By Michael Magee and Giorgio Zambello
In Colombia, heated protests have been taking place for over 2 weeks now, and have been met with extreme violence by the authorities. The trigger for the protests was the new tax reform proposal presented by the government on April 15 which would have lowered the threshold for which income tax begins to be paid, thus decreasing the number of people who are currently exempt from paying taxes. Essentially it entails an increase on taxes for the middle and working classes of Colombia, while the tax situation for businessmen and company owners in the higher tax bracket remains unchanged.
The United Nations and numerous human rights organizations have condemned the Colombian government for excessive and unnecessary use of force, videos of which have been shared extensively online by citizen journalists and Amnesty International. This is the aspect of the protests that has been the subject of global outrage; precise numbers are hard to pinpoint, with the Colombian government most recently claiming only 26 have died. Estimates from NGO’s however, set the death toll at 42. Only 3 police officers are facing murder charges. Besides the deaths, there have been more than 800 people injured, over 500 arrests, 89 disappearances and 10 cases of rape at the hands of the Colombian authorities.
We interviewed Lisa Trujillo Laguna, an independent journalist and human rights defender from Colombia whose work entails verifying cases of human rights abuses. She works with Pilas.col and Fundación de Defensores de la Dignidad de los Pueblos Bakia. It is through her journalism that she has witnessed multiple violent situations and has been on the receiving end of gas grenades and water cannons, “I have a colleague who lost his eye because a policeman shot directly in his face and I met Dylan Cruz the day he was killed.” Dylan Cruz was something of a martyr during Colombia’s 2019/2020 protests, the second violent protest against tax reform since president Duque took power. Back then there was heavy criticism of ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron), a branch of the national police used for situations of social unrest. They are heavily armed, heavily armoured and have been credited with at least 34 killings, a number taken from the start of the 2019/2020 protest, setting the current number to an unknown, but much higher count.
The sheer severity of the situation that gave rise to the protests had created an environment where all Colombians are outraged, with feminist, LGBT and indigenous protestors showing solidarity as well as people on the far right and far left; these protests have offered a platform to people on the far left for example because previous protests with leftist causes are often oppressed due to the reputation smeared on them by Marxist paramilitaries such as FARC. This organisation began its existence as a resistance against capitalist oppression and exploitation, but is known by many nowadays for their violence, kidnappings and drug trafficking. The problem with paramilitaries is so strong in Colombia that it required a peace agreement in 2016, the terms of which Duque is having problems following. This is yet another one of the major criticisms of the Colombian president.
Despite the diversity of the social and political groups participating in the protests, Lisa makes it clear that “Colombians are saying this is not about left, right, or about parties. This is about human rights. […] It is the fault of a system in Colombia. The same families are in the Congress. The system and Colombian politics are rotten.” The system Lisa refers to is a long standing one that by many countries’ standards is concerning at best. Some would say that Duque was handpicked by former president Alvaro Uribe, a personal friend of the late Pablo Escobar, and brother to the founder of a right wing death squad from the northwest of Colombia known as “the 12 Apostles”. He had also been under house arrest for fraud and bribery, and, at the start of the protests, posted a since removed Twitter comment encouraging authorities to exercise their right to “use their firearms to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from criminal acts of terrorist vandalism”.
The Colombian government has responded to the unrest first by President Duque announcing that he will withdraw the tax reform plan, promising to devise a new one while listening to the needs of the people, and on the Monday after Duque’s announcement the minister of the economy, Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned.
According to the government and some external observers, the tax reform was necessary for Colombia, because due to the effects of the covid pandemic the government deficit has tripled. Therefore, there is a risk of very high debt for Colombia, up to 108% of the total GDP. To put this in perspective, a country like Italy is more indebted, up to 134% of GDP, but the more you get into debt, the more you must be able to have a productive structure capable of coping with that debt, something that Colombia does not seem to have and therefore cannot afford to borrow up to 108%. With the rise in taxation, the government hoped to keep debt under control.
There were other issues that exacerbated the violence of the 2021 protests, which were much the same in 2019/2020 as they are now, with police brutality and corruption as additional points of criticism. Now, however, the pandemic and the Colombian government’s handling of it has pushed matters into a new degree of severity.
This, according to The New York Times, was one of the main elements that led to a continuation of the demonstrations. In fact, what is most contested is the government’s management of the pandemic, as Colombia has had to undergo one of the longest lockdowns in the world, which has led to an aggravation of the economic crisis. Citing again The New York Times, it is estimated that 43% of the population is poor (7% more than in the pre-pandemic period) and that in the last year 2.8 million people ended up in conditions of extreme poverty, forced to survive on less than 32 euros per month. All this in a country where the presence of organized crime is extremely strong and which exports a lot of cocaine, issues that President Duque had promised to deal with.
Duque’s government, since the start of the pandemic, has been heavily criticized. According to Lisa, “Different associations, a part of the Congress and social and political groups asked him to close the airport because we knew that it was a door for the entrance of the virus to the country. He didn’t want to close it because his sister is a part of the administration of the airport. These personal interests made sure that the country didn’t close and that the virus arrived in a very aggressive way. We had to be in quarantine but they didn’t take into account that in Colombia there are a lot of poor people. Before there were 4 million people in extreme poverty, now it is 7.5 million people, families that are poor, entering extreme poverty in this country. Not everyone could afford to work from home. There are women that sell coffee or wine in the corners and that is their income in their daily life.”
There were also cases of corruption regarding unemployment benefits where deceased people were seen as beneficiaries, meaning the allocated funds essentially disappeared.
Furthermore, Lisa pointed out that the health system is heading in a concerning direction. “In a moment when we need the public health system to be optimized, they are giving in to private health insurances. All the health professionals are also protesting for this reform they want to make because they were abandoned during pandemic. The vaccines arrived late, not complete, and people need to be in a line to get vaccinated, even old people. There are no guarantees for our basic rights.”
This list of complaints aimed at the Colombian government is endless; another critique is that Colombia spends a lot of money on their military, the 2nd highest spender in all of South America, which could be allocated to social benefits or the health system. Instead the military is then used to oppress and kill Colombian citizens, with thousands of troops being deployed along with the national police and ESMAD since the 28th of April.
Then there is the issue of the press. RCN, one of Colombia’s main broadcasters, was heavily criticised for applying a false headline to protest footage, thereby publishing untruthful, misleading information. And it is not only large media organizations with little press freedom; the World Press Freedom Index published at the start of this month denotes Colombia as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for media personnel. Many cases of murder, intimidation and censorship have taken place and continue to take place, as Lisa has seen herself. “I have experienced censorship both virtual and personal. In some demonstrations police have asked me to show my press card because if not they wouldn’t allow me to record, while in Colombia it is legal to record. […] I have experienced censorship through social media. I belong to a media outlet called “Pilas.col”. In tiktok we have around 70.000 followers and 60.000 on Instagram. Our “live” always counted with at least 1000 people in Insta, or 5000 in tiktok. We have noticed that recently the “live” fall down, or only 200 or 300 people connect. Some days, I haven’t been able to enter social media, and some of my WhatsApps have been deleted. […] Videos are censored, and sometimes they can’t be sent. If you connect on Instagram sometimes you see the audio doesn’t work, or the video is cut, and you cannot do a live.”
With the situation being so dire and with so many different groups concerned, the next steps are unclear. Duque seems reluctant to say that police violence is widespread and instead refers to the killings and sexual assaults as isolated incidents. People have also criticized his hypocrisy in advocating for dialogue over violence while there has been a noticeable lack of dialogue between him and protestors. Lisa says, though, that after days and days of protests “now the President is meeting with the different sectors and the National Strike Committee (which has at least 153 organizations). This committee has gone to speak with the president, but they did not reach an agreement. It is true we have won some battles with the president, but in reality, they still kill us. We haven’t been able to advance for this reason. It is not possible to negotiate with a government that is still killing their people. We can’t stop to negotiate about health reform until the massacre stops. We are creating a popular assembly because people do not identify with the people from the National Strike Committee. […] We hope that the president dares to listen to us, and talk in the neighborhoods and cities. We know that it’s very difficult, and that he cannot listen to more than 50 million Colombians and that not all the Colombians feel the same.”