Protest against violence in Colombia. Flickr. Some rights reserved
Some were beaten. Others were stripped of their clothes and forced to endure the freezing cold. Many were robbed of their mobile phones and money. A human rights crisis is unfolding in Colombia and it remains largely unnoticed.
On 30 May, millions of Colombians took to the streets in protest to demand peace with justice and an end to the government’s model of ‘economic development’ that favours big business and the established land owning elite.
The demands were met with brutal violence. Three indigenous leaders were killed and hundreds more people injured during the two-week national strike.
“They kicked me from behind and then a police officer hit me with his truncheon. I put my hands up to defend myself but they threw me to the floor and then stepped on my neck. They said the only thing I deserved was to be killed,” said Andrés.
Andrés was one of 150 protesters gathered in the town of Berlín, in Norte de Santander province, eastern Colombia - one of many locations around the country where people had come together to call for peace with social and environmental justice.
The demands are modest: basic healthcare, the right to their land, and safety from paramilitaries, yet the government continues to dismiss them. Moreover, on the eve of the national strike, the governor of Norte de Santander province claimed that the peaceful protests would only bring “death, desolation, violence and looting,” before offering rewards for information about “terrorist acts.” A veiled message to paramilitaries.
This government is a hammer that sees only nails.
Blocking the road is a powerful expression of Colombians’ constitutional right to protest, yet the government’s controversial Safe Citizens law recently made it illegal. But as Luis Fernando, one of protestors in Berlín, put it: “If I stay at home, who else will step up?” It’s a belief held by women, students, lorry drivers, indigenous people, afro-Colombians, farmers, teachers and workers who continue to put their bodies on the line.
Undeterred, the protesters in Berlín blocked a key highway connecting the cities of Bucaramanga and Pamplona, and stretching toward the border with Venezuela. Predictably, the police responded with violence. Lorry loads of special operations officers, riot squads, and plain-clothes intelligence rolled in - the army followed soon after.
“First they mistreated us, they beat us; when they had us surrounded the ESMAD [riot police] fired tear gas and stun grenades at us,” said one protester, Víctor.
A total of 127 people, including 15 children, were herded into trucks, before being transferred to the city of Pamplona where they were illegally detained in an army barracks, initially without food. They were released thirty-six hours later when the public prosecutor decided there was no case to pursue.
Colombia has been gripped by conflict for 70 years: 220,000 people dead; thousands disappeared; and many more victims of sexual violence. Almost 7 million people have been forced from their homes.
The national government trumpets the success of the latest round of peace talks held in Havana, Cuba, yet it continues to confuse formal agreements with lasting peace.
For too long, negotiations to bring about an end to Colombia’s armed conflict has all too often centred on government talks with the two armed insurgency groups, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejercito de Liberacíon Nacional (ELN). The vast majority of Colombians have been side-lined.
Add to this government policies that continue to concede large swathes of land to deeply destructive mining projects, and are leading to the privatisation of basic services, already denied to most Colombians, and the source of anger and frustration is clear.
Today, the poverty rate in rural areas stands at 45.5%, double the national average. Rather than take responsibility, the government (aided by the mainstream media) talks of ‘ELN infiltration’, and continues to look on indifferently as protesters die trying to reclaim their rights.
But the people stand together. Ordinary Colombians refuse to recognise the moral authority of a state that takes their taxes but gives them only violence and catastrophic free trade agreements in return. They realise too that formal talks alone are useless without addressing the deep rooted social inequality.
The fight for a different kind of peace goes on.