Colombia: continuing violence amid a legacy of impunity

By Nick MacWilliam

In April this year, millions of Colombians took to the streets to express their discontent at struggling to survive in one of Latin America’s most brutally unequal societies. Coordinated by trade unions and social movements, and joined by masses of disenfranchised young people from working-class urban areas, the so-called National Strike protests were the largest the country had seen in decades. Diverse movements – indigenous people, students, public sector workers, LGBTQ activists and many others – unified around the Strike’s central demands for economic justice, human rights and peace. The message was unmistakably clear: we’ve had enough.

Having launched in November 2019 as an ongoing series of mass mobilisations, the National Strike sought to exert maximum pressure on the government of President Iván Duque, whose election in 2018 veered the country back towards a hard-right course last taken by Duque’s predecessor – and political mentor – Álvaro Uribe in the 2000s. Duque’s economic governance of Colombia has been characterised by policies which have adversely impacted the most disadvantaged social sectors. April’s mobilisations centred opposition to Duque’s proposed tax reforms as the core grievance, with the Colombian equivalent of Britain’s Trades Union Congress, the CUT trade union confederation, warning that the reforms would see living standards deteriorate yet further for millions of families already trapped in grinding poverty.

It is not difficult to understand public anger over Colombia’s deeply unequal economic model. The government’s woefully inadequate response to the global pandemic exposed the system’s failings, as millions of people lost their incomes and underfunded health services teetered on the brink of collapse. While the government largely abdicated its responsibilities towards the public, it scrambled to protect major corporations such as the Avianca airline.

Since the pandemic began, trade unions have fought to protect their members and hold government failings to account. Health workers have risked their lives to treat the sick without personal protective equipment, leading to a spate of deaths and resignations among frontline medical staff, which increased the burden on public hospitals. Teacher unions, meanwhile, requested stringent biosecurity measures for classrooms to safely reopen, a measure implemented only after extensive government delay.

Nevertheless, this has not prevented politicians in Duque’s party, the Democratic Centre, from falsely accusing teachers, particularly those in the large FECODE teachers union, of a desire to indoctrinate and harm vulnerable students. Teachers’ only ‘crime’ has been their robust trade unionism, an admirable quality under normal circumstances, but one which takes on new dimensions given the violence that has targeted Colombian labour organising for decades.

Senators with massive social media followings have driven this stigmatisation even as trade unionists are being murdered with horrifying frequency. Colombia’s ruling class historically advanced and consolidated its interests through blood, with more than 3,200 trade unionists killed between 1971 and 2018, often with the involvement of multinational corporations and national elites.

Amid a legacy of impunity, the violence goes on today: the International Trade Union Confederation recently reported that 22 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia between March 2020 and April 2021. The latest trade unionist killing was committed on 11 August, when teacher Carlos Fredy Londoño was shot dead in front of students in Meta. Around 35 teachers have been murdered since the start of 2018 – yet that grim reality has not deterred far-right senators such as María Fernanda Cabal and Carlos Felipe Mejía from attempting to stoke public hostility towards education unions.

Violence towards trade unionists, as well as community leaders, human rights defenders and social activists, underpins public indignation at the Colombian government, which has played down the human rights catastrophe and openly opposed the peace process. Furthermore, under Duque, state institutions that are supposed to operate independently of the executive have been appropriated by the president’s political circle. Duque has appointed close allies to head the offices of the State Prosecutor and the Inspector General, with the international NGO Transparency International expressing concern over “the growing concentration of power in the President of the Republic to the detriment of civil liberties and other branches of power.”

These fears appear well-founded after the recent decision of the Inspector General to launch investigations into five opposition senators – all vocal critics of the Duque government’s record on human rights and peace – over their efforts to intervene in police heavy-handedness towards protesters. At the same time, politician associates of Duque who have openly backed police to use their arms against protesters – as Uribe did – or stigmatised protesters and trade unionists have not faced any repercussion.

In the five years since the peace agreement was signed, political violence has engulfed many regions of Colombia, claiming the lives of more than 1,200 social activists and human rights defenders, according to national human rights organisations. The United Nations says that full implementation of the peace agreement is the most effective means of tackling the endemic human rights crisis that has also seen over 280 former combatants in the FARC guerrilla movement murdered since voluntarily lowering their weapons and entering the reintegration process. Despite the bloodshed and the UN’s urgent warnings, the Duque government has yet to properly implement security mechanisms created in the peace agreement.

Families and communities impacted by the violence have received little support from authorities, while there have been few arrests and fewer convictions. Meanwhile, as Duque’s government turns a cold shoulder towards victims, Vice-President Marta Lucía Ramírez recently met with the families of alleged mercenaries detained in Haiti over the 7th July assassination of president Jovenel Moise to pledge support for the men. Many Colombians are reasonably questioning where their government’s priorities lie.

When Colombians took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to express their discontent with the longstanding state of affairs, the Duque government chose to respond with extreme force. By late June, police had killed 44 protesters and injured thousands more, as well as committing at least 28 sexual assaults and leaving over 80 people with permanent eye injuries. While there have been pockets of forceful resistance from frontline activists, the majority of protesters have responded peacefully with outpourings of solidarity and creativity, as music, dance and art provide a stark contrast with the black body-armour and high-grade weaponry of the militarised state apparatus.

International condemnation of the state repression – including from the UN, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and a host of foreign governments – has not produced a notable shift in the Duque government’s tactics. Close allies such as the US and UK have been reluctant to issue even a mild rebuke of their key strategic security and trade partner. Trade unions and opposition parliamentarians in those countries have joined calls for their governments to hold Colombia to account.

As Colombia enters the campaign season ahead of the 2022 presidential election, issues of peace and human rights will be central to the hopes of millions of people. For decades, the country has suffered atrocities on an almost unimaginable scale – yet there is light at the end of the tunnel, as evidenced by the huge outpouring of collective demands for a fairer and non-violent society. The Colombian people, however, will continue to face many obstacles to building the future they deserve. Their resilience, and support from around the world, will determine whether future generations will live in genuine peace.

Nick MacWilliam is Trade Union & Programmes Officer at Justice for Colombia. For more information, visit www.justiceforcolombia.org

Image: Colombia National Strike. Author: Roboting,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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