Sitting at a table on a terrace, a man in a linen shirt experiences a moment of peace. The sun bathes his face and for a few seconds he squints his eyes. When he reopens them, the tropical city of which Jorge Iván Ospina is mayor, Cali, Colombia’s third with 2.2 million inhabitants, remains out of control. The national strike over a tax hike has been more violent here than anywhere else in the country. The police have suppressed protests in the poorest neighborhoods. In those clashes, six young people have died, some shot by the agents.
The fury has spread throughout the city, which is blocked in many of its points. Barricades and roadblocks follow one another on a car trip. The price of food has skyrocketed. There is looting in shops and gas stations. The police have almost completely lost control of the streets, where armed civilians are beginning to be seen shooting at protesters, fueling the specter of paramilitarism.
Ospina (55 years old) is the son of Iván Ospina Marina, founder of the M-19, an urban guerrilla of the eighties. The two were chatting at home when some soldiers came in by surprise and killed the father. Ospina Jr. is a member of the Green Party, a formation with a pacifist vocation. “This splendid sun does not suit me,” the mayor starts the conversation, which took place on Friday in a hotel in the city center.
Answer. In Cali we always go out to dance. We love. Less when it rains. In the pandemic we had people locked up for a year. It was a contradiction that people see superficial, but that I cannot see superficial. We are committed to reducing infections and we did not understand what confinement is for a young man from Cali. Perhaps for a young man from Scotland the confinement is something else.
P. Do you consider that this is an important factor in mobilization?
R. It all adds up. I believe that the collective psyche is abnormal, a product of the decisions made during a pandemic year. Having the young people locked up, closing the party as a meeting activity, closing the dance, the dance, is a component that is there.
P. And what else?
R. There are unresolved conflicts in our society in 2019 (when there were other social protests). The exclusion of boys, difficulties for health, sports, work. But I also have a very berraco phenomenon. Just an hour from Cali are the largest coca leaf crops on planet earth. 80,000 hectares of coca! And I believe that there is an unresolved armed conflict that the State tried to resolve and did not resolve. All of that is a Molotov cocktail. Many people have died.
P. The figures are very confusing. How many deaths have there been in a city where scenes of urban warfare have been seen?
R. As we have been under the guerrillas, under drug trafficking, disrespect for life is very harsh. Today, in the scenarios where that war took place (within the protests), we have seven dead.
P. Including a relative of yours.
R. Yes, Nicolás, a cousin. He was walking when they hit him in the head.
P. Right now the authorities are not in control of the city.
R. Due to the magnitude of the conflict, I have 41 stations of the transportation system incinerated. I have 36 looted supermarkets, 11 burned buses and 51 vandalized financial entities. Go figure. This is crazy, man.
P. Who makes the decisions right now in the city? You or General Eduardo Zapateiro (sent from Bogotá to quell the revolt)?
R. In Colombia there is a pod that is a contradiction. The Constitution says that the mayors are the chiefs of police, but the mayor does not appoint the commander of the police, the mayor does not pay the commander. When the higher-ranking general calls a police officer, he leaves the mayor lying down and runs there. Therefore, there is a contradiction between what the Constitution says and how it is executed. An Army commander has much more political capacity than a mayor.
P. So you have made decisions regarding security or not?
R. What mayors do is define the thick line, never the operational line.
P. Have you given an order to attack the protesters?
R. It would never, never occur to me to ask the police to suppress the protest in a violent way. I never have and never would. But I did point out to the police that they had to intervene in the looting because they were going to lead this city into a civil war. The owner of a looted supermarket or business who sees that there is no institutional presence to protect him, will easily take justice on his own.
P. It is a very strong word civil war.
R. What was present in Cali, and hopefully we will overcome, is the beginning of what can be a conflagration that can take the entire country ahead. That is why the national dialogue in Cali is so important now. What we had was a new doctrine of confrontation, with multiple violent actors, multiple scenes, panic. I’m going to tell you a story that explains this madness we are in.
P. Go ahead.
R. There is a neighborhood called Siloé (where there have been scenes of urban warfare). Four or five days ago the neighbors called me about the shootings and I went. And I heard the shots and I heard the roars. Afterwards, I did not find the dead in that fierce shooting.
R. I think there is a psychological theater of operations installed.
P. Explain yourself.
R. There is a technology that is bringing panic to a state of war at its finest. I believe that there are also some technologies that one does not know. With everything I heard, all the theater of operations, I thought I was going to find 20 dead. Is that it was tatatatatata permanently. It was terrible. Two hours of rumbles, of bombs. Papapa. The sound and the fear.
P. What or who caused it?
A. I don’t know. Who was going to go out to see who it is? When I arrive in that territory, I find the police vandalized, in great fear, and the doctors of the health institution horrified. And only one person killed by a knife.
P. I don’t know how to explain it.
R. I can not explain. Part of the truth commission (which emerged after the peace accords to generate a national narrative about the years of violence) has to explain this.
P. Have you documented that the police have shot the protesters directly?
R. I have not documented it expressly, precisely, clearly. I don’t have the first photo.
P. But there are videos, witnesses. What is your suspicion?
R. My suspicion is that death hawks operated and that perhaps they will operate with the intention of bringing this city and this country to a greater level of confrontation. That is the thesis I have in mind. For example, Nicolás was walking and was shot in the head with a high-velocity projectile. What’s that? That’s a hawk, a man who is there and says: “Pam, to that one.”
P. The authorities have evaporated from Cali.
R. No, the city authorities do not. The police have lost control. There’s no way to say no when you have 50 establishments looted. It would be a lie to say that you don’t lose control. That goes without saying.
P. The young people who have starred in the protests do not see him as an interlocutor. One day you were going to appear in Puerto Resistencia (a nucleus of protests where the presence of the State has disappeared) and in the end you canceled.
R. Possibly not. There is an institutional rejection, wherever it comes from. There is no difference between the mayor and the government.
P. What exit do you see?
R. A national dialogue between the national authority, the presidency of the Republic, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the commander-in-chief of public order …
P. We are talking about President Iván Duque.
R. … Commander-in-chief of State activities and State policies with all citizens, especially young people.
P. The president has met with political actors rather than with young people.
R. A mistake. Because if you have those who do not represent the protest in front of you, it is a dialogue of the deaf. What we propose to the president is that he make Cali the scene of this dialogue.
P. How long do you anticipate this going to last?
R. I do not know.
P. What are the economic losses of having a city idle for two weeks?
R. What the owner of a burned-out taxi or vandalized bus lost is the assets of a lifetime, and this situation is the crop for this chaos. Cali may have lost about $ 200 million. A lot of.
P. How have you lived the most difficult hours in command of the city?
P. He does not know what we have cried. This has been very hard, brother. It has been very hard. Why do you think I found 37 ambassadors and called them? I sought out the apostolic nuncio. I reached out to everyone to help me disable this. This may be the national conflagration.
P. A rebellion?
R. More complicated … this can be a conflagration, harsh, toxic.
P. Of what nature?
R. Imagine the size of the conspiracy. The issue of the molecular revolution (a concept coined in Colombia by former president Álvaro Uribe that analysts consider an instrument to justify police violence). I had no idea about that.
P. Have you talked to the youth at the barricades? They say they are willing to resist and die if necessary to prevent authority from entering their neighborhoods.
R. The boys are always the ones who have made the real transformations of a society, the ones who have made the breaking points, the fractures. When you tell me that boys are ready to die, it is that, the young man who gives his soul and his life because he has no hope and understands the need to transform a society. That is not crazy, that happened in the French revolution, in the Bolshevik revolution. The boys are always the ones who want to transform a fragile, limited institution that does not work. It doesn’t seem weird to me.
P. How do you think you can get out of this spiral?
R. The concept has to be life. It doesn’t matter if it’s the gangbanger or the cop.
[Las asesoras del alcalde le recuerdan que tiene que atender otro compromiso. Pero antes…]
R. I’m going to tell you something that you won’t believe me …
P. Tell me.
R. I tell you with certainty because I have traveled a lot. There is no place on planet earth where there is more nightlife than in Cali. Not in Cuba, not in Puerto Rico, not in New York. This is crazy. I think that also touched the psyches. People believe that these activities are superficial. They are not at all.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.