- Daniel Pardo
- BBC Mundo correspondent in Colombia
Residents of Comuna 20 de Cali, the first and largest informal neighborhood in Colombia’s third city, organized a candlelight on Monday, March 3, in honor of the protesters killed after five days of violent protests.
“There were children and mothers, it was a family environment,” recalls Kevin Reyes, a social leader in the area. The celebration had taken the roundabout that connects the neighborhood with the rest of the city.
“Around 8:30 pm we began to hear that the Esmad (the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad) was coming … then a helicopter arrived in which the national anthem was playing and a reflector light was emitted as if it were looking for people,” he recalls.
And there began a confrontation in which Reyes saw “hooded police and military shooting semi-automatic weapons and rifles“.
On Tuesday, the community of Siloé, as the neighborhood is also known, counts several deceased and disappeared. Now they hope to make a new candle in his honor.
It is a loop that is repeated in a country that entered a spiral of protests and violent clashes between protesters and the public force a week ago. Some unprecedented crashes in its recent history.
The available data are preliminary and are not consolidated. The Ombudsman’s Office counted this Tuesday more than 19 dead, 89 missing and thousands of injured.
But only in Siloé on Monday, for example, the Cali mayor’s office counted five deaths.
The escalation of violence throughout the country, with Cali as the epicenter but also small and medium-sized municipalities, has the main roads blocked, dozens of tolls destroyed and hundreds of public and private buildings burned.
The government of Iván Duque attributes the violence to infiltrators of guerrilla and terrorist groups, as well as to vandals who take advantage to loot the commerce.
Critics, however, speak of massacres at the hands of the state after the announcement of the militarization of the president’s streets. The army’s chief general, Eduardo Zapateiro, arrived in Cali to lead what he calls the “recovery of the city.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of videos that each person seems to interpret according to their position fly through social networks and neighbor chats to amplify the anxiety that is flooding the country.
In another area of Cali, a more affluent one known as Ciudad Jardín, on Monday night the local community also met on the street.
They parked dozens of vans on the streets to prevent the entry of the “vandalism.”
And they reported: “Everyone is wearing a bulletproof vest, irons (weapons) and here we are all (…) prepared to repel any enemy“, is heard in one of the videos collected by BBC Mundo.
Two witnesses to the clashes in Cali told BBC Mundo they fear that groups of armed civilians who seek to support the security forces in their fight against the so-called “vandals” will take to the streets.
“There are civilian groups calling for de-escalation of violence,” says Katherine Aguirre, a human rights expert for the city. “But we have also seen groups of citizens who have started shooting from their homes, vigilantism stimulated by the flow of weapons in the city.”
Jorge Restrepo, director of CERAC, a study center, adds: “The evidence that we have been able to analyze shows that in Cali there was community violence in which the public force overflowed. They were an uncontrolled reaction incident, but not programmed and directed against civilians. “
Cali has an unusual flow of weapons: although there are no consolidated figures for weapons per inhabitant, authorities seize hundreds each month.
In addition, despite the fact that it managed to reduce homicides by 30% in the last two decades, the capital of Valle del Cauca is the most dangerous in Colombia with 45.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2019, according to official figures.
Part of its inability to end the violence is due to the fact that it is located between the three regions affected by the conflict, drug trafficking and displacement: Chocó, Cauca and Valle del Cauca.
And that, according to experts, has contributed to the most violent version of this new wave of protest taking place in that city.
The feeling of confinement that is taken to the country
The feeling of confinement produced by covid-19, whose numbers of infections and deaths are now in its worse moment since the beginning of the pandemic in Colombia, it has been revealed this week with the protests.
While many are in the streets protesting, most are at home without being able to leave. Trucks cannot reach cities. The shelves in supermarkets are beginning to show a rare shortage for a country accustomed to political and economic stability.
But now the country seems to be entering uncharted territory.
The November 2019 protests were relatively peaceful with four deaths. Then those of September 2020 left 13 dead in just two days of demonstrations in Bogota. Now the death toll is above 20 and the military is on the streets suppressing protests.
“Clearly there is an escalation of violence,” says Alberto Sánchez Galeano, a security expert from Cali who advises local governments.
“And what I think this shows is that we continue to try to fix with the police what we damage with bad policies,” he explains. “You do not resolve with the police the mismanagement of a pandemic tax reform,” he explains about Duque’s measure that triggered this latest wave of protests.
Many of the security experts have spent years denouncing the poor state of the police in the country, which has personnel and equipment deficits, and it is used for operations such as evictions, compliance with quarantines or disturbance of public order.
“The lack of political leadership ends up being assumed by the police,” Sánchez Galeano complains.
Indeed, in recent days the lack of consolidated information on what is happening in the streets, especially in Cali, has contributed to the feeling of anxiety and deepened polarization among Colombians, analysts point out.
Uncertainty a country is taken to the point that even international human rights defenders are mistaken for protesters or, in the jargon of their critics, “hooligans”.
It happened on Monday in a protest in a neighborhood known as La Luna, in Cali, which was repressed by the security forces.
A commission of officials from organizations arrived there to try to verify a complaint of abuse.
“Members of the commission received threats and attacks, as well as shots fired by the police, without anyone being hit, “reported Juliette de Rivero, representative in Colombia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The commission had to take shelter for several hours in a house to avoid the crossfire.
The famous La Luna hotel in Cali was burned down and its guests assured the media that they were almost burned alive.
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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.