged pots and took to the streets, some still wearing their pajamas in a beautiful and peaceful expression of solidarity with the protesters.
Organizers have called for more protests Monday, and student groups are sure to respond. When that happens I know where I’m headed — Universidad Nacional.
When it comes civil unrest,
Nobody goes harder than Nacho.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter based in Bogota Colombia. For more stories you can follow him on twitter