On the morning of October 5, Julián Andrés Hurtado, a 29-year-old student leader at the University of Valle in Cali, Colombia, died from gunshots to the head. Julian, who was just one week away from graduation, served as a student representative to the academic council of his school, the largest public university in Cali. The attack on Hurtado, which occurred in his neighborhood at midnight the night before he died, marked the one-year anniversary of massive student protests following the assassination of Johnny Silva, another student leader who was killed—many suspect by the police—on the university’s campus.
Students at the University of Valle responded to the news of Hurtado’s death immediately, gathering on campus and releasing a communiqué declaring, “It is clear that this act is political … we are dealing with a crime of the state.” Three thousand students left the campus to protest, and immediately upon entering the street, found themselves fired upon by gunmen concealed in a black car with tinted windows. Fortunately, no one was injured in this attempt.
Colombian university student leaders such as Hurtado are no strangers to threats. In July threats arrived by email to members of the National University Federation, from a source calling itself “Free Colombia 2006-2010,” accusing them of being “guerrillas dressed up as students.” The threats expressed support for the hard-line policies of President Álvaro Uribe and warned the students to leave their universities and homes.
The same month student leaders and members of the Colombian Association of University Students at the University of Cauca received threats from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s largest right-wing paramilitary group, which is supposed to have been completely demobilized in a peace process with the government. And just before Uribe won a second term in May, blacklists naming students, professors and alumni arrived to the University of Antioquia in the city of Medellín. These threats accused those named of being members of the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups and were signed by the “Self-Defense Forces of the University of Antioquia.” The threats follow a typical pattern in Colombia, in which the human rights activists critical of the government are accused of being guerrillas dressed in civilian clothes, an accusation that even President Uribe has made of civil society organizations opposed to his military policy of “Democratic Security.”
In response to Hurtado’s death, the Colombian Association of University Students posted a call to action on its Web site: “We call on all university students to mobilize on October 12 … to denounce this assassination and continue with the work of defending public universities. This is the best tribute we can make to our compatriot Julian Andrés.” October 12 was the date Hurtado was to graduate.
A group of students at the National University in Bogotá, the largest public university in the country, answered this call. By mid-morning, students had gathered in the fine arts building, located just inside the university’s main entrance, to prepare themselves. They wore hoods and dressed entirely in black and donned gas masks or scarves to cover their faces. Some made small explosive devices as other students carried out desks, tables and chairs to use as barricades. Students, professors and even the building’s security guard continued with their activities amid the black-clad students; that is, until the moment the explosions began.
Protests such as these—called “pedreas,” for the rock throwing done by protesters—are common at the university. Some weeks the university is closed for days on end, and every couple years or so it is shut down for months at a time. Both students and professors take the closures in stride, in some cases even planning ahead by distributing readings beforehand or arranging alternate meeting places off campus.
The explosive devices used by the protesters—called “potatoes” by the students—make loud booms but are incapable of doing damage to property. Nonetheless, the elite anti-riot unit of Colombia’s national police (ESMAD) immediately arrived on the scene. They ordered the university to be shut down and began launching teargas canisters at the students. (In fact, it is common to see an ESMAD battalion waiting in a park just across the street from the university, before a protest has even begun.)
Meanwhile, another group of hooded protesters lined up in the center of the university’s main plaza, officially called “Che plaza.” Other students gathered around to watch, shielding their faces with scarves from the teargas that had already begun to fill the air. For the rest of the day explosions sounded and teargas continued to poison the air for blocks around the university.
Legally, neither ESMAD nor any other entity of the police or military may enter the campus without a special order from the university president. Thus, demonstrations such as these normally turn into standoffs between small groups of protesters standing within the university gate, and a larger group of armored police with gas masks, plastic shields and heavy-duty batons. The ESMAD agents frequently fire teargas canisters over the fence, while others sit atop huge black armored vehicles and pump water to spray through the fence from the tank-like trucks.
Last March, Oscar Leonardo Salas, a student at a small public university in Bogotá and a poet, was pronounced dead after being hit in the eye by a projectile during a clash between ESMAD agents and students protesting Colombia’s “free”-trade negotiations with the United States. Oscar was the sixth student to die in a clash between students and ESMAD since 2001.
Protest has been part of the institutional character of the National University in Bogotá since its founding in 1848. As the flagship campus of the national public university system, La Nacional has been one of the most important sites of intellectual debate in the nation. Dissent takes many forms at the university: from independent journalism and artistic expression to non-violent marches. But the pedreas are the most visible forms of protest, though certainly not the most representative of the student body as a whole.
According to a survey recently conducted by the independent student paper of the National University, while a majority of the university’s students (85%) consider the reasons for these protests valid, only 25% of those surveyed agree with the method of pedreas. Nearly half of students surveyed preferred less confrontational forms of protest, including marches and the blockading of university buildings. More than 80% answered “yes” to the question if students should use alternative methods of protest. Considering the potentially violent persecution of any form of political dissent on Colombian campuses, these figures reflect the resiliency of the activist spirit among university students.
The reasons for student protests vary, and often include opposition to Colombia’s domestic and international policies. But recently, the issue that has provoked the most demonstrations (and activism of all forms) at the National University has been a major reform effort undertaken by the university administration in cooperation with the national government.
Critics say the reforms will undermine the quality and structure of undergraduate education at the university by making the “free market” the prime arbiter of the way the educational system functions. One of the principal reforms involves shortening the duration of undergraduate programs. Proponents say shortening the programs will make the educational experience more streamlined and intensive. The student movement, meanwhile, contends this reform will reduce the quality of public education and put graduates from private universities at an even greater advantage, making graduate studies necessary—something only a minority of students at the National University could afford. Announced two years ago, the reforms immediately sparked student outrage—particularly, since they were formulated without student or faculty participation.
Resistance to the reforms has taken diverse forms, including pedreas and other confrontational methods of protest, but has primarily been characterized by non-violent acts such as marches, symbolic actions, and the circulation of materials explaining the reforms and the reasons for opposing them. The student movement has also been engaged in ongoing dialogue with the university administration in an effort to represent the student body and influence the decision-making process.
More than two years after their proposal, the reforms are still underway. The student movement at the National University continues to resist them, while students at universities across Colombia work to make their voices heard amid continual and oftentimes brutal repression.
Elizabeth G. Walsh is a Fulbright scholar and freelance writer living in Bogotá. She can be reached at elizabeth_g_walsh(at)yahoo.com.