[News] The Colombian State Is at War with Its People

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri May 14 10:38:00 EDT 2021

https://spectrejournal.com/the-colombian-state-is-at-war-with-its-people/ The
Colombian State Is at War with Its People
Laura Correa Ochoa, María Cárdenas, and Tianna S. Paschel
<https://spectrejournal.com/author/laura-maria-tianna/> - 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reform, which was withdrawn as a result of the protests, would have mainly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 *res**guardos*
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.
Biden’s Silence

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
<https://www.foreignassistance.gov/explore/country/Colombia> 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
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:

   1. Demilitarize all foreign aid to Colombia
   2. 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.
   3. 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

We must believe them.
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