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Colombia: ‘We need to reach rock bottom before things change’

Amidst regional change, Colombia is stuck battling old demons

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While public outcry effects social change around Latin America, violence in Colombia skyrockets. Must the country reach rock bottom before things can change?


In the autumn of 2019, a chorus of discontent tore through South America. Across the continent, from Chile to Colombia, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to vent their rage at rampant injustice, violence, and corruption. 

In October 2019, Mexico’s El Universal said the region had reached ‘rojo vivo‘, red hot. By November, others just shied away from calling it a Latin Spring. Though the arrival of the pandemic early last year threw much of the movement into disarray, a legacy of determination endured.

Chile saw a year-long protest effort result in an overwhelming plebiscite verdict in favour of rewriting the Pinochet dictatorship-era constitution, and entrusting the job to a fully elected constituent assembly. In Peru, mass demonstrations following a so-called democratic coup were surprisingly effective in securing new presidential leadership last November. More recently, Argentina voted to legalise abortion in a landmark achievement for women’s rights.

In Colombia, news of these regional accomplishments felt akin to watching a neighbour’s party through a hole in the fence. There was a sense of being left behind.

‘It proves civil society can enact change. It gives you hope that democracy might work at some level,’ said Ana María Palomo, coordinator of the Center for Social Justice at Colegio Tilatá outside the capital of Bogotá. 

‘But we don’t have the will to make change here,’ she said. ‘We start with an impulse. But we don’t have that consistency. We forget so easily.’ 

Forgetfulness, wrote Juan Gabriel Vásquez, is ‘the only democratic thing in Colombia.’ It washes over rich and poor, murderer and saint alike. Yet it was in part painful irruptions of memory that lit the fuse of Colombia’s national strike.

Activist and musician Guillermo Zapata is a member of El Paro Suena, a group of artists who came together in the days leading up to the November 2019 protests. He remembers the disquiet that seemed to have taken hold of the country then.

‘Everyone felt this concern, like returning to a nightmare,’ he said. ‘The massacres, the bombs, the human rights violations. That’s what clicked, what made us go out.’

A massive coalition of students, union members, pensioners, and others marched for the kinds of reform that would also find a voice among Chilean protesters: a secure minimum wage, funding for higher education, gender parity, land rights for indigenous people.

Everyone felt this concern, like returning to a nightmare. The massacres, the bombs, the human rights violations. That’s what clicked, what made us go out.

But it was frustration over the failure of President Ivan Duque’s administration to implement the Peace Accords agreed to by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016 that most ignited dissent.

‘The country continues to be convulsed by violence and the return of barbarism,’ said Zapata. ‘The people who have power here have been supremely deaf, supremely stubborn, and supremely violent.’ 

Death squads have turned the countryside into a graveyard. Since the peace deal was signed in 2016, over 400 human rights defenders have been killed, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Colombia is now the most dangerous country in the world to be a social activist. 

The toll of masscres and targeted assassinations is nearly as high as in the early 2000s, when Colombia was a cautionary word abroad and a tragedy at home: in January 2021 alone there were 12 mass killings, making it the deadliest month on record since the signing of the peace deal.

There is little evidence to suggest the skyrocketing levels of violence will stop anytime soon. Meanwhile, memories of those bad old days continue to bubble to the surface. 

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a transitional justice court formed by the 2016 peace accords, recently concluded that more than 6,400 civilians were murdered by military forces between 2002 and 2008. Their findings have already been met with accusations of terrorism, a charge that falls all too easily from the lips of the far right. 

It isn’t only that this number of state-sponsored killings is nearly three times higher than the previously accepted figure. It’s that former president Álvaro Uribe appears to have been more directly involved than even his political opponents suspected.

The falsos positivos or false positives scandal is sometimes dismissed as a ‘stain’ on the otherwise fine record of the Colombian armed forces under Uribe. 

It was in reality a cynical, cold-blooded murder campaign directed against innocent civilians, most of young men from poor families, many of whom were shot and their dead bodies dressed in rebel uniforms, in order to inflate the government’s ‘kill rate.’ In return for this betrayal of their countrymen, soldiers were rewarded with weekend passes and promotion.

Adriana Pestana is a coordinator for Colectivo Sociojurídico OFB, an NGO that helps identify deceased victims of Colombia’s armed conflict, support the families of the victims, and pursue legal redress against the perpetrators. 

Some of the bodies Colectivo OFB has found in mass graves throughout the country may well have been false positives. Proving it is challenging enough. Securing a conviction is far more difficult.

Colombian law tends to be, according to Pestana, ‘a series of mechanisms for impunity.’ 

She is pessimistic about the chances of enforcing accountability among the powerful, or of seeing the kind of dramatic change brought about in Chile. 

‘The political class in the country is too set in its ways, too comfortable, and too legitimized by a people who let themselves get confused very quickly and very easily,’ she said, going on to link the problem to Colombia’s history of coca production.  

The country’s inability to make real inroads against drug traffickers and their political and financial influence is a long-standing obstacle to reducing violence.

‘If you continue to have the drug problem you will never have peace,’ said Palomo.

Cocaine production has become more modern and efficient with time. The country now produces more of the drug per hectare than Pablo Escobar could have dreamed of 30 years ago. Not only is the country the world’s largest cocaine producer, but the quantity produced is higer than ever before. 

The Duque administration, torn between failed old strategies and a dearth of new ideas, has opted for the former, announcing its intention to restart aerial fumigation. They must first wait on clearance from environmental regulators, given evidence that suggests the glyphosate sprayed by the planes is ‘probably carcinogenic.’ But this seems a minor hurdle and a number of reports suggest that forcible eradication is already well under way.

‘It’s hard to get enough of something that doesn’t work’ is wisdom shared among members of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s also a common belief that rehabilitation for an addict does not work until the person ‘reaches rock bottom’. The War on Drugs seems to follow the same logic. It follows patterns repeated again and again without any lasting success. The victims of this insanity are the Colombians whose shattered bodies are often left in the care of Colectivo OFB.

‘We have not yet reached rock bottom,’ said Adriana Pestana. ‘Not like Chile a couple years ago, not like Peru, not like Argentina. And we need to reach rock bottom before things change.’


Main image: La Minga Indígena arrives in Bogota, October 2020. Martín García.

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