A Tale of One City · A Tale of Two Protests

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

A parar pa’ avanzar, viva el paro nacional

Stopping, to advance in Medellín

It was peculiar to be amongst so many souls. After 13 months of lockdowns, biosecurity controls and restrictions we had all become very detached from each other. I was totally disconnected from the world.

I had slipped into self-imposed solitary confinement and would spend day after day without speaking. When I did go out, I would wander the city aimlessly, hidden behind a cloth veneer of a black facemask and a black baseball cap. I enjoyed the anonymity it offered me – it was my burka and it allowed me to take my confinement outside into a world that I was still not ready to be a part of.

However, my solitude ended on the 28th of April 2021, though I hung onto my seclusion, as hundreds of thousands of Colombians came onto the streets nationwide as the second National Stoppage began – known hereabouts as the Paro Nacional (Paro) – to protest the government of Iván Duque.

Crowds demonstrate against government of Duque in Medellín

“Let them eat Covid!”

There were many reasons to protest: Duque’s government had been plutocratic, nepotistic and corrupt; police violence was common and went unpunished and in much of the country, illegal armed groups in the service of mafias plundered natural resources and murdered environmental, community and indigenous activists at will, higher education was underfunded and it was obvious to most of the nation that neither the President nor his ministers were up to the job.

But the spark for the 2021 demonstrations was a proposed packet of economic reforms to fill the fiscal hole opened up by Duque’s previous reforms – which had mainly benefitted the wealthy – and had been deepened by the pandemic response, which had included big cash handouts to large businesses and banks. The financial deficit, we were informed, would be filled by middle-class wage earners through new taxes.

It was trickle-up economics – “Hood Robin” as the murdered Colombian comedian Jaime Garzón had once joked. The people were still buckling under the economic and social restraints of thirteen months of the pandemic and poverty was at around 42%, and the peak of the third and deadliest wave of the coronavirus was bearing down on us and killing near-on five hundred per day.

For more than a year, we had suspended much of our social lives and economic activities out of fear of what the coronavirus would do should it rip through the population uncontrolled and then, as it cast its invisible yet indelible shadow across the nation President Duque and his aporophobic finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla announced a such a fiscal reform that was bound to, if not designed to cause uproar and spark protests. It was an attempted democide. The government was more dangerous than the virus, so we marched!

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I had questioned the prudence of doing so but nonetheless, I left home and sought out the protest on that day, which I found as it passed by the University of Antioquia, the main public university in my home city, Medellín. I bobbed along with the irreverent tide that had spilt onto the streets that morning and now flowed along a wide highway. The crowds were exuberant and sang and shouted at the top of their lungs. I was silent and shrouded but felt the same indignation and breathed the same air.

In my seclusion, I was more observant and connected than would otherwise have been. I could concentrate on what was happening around me without having to worry about getting dragged into interactions and conversations. Though physically in the thick of it, I remained socially distanced – in close proximity but not mingling. Just watching and thinking. Mostly insignificant and anonymous: just another grain of sand.

I was to spend the rest of the Paro like that: floating amongst the crowds like some wisp of a seed caught by the caress of breezes and currents of air. It suited me to watch and listen

Sporadically, the river of indignant souls would begin to boil up in then erupt in one unified voice in songs that launched barbs, poured mockery and spat disdain at Duque. Then, the smiling, bubbling mass that would calm and the energy dissipate in ripples of laughter through the light panting of the crowds. In those moments, though it really was the worst of times, it felt like the best of times. It was cathartic to be amongst so many after such a long time. I smiled behind my cloth veil.

Crowds demonstrate against government of Duque in Medellín

The spontaneous uprising had caused a proliferation of hand-made placards hastily written and drawn on the eve of the protest. Notes of indignation and defiance speckled the crowd. Duque and Carrasquilla were the principal targets but also their mentor, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the two-time ex-President under whose shadow the vast majority of those gathered had lived for most of their lives. The youth of Colombia was at the vanguard of the protests; the time was for change – to cast off the yoke of Uribism and start a new chapter in the history of Colombia.  

 The crowds sang: “Down with Duque. Duque ciao; Duque ciao; Duque ciao, ciao, ciao!”

As it was, we had the winds of public opinion behind us: more than 80% disapproved of the proposed reforms. The crowds were massive. They sang and chanted and exuded the spark and optimism of youth. I smiled behind my mask and too felt that optimism.

Medellín is the bastion of Uribism – but in the City of the Eternal Spring there was hope that we could end our winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, or we were all going direct the other way?

I was concerned about how the day would end. Would we blow it?

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Crowds demonstrate against government of Duque in Medellín

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“The People are Superior to their Leaders”

So said Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the progressive Liberal leader who railed against Colombia’s political oligarchies and would have most definitely been elected President of Colombia in 1950 had he not been assassinated on the 9th of April 1948. His death marked the beginning of a period that was so violent it was simply called La Violencia, though the violence had begun two years previously and some fifteen thousand Gaitanists had already been killed when Gaitan was assassinated. Through the use of hired guns, the oligarchies sought to expand their lands and riches using systematic murder to eradicate any opposition and chance of change in Colombia.

Caped-crusader with a revolutionary logo

I saw the words written in black marker on pink cardboard worn in the form of a ruana – a Colombian poncho – by a young woman. With Gaitán’s assassination, the mould was cast for the nation as it continues to be today. And though much has changed in over three-quarters of a century, two things have remained the same: the violence and economic and political control of the regional oligarchies.

The caped crusader Ruana-girl and many in her generation wish to change both of those constants and have taken up the mantel of Gaitan whose ideas once more resonate in Colombia, particularly amongst the youth in the universities and on the streets. They are the generation that has little, and little to lose – like the campesinos of the 1940s who were being dispossessed of their lands by the oligarchs with their hired killers.

Many younger Colombians tend to regard the governing elites with contempt, and rightly so as these have monopolised and plundered the country since before independence. Corruption, nepotism, incompetence, criminality, self-interest and discrimination rule the land. They have made a nation that has abundant natural resources and is as near to paradisical as one can get into one of the most inequitable nations on Earth.

The pervasion of the internet and social networks over the last fifteen years has been determinant in shaping new perceptions of the nation by breaking the monopoly of the traditional media owned by governing and economic elites, most notably those of the two principal private TV stations RCN and Caracol, owned by the Ardila Lülle and Santo Domingo economic groups respectively. As a result, the young are more critical and irreverent of authority than their parents, and grandparents and more their distant forbears who wore the ruana did not wear shoes and were obeisant to the patron.

The traditional press and television owned are regarded as biased by most who protest · Bogotá

Antioquia has spawned two of Colombia’s most infamous patrones – Pablo Escobar and Álvaro Uribe Vélez. It is the most populous and conservative of the country’s 32 provinces and is an electoral heavyweight that has elected all but one of Colombia’s Presidents (Juan Manuel Santo’s second term).1 The province’s principal festival, the Flower Festival, has as its centrepiece parade a nostalgic homage to a tradition rooted in servitude: that of the barefoot, ruana-wearing silletero, the peon or peasant who would bear a patron sat in a chair (silla) which he would carry on his back over mountainous trails.

Although Duque had written the epitaph of Uribism, the Paisas (as Antioquians are called), though totally disillusioned with the President that Uribe told them to elect could always be easily herded and goaded back into the Uribista fold. The FARC guerillas were no longer an effective scapegoat as they had demobilised and the spectre of Castrochavismo was toxic as it was the paquete chileno2 with which Duque had tricked his way into the presidency.

As Duque began his term and the Student Strike started, the new “enemy within” had been the “encapuchados” (literally protesters who wear hoods and facemasks). There had been debate around banning face coverings but by the time the social explosion arrived, we were in mid-pandemic and had all been obliged to be encapuchados.

The new “new enemy within” would be the helmet-wearing Primera Linea, the first line of protesters who defended protests from police aggressions using homemade shields and helmets – kind of a loose facsimile of the ESMAD riot police on a level with the restoration of Borja’s “Ecce Homo” – and the marauding hoards of vandals, the new reapers of mayhem and destroyers of liberty and democracy.

1 – A second president Antioquia did not elect was the progressive left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro who won elections on the 19th of June 2022.

2 – A fraud technique that consists of throwing down a roll of papers that appear to be bank notes. When the victim sees them and moves to pick them up the fraudster does the same, just beating the victim to it. They then use some pretext to convince the victim that they give them something of value, usually the money they have in hand to deposit or to pay bills, and keep the roll of notes that turns out to be worthless paper. People really fall for this!

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INTERNAL LINK – CONTEXT

The Antecedents of the Social Explosion

Peace, Lies and the Rebirth of Uribism · The Bitter Seed and the Young Shoots of Change

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“All roads lead to Rome,” says the proverb. And in Medellín, almost all marches lead to the Alpujarra – the city’s administrative centre. I call it the Colosseum – over the years I have witnessed numerous gladiatorial clashes there.

Boy runs across road covered with rocks as police take refuge behind riot shields

In the Colosseum, a traditional venue for police/protester clashes · Medellín, 2000

It took a few minutes after arriving for things to kick off. I sensed a commotion and moved towards it. A small but significant group within the demonstration had begun to attack traffic speed cameras. They lassoed the poles with ropes and scaled these to smash the cameras with somewhat admirable efficiency. It occurred to me that they had perhaps trained for the occasion. Though I had not planned to specifically photograph the protest, I had come prepared and I took out my camera and began to take pictures recalling the events of 21N.

“There are too many lenses!” a fat man shouted repeatedly as the speed cameras were smashed. I moved to a more discreet position and continued to take pictures. Then came the familiar sound of the small explosions of tear gas being fired and little silver canisters scuttled, skipped and somersaulted across the tarmac spouting white streams of smoke. I held my breath, dodged them and skirted the white clouds that formed in the air, careful not to be bowled over by the fleeing crowds. I had not come prepared for such events (though I was certain that they would occur) and had no helmet, no gas mask or goggles and nothing to identify me as press, which I was not.

When I photographed this moment, the image that ran through my mind was that of Joe Rosenthal’s iconic WW2 photograph of marines around a pole as they raise the USA flag over the island of Iwo Jima. A bunch of males and a common cause, but there the analogy ended as this pole was on its way down. People cheered and celebrated when it hit the ground.

These speed control cameras were the focus of ire from a considerable number of people within the protests, so much so that they would come equipped with ropes with which to bring them down. They were systematically attacked at protests and even their permanent removal was proposed as one of the final demands as the Social Explosion neared its end months later. I didn’t share this cause as in many ways Colombian cities are the victim of their own permissiveness and there is little respect for traffic lights, pedestrian crossings or speed limits, of which the consequences are obvious.

Bottles and stones rained down all around and then suddenly pellets from a beanbag round pinged off my spectacles, face mask and stiff shirt collar. I thought it fortunate that I had put on a nice shirt that morning rather than a t-shirt! Then stones and rocks hit my legs and shins but they had spent most of their force and did not hurt. I took shelter behind the slim trunk of a small Bengal almond tree.

Police confront stone throwing protesters on the first day of the Colombian National Stoppage of 2021

I stayed by the tree trunk that I used as a shield and would occasionally retire when the gases would become too much for my eyes and leave me temporarily blinded. When the burning abated and I blinked the tears out of my eyes I could return to the fray and continue taking pictures. Choking on the gases was not so much a problem as I could hold my breath long enough to find clean air, a skill learnt over years of cycling in Medellín’s foul traffic air.

After perhaps an hour of the melee, I found myself surrounded by riot police and there was no one else in the vicinity but a man with a Colombian flag. A policeman politely asked me to leave the area and I nodded and began to slowly leave. He was the first person to address me all day. I paused to photograph two riot police bullying flag man to the ground and then another who ran fifty metres to throw a stone that bounced and trickled to a halt several metres short of its target.

I walked through downtown in silence and made my way home unpacking the events of those adrenalin-filled moments in my head. It had seemed like an eternity but had lasted little more than an hour. But for the very dramatic end, the march had been surprisingly big and peaceful but I hadn’t really tried to photograph it other than a couple of snaps. Having gotten caught up in and seduced by photographing the melee, the images I had taken would depict a facet of what day one of the Paro had been, but a distortion all the same. I would sit on the pictures until I had a little more context I thought.

The next day’s front page in the El Tiempo newspaper was a burning bus in the city of Cali. The international media ran pictures and videos of the smoke and shields of Robocop riot police and demonstrators in Bogotá. None of the images was invented but they did not represent the hundreds of thousands of slogan shouters, song singers and banner wavers that had participated nationwide. To their credit, the El Espectador newspaper led their coverage of the Paro with a front-page image of the masses that attended the protests in Bogotá over a headline of “A Country Without Facemasks”.

A little more than a week later Semana magazine (a right-wing mouthpiece for its owners) would run a front cover of burning barricades with the title “Colombia Under Threat”. The hecatomb had arrived!

Medellín had been calm and controlled compared to elsewhere in Colombia. That first day, three protesters and a bystander were shot dead in Cali – three by police and one apparently by an armed civilian – and in Bogotá, one protester was shot dead in the disturbances between protesters and police who were accused of heavy-handed overreaction.

The next big protest would be on the first of May.

Duque’s Colombia – Eternal Despair, Eternal Protest

The Student Strike of 2018-19 was a bellwether of what was to come. It was the tide upon which the subsequent protests rode.

The students were the first to protest. On the 10th of October 2018 massive marches took place nationwide and these continued for a year until that tide of youth discontent carried the nation into the first National Stoppage (el Paro) that began on the 21st of November 2019 – known as 21N.

President Duque’s reaction to the encroaching first Paro was histrionic: on the eve of the protests, troops were recalled to barracks, the frontiers were sealed and on national media government ministers incessantly repeated the mantra that marches were a left-wing insurgent plot to overthrow democracy.

As it was, hundreds of thousands marched in what were good-natured and theatrical nationwide demonstrations. They were the largest anti-government protests in living memory and attracted many who were not accustomed to demonstrating at all: middle-class workers, housewives, shop assistants, taxi drivers, call centre and gig economy workers, the unemployed and football fan groups all joined with the students to show their dissatisfaction with an out-of-touch and incompetent government.

In Medellín, the march was massive and peaceful, though when we passed the police command in the city centre, it was surprising to observe the depth of animosity towards the police that had brewed during the previous year. “Pigs! Pigs!” they chanted. Not a few dozen people but hundreds, which as the enormous march passed accumulated to thousands.

A year of protests had nurtured a deep dislike of the police force amongst the student population. They had been subject to arbitrary arrests and sanctions (known as comparendos) which were spot fines issued by police officers at their discretion. That deep-rooted animosity was would be deepened further still as the day drew to a close and protests were attacked by police in many of the major Colombian cities.

In Medellín, a coordinated group of what seemed to be fifth columnists who wore hoods and masks appeared and vandalised traffic speed cameras by the University of Antioquia. They fled in one direction and mounted police reacted by galloping in another direction to round up and rough up reposing marchers and also bystanders. Dozens were arrested in Medellín and later given comparendos (all of which had to be rescinded months later).

In other cities, much the same happened. On national news and social networks, hysteria was whipped up as footage of out-of-control, marauding hoards on the rampage were shown breaking into the condominiums. People were spooked; condominium communities mounted guards with poles, machetes and even assault rifles as they waited to repel the hoards. It was as the government had warned! But no!

The marauding hoards were imaginary: they were no more than panicked people fleeing in an act of collective self-preservation as police fired gases and in some cases, more systematic than isolated, toured around beating people on the streets regardless of whether they had marched or not. It would take time for these abuses to be shared and seen on social networks and the media. People were angry but many were also scared and would not march again, and those who might have been considering it would unlikely do so.

Vigils for Dilan Cruz and the First Stoppage

Candlelit vigils were held in Medellín the after the death of Dilan Cruz (November 23 2019). “You only die when you´re forgotten” #we are all Dilan – and protesting the government, the ESMAD and police violence (December 2019)

And then, two days later, as if to remind one of the potential price of protest, police attacked a small march in central Bogotá, fatally wounding Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old school student, with a cartridge full of pellets fired from a 12-bore shotgun by an ESMAD (riot police) captain.

Tensions between police and the public remained high for the next few months. The frequency of protests increased and the police became more hysterical and aggressive towards citizens, particularly the young who did not hide their lack of respect for the institution. Duque and his ministers worsened the situation by constantly stigmatising the protests as if the protesters were the “enemy within”.

After 21N marches to protest the police violence and the murders of hundreds of community leaders and environmental activists

Cacerolazos

Sympathy and support for the demonstrations were shown by beating pots and pans from windows and balconies as the protests of mainly young marchers passed through the neighbourhoods. These were the cacerolazos – a chorus of clanking metal that would echo through the night in cities and towns as people cheered from windows and balconies and were cheered by the marchers. The discontent with Duque’s government was widespread, even in conservative, Uribist Medellín!

As all this was happening, I became a Colombian citizen. I was blocked from entering local government buildings for my oath-swearing ceremony by the police when they found a pan lid in my backpack – such was the polarization at the time. After negotiations via cell phone between local government employees and the police, I was allowed in. A policeman escorted me to the ceremony where officials, my son and the rest of my entourage were waiting. After the ceremony, we went to the protest.

The last days of pre-pandemic cacerolazos – December 2019.

As 2019 drew to an end, the country was a pressure cooker of discontent. But Colombia being Colombia, everything was paused for the Christmas festivities and the New Year. The marches did not return until late January, but before everything could pick up steam again, the pandemic arrived. Covid-19 was mana from heaven for Duque.

He rapidly reinvented himself as a daily TV show host, addressing the nation about the ongoing health crisis for hours on end, inviting government ministers and government cronies to chatter inconsequentially and clown around. It was “Hola Presidente” and the Truman Show in full pandemic-vision. Duque was noticeably more comfortable in his presenter role than that of President.

Indisputably, it was the worst of times. We were governed by a foolish child-man lost in the labyrinths of privilege, ineptitude and complete lack of self-awareness. He was incredulous and incapable of seeing that the country was sinking further into the darkness and despair yet he believed his epoch to be bathed in light.

Duque attempted to appropriate the activity of banging pots and pans as symbolic support for health workers but gained little traction. The government support for health workers was lip service: protective gear was scarce and many had to improvise, some health staff were hounded out of their condominiums and many doctors and nurses had not been paid for months because of failings in the health system. Later, during the Paro at the height of the pandemic health workers would pause from duty to wave to protesters and hold up signs with messages such as “You March for Us.”

However, Covid did not pause the Colombian democide. During the lockdowns, the murders of community, indigenous and environmental activists increased, as did those of reinserted ex-guerrillas.

The State did not fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the demobilised FARC guerrillas and so de facto control of these fell to illegal armies in the service of mafias linked to narcotrafficking, illegal mining, contraband, logging and cattle ranching. In some cases, they acted with the connivance of local military commanders politicians and economic elites. Lack of State control was more conducive to business it appeared and the leaders and activists on the front line of defending the environment and the rights of communities became the principal targets of the violence exercised by these groups. And it was in defence of these leaders, activists and communities that the protests sparked back into life.

“Who will protect us from the narco State?” – the protests reignite.

The Colombian Democide

Indigenous girls run across painted forms of bodies

Above: Indigenous Embera girls run across outlines of bodies drawn in San Antonio Park to protest the murders of indigenous peoples, social and environmental activists, re-inserted ex-guerrillas days before the murder of Javier Ordoñez and the 9S massacre. The park was the scene of carnage on the 10th of June 1995 when a bomb placed by a drug mafia destroyed a bronze sculpture of a bird by Colombian artist Fernando Botero and rocketed shrapnel across the plaza, killing 23 and injuring 200 people attending a free vallenato music concert. The majority of the victims were poor and after twenty-seven years no one has been attributed as responsible for the crime, much less brought to justice.

Nos Están Matando · They’re Killing Us

The term democide was coined by North American political scientist Rudolph Rummel to describe the intentional killing of unarmed civilians by a government, either by its own agents or by illegal groups in cohorts with it. The definition includes those of government omissions and neglect where a civilian population is abandoned and left at the mercy of natural disasters, hunger and the actions of organised crime etc.

A long banner with list of murdered activists and man with Colombian flag

Protesting police violence and the murders of hundreds of community leaders and environmental activists many of whose names are listed on a 40-metre banner carried by activists (above) and on a Colombian flag (below right).

Girl holds placard and white flower aloft in protest

And then, on the 9th of September 2020, five months after we had watched in awe as the Black Lives Matter protests swept the USA came our very own George Floyd moment. Our George was called Javier; he too could not breathe; he too pleaded for mercy; the cellphone footage of his detention too went viral. In a previous era, the crime would have been buried in government and police denials but the footage recorded by bystanders presented incontrovertible evidence that could not be denied obliged the nation to pull its head from the sand.

Javier Ordoñez was detained and tortured with tasers by two policemen on the public highway and then taken to a neighbourhood police post – a CAI – where he was subsequently beaten to death. The images of his detention and news of his murder caused great indignation and protests erupted all across the capital the following night, which came to be infamously known as 9S. During the protests, police opened fire on the crowds with live ammunition, killing thirteen protesters and bystanders in Bogotá and the neighbouring municipality of Soacha.

The nation watched horrified as images circulated showed police firing bullets at unarmed crowds and running amock, kicking and beating people in the streets. Colombia suddenly looked like a powder keg fit to explode. It was a moment that called for leadership to calm the tensions and take control of a situation that could quickly run out of control. But that was obviously too much for our self-absorbed President.

Duque poured gasoline on the pyre, dressing up as a policeman and doing fist-bumping photo ops with police in their CAIs days after the massacre. The message from the executive branch of power was clear and really it was no surprise when the “social explosion” finally erupted seven months later that some police believed they would be able to act with impunity. Some 40 people, bystanders and protesters, were killed by police during the 2021 protests.

Above: Posters of those killed by police bullets during protests on the 9th of September 2020 in Bogotá after the beating to death of Javier Ordoñez who was murdered in Engativá, Bogota. The other victims: Julián Gonzaléz, in Kennedy; Angie Paola Baquero, Fredy Alexander Mahecha, German Smith in Suba, Bogotá; Andrés Felipe Rodríguez, Jaider Fonseca, Cristian Camilo Hernández in Usaquén; Marcela Zuñiga in Soacha to the south of the capital.

The posters also show other homicides committed by police: Duván Álvarez in Ciudadela Sucre, Soacha; Harold Payares in San Francisco, Cartagena; Jaider Brochero in Codazzi, César; Estela Valencia in Buenaventura; Janner García in Puerto Tejada, Cauca. And those detained and beaten to death by police: Anderson Arboleda – Puerto Tejada, Cauca; Ángel Revelo in Cumbal, Nariño.

During the Paro of 2021, there were a further 40 victims of homicide, 35 cases of sexual violence, and 103 cases of eye injuries in which the police and ESMAD were implicated. *

* – according to investigations by Temblores, Cuestión Publica and Paiis.

For the social networks – a bystander films a peaceful march protesting the murders of community, environmental and indigenous activists.

Avenida Oriental – 4 September 2020

For the social networks – Some protesters film the police station after it was firebombed in the minutes before the march was dispersed by water canon and gases.

Avenida Oriental – 21 Sept 2020

In Medellín, after the 9S massacre, protests would invariably end in clashes with police. It would only be a minority of protesters involved and public infrastructure was the principal target of this venting of anger. Over a few weeks, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, bus stops and trash bins ceased to exist in the city centre. Crossing the road or negotiating a crossroads, always somewhat precarious activities in Medellín, became ever more so. I resented these acts of visceral vandalism as they were rather pointless and were in areas predominantly used by lower middle class and poorer folk. It was not strategic and was hardly the way to win hearts and minds!

In Medellín, under the new mayoral administration, the police were on a short leash and did not exercise the excesses seen in other Colombian cities. Trashing pedestrian crossings and painting graffiti was tolerated and would not provoke an immediate, decisive response but smashing up banks and private property was a red line that when crossed would provoke the intervention of the ESMAD who would intervene to break up and disperse the crowds.

Crowds scatter as ESMAD riot police fire gas grenades. Protesters in the okay activities of fly-posting and spraying graffiti.

The responsibility for such acts, I would argue, was collective. We allowed a minority to act in such a mindless, visceral fashion. Thousands looked on as a few smashed up banks and chucked petrol bombs. The ESMAD reacted and we were scattered like rats by the gases and water canons, fleeing through the city streets in what was an unceremonious ending of a demonstration that was called to protest the killings in Bogotá and other regions and whose message was lost in the melee.

I did challenge some of those vandalising windows and cash machines and called them “unfull idiots for Uribism” but that was perhaps my own somewhat visceral response that was useless in itself. If they had not existed, I was sure that the right wing would have infiltrated such people into the marches as had been done before on numerous occasions.

There was not another protest of a similar magnitude until the 2021 social explosion as we approached the third and deadliest wave of the coronavirus.

“Colombia isn’t a country of violent people, but it is a country of passive people – conformists. And when faced with someone who is genuinely violent they allow them to act. A few brutal individuals capable of causing the most terrible fear and the most generalised panic in the rest of the population that in no way is willing to exercise such violence… What there has been are individuals that use excessive violence in the name of the rest but without them feeling truly represented.”

Conferencia | Colombia, historia de la violencia: desde la Guerra de los Mil días hasta el Bogotazo – Banco de la Republica.

Enrique Serrano

And as the social explosion began on the 28th of April 2021 I walked and jigged as the crowds around me sang: “Down with Duque. Duque ciao; Duque ciao; Duque ciao, ciao, ciao!”

It was a sweet moment of union and one that we hoped would be the beginning of the end of President Duque.

However, the loudest cries were saved for his mentor.

“Uribe paraco, el pueblo está berraco!” the crowds chanted.

Uribe paramilitary, the people are angry!

The ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez incarnated the society that we wished to change. Colombia had lived under his shadow for two decades and many, particularly the youth, wished to consign him to history. It was significant such a large anti-government demonstration in Medellín – it was the sacred, palpitating heart of Uribism – the cult following of Álvaro Uribe.

It was the epoch of belief it seemed.

It was ours to win or lose.

Were we all going direct to “heaven”, or all going direct the other way?

The “enemy within” · Medellín 2021

A parar para avanzar! Viva el Paro Nacional!”chanted the crowds.

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The First of May

The traditional Labour Day march was always going to be massive given the context of the Paro. After the disturbances on the twenty-eighth of April, I wanted to show a little more context. For me, the most striking element of the protests was the popular support that they had. It always brought a smile to my face to see people beating pots and pans from windows and balconies, cheering and being cheered. It was one of the best facets of the Paro but one would always be eclipsed and sidelined by the flash and bang of police/protester clashes.

The organisers had routed the march through the popular neighbourhoods in the north of the city to steer clear of banks and exclusively commercial areas to lessen the chances of anyone trashing public infrastructure, bank windows and cash machines. Also, by marching through the barrios the protest would be seen and felt in the poorer neighbourhoods of the city where although many supported the protest only a mostly young minority participated.

The Balcony Symphony

The march was good-natured and well-attended and wove its way through the 3rd, 4th and 8th Communes in the northeast of Medellín.

However, for some strange reason, a police car was left abandoned on the route. I had passed the vehicle some two hours before when I walked to meet the march and thought it strange as one doesn´t usually witness such things.

Streaming revolutions

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
Skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised…

The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live

Gil Scott Heron · 1971

Live streaming the parceros (mates) · May 19th University of Antioquia

Handmade Notes for Duque

As we entered the city centre, a speed camera was downed by a group of men whilst hundreds looked on, filmed and photographed. Many cheered. A little later, in the “colosseum” debris flew and then gases canisters. People choked and scattered in a semi-panic. I decided to withdraw this time and to not take photographs. Besides the gases seemed stronger somehow. As I walked away I came across a young woman wearing glasses who was sat upon the shoulders of a male colleague. She was assiduously smashing the metal shade around the green man of a pedestrian crossing with a metal hammer.

I took one step towards them, raised a finger and made to ask them the question but paused with my mouth agape. Rolling my eyes I turned and walked away

After a couple of blocks, I passed another group of three youths walking in line with handwritten placards that appealed to the police to join the protests. They smiled and thanked me for taking their picture. I smiled back and said thank you too.

Mixed Messages: (Left) Several protesters signal to ESMAD riot police (Right) Youths with handwritten signs “Join with us Mr. police agent the people need you; Mr. police agent you & your family are also the people – Join us; I don’t want to leave my dreams in a pool of blood.

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Lucas Villa

The threat of a Good Example

Main paints a mural of a murder victim at night

On May the 5th 2021 during a night-time protest, Lucas Villa a 37 year-old student leader was shot multiple times on a road bridge between the cities of Pereira and Dos Quebradas. He died in hospital on the 11th of May. His murder it was later revealed was not a spontaneous act of violence but had been premeditated and carried out by several masked men and accomplices on motorbikes allegedly linked to the criminal organisation called La Cordillera. Lucas was the target.

Previous to the shooting, the mayor of Pereira had appealed to civilians – the “gente de bien” – to unite with the police to combat the disruptions caused by protesters. The lack of police response after the shooting and indeed their absence from the area when it happened, as well as the authorities’ lack of progress in the investigation and solving the crime, raise doubts about the official transparency around the case. In this vacuum of information around the shooting, there exists a possibility the possible collaboration between criminal organisations, the local government and police, something that is quite common in Colombia.

Youths gathered in the Popular neighbourhood of Medellín the next day to commemorate Lucas as he lay in a coma in hospital. They chanted slogans and a banner was unfurled that said “They are Killing Us,” which had become a slogan and cry for justice in Colombia after the peace accords to protest the systematic killing of social leaders. It took on greater significance after the deaths of many mainly young protesters and bystanders during anti-government demonstrations in the Duque era. Another symbol of protest was to fly or use the Colombian flag upside down, with the red band that represents the blood of the martyrs during the independence war at the top. The yellow band signifies the wealth of the nation and the blue band the water of the two oceans, the Pacific and Atlantic.

I would speculate that Lucas Villa was murdered as he was the threat of a good example. He was a pacifist and footage widely shared after his shooting showed a man who was full of energy, who would sing and dance at protests and greet police and ESMAD riot police with smiles, kind words and fist bumps. Lucas would also get onto buses to address passengers and do protest pedagogy. He was everything that a revolutionary should be: he tried to unite people and communicate ideas and articulate the reasons behind the protests.

The courage and good energy of this good-natured extrovert made him a far greater threat to the status quo than any rioter – revolution is change and that requires changing minds and showing that there is another, better way to proceed together. It is indicative that organised crime would want to annihilate someone who was peaceful and efficient in their protests against the government. United we stand, divided we fall – criminals and bad government can only control the people by dividing them and turning one group against the other. For me, Lucas was a force that tried to unite. The attack on him and his colleagues and his death made him a symbol of the Paro – he embodied the change that would follow. When he died, I did cry a tear for Lucas.

Though the inverted flag became a symbol of protest and injustice during the 2021 protests, I had also seen it used so during the Uribist protests against President Juan Manuel Santos and the Peace Accords in 2017. The red signifies the blood of the martyrs of the Independence War and the significance of having it on top in protests is specific to this – the blood of activists/protesters or of soldiers – depending on one’s political position. (Yellow signifies the wealth (gold) of the Nation and blue, the oceans).

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Medellín 19 May

The fiscal reform had been withdrawn by Duque on the 2nd of May and his finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla was forced to resign on the 3rd – though he was subsequently rewarded with an influential post as co-director of the Bank of the Republic. Marches continued in the country and in Medellín they continued to be routed through the poor hillside neighbourhoods in the north of the city.

The context after three weeks was marked by the violence meted out by police and paramilitaries in the Pacific Coast region that had resulted in dozens of homicides committed by State agents as well as multiple aggressions. In Bogotá many abuses had been committed as well as homicides, as was also the case in smaller cities in and close to the region known as the Eje Cafetero.

Many protesters had sustained injuries to their eyes and faces because of the indiscriminate use of “non-lethal” riot weaponry by the ESMAD. Abuses and killings in many cases had been caught on camera and had fomented a great deal of indignation as the images were distributed widely on social networks after which they would also appear on traditional news. Much indignation was also caused by the deaths of Lucas Villa in Pereira/Dos Quebradas and Alison Meléndez who was sexually assaulted by police in Popayán and later committed suicide.

Though the reform had been withdrawn and Carrasquilla had gone, there were still many reasons to march. However, the organic, leaderless protests had yet to propose any demands. I feared that if there was no exit strategy then the Paro would begin to lose impetus and the marches dwindle until they would just fizzle out.

But still, there were large attendances. The government-led vandal narrative was beginning to gain traction, particularly in conservative Medellín, but students and young people still flocked to the marches. Blockades had become an issue in Bogotá and Cali where fuel and staple foodstuffs had become scarcer and risen in price. It all created an atmosphere that was beginning to erode support in the more conservative sectors of society. The comments and the conversations I would hear on the streets indicated that fatigue and annoyance were beginning to show.

The press and the government tried to link the protests and vandalism to the opposition left-wing politician Gustavo Petro. However, he was making noises that hinted at that perhaps we should be thinking about ending the protests now that the principal causes had been removed but stopped short of suggesting such and stressing that the protests were autonomous and that those decisions rested with the protesters.

(Left) Football fans march behind their banners, one of which declares “No to the Copa America” – South America’s version of the Euros – that Duque wished to bring to Colombia.

At the vanguard of the march was the Indigenous Cabildo in the city of Medellín. Often indigenous peoples who commanded great respect from the marchers were at the head of the parades.

Support from the houses and from a hospital where medical staff wave with a sign that reads “You march for us.” Colombia was at the height of the third and deadliest wave of the pandemic.

(Centre) A woman with a representation of the murdered Lucas Villa on her t-shirt.

The day was hot and the march was long. It and ended without incident as was always the case when routed through the neighbourhoods. It ended in a square that had become the centre of the protests and hosted a small, permanent encampment of protesters. The empty square devoid of shade had been renamed “Resistance Park” and was now covered in graffiti and paintings that alluded to the protests. I did prefer its original name though: el Parque de Los Deseos, the Park of Wishes, or Desires.

It was there that I ran into my son and we hung out and met up with his friends as the day drew to an end.

As the night approached so did the tropel, which literally means mob but has come to signify a clash with the police. We stood in the Calle Barranquilla, a highway that passes by the front of the University of Antioquia and over the river Medellín to the other side of the bridge where the National University is. Between them is the departmental police HQ and the parking lot for the riot vehicles. None of this is by chance I imagine.

My entourage wasn’t going anywhere and they wanted to see would happen. Shut away for so long, they had seen little of each other during the last year and were just happy to be together and wanted to live the moment, the excitement and the adrenalin. Despite my best attempts to get them to leave, they were having none of it. Hundreds of their contemporaries were doing precisely the same. The size of the crowds were significant – perhaps three hundred or more.

As dusk began to fall, the first bangs sounded as we chatted and watched events from afar. After about forty minutes, I resigned myself to the fact that no one was going to leave and figured that if I was there, I may as well go and take some pictures in the fray. One of my son’s friends offered me a helmet but I passed on the offer (rather illogically) as it seemed all too much like being a part of it all. Nonetheless, I asked them to hang around where they were and told them that I’d be back in around fifteen to twenty minutes.

Walking through the crowds of curious spectators, I saw that people were starting to form human chains to pass rocks to the front line. It surprised me that there was so many people doing so. When I arrived at the front line, I saw a police water canon stationed at the beginning of the bridge accompanied by a dozen or so riot police. There were burning barricades of branches and pallets in the road beore me, behind which were some of the Primera Linea, or perhaps second line, with their homemade shields.

The ESMAD moved back and forth, advancing and then retreating sometimes firing gases and concussion rounds and sometimes spraying water canon. The mob cheered and advanced when they retreated and ran and dodged when they advanced. Some shouted obscenities and challenges at the police. A few wore industrial gloves and ran to grab gas cannisters to throw them back at the police who had fired them. Some people threw lumps of paving plocks that were too large to reach their targets. I realised that it had been rash not to take the helmet and have to remain behind where the point from where lumps of concrete are being launched. To me the most imminent danger seemed that if getting hit by a lump of concrete. I was cautious.

I had left it a little too long to merge with the melee and things seemed to be picking up to the inevitable point of when the ESMAD would push forward and sweep the mob from the road. The intensity of the gasses increased and I found myself blinded. My my eyes burned and I just stood there blinking out the gases. I did try to take pictures in the midst of it all as it all seemed to be happening around me but didn’t have much success.

As I took pictures of a man weeping tears, choking and spitting being sprayed with vinegar from an bottle to neutralise the effects of the tear gas, I was challenged by another who expressed that he had an issue with me by taking photos. He had a strong accent and I thought he might be Venezuelan. He wasn’t aggressive, but he was bothered. I politely told him that he would be better off covering his face as I wasn’t the only lens present and, anyhow, that my protocol was to blur-out people’s faces if they could be identified in the pictures. Either he was satisfied or regarded me as just too much to deal with at the moment and went on his way, telling me “I have sacrificed a lot for this country,” which I thought a curious thing to say. Everything seemed very laissez-faire in the midst so much going so I stayed around for a little longer before making my way back to where I’d left my son and his friends.

As I returned, I walked along the human chains that were passing lumps of concrete hand to hand towards the front line. Paving blocks were being pulled up and smashed, and the pieces moved along the long lines whilst others carried them stacked on bikes and carts. I saw many faces that I recognised in the lines and was surprised. These were people I knew were not violent and not at all visceral! They were young adults I considered to be thoughtful, kind ethical and considerate.

The violent actions of police that we had seen via social networks had brewed a deep hatred of the police it seemed, and the killings of protesters like Lucas Villa and others in Cali, Tulua, Ibague, Madrid, Bogotá, Popayán and Yumbo had also increased the animosity felt towards the police. And all that with the daily micro-abuses that the youth receive from the police since before the Paro and which had seemingly worsened since Duque had come to power.

Colombia has a lot of healing to do. Duque’s government had been particularly polarising and the scars were very visible during the social explosion. I took a grim view of the rioting because I regard it a failed strategy and have a problem with causing harm to other human beings. Besides, the ESMAD train for these situations, are armed for these situations and are dressed for these situations. Before I had moved to Colombia I had been involved with “lock-ons” and “snowballing”, where causing a nuisance and bogging-down the justice system were the tactics that were far harder to deal with than a mob that would run and be dispersed. For me one ran too many risks of regret in violent confrontations.

Shortly after I reunited with my son and his friends the police did move in to disperse the crowds. To script, the water canon and the riot cops advanced steadily up Calle Barranquilla and dozens upon dozens of police-ESMAD pairs on motorbikes (called matrimonies) moved in from one side after firing volleys of tear gas grenades. The crowds ran and were herded towards Resistance Park then faractioned into smaller groups that dispersed. My son and I calmly walked out of the area. No one gave us a second glance as we let the police pass by and then strolled to where we would call to round up scattered friends before walking past police cordoning the area. Medellín was like that at that moment. It had not always been so.

On the 22 of May, three days later the magazine Semana published a front cover with composite images of burning barricades and the left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro with the title “Enough Petro!” We were 12 months from the presidential elections and the right-wing would repeatedly try to associate him with rioting and vandalism.


Cultural, Environmental & Artists march – 5th of June

A march by artists and environmentalists led by indigenous peoples.

Musicians play music and sing in protest march
Man on skateboard frozen in time

“Somos pueblo sin piernas, pero que camina”

Metro train passes by riverside as men paint a mural

We are a people without legs but that walks” – A supporters group, “Pueblo Verdolaga”, of football team Atlético Nacional paints a pro-Paro mural on the banks of the River Medellín. The phrase is a line from the song Latinamérica by Puerto Rican band Calle 13.

Below: The youths play football on a graffiti “Youths en Resistance” in the square renamed “Resistance Park”.

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Independence Day

The Battle of Parque del Río – 20th of July

In my childhood, we would go on a once-a-year outing to the village of Castle Ashby to witness a re-enactment of the Battle of Naseby. It was a battle that essentially decided the outcome of the English Civil War where Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads of the Parliamentarian New Model Army would face off the Cavalier Royalists, the army of Charles the First. It was a clash of swords and pikes, bangs and puffs of smoke. The King’s army would be vanquished and bodies would litter the field until the battle’s end when they would get up and go off to drink beer with their fellows and their enemies in a large tent.

No one would get hurt, other than the occasional mishap that would perhaps bring an ambulance to the field of battle to make the whole event just that little more bizarre as the 20th Century met with the 17th. My brothers and I would watch all of this in fascination, standing behind a cordon that would mark the edge of the battlefield, munching sandwiches, drinking pop and marvelling at it all. It was all very exciting.

Naseby was fought on the 14th of June 1645 (a date almost no Englishman knows) and was the beginning of the end for the monarchy in England (for a while anyhow). King Charles was beheaded in 1649 and the Commonwealth (a republic) was established. In Colombia, the date that marks the beginning of the campaign to end the rule of kings and the founding of an independent republic is the 20th of July. Unlike in England, every Colombian knows the date because they get a public holiday but here are no battle reenactments and there was no battle in 1810 – the whole affair was a squabble over the loan of a flower vase in Bogotá that was an elaborate pretext for the beginning of the struggle for Independence.

But on the 20th of July 2021, there was a battle of sorts in Medellín, which was more of a reenactment of what had gone before. I went to spectate with a new friend who was visiting from Caldas and we packed peanuts and raisins and water in a calabaza, which is a gourd in the form of an hourglass.

Stoppage Wars

My friend and I chatted and walked through the neighbourhoods and arrived late to the march as was customary. It was passing by the University of Antioquia when we encountered it and we dropped into line and strolled along with the throng. It was sunny and hot and there was a faint scent of gasoline in the air. Some people carried what looked like beer crates. Perhaps we were not the only ones who had thought about having a picnic that day.

We strolled along the route that the first march had taken nearly three months before: from Resistance Park, crossing the river by the Universities, along the highway, past the bullfighting plaza, and then back over the river towards the “Colesseum”. As we approached the march took a right at a roundabout by the Parque de Pies Descalzos, “Barefoot Park” – named after people who do not wear shoes – where some men started to pull up some bus stops and other street signs from the pavement. A man cheered them on and my friend laughed and rolled her eyes, noting that he had “Profesor” written on the back of his waistcoat.

Before we reached the Colesseum, the march veered to the right towards the towers of Poblado, the wealthier neighbourhoods in the south of the city. However, the way was blocked by the ESMAD forces assembled in the road on the far side of a roundabout by the Exhibitions Palace. The battle would begin here!

There was a swirl of activity and running around and the opposing forces faced off we sat down on the far edge of the roundabout to stuff our faces with our picnic. Some stones flew but there was a lack of debris to hurl other than the uprooted street signs and the cocktails from those beer crates.

A standoff in Parque del Río with the towers of Poblado in the background.

With the first gases came a generalised panic and people ran blindly, so we moved to a pillar so as not to be trampled. It was really not the best place to have a picnic, so we headed for The River Park where we sat down and continued. As we munched. a photographer friend wearing a gas mask, goggles and helmet ran panting into the park. We offered him water and introductions were made but before we could finish the formalities we were interrupted by incoming projectiles. Suddenly, the world seemed brighter, sharper and moved at a slower pace. I watched as a silver gas cartridge span and skipped, ejecting a stream of white smoke from each of its poles. This I blocked with my backpack that I held out with one extended arm. Either side of us other cartridges spun and ricocheted. We beat a retreat further into the park.

Helmets and shields in Calle San Juan.

At this point, I thought that I may as well take pictures as the “thick of it” had found us. Some protesters on seeing the camera and assuming I was press ran over to show a smoke canister that had its use-by date scratched out. All around there were thousands upon thousands of stones, but they were in metal cages and unobtainable so insults were thrown at the riot police who advanced at a walking pace. A little later a glass marble fired by a catapault struck my hand that at the time was covering my face. Ouch, but no problem!

Burning barricade, protesters and tear gas cannisters flying in

Calle San Juan – to the left members of the APH (pre-hospital attention) receive the brunt of incoming gas canisters.

It was now quiet in River Park and we strolled and watched colourful, red, blue and yellow birds that chirped and skipped from branch to branch in the trees. In the distance, we heard explosions. It seemed that the battle had migrated to the San Juan highway. We went to check it out.

In San Juan, we found the standoff between the helmets, shields, stones and street signs of the protesters and the helmets, shields, gases and water of the police. They battled! The police advanced and the protest retreated, and when it began to round the corner and disappear into an area of mechanics’ workshops we decided to call it a day, go home and make some food.

Before we left, I thought there would be good photos to be had of a general view of the battlefield, so we moved onto a footbridge. There, when we came across a trans woman live-streaming the event with her cell phone. “Medellín is on fire! The whole city is in chaos,” she narrated. “The police attacked the protesters who were doing nothing.” I couldn’t resist but interject and told her to stop speaking nonsense. The chaos was just on one block and one street corner. The rest of the city was quite boringly quiet.

We walked back through the near-deserted city centre; along the stone scattered highway; past Barefoot Park; to River Park, where we looked for and found the spent gas cartridges that had interrupted our picnic; through the “Colesseum”; along Calle Carabobo and the shoe palace. All along the route, Colombian flags hung from buildings and homes as is traditional on what is known as Independence Day. But real independence in what is today Colombia was not achieved with the petty squabble over a flower vase in 1810 but nine years later when Simón Bolívar defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Boyacá on the 7th of August 1819. But Bolívar was technically Venezuelan and the decisive troops in the independence battles were those of the British Legion who were mercenaries and veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1807 was the spark that lit the push for independence in the Spanish colonies, as the colonial elites wished to replace the Spanish elites.

The real independence battles (not squabbles over vases) were fought with the help of several thousand mercenaries from the British Legion (and Irish too) who were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon had sparked the and were the decisive influence in the battles of Boyacá, Carabobo, Pichincha and Ayacucho that consolidated independence in what today are Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru respectively but back then, together were known as Great Colombia. The Li

A year later, on the anniversary of the Battle of Boyacá that had been fought by English merceraries ogf the English Legion. I’d grown tired of seeing so many flags over the past three months. It would be my last march.

Red paint splashed on pavement

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Annexes:

Pedagogy and the Student Strike

Students visit Barrio Iguaná to explain the strike · Medellín, Colombia

The student strike of 2018-19 brought hundreds of thousands of students onto the streets to protest cuts in real funding for higher education, a proposed reduction of the minimum wage for young workers by 25% and a proposed charging of VAT on basic foodstuffs. The first marches, which were massive, were on the 10th of October 2018, two months after Duque became President.

I would often attend marches with my son, who had begun to study history at the National University, and his skateboarding friends. There was general support amongst the public, but most people did not know what the protests were about and many would regard demonstrations merely as something bothersome that delayed their journey back from work. I would often grumble about the lack of socialisation as to the reasons behind the strike and the need for pedagogical processes with communities that would be affected by the government’s policies.

Then, one day my son invited me to accompany a group of students from the National University and the University of Antioquia who were doing just that.

We went to the Iguaná neighbourhood of Medellín to explain the causes behind the strike. The students mounted a theatrical performance – a street parade called a comparsa – that was the “bait” that attracted the attention of people in the barrio (neighbourhood), brought them to their front doors and onto the street where the students chatted and handed out a flyer explaining the issues. They also staged activities with children and youths, and a “community pot” of rice pudding and a sugar-loaf drink called panela.

© Paul Mark Smith · All photographs

RETURN TO THE ABOVE TEXT

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Antecedents to the Social Explosion

Peace and lies and the renaissance of Uribism

In August of 2016, peace negotiations between the Colombian State and guerrillas of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, were nearing completion. The 52-year-old armed insurgency was an anachronism that for twenty years had served as a scapegoat for the majority of the country’s woes.

In the Switzerland-size “distension zone” the FARC recruited many youths into their ranks · They also used the zone to hold captured soldiers and police, as well as kidnap victims held for ransom.

The FARC became artifices in the successful election campaigns of five Colombian Presidents: Andres Pastrana who promised negotiations with the FARC; Álvaro Uribe #1 who promised to defeat the FARC; Uribe #2 who needed another term to finish off the FARC; Juan Manuel Santos #1 Uribe’s candidate and ex-defence minister who had overseen decisive blows against the FARC; Santos #2 who promised to continue negotiations and sign peace accords with the FARC.

It seemed that the impending peace accords would be the final blow for the already moribund Uribism. After six years of Santos, the personality cult of the two-term ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) was at its lowest ebb. Despite his significant and loyal support base Uribe was marginalised and cut a figure of an angry and bitter Senator in Congress who was fading from the stage. Much to his chagrin, it would be Santos, the traitor, and not him the self-declared nemesis of the FARC who would put an end to the oldest guerrilla insurgency on earth.

President Álvaro Uribe Vélez at the apogee of his power.

Rionegro · 2003

Uribe’s rise to and permanence in power had been inextricably linked to the guerrillas. He would never have garnered such support nor accrued such power without them. Every guerrilla atrocity, real or invented, had made him stronger and more popular. It was he, Uribe the Antioquian “patrón” who was destined to break the rebels, just like he tamed horses on the hacienda, without them his future looked bleak. But then redemption came.

On August the 24th 2016, Santos announced that there would be a plebiscite to ratify the peace accords before these were signed. The people would decide!

Historic!

He called it historic. What was he thinking? It was an act of vanity perhaps. Was he really so out-of-touch with the nation he governed? A naive, politically ignorant and malleable Colombian electorate would decide upon the result of years of protracted and complex negotiations that addressed and sought to resolve many of the root causes of half a century of armed conflict and of almost a hundred years of political violence. And they had five weeks to digest it all and then decide!

Uribe could not have hoped for a sweeter elixir. He was reborn!

The day after the October 2nd vote, in Bogotá, Uribe jigged around and grinned like an excited schoolboy in the Plaza de Bolívar. Press cameras and microphones surrounded him before he entered Congress to begin dictating terms. After so long on the margins, once again he was at the centre of it all. Colombians had rejected the peace accords by a mere 58,000 votes.

Uribista supporters greet the reinvigorated ex-President on a visit to medellín for an anti-Santos protest

Uribe was a demagogue and had known how to play the electorate. The world was black and white: it was between good and evil; justice and impunity. Easy-to-recall and easy-to-recite sophisms were propagated and condensed into one word: Castrochavismo1. It was a mantra that would resonate and weave its spell throughout the nation for a few weeks before the plebiscite and later, Uribe would mount his obedient presidential candidate on the tamed and tethered apocryphal beast of Castrochavism, which he rode like a plodding, docile mule to the Casa de Nariño2.

Castrochavismo was a marketing masterpiece: a sugar-coated pill; a potent potion whose hypnotic sorcery was so powerful that not even God’s representative on earth could offer an antidote to break the spell. When the Pope came to visit conservative Catholic Colombia three weeks before the plebiscite his appeals for peace failed to influence the fearful faithful. Though they venerated the Pontiff they did not obey him as they obeyed Uribe. On the 9th of September, as the pilgrims waited joyfully and expectantly to catch a fleeting glimpse of Pope Francis, I interviewed dozens of them in the streets of Medellín and one after another they repeated the Castrochavismo mantra as if praying the rosary.

(Left) The result of the peace plebiscite · (right) President Juan Manuel Santos, Humberto de La Calle (left) and Sergio Jaramillo (right) after the vote.

On the 2nd of October 2016, as the evening closed in, a light awakening wisp breezed across the crowds. It moved randomly and quickly amongst the crowd and as it touched each soul gathered there before a large LCD screen, hearts dropped into stomachs, faces drooped, heads bowed and eyes began to tear up as the realisation sank in. The answer was “NO” to the peace accords. NO to peace! Tears were cried and white flowers were plucked of petals by anxious hands. People hugged and cried and stared and held faces in their hands.

As it was only 13 million, 37% of the electorate had voted, representing 27% of the population as a whole. Less than 14% of Colombians had voted “No” to peace but their choice would set the course of the Nation for the coming six years. The first to call me was a friend from a community in the conflict-stricken province of El Chocó that had endured the armed conflict as “resisters” and hidden in the jungle for years, refusing to abandon their lands. Sad and somewhat despondent he informed me that the community had not voted as there had been no river transport laid on to take them to vote.

1Castrochavismo was a political fallacy that became a mantra repeated by millions of Colombians and extinguish sensible political debate. Castrochavism was an invention that embodied the idea of a hybrid of all the worst of the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes combined: the loss of liberty, the end of democracy and an economic collapse that would bring hunger and despair should the accords be ratified, thus facilitating the FARC and its left-wing cronies creeping into power by the back door to install a dictatorial regime.

2 – The residency of the sitting Colombian President.

Young shoots of activism sprout from a bitter seed

Weeks later, the accords were altered and ratified – a plebiscite not being binding like a referendum – the FARC disarmed, demobilised and ceased to exist as an armed guerrilla insurgency after 52 years of existence but the damage was done as Uribism had been revived and reinvigorated by its victory.

A graffiti/mural of Alfonso Cano, the leader of the FARC killed in a bombardment in 2011, during Santos’ presidency.

In a guerrilla encampment after the plebiscite · Panamá, Remedios Municipality

On the 7th of October, five days after the vote tens of thousands marched for peace in Medellín and in other cities across the nation. It was the beginning of something special, a tide of activism that was rooted in Colombia’s youth, principally university students.

The peace march to support the accords on the 7th of October 2016 was the beginning of a surge in activism particularly by the youth and was the first firm step on the route to change in Colombia

Below: A protest in 2021by ex-guerrillas to highlight homicides of ex-guerrillas who accepted the peace deal and disarmed. In April of 2022, the number of murdered ex-guerrillas was more than 350.

Under Duque’s government, the implementation of the accords was slow-walked to a ruinous near standstill. The territories the FARC vacated were not occupied by the State and illegal armed groups linked to drug mafias, illegal mining, cattle farming and environmental pillage filled the void. Attempts were made to stymie and ultimately wreck the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) courts that would try crimes committed by guerrillas and others in the armed conflict. Massacres, systematic homicides of community and environmental activists, and reincorporated ex-guerrillas became almost daily occurrences in these lawless regions.1

  1. Since the accords were signed 1317 community activists and some 300 peace accord signees and since Duque became president, 1,147 victims have been killed in 261 massacres. (20 June 2022)

However, out of the bitter seed of the plebiscite debacle sprouted increased activism, particularly among the young. They began to organise around supporting the accords and in the defence of communities affected by the new phase of the armed conflict. This activism was mainly symbolic but served as the base of the first resistance to the Duque government in the form of the 2018 to 2019 student strikes that were the tide upon which the first massive wave of national protests rode in November of 2019 and then the 2021 “social explosion”.

Ultimately, the participation of this mobilised youth and the marginalised communities in the regions most affected by the armed conflict made the difference that gave Gustavo Petro victory. Finally, after three-quarters of a century, a progressive who was of the people not of the elites would govern. But it was by a hair’s width3 Wand we should remember that the hoi polloi can be individualistic and malleable and that the elites have not relinquished power but firmly entrenched, if temporarily dormant, in the Congress of the Republic that is the institution that makes the laws and where the real power lies.

When the final result was clear, my good friend in el Chocó called to share the moment.

“Had they voted?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “this time we voted.”

3 – 29% voted for Petro, 27% for Rodolfo Hernandez, 42% abstention & 2% blank/null.

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© Paul Mark Smith · All photographs

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The Paro in Bogotá

Above left: A protest on 7th Avenue. The woman’s placard reads “This society shows more indignance at a burnt police post that a murdered man or a raped woman. The previous day a 17-year-old woman, Alison Meléndez, had committed suicide after being sexually assaulted by police in the southern city of Popayán. Right: The graffiti and mural-covered Monument to the Heroes.

In Bogotá, the protests were a multitude of scattered marches and concentrations that were spontaneous and often theatrical in nature. One of the points of concentration was the Monument to the Heroes in the north of the capital which was daubed with street art depicting Duque as a criminal and also highlighted the 6402 recorded victims of extrajudicial killings, called “false positives”, who were presented by the Army as guerrillas killed in combats during the presidential period of Álvaro Uribe. Here they were depicted as heroes, but really.

During the Paro, many monuments to the Conquistadores and colonisers were brought down by indigenous protesters: where statues had once stood, empty spaces remained. The empty plinths became objects of Paro tourism and visitors would pose for photos and selfies. In the centre of Bogotá is the Avenida Jiménez, named after Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada who founded Santa Fé de Bogotá in 1538. He had set out from the Caribbean Coast to search for the elusive El Dorado and finally came across – “discovered” in coloniser language – thriving Muisca Indian settlements on the Sabana of Bogotá. A couple of days previous, Misak indigenous groups had tumbled the statue and had renamed the street, Avenida Misak.

Below left: Misak indigenous peoples march along 7th Avenue. The woman carries a banner that says “The government is killing us”. Right: People take portraits before the plinth where a statue of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada had once stood a few days earlier.

Below: Painting a mural at night on the streets of Bogotá; Street theatre protest and criticism of the media; a woman scolds policemen with a loudhailer. Bogotá.

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