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Colombia’s protests are a product of its post-peace-deal reality

“The peace process has opened up a space for other concerns and for other political debates.”

Demonstrators in Cali, Colombia, shout anti-government slogans as they continue a blockade at the Sameco sector during a protest amid a national strike on May 19, 2021.
Gabriel Aponte/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

In Cali, a city in southwestern Colombia, protesters put up barricades across the city. A front line — la primera línea — sometimes guards these barricades with masks and helmets and shields.

Cali is the epicenter of the unrest that has convulsed Colombia for more than a month. A tax reform bill proposed by right-wing President Ivan Duque sparked protests in late April, with thousands responding to a call from national labor unions to push against the measure.

The government defended the proposed tax increase as a much-needed measure to repair the economy after fallout from the coronavirus. Those who opposed the legislation saw it as putting another burden on middle-class and poorer families who are already in a precarious position, also because of the coronavirus.

Anger over the tax bill also became an outlet for pent-up grievances against Colombia’s economic structures and its political elite. “It only takes a spark where there’s a lot of discontent,” Muni Jensen, senior adviser with the Albright Stonebridge Group and a former Colombian diplomat, said.

Demonstrators, many of them young or from marginalized communities, are speaking out about structural inequality, poverty, land reform, health care, and lack of education and opportunity. Many of these pressures have existed in Colombia for years, but they deepened dramatically during the pandemic.

The people flooding the streets across Colombia have faced brutal crackdowns from police, fueling demonstrators’ rage and adding police brutality to their list of grievances. Human rights groups have alleged abuses such as indiscriminate beatings, killings, and sexual violence. Temblores, an organization that tracks police brutality in the country, has documented more than 3,700 cases of police violence as of May 31, 2021, as well as 45 deaths it said were caused by police. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said at least 58 people have died during the protests so far.

“That just enraged people who are already enraged because of the situation, because of the government,” Laura Gamboa, assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, said of the police crackdown. “What you see here is like this ball that is just going to grow and grow.”

Experts say there’s another, deeper dynamic also fueling the protests.

Columbia recently emerged from decades of internal armed conflict, the culmination of an imperfect and still not fully realized peace process. But this helped excise the civil war as the dominant political issue.

Instead, it created “the possibility new issues that had been long left aside, become central again,” Juan Albarracín Dierolf, assistant professor of political studies at the Universidad Icesi in Cali, Colombia, told me. Demonstrations also carried a stigma during the conflict, as political protests were often grouped together with armed resistance. That has dissipated in the aftermath of the peace deal, though it has not eliminated the heavy-handed response from police, a force shaped to counter guerrillas, not peaceful protesters.

Colombia’s protests, then, are as much about its past as they are about its present. As Albarracín said, it is all “happening really, really quickly.” Together, that is making Colombia’s future very uncertain.

Colombia’s peace process gave the space for these protests to happen

In 2012, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos began negotiations with the leftist guerrillas known as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), or FARC, in an attempt to end a civil war that had gone on for more than 50 years. After four years of negotiations, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a peace deal under which the FARC demobilized and became a legitimate political party.

The peace process was far from perfect. The agreement faced public opposition, though it was finally approved in November 2016. The country’s current president, Ivan Duque, ran (and won) on a platform of trying to weaken the deal, which he saw as going too easy on the guerrillas. Duque’s been trying to jam up the implementation of the deal ever since.

The peace deal did not solve all of Colombia’s problems, nor did it fully end the violence. But the civil war between the government and the FARC was Colombia’s central crisis. With the peace deal, that main cleavage consuming Colombia started to fade away, said Gamboa.

But all the other major problems stuck on the sidelines, especially socioeconomic issues, started to bubble up. Inequality, education, employment, social justice, racial inequities — all of it became much more salient.

“The peace process has opened up a space for other concerns and for other political debates,” said Sandra Botero, assistant professor of international studies and political science at Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá.

Colombia is the second most unequal country in an already unequal Latin America region. Even as its economy has grown in recent decades, the poorest slice of the population is not seeing those benefits, and many lower- and middle-income earners struggle to pay for basic services.

The Covid-19 pandemic and associated shutdowns exacerbated this divide, shrinking Colombia’s economy by almost 7 percent and increasing the poverty rate to more than 42 percent. The country adopted very strict lockdown measures to try to curb the coronavirus, which tested its social safety net. It also really squeezed the country’s most vulnerable: As of 2019, more than 60 percent of Colombia’s workers were part of the informal economy. With everyone locked down, those people, such as street vendors, couldn’t make money.

All of this was brewing underneath the surface of Colombian society — and when Duque introduced the tax bill, he unleashed these dormant frustrations.

Colombia also saw street protests in 2018 and 2019, and in some ways, this latest round of unrest is a continuation of those. But these kinds of mass protests are a relatively recent political expression in Colombia.

In the past, mass mobilization or resistance in the streets was framed by the same paradigm of war. “Before the peace agreement, any kind of dissatisfaction of the people was framed as mobilization made by the guerrillas,” Carlos Enrique Moreno León, professor of political science at the Universidad Icesi, said.

The peace deal, then, not only made room for people to push on other issues but also destigmatized demonstrations and, in doing so, reanimated one of the most potent tools regular people had to advocate for political change.

“In Colombia, civil protests were always repressed brutally because it was filed with the guerrillas and with this insurgency,” said Elvira Restrepo Saenz, associate professor of international studies at The George Washington University. “This is a post-conflict protest, and it’s unprecedented in its magnitude, in its intensity, and in its territorial comprehensiveness.”

The heavy-handed police response is a legacy of the civil war

The same peace process allowing the protests to flourish is also showing its limitations when it comes to the response from police and the government.

The Colombian National Police is very much linked to the military; though a distinctive branch, it falls under the oversight of the Ministry of Defense. The force itself was shaped by the conflict in Colombia, with officers often fighting “on the front lines, wielding tanks and helicopters as they battled guerrilla fighters and destroyed drug labs,” according to the New York Times.

Critics have said the country’s national police needs to reform, moving from a focus on training for battle to one of public safety. “On balance, there’s been a real struggle to democratize policing, in part because the institutions themselves — the police and the military — benefit politically and economically from this kind of ‘us-versus-them, we’re still at war’ mentality,” Eduardo Moncada, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, said.

That has been on display during the most recent demonstrations. Even if the act of protest itself has become normalized in society more broadly, the police themselves still largely see the demonstrators as “internal enemies.”

“They are treating the protesters as they used to treat the guerrillas, as subversives, because that’s the type of public force that is the police,” Restrepo said. “The military and security forces that we have, that was never reformed.”

Another (almost obvious) difference is that the police can’t operate in the shadows in the same way they might have at the height of the conflict in Colombia. Now there are people with cell phones everywhere, taking videos and documenting the brutality.

All of this has escalated tensions and led to clashes with police, including the burning of a police station in Cali and attacks against officers, at least two of whom died.

Initially, Duque took a line that may sound familiar, saying he had “respect for peaceful protest” and that while incidents of police abuse are intolerable, they were isolated rather than evidence of a systemic problem. (He has since promised some reforms.)

The government has also alleged that some of the violence and chaos is the work of guerrillas, including the vestiges of the FARC, as well as drug traffickers who have infiltrated the protests. At the end of May, when protests had stretched on for a full month, Duque deployed the military to Cali, saying the increased capacity would help in the areas that have seen “acts of vandalism, violence and low-intensity urban terrorism.” Officials have also said hundreds of police officers have been injured, including by armed civilians.

Restrepo said the government is trying to bring the FARC guerrillas and Colombia’s conflict back to the center of the agenda “to justify the militarization of the police and the techniques that they’re using, the violence [and] brutality that they’re using.” In other words, when it works politically, go back to the us-versus-them paradigm.

This has further enraged protesters who see their legitimate grievances being ignored and their anger recast.

But at the same time, there are credible reports of street gangs and other criminal elements blending into the protests, trying to sow and take advantage of the chaos for their own gain.

Colombia, despite the peace deal, is still dealing with a very precarious security situation. Instead of an armed conflict, a slew of non-state actors and paramilitaries are engaging in violence of a particular form, including selective and extrajudicial killings, particularly against human rights advocates, community organizers, and civil society leaders.

Experts told me it would be a mistake to say all protesters, or even all blockades in cities like Cali, are associated with criminal elements. “That being said, you’re having this context of social protests embedded in a city, in a country where, of course, there are some powerful criminal organizations and guerrilla groups,” the Universidad Icesi’s Albarracín said. At least some of those groups will take advantage of the disorder — and the front lines are already so chaotic and disorganized, it’s hard to know who’s who.

None of this, of course, negates the very real and well-documented allegations of misconduct against Colombia’s police force. But it is a reminder of just how complex the situation on the ground in Colombia really is.

The protests are diverse in geography and demands, and that makes for a messy and volatile combination

Beyond the question of whether “terrorists” are mixing with peaceful protesters, figuring out who the peaceful protesters are and what they want is its own challenge.

Protests are happening across Colombia, in cities including Cali, Bogotá, and Medellin. But this is not a fully unified movement. Up close, the protests all look very different, with diverse and often localized grievances — and not all of the demands are aligned.

Just looking at Cali, which has become the symbol of the protests in Colombia, reveals just how complicated the movement is.

Many of the people on the front lines are young, including students who feel disillusioned with their education and employment opportunities. At different times, Indigenous groups, farmers, Afro-Colombian groups, labor unions, and other workers have all joined the protests.

“They are not organized by a mastermind or even by a collective,” Botero said. “Many of them are organic, and to a certain extent, spontaneous.”

Instead, there are many, many individuals or groups with many, many demands, and not all of them are in agreement with each other. At the Puerto Resistencia — the biggest barricade in Cali — about 21 separate groups occupy just one point, Moreno said. And those groups have no affiliation with the handful of others posted up at another blockade across the city. And, of course, the specific demands in a place like Cali will be different than those in, say, Bogotá.

Without obvious leaders, or a confederation of them, negotiations are extraordinarily difficult. The Duque government had been negotiating with the organizers from the Comité Nacional de Paro, or National Strike Committee, who originally called for the national strike in response to the proposed tax bill. But the National Strike Committee walked away from talks this week. The protests have become much bigger, though, and the committee is largely disconnected from the action on the ground. “Certainly, those are part of the groups that are being mobilized,” Botero said. “But the strike committee does not control the blockages that are happening in Cali.”

On the local level, city or municipal governments are also trying to quell the unrest and negotiate with protesters. Local officials, for example, have to deliver services behind the blockades. But they, too, are struggling to make inroads amid the demonstrations.

Experts said that even if protesters do sit down with local officials and come to an agreement, it tends to fall apart quickly. For one, who comes to the table to represent the protesters? Plus, the local government has limited resources and power; it can’t necessarily follow through on whatever promises it makes, and right now, it doesn’t have the backing of the national government.

And even if a bunch of groups and the local government agree somehow, others affiliated with the protests may be left out or feel like their demands weren’t fully heard, so why would they agree to any bargain and get off the streets?

It is, as Albarracín put it, “tiers of confusion.”

Where do the protests go from here?

Colombia’s protests, in some ways, fit into the larger global movement against police brutality and injustice that has arisen over the last year in countries from the United States to Nigeria. In other ways, they are specific to Colombia’s current status as a country still trying to overcome a decades-long conflict, with a population trying to push a more democratic and equal vision.

“The protests have put on the table a requestioning of power in Colombia,” the University of Utah’s Gamboa said.

Right now, that requestioning comes without clear resolution. Duque rescinded the tax reform bill on May 2, days after the protests started, but it didn’t stop the demonstrations, nor did the finance minister’s resignation.

Duque just made some concessions on police reform in the wake of public and international pressure. The reforms include establishing, with international guidance, a committee on human rights, in addition to new officer trainings. Also, representatives from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are currently visiting Colombia to investigate police abuses.

Still, critics say these reforms are superficial and won’t go far in addressing the systemic problems in the force. They are calling for such actions as moving the national police force out from the auspices of the Ministry of Defense and disbanding the riot police.

There’s another challenge blocking any sort of real breakthrough: the electoral calendar. Scheduled for May 2022, Colombia’s presidential election is less than a year away. Duque is a lame duck and cannot run again (Colombia’s presidents are limited to one four-year term).

Whoever wins, Botero said, will inherit a “powder keg” — but right now, politicians on both the left and the right are carefully positioning themselves as they try to use the fallout from the protests to advance their own agendas.

This kind of volatile politics tends to benefit the more extreme candidates on either side, which may make it harder to find a leader who will address the very real need for change and reform in Colombia. That is a threat to Colombia’s democracy, and to the peace it is still trying to build.