The Colombian State Is at War with Its People
Black and Indigenous Communities Know This All Too Well
May 11, 2021
On April 28, Colombians began a National Strike protesting the latest attempt at implementing a set of neoliberal policies. The proposed tax reform, which was withdrawn as a result of the protests, would have mainly hit the middle and lower classes. But this was just the tip of an iceberg of economic inequality, corruption, and human rights violations in the midst of a pandemic in which urban sectors feel more than ever the threat of economic precarity, unemployment, and further debt. The Colombian government responded to the more than 300 peaceful protests across the country with brutal violence. Early on, Colombia’s right-wing President, Iván Duque Márquez, authorized military action against civilians in cities throughout the country. To date, at least 47 people have been killed, 39 by the hands of police, and 548 persons are still missing.
The violent crackdown on protesters in urban centers over the last 10 days is objectionable, and in some ways unprecedented. However, it also represents a regrettable acceleration of a form of warfare that indigenous and Black communities know all too well, but one that is quieter and just as deadly. State violence is a daily occurrence in rural areas and particularly in Black and indigenous territories. Moreover, political repression in Colombia, as in other postcolonial societies in the Americas, is mediated by centuries of race and racism. Yet the political struggles of these communities and the racialized character of violence and repression is often elided from national and international media coverage about Colombia and its relations with the United States.
Yet we know that race and racism have shaped the most recent wave of repression, which has disproportionately impacted the city of Cali, home to the largest number of Black Colombians, and one of the largest populations of Afro-descendants in Latin America. Although there are no official numbers about the ethno-racial background of those killed, in this city the demonstrations have been particularly intense in poor and working-class neighborhoods with large Black populations. Colombia notoriously does not keep ethno-racial records of victims of police violence or even of the country’s long armed conflict. But looking at the photos of the victims released by local press outlets, it’s clear that many were in fact young Black men.
Further, former right-wing president Álvaro Uribe has promoted violence by directly encouraging the police and military to fire weapons to protect private property. Later he called the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), who travelled to Cali in order to support urban protesters, “terrorists.” CRIC members were later attacked and shot at, apparently by local residents who saw their entry into the city as illegitimate. President Duque responded to this violence by requesting that indigenous activists “go back to their resguardos,” territories comparable to Native American reservations in a US context). Comments like these expose the racist and colonial character of Colombia’s white and mestizo economic and political elites.
The Violence Is Not New
The truth is, this violence is not new. Despite the official recognition of extensive constitutional rights for indigenous and to a lesser extent, Black, Colombian communities, their territorial, cultural, and political rights are routinely violated by the Colombian state, sometimes violently. While the violence against these populations has been portrayed as collateral damage in the armed conflict, it has become increasingly clear that this violence is intentional and rooted in racism. Indigenous and Black communities are targeted by state violence as they represent social sectors that live and bring into being alternatives to the neoliberal, extractivist and postcolonial economic model. The reports that Black and indigenous organizations have handed over to the Special Peace Jurisdiction and to the Truth Commission, as well as the related court cases, underscore the targeted forms of violence these communities experience, including forced displacement, sexual violence, perpetual death threats, and political assassinations. These are strategies of war and thus genocidal in nature. However, they often go unnoticed precisely because indigenous and Black communities are invisible or when they are seen, disposable.
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.
Additionally, rightwing and centrist politicians in Colombia have also slowly and somewhat quietly passed reform after reform that benefited capital and the rich, including 4 tax reforms under former president Uribe and 4 under Juan Manuel Santos. The recent tax reform was just the latest attempt to further erode the constitutional rights of ordinary Colombians. Iván Duque had tried a few tax reforms on his own, including one that was stricken down by the Constitutional Court. Perhaps the most striking difference between this tax reform, and the many other neoliberal policies that his administration and previous ones have put forward, is that it threatened to affect a much broader sector within Colombian society, including urban populations and Colombia’s white/mestizo middle and lower-middle classes. If passed, it would have been a democratization of the economic and legal precarity that indigenous and Black communities experience every day.
Historically, the US has played an outsized role in Colombia’s internal affairs and in the dynamics of the armed conflict. Colombia continues to be the largest recipient of US foreign aid in Latin America, and the largest outside of the Middle East. In 2020, Congress appropriated over $460 million in foreign aid, with most of the funds being directed towards “peace and security,” which includes providing training and equipment to security forces. With this in mind, it is not an overstatement to say that US taxpayer dollars are being used to repress social protests in Colombia.
Yet, so far, and in contrast with the United Nations and the European Union, which have accused Colombian security forces of using brutal tactics, the response from the Biden administration has been muffled. According to Juan González, the National Security Council Director for the Western Hemisphere, “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.” Doesn’t the undeniable bloodshed, some of which has been captured by cell phone videos, merit a critique? Biden himself has yet to speak out publicly against the Colombian state’s use of violence against its citizens and rampant violations of human rights, including against ethnic groups.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the House and the Senate, including Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, Jim McGovern, Ilhan Omar, and Jessica Ramos (who is Colombian-American), have expressed support for the demands of protesters and called for an end to police repression.
For better or for worse, the dependence of the Colombian state’s on US assistance means that the Biden administration has more political leverage on Duque than any other nation or international body—a reminder of the US’s imperial influence in Colombia and in other parts of the region. His administration should condemn and demand an end to the violent tactics of the state security forces against protestors; pressure the government to enter into serious and open dialogue with the organizers of the national strike and with the young people leading the manifestations on the streets; and toinvestigate and hold accountable those responsible for the murders, torture and disappearances of activists.
Though important, the gravity of the situation requires more than a strongly worded statement. Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress should consider withholding or suspending foreign assistance to Colombia as some US politicians have already suggested. McGovern has called for instituting conditions on US aid that ends up in the hands of the National Police and to the anti-riot police (ESMAD), responsible for many of the human rights violations during the strike. Last year McGovern and Ocasio Cortez proposed amendments to the 2020 military budget requiring that Colombian authorities report on allegations of abuses by the military and putting an end to the use of aerial fumigations to eradicate coca crops. Although this US-backed coca eradication strategy was halted by Colombian courts in 2017 due to its nefarious impact on public health, Duque’s government has been trying to restart the program.
The Duque administration has demonstrated its disregard for democratic institutions, the right to protest, and the right to life. He has made it clear that he and his administration are morally bankrupt and not interested in peace. Biden and the US Congress needs to:
- Demilitarize all foreign aid to Colombia
- Make all outgoing foreign assistance conditional on implementing the Peace Accords, particularly its Ethnic Chapter, which is typically sidelined from policy conversation in Colombia and abroad.
- Make racial justice a priority of US foreign policy to Latin America. Debates and negotiations about peace-building, development, and foreign aid between the US and Colombia need to happen with the direct participation of Black and indigenous authorities and organizations with first-hand knowledge of the realities on the ground, their needs and solutions. One such organization is the Ethnic Commission for Peace and the Defense of Territorial Rights that is fighting for the full implementation of the Ethnic Chapter of the 2016 Peace Accords.
Even in the face of brutal repression, Colombians continue to be mobilized and are continuing to risk their lives on streets throughout the country. We invite those observing these atrocities to look a little deeper, both in terms of historical context and the layers of injustices, and to the complicity of the US government. The racialized political violence and repression that Black and indigenous communities experience are often ignored or altogether silenced in both national and international media. The coverage on the latest National Strike is no exception. We invite US-based journalists and content producers to report and write about Colombia in ways that are attentive to these complex dynamics. We also urge you all to take seriously the lives, and premature deaths, of Black and indigenous people who are at the forefront of progressive struggles for inclusion and social justice in Colombia. Black and indigenous activists often say “nosotros hemos puesto los muertos”, or “we are the ones who have put forth the most dead bodies,” as a way of underscoring the incommensurate violence these communities experience in this never ending war.
We must believe them.