The Uprising in Colombia: “An Example of What Is to Come”

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A Report and Interview on the Background of the Revolt

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The streets of several Colombian cities have erupted into conflict in the last two days in response to the brutal police murder of 43-year-old Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer and father of two in Bogotá, the nation’s capital. Ordóñez was peaceably drinking in the street in front of his friends’ apartment when police arrived and, without provocation, beat him and tased him 11 times. By the time he arrived at the hospital, after a further beating at the police station, he was already dead.

Video captured by Ordóñez’s friends and shared widely on social media sparked widespread protests in Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, Bucaramanga, Popayán, Ibagué, Barranquilla, Neiva, Tunja, and Duitama. In Bogotá alone, 56 police substations, called CAIs (Comandos de Atención Inmediata) were damaged, most of them burned. Although mainstream news is reporting eight people killed by police or paramilitaries on the first night, images circulating in Colombia on Thursday claimed 10, all but one of whom have been identified. The numbers of wounded vary by source. The New York Times claimed that a further 66 had suffered bullet wounds the night of September 9, with over 400 wounded in total.

Colombia has an intense history of violent state and paramilitary repression, which has only intensified during the pandemic. Under current president Ivan Duque, widely seen as a continuation of former president Álvaro Uribe’s corrupt narco-administration, the Colombian government has failed to uphold its side of the peace accords with demobilized guerrilla forces, and murders and disappearances of activists, dissidents, and revolutionaries have increased significantly.

In the following report and interview, we explore the background and implications of the latest chapter in a global wave of revolts against police and state repression. For more information on social struggles in Colombia and other parts of Latin America, consult Avispa Midia and PASC, the Colombia Solidarity Accompaniment Project, both of which contributed to this article.

September 10, 2020: 10 people murdered, Bogotá, Colombia. Justice and stop the genocide.

Background: The 2019 Paro Nacional

On November 21, 2019, taking inspiration from the Chilean revolt and uprisings across South America, broad swaths of Colombian society took to the streets. The protests, which often took a militant tone and lasted roughly a month, were not over any one specific grievance but in response to multiple factors that had made life in this war-torn country unbearable. Duque’s government was trying to push through an unpopular packet of austerity measures, students were demanding better funding for education, and murders of activists, Indigenous people, and ex-guerrillas by the state or paramilitaries had increased.

The month-long mobilization came to be called the paro nacional or national strike. More than the duration, its significance lay in the fact that it was the first time in decades that anyone had seen such an autonomous mass mobilization. For years, militant resistance had been monopolized by specialized, armed guerrilla groups such as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army, the ) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). The strike represented the return of more generalized street confrontation that lent itself to much broader participation.

“The police protect us? NO, the cops repress, mutilate, rape, and kill.”

A Year of Revolt in South America

Colombia’s paro nacional should be seen in the context of the movements shaking other South American countries at the time. While the Chilean insurrection lasted longer and reached further in terms of self-organization and militancy, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay all saw widespread protests in 2019. In Bolivia, a complex and highly charged conflict led to a bloody coup by right-wing Christians.

As in Colombia, there were several longstanding causes behind the mobilizations. Latin America has suffered astronomical rates of violence and inequality for decades—really, for centuries. Thanks to austerity policies, the brunt of recent economic stagnation has been intentionally forced on the most marginalized.

The examples of revolt in other South American countries, as well as from Hong Kong and beyond, helped spark the month of protest in Colombia late last year. The new tactics popularized in Hong Kong and Chile were reflected in Colombian rebels’ effective use of the primera linea shield bloc tactic.

Chile’s months of unrest, which were only halted by the pandemic, provided an inspiring horizon for those in South America and around the globe. On the other end of the scale, the nightmare that Bolivia has lived over the past year is a sobering reminder that political coups and openly racist regimes pose as much of a threat as ever. The stakes are high, as Colombians know all too well from years of state and paramilitary violence.

A demonstrator in Bogotá uses a spray can to fan the flames of a burning police station on September 10. Photo by Nadège Mazars.

Pandemic, Economic Strife, and Repression

Colombia was hit hard by the pandemic—and also by intense, militarized quarantines that most people were forced to violate out of economically induced desperation. In a country in which most people make their living in the informal economy, people were even further criminalized for doing what they needed to do to survive daily.

Already turbulent, daily life got markedly worse. Atrocities passed almost completely ignored. In one case, the state massacred 23 prisoners in La Modelo prison for protesting against squalid conditions and lack of pandemic precautions.

The state and other armed groups have been using the pandemic as cover to increase repression against organizers and resistance movements. When asked about the current revolt, an anarchist in the city of Cali said, “This had been coming for a while. Massacres were happening almost daily. We’re not putting up with it anymore and we’re out in the streets giving it our all.”

The crowd faces off with an ESMAD armored vehicle in Bogotá on September 9.

Parallels with the George Floyd Rebellion

While international solidarity with the US uprising against the police was swift and reached many parts of the globe, in many ways this revolt marks the first real occurrence of the same model in another country. The scale and speed of the response in Bogotá to Ordóñez’s murder has already eclipsed what happened in Minneapolis or Kenosha. This is not entirely surprising in a country roughly the size and population of California that has seen 971 activists, human rights defenders, and ex-guerrillas murdered since the 2016 peace accords.

By all accounts, the protests were chiefly led by young people—of the nine confirmed deaths from the night of September 9, eight of the deceased were between the ages of 17 and 27. Street combatants largely targeted police, police stations, and banks, but destruction was fairly widespread.

It remains to be seen how some of the spontaneous elements of the last two days’ protests will combine with the organized militancy that developed last November and December. In the US, we saw aspects of both the initial wave of rioting in Minneapolis and the “front-line” forms of organization that developed in Portland show up in the same spaces in Kenosha in late August.

Some of the language seen in the streets of Colombia is also similar to the language of the revolt that began with the murder of George Floyd. Beyond the now ubiquitous ACAB, which is tagged everywhere, protesters carried signs declaring “the police don’t protect us.” A smashed-up street billboard was redecorated to read “Nothing is worth more than life.”

Unfortunately, the mainstream Colombian media are already deploying their own version of the dishonest “outside agitator” narrative used to such destructive effect in the US in May and June. A report from RCN Noticias, a Colombian TV news network, stokes fear about highly organized street groups under the direction of guerrilla forces:

“The destruction of 56 CAIs was not a case of isolated incidents but an articulated strategy that was prepared ahead of time, waiting for a trigger. We have details of armed collectives, their preparation to attack, and their recruitment of young people in high schools and universities. This report… reveals a series of cells or neighborhood groups behind the violent protests, dedicated to creating chaos, who take direction from the ELN and from FARC splinter groups.”

After a laughably paranoid explanation of the meaning of “ACAB,” they cut to Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo: “This has an international origin. It has an international origin and it is directed against the police of countries all over the world.”

Just like its US counterpart, this false narrative serves to delegitimize protest in the eyes of the populace. In the US, it set the stage for at least part of the population to accept an even more brutal phase of police repression. More Colombian youth will be killed because of the irresponsible and unfounded allegations from these “journalists.”

RCN’s principal shareholder is Colombian billionaire Carlos Ardila Lülle, particularly loathed for his stake in the sugar industry in the state of Cauca, where many Indigenous Nasa people have been murdered for their resistance to monocrop sugarcane agriculture invading their lands. Lülle’s reach extends beyond media and industry to political and narco-paramilitary influence.

There is no coordinated international plot “against the police of countries all over the world.” Who could organize such a thing? Only the extremely wealthy have the resources to pay people to revolt who otherwise would not—and they seek to suppress movements for change, not to catalyze them. The opposite is true: the politicians and police of all the world’s governments coordinate to violently impose the capitalist world order on all of us. There is no secret cabal organizing resistance conspiratorially—the situation has become so dire that revolts are breaking out as a response to the conditions that are imposed on people. If there are parallels between the revolts in different parts of the world, it is simply because the means of repression are so universal, owing to the homogeneity of the global ruling class and the strategies employed by those who comprise it. Police, everywhere, are the front line of this repression.

A burnt out and vandalized police station in Bogotá, destroyed the night of September 9.

September 10: More Protests

Demonstrations continued in Bogotá, Cali, and other cities the night of September 10. According to an independent media activist on the ground in Cali, the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron), carabineros, mounted police, and military police mobilized heavily—an atypical show of force, especially the use of the military police. Rumors of the additional use of live ammunition against protesters have not been confirmed yet, but there are photos of police pointing pistols at people. Hours after the protest in Cali convened on September 10, a group of protesters was forced to take refuge in the university hospital, where they were surrounded by police for hours, fighting back bravely. By 9 pm, at least 32 people had been arrested, although only seven were identified, according to Medios Libres Cali.

In Bogotá, by 10:30 pm on September 10, human rights organizations had reported 138 confirmed arrests. The number grew throughout the night. Although additional police murders have not been reported, sources documenting the events on twitter described continued beatings, disappearings, and torture of demonstrators.

It seems unlikely that the unrest will die down any time soon.

Interview: An Anarchist from Bogotá

A longtime resident of Bogotá and member of PASC, the Colombia Solidarity Accompaniment Project, provides more context in the following in-depth interview.

—What led up to this?

So the background we’ve seen leading up to the situation in the streets of Bogotá on September 9 and now today, September 10, has to do with longstanding social conflict. The pandemic made more obvious the situation that was already ongoing in terms of poverty, exclusions, huge suburbs full of displaced people… the armed conflict that is still going on, the war against the poor. The war against campesinos by paramilitaries in the countryside is still going on, so there are still waves of displacement of poor people who are stuck in the suburbs. Usually people survive from informal economy… they’ve just spent six months being criminalized just for going out of their houses to buy food. So people are literally dying from hunger; people have been in an unbearable situation for the past months. And the ongoing police brutality, like many other places in the world, is something that upset people, especially the poor people who are always experiencing repression—the jails are full of poor people.

So this definitely has something to do with what happened. On September 9, in the morning, at 4 am, a guy is having a beer with some friends in the street, which is illegal… then the police appear and, according to his friends, the guy says “OK, well, give me a ticket, that’s fine, I’m having a beer on the street, you want to give me a ticket, give me a ticket,” and the police answered “No, there’s no ticket today,” and they started to beat him up and to tase him. They tased him at least 11 times according to the autopsy. Eventually, they took him to the police station, where he was beaten up again, then finally sent to the hospital. When he reached the hospital, he was dead.

And then, even worse than all that, when the family was at their home, with the body, putting out candles and performing their ceremonies, the police officers went around with their tasers in their hands, proud. So that attitude of the police was the spark—people feel oppressed, they feel that their lives are worth nothing, and this is why people went to the street yesterday night.

There was a first call at 5 pm. Many people gathered around the police station. The attitude of the police was really repressive towards the people. That’s how the situation developed into riots. Something like 50 police stations have been burned down. The police used that excuse to open fire against the mass of people—so now we have confirmation of seven deaths and 45 wounded, at least 20 of them by bullets. They literally were given the order to shoot people in the streets, to shoot to kill. So the images we can see in the social networks are really disturbing: police officers, some of them not wearing their police uniforms, and other civilians that, you don’t know if they’re police officers, families of police officers, paramilitaries, or whatever, going after people in the streets in order to shoot them.

This is what happened yesterday night, until late. Right now, it’s September 10; there are more demonstrations in front of the police station, and some people have already been arrested today.

—How would you describe the relationship between this and last year’s *paro nacional?*

So we have to understand that in Colombia for seven years, for ten years, there has been an ongoing mobilization process… the last huge episode was a general strike in November 2019. Because of the end of the year, it stopped, but it was supposed to resume in March 20201—but instead, like people everywhere else on earth, we were stuck at home for six months, because of the pandemic. So there’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of rage that comes from the frustration of the feeling that people had a few months ago. And also, these ongoing mobilizations of campesinos in the cities have been building a certain type of social fabric—so neighbors know each other because they were going to bang pots together every night throughout the whole month of November and part of December. That social fabric was the foundation for the ongoing mobilization, including what is happening today, too. So we can definitely see a link and a buildup from those situations.

—What has been the role of anti-authoritarians in the uprising?

It’s been really interesting with several of the mobilizations over the past years and especially the last one, the strike—it’s not just what we call here the “organized” folks that go to the streets. “Organized” meaning being in an anarchist federation, being in a union, being in a campesino organization, being in one of the big social movements that are active in Colombia. It exceeds those categories. So you see your neighbor that never organized anything, who is just randomly against injustice, joining the protests that used to be made up only of activists. It’s been interesting to see that change, regarding the kind of people who go to the street—and different people working together, too, anti-authoritarians and people from social movements, Indigenous movements, and to see that bound up all together. In the past month, despite the pandemic, Indigenous movements, campesino movements, and student movements have joined together in something called the March for Dignity—50 to 100 people have been walking from different regions towards Bogotá for two weeks. That drew a lot of support from many people. It has been another element of the background.

A crowd on September 9.

—Do you see connections between this and the anti-police revolt in the US that began in May?

We can definitely see a link between the revolt here and the revolt we’ve seen in the United States. Obviously, there is an issue around systemic racism in the United States and what it means for Black people; Black Lives Matter and the whole sense of that struggle in the United States is not exactly the same here, even if we can see that those who are the most affected by the killing of social leaders, by the wave of massacres that we’ve been seeing in the countryside in Colombia, are Indigenous folks, are Black communities that are organized, that have another way of seeing life, that have community bonds and have another project in life, which is not capitalism. So there are links and there are differences.

But I think the main issue is that the pandemic is just one more example confirming why people cannot stand that system anymore, and people are genuinely revolting against that oppression. This is the main connection, this is what can be learned, this is where we can build bridges in terms of questions like, which world are we dreaming of? Can we dream, can we build a world in which we don’t need jails? Can we build a world in which we don’t need the state? These are the kind of questions—and this is the basis from which we can build those bridges between struggles in the United States and the rest of the Americas, together with Indigenous and Black community struggles.

—What role have paramilitary groups played in the repression?

The Colombian armed conflict is still going on. Basically, the main war against the people didn’t have so much to do with the guerrillas of the FARC—the war is actually a war of the state against its own people, against its own territory, because many communities have another way of life. They don’t want to be dependent on the state, they want to have territorial autonomy, they want to have their own economy, which is not a capitalist economy. So there’s an ongoing war against those concrete existing projects.

And this war plays out through legal measures—there is a legal framing—people are being detained and arrested, there are political prisoners, people are repressed by the police. But paramilitarism is a strategy that the state has always been using as a way to spread terror in the countryside and carry out genocide against ethnic people and also against their projects, against that social fabric. The social fabric itself is the military target of the paramilitary strategy. This is something that has been so deeply woven into Colombian society for so many years that we were not even surprised to see civilians, yesterday night, openly joining the police with guns and helping them out. Because paramilitary activity is so embedded in the practice of the military and the police forces of Colombia for so long that the two are fundamentally linked.

—What does this uprising mean in the larger context of social movements in Colombia and South America?

Several big organizations have been planning how to arrange the return of the general strike. Actually, for September 21. So these riots, this uprising—it’s interesting that it arrives at the moment at which everyone we’ve been seeing being calm through the pandemic, even when the situation was clearly unbearable, was anticipating something. For people who became homeless over the past weeks, the misery to which a huge part of society is condemned is totally unbearable. So everybody has been waiting, awaiting a big uprising. It’s an example of what’s to come.

It’s an example of what’s to come in Colombia, but it’s also an example of what’s to come in the rest of South America. Brazil is in a terrible situation. We’ve seen what’s been happening in Argentina with the police trying to make a sort of coup on September 9, yesterday. So you can see there is a kind of social conflictivity that is growing, and it has to do with the fact that this economic system cannot give us what we need. Now, that doesn’t mean that the results of uprising and struggle will be peace and anarchy… unfortunately, it might also be fascism. But it’s a struggle that has to take place, it’s a struggle that cannot take place only through an uprising, it also has to take place by the development of the social fabric, through the establishment of links, of building different kinds of projects, different alternatives, many of which we already have, while others have yet to be created.

Just to name a few examples of inspiring things that have been happening—during the pandemic, campesino organizations that have autonomous trajectories have been sending tons of food to poor neighborhoods in Bogotá and other cities. We’ve seen similar examples in other parts of South America. And for example, in some of those regions, they have their own security systems—so they have their own guards, but they are unarmed guards. This has been a proposal from the communities for a long time in order to replace the police, to say, you know, we don’t need the police coming from the state—we have our own community structure to ensure safety. The whole idea of the guards that comes from an Indigenous perspective is totally different. They have a stick, but that stick is never used to beat up anyone; it’s a stick that represents collective authority, it is given to someone and can be taken from that person. It is an authority that you give someone to be a guard, temporarily, but that can be taken away from them at any moment, and this is a collective responsibility, to make the community guards work. So we have Indigenous guards, we have guardia cimarrona, the Black community guards, and actually, what’s been called the primera linea, the front line, young folks that have been forming lines of protection in the student demonstrations and the strike, have been in an exchange over the last month with the guards from the rural areas, to get everyone to understand that perspective, to apply it in the cities.

So people are not just participating in an uprising, people are not just fighting against the system—they are also imagining and they are creating new ways and new perspectives for another kind of society. Despite the rage that I can feel right now about all the terrible things we’ve been seeing over the past hours but also the past weeks—I lost count, but over the past month and a half, we’re at something like 15 massacres, 60 people were slaughtered by soldiers or paramilitaries in rural areas—the wave of violence can bring you to total desperation, but we do see that there are inspiring examples for anarchists and anti-authoritarians, or whoever wants to see a world without oppression and without a state, there are things that are filling us with hope.

Further Reading

Introduction to Anarchism and Resistance in Bogotá—A summary of the context of social struggles in Bogotá a decade and a half ago, written by visitors from the United States.

  1. March 2020 was also anticipated to see the opening of a new phase of revolt in Chile