The Colombian State Misrepresents Its Enemy

The government’s response to massive protests repeats old tropes of smearing the organizers as criminals. Labels like “urban terrorist” or “extreme vandals” aim to justify the excessive repression.

May 11, 2021

Demonstrators in Colombia carry signs reading "Indifference is also violence" and "The bullets will not silence our ideas," May 5, 2021. (Oxi.Ap / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Originally published in Spanish by La Liga Contra el Silencio.

“Help! Shooting in Siloé. It’s 9:25. They are shooting us,” says a trembling man filming a group as they run away. “They are killing us,” someone says amid screams and confusion in another video showing people sprawled on the floor, wounded and bleeding.

These accounts, shared on social media and essential in broadcasting the national strike, depict what happened on the night of May 3 in a popular neighborhood known as Siloé, in the Comuna 20 in west Cali. They reflect the hours of terror and the police’s excessive use of force against demonstrators. The human toll: 19 people wounded, mostly by bullets, and three young people killed: Kevin Antoni Agudelo Jiménez, Harold Antoni Rodríguez Mellizo, and José Emilson Ambuila.

Siloé suffers violence once again. In 1985, a military occupation targeting a cell of the M-19 [rebel group] left 17 dead and 40 wounded, most of them civilians. During the protests that began April 28, Cali has been the epicenter of the massive and peaceful demonstrations. It has also been the scene of acts of vandalism and the largest number of deaths (15 of the 24 reported by the Human Rights Ombuds Office as of May 5), for which state forces are being investigated. The United Nations has expressed concern, noting “the police have opened fire against demonstrators and there have been deaths and injuries.”

The day after the events in Siloé, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa announced from Cali that a group of investigators determined that “within the disorder and acts of vandalism in the city in recent days there are structures linked to drug trafficking, the ELN [National Liberation Army], and FARC dissidents that operate in the department of Cauca.” The theory coincided with claims made by Minister of Defense Diego Molano.

Hours later, President Iván Duque—who faced the first strikes of his term in office in November 2019, when Dilan Cruz died at the hands of Esmad [Colombia’s riot police force], and September 2020, after the killing of Javier Ordóñez at the hands of police—extended these characterizations to the rest of the country. “A criminal organization is hiding behind legitimate social demands,” he said. “The extreme vandalism and urban terrorism that we are seeing is financed and organized by drug trafficking mafias.”

Retired military colonel Carlos A. Velásquez R., a columnist and university professor, does not rule out that such groups are involved. But he believes that the government is giving them more importance and power than they really have in the cities. “If these groups have the power to almost paralyze the country: close up and let’s go. This is a very misleading way to communicate that [the government] is doing something that they know who is responsible,” he says.

It’s not the first time that Duque’s government has blamed illegal groups. After the protests on September 9 and 10, 2020, the administration insisted that it has been a “premeditated plan” by the ELN and FARC dissidents to attack more than 70 [police substations, known as CAIs] in Bogotá. As La Liga reported together with the Conflict Responses Foundation (CORE), the attorney general only has evidence of the involvement of the FARC dissidents in two cases and no proof to attribute the acts to the ELN.

Juanita Vélez, a researcher and journalist with CORE, sees Barbosa’s recent statements as repeating these unfounded discourses. “Without denying, as we saw with September 9, that there could be participation of these groups…it cannot explain everything that is happening,” she says. This official narrative is dangerous, she adds, because it delegitimizes and criminalizes the protests. She notes that the protests respond to general discontent amid deep public health, social, and economic crises related to Covid-19.

“It has become a pattern in Colombia that when we see scenes of serious violations of human rights in the contexts of protests, the excuses from the government and the attorney general’s office are the same,” says Franklin Castañeda, a human rights defender. The result of this discourse, according to Castañeda, has been impunity. Processes advanced by the attorney general’s office have been “balloons for public opinion, not processes that have been sustained in reality.”

A banner on the side of a residence reads "Poverty is not an accident, viva the national strike," May 5, 2021. (Oxi.Ap / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

In the case of Cali, the attorney general’s office’s statements are being questioned for other reasons as well. Juan Manuel Torres Erazo, coordinator of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation’s Pacific Strategy (PARES Pacífico), says that it is necessary to consider that in this city—wracked by poverty, high murder rates, and racial and social segregation—there is no single leader of all criminal organization. “The hypothesis that it’s the FARC, the ELN, or the dissidents that are behind it crumbles. There has to be a territorial analysis of crime, including at the neighborhood level, says Torres Erazo.

The Spectre of the Internal Enemy

During the decades of the armed conflict, the military doctrine focused on fighting illegal groups. Stigmatization of social protest was common, frequently linking it to the guerrillas and communism. After the signing of the peace accords in Havana [in 2016], Colombia started to lose its fear and [people] took to the streets. The country changed, but its security policies didn’t.

The national security doctrine, focused on the concept of the “internal enemy,” has to be re-evaluated now that the FARC no longer exists [as a rebel force], Colonel Velásquez says. “You cannot consider the opposition an internal enemy…If they’re characterized as the enemy, it’s one kind of strategy, while if they’re characterized as the opposition to the government, the strategy needs to be different,” he says. Military strategy, Velásquez continues, includes a specific kind of intelligence work, which is a poor approach [to social unrest] because it does not analyze the social situation, especially among young people. “Public order prevails over human dignity, which includes the lives of protesters and the police,” he adds.

Amid growing condemnation of the police’s use of lethal weapons during protests, former President Álvaro Uribe wrote on Twitter: “Let’s support the right of soldiers and police to use their weapons to defend themselves and to defend people and property against criminal actions and vandalizing terrorism.” He also gave recommendations for confronting the demonstrations, mentioning among them “dissipated molecular revolution,” a theory circulated by Chilean neo-Nazi Alexis López, who understands protest as “one of many faces of a war that frees crime against institutionality to take power and end democracy,” as La Silla Vacía explained. According to the article, López has twice been invited to give talks about the theory in the Nueva Granada Military University [in Bogotá], where many soldiers are trained.

“According to this theory, there is an enemy that must be combatted in some way,” says CORE’s Vélez. And when those in power use terms like “terrorism” and equate it with vandalism, “it is very dangerous.” “The excesses that have happened [in the protests], no matter how strong, have not been terrorism. The use of this word completely delegitimizes the causes of the march and it justifies the police’s action,” which has been to escalate the use of force compared to previous protests, Vélez adds.

The military has also been in the streets since May 1 on Duque’s orders.

Regarding what happened in Siloé and other areas of Cali like Puerto Resistencia, PARES Pacífico’s Torres Erazo describes it as excessive use of force. “In Siloé, the day they went out (to protest), the immediate response was a military solution. The magnitude and the militaristic treatment of that protest was surprising,” he says. He sees a mindset of direct confrontation that fails to consider that in neighborhoods such as these there is “a lot of hunger.” “It is believed that what they want to do in Cali is create a situation to declare martial law or [a state of] internal disturbance,” he adds.

Since the beginning of the protests, organizations like Temblores and Campaña Defender La Libertad have registered a growing number of human rights violations at the hands of authorities, including murders, arbitrary detentions, sexual violence, and injuries. The Human Rights Ombuds Office has reported dozens of missing people.

[Editor’s note: on May 9, after armed civilians shot at participants in an Indigenous minga in Cali, injuring 12 people, Duque called on Indigenous movements to return home “to avoid unnecessary confrontations.” “This is not the time to create provocations or confrontations with society,” he said. “No more blockades, no more violence.” Hours later, he ordered the “largest deployment” of state forces to Cali. Former President Álvaro Uribe called for “efficient and transparent military action in Cali,” adding that Colombians “must be prepared to defend [the Armed Forces] against reckless national and foreign accusations.” As of May 8, Temblores and Indepaz had documented 47 killings in the protests, including 36 in Cali and 39 at the hands of state forces.]

Suspicion and Distrust

Alongside the complaints against state forces, social and human rights organizations have questioned the work of accompaniment, surveillance, and investigation carried out by authorities like the offices of the attorney general, inspector general, and human rights ombudsperson, led by people close to the government.

In a letter addressed to officials of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), 23 organization requested a visit to observe the national standards of human rights protection, noting “unbalanced and partial behavior” of the attorney general and inspector general. They also denounced that the human rights ombudsperson, Carlos Camargo, “has not fulfilled his obligations to accompany the exercise of human rights in the marches nor his functions of guaranteeing the rights of the population.”

“At the moment in Colombia, democracy is very fragile, because it has been coopted by the governing party,” warned Torres Erazo. “There are no judicial authorities nor supervisory bodies. Even information is being manipulated, and official statistics are either not being delivered or they are being delivered poorly.”

In addition, the work of [human rights] defenders has been overwhelmed and affected by threats, intimidation, and attacks by state forces, as the UN has reported.

The press has also been the target of attacks. Reporters Without Borders and the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FLIP) documented 70 assaults [on media and members of the press] between April 28 and May 3, including robberies and destruction of materials, illegal detentions, infrastructure damages, harassment, and other attacks. The organizations expressed “extreme concern” over systematic attacks on the press—despite [the media workers] being properly identified—by state forces with the goal of intimidating, generating fear, and censuring [journalists].

Internet Censorship?

Firearms attacks and operations using stun grenades, tear gas, tanks, and helicopters against demonstrators have been recorded and shared on social media. The most dramatic was the live recording on May 3 in Cali of attempts to help the artist Nicolás Guerrero, who had been struck by a bullet and who later died.

The relevance of social media and the internet in the protests has been at the heart of debate in recent days. Different problems with social media access have sparked denunciations of a possible block on the platforms. NetBlock, an organization based in London that that monitors infrastructure at the global level, warned on May 5 of a possible interruption of internet service in Cali.

Andrés Velásquez, a researcher with K+Lab, a security and privacy laboratory with the organization Karisma, who specializes in digital rights, confirms having received many reports from users who have not been able to upload videos or live broadcast, or who have had their accounts blocked.

The Communication Regulation Commission (CRC) verified that these internet service interruptions were mostly due to infrastructure damage, power cuts, or copper theft and difficulty carrying out repair and maintenance work due to the [protest] situation.

In the wake of these reports, which were also documented in cities like Bogotá and Medellín in the midst of their demonstrations, Karisma stressed the importance of digital technologies in the protests. The organization called on authorities and internet providers to be attentive and to explain [service] failures. It also recommended platforms establish more flexible mechanisms for moderating violent content “to avoid the interruption of legitimate denunciations that emerge during the protests.”

“It could be that authorities in charge of controlling the protests are using signal blockers in places where there is particular tension,” Karisma stated. These practices, they unerlined, are never justified, “not even for reasons of public order or national security.”

The organizations of the Digital Rights Index also expressed their concern over the “growing quantity of reports of possible obstructions of the free flow of information over the internet in the context of the national strike.”

The demonstrators, clutching the tools at their disposal, continue to use the internet as a means of denouncing [what’s happening] through hashtags now circulating at the global level. One of them summarizes the sentiment pouring out in the streets and on social media: #SOSColombia.

La Liga Contra el Silencio is an alliance involving media, a central newsroom, and a network of freelancers that investigates and disseminates journalistic stories weighed down by silence imposed by all kinds of censorship or that occur in parts of Colombia that don’t receive sufficient media coverage.

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