Bogota- The city woke up Saturday morning under military curfew after two days of skirmishes and scores of indiscriminate tear-gas volleys at the hands of police.
A national strike that started Thursday in violence continued peacefully Monday in a massive parade that wound it’s way through the city center.
In true Colombian tradition, it ended in a massive street party as hundreds of thousands showed their support for a protest that entered it’s fifth day — despite an atmosphere of distopian fear created by previous days of violence and military deployment.
It was a sharp difference from Saturday, when one routinely saw armored vehicles, riot police in gear that eerily resembled science fiction shock troops and the tasted the bitter tang of tear gas in the air.
It was a fierce repudiation of the heavy-handed tactics of the government as marchers danced to the tunes of hundreds of musicians as they wound their way through a city in which the police were kept largely out of sight.
All of this despite the news that Dilan Cruz, an 18 year old protester who had become a symbol of police violence, had died two days after being struck in the head with a tear-gas canister fired by ESMAD riot police. The news broke that Dilan was in his last moments as as tens of thousands of marchers wound through the streets — an announcement that brought the total death toll of the protests to 4.
The Shock Troops Retreat
The government, perhaps realizing that it had grossly over-reacted to the ongoing demonstrations, pulled the army and the riot police from the streets.
ESMAD, the riot police of Colombia, had become a symbol to the protesters after a series of horrific videos and photos emerged of their crackdowns, and during the march Monday they were nowhere to be seen.
Instead, the government coordinated with march organizers; providing motorcycle escorts to a march that stretched for miles.
The march ended in a massive plaza, where hundreds of police formed a cordon in normal uniforms; all women. It was a tip of the hat to the spirit of the day, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against women.
It also seemed like a tacit admission that their storm-trooper tactics of the previous days had been a grave error that served to increase violence rather than curb it.
In place of the violence and oppression, the city was in talks with the organizers and the difference in outcome was notable.
“The government over-reacted,” said Carlos Alvarez, a translator in Bogota. “The people came out in peace, and the government brought violence. And now (with Dilan Cruz) it’s just one more death at the bloody hands of a paraco government known for violence.”
Paraco is a slang term for “Colombian Paramilitary” and refers to stories of Duque’s mentor, Alvaro Uribe, who has been accused of being allied with violent armed groups that committed massacres during the civil war; and who still engage in criminality in the border and coastal regions of Colombia.
Another common refrain among protesters is that Duque is a “marrionette” of Uribe, the powerful senator and ex-president.
What do the Protesters want?
The protests were originally scheduled over pension reform, a faltering peace process from an accord with the FARC in 2016 and proposed changes to minimum wage for students, but were supercharged by ongoing killing of both indigenous peoples and social leaders throughout Colombia.
Putting it like that it sounds dry though. Most of the protesters I spoke with expressed frustation at living under an oligarchical government that seems to give resources and opportunities to the elite at the expense of the lower class.
Wealth inequality, widespread poverty and a concentration of wealth and power in the hand of the elite have always been issues in Colombia.
“We have the fastest growing economy in Latin America,” said Ivan Dario Hernandez. “But that money just goes to politicians and their families. The rest of us work for minimum wage.”
At least half of Colombians work for a minimum wage of $260/month, with the percentage of the economy working informally for less increasing monthly. There are reports that the government has been listening to some experts who advocate lowering that sum in an attempt to spur GDP growth.
If there is a common thread among the protesters, it is that people from lower class backgrounds have little hope of improving their situation — education is expensive and connections are a huge part of finding a job.
“Your last name opens doors or closes them,” says Sandra Castillo, 26. “I have an advanced degree in anthropology and I work as an elementary teacher for minimum wage. Here in Colombia, if you weren’t born elite, you will always be poor.”
Is the Strike Over?
Isolated protests are still taking place throughout the city, but normalcy has mostly returned to this Colombian capital. Shops are open, roads are open and people seem to have returned to their lives.
Tuesday, protesters engaged in private talks with President Duque after he signaled that he would be willing to listen to their demands, but walked out of the meeting. Shortly afterwards they released a statement that he wan’t taking them seriously and the scheduled hour was insufficient for a successful negotiation.
Organizers showed Monday that they can mobilize huge crowds at short notice, and the death of Cruz will serve as a powerful symbol moving forward. The ball seems to be in the Presidents court.
If he fails to take reform seriously, he will surely find the capital paralyzed again.
The uprising seems to be far from over, but after some disastrous mistakes that led to deaths, the government seems to have realized that dialogue is the way forward.
The well-attended march on Monday left no doubt that President Ivan Duque has to make reforms in an economic policy viewed as being skewed towards a small ruling class. The country’s top 10% earners received 39% of the country’s income in 2017, according to the World Bank.
But perhaps most importantly, after widespread rumors of a “socialist invasion” and a heavy-handed approach to civil unrest, the government seems to have learned that a more dialogue-focused approach is better for all involved.
Fear, it would seem, only get people killed.
And Dilan Cruz, seems to have paid the ultimate price for the reaction.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter based in Bogota Colombia. For more stories you can follow him on twitter