The open fire on protesters over the last week represents a regrettable acceleration of a form of warfare that indigenous and Black communities know all too well. From the rural territories of the Pacific to cities like Cali, state repression is commonplace; ordinary citizens and activists are often considered military targets. Indigenous and Black leaders and communities in the Colombian Pacific and Northern Cauca regions have been particularly targeted, with several leaders from these regions killed in the past few weeks. Half of the leaders assassinated in 2020 were Indigenous. Several communities are under imminent threat of displacement—some from titled collective territories—due to confrontations between FARC dissidents and the military.
The final peace accord, signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the Guerilla FARC-EP, has not actually brought about peace. Instead, chapters on rural land reform and political participation have opened the door to new forms of violence, enacted as a way to halt any meaningful social change. The agreement includes an Ethnic Chapter, which was the result of persistent mobilization by a coalition of indigenous and Black social movement organizations. The chapter calls for collective reparations; territorial autonomy; the right to prior, free, and informed consent; as well as the full realization of the rights of Black and indigenous communities guaranteed under the 1991 Constitution. However, Colombia’s current administration and its predecessor have done little to ensure that this chapter is implemented.
Further, some 1160 activists have been killed since the signing of the 2016 Peace Accord, and 82 activists and FARC excombatientes have been assassinated or disappeared this year alone. The fact that indigenous leaders represent a third of the victims while representing only 5% of the population underlines this argument: that the conflict is inextricably intertwined with racism and coloniality. How can a country boast of peace when so many defenders of the constitution and of human rights have been slain?
It is no surprise that former President Uribe would be so involved in the recent repression of protesters. A strategic ally of the US in the wars on drugs and terrorism, it was he that weaponized the word “terrorist” in the Colombian context, and it was his administration that targeted human rights activists, actively supported and organized paramilitary forces, and introduced bill after bill meant to undermine Black and indigenous communities’ rights to collective territory. While Colombia’s 1991 Constitution and its active Constitutional Court has long been admired among human rights lawyers and activists in the Global South, the country has also long been a poster child for neoliberal reforms. Thus, for the last few decades Black and indigenous communities have been fighting valiantly to try to make their rights on paper a reality amidst both legal and extralegal attempts to undermine them at every turn. They have faced everything from state repression to persistent legislative attempts to unravel their rights to state-sanctioned paramilitary violence. The collective nature of ethnic rights in Colombia poses an inherent threat to an economic model based largely on extractivism and large-scale mono-cultivation agriculture. There has never been a post-war or post-conflict period in Colombia, and this last week has made this particularly clear.
The eruption of protests around the country that began on April 28 are just the latest of many large-scale protests in Colombia over the last few years. The recent National Strike should be seen as a powerful countermovement against the continued erosion of rights, as well as a damning critique of the vacuousness of official peace. Indeed, these protests are a direct response to a movement from above by economic and political elites to undermine the constitution and hollow out the peace agreement, in great part to protect their economic agendas. These neoliberal policies have long been wielded against marginalized communities, above all indigenous and Black communities in rural and urban areas alike.