The protests in Colombia that began in late April over a proposed tax increase have turned into a generational outcry over the country’s deep inequalities.
Fifty-eight people have died in six weeks of rioting, at least 45 of them killed by police, and dozens of people have disappeared. Protesters have erected more than 2,000 barricades across the South American country, affecting businesses and the government, as well as slowing down humanitarian access. Police stations and civic buildings have been burned, and images of smoke-filled streets and skirmishes between front-line protesters and riot police have become a daily reality.
But protesters say they are more determined than ever to fight for change.
Some are marching in support of a peace agreement with the left-wing rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) that was signed in 2016. That agreement was supposed to end a civil war that lasted five decades and killed more than 260,000 people, although the government of Iván Duque, who assumed the presidency in 2018, has delayed its implementation.
Others are marching for higher wages, an end to corruption, and equal access to health care and education.
Tata Pedro Velasco, leader of the Misak indigenous people
“The indigenous communities of Colombia are marching in the face of historical problems. The armed conflict continues in our territories as long as the peace agreement with the FARC is not implemented. We want the war in Colombia to end but the government of [President] Iván Duque does not. The government has never helped the countryside or the poor, it only protects its own interests. Indigenous peoples have long paid the price for Colombia’s war. We have lived through the colonial wars and now we are living through Duque’s war. The spirit of the government is the same as that of the colonizers ”.
Andrés Oyola, 40 years old, unemployed
“There are so many reasons to march. I am in defense of those who have disappeared, in defense of environmental activists who have been killed and against the lack of opportunities that young people have here. I lost my job as an ecologist at the National Parks Agency due to the pandemic at the beginning of the year, so I march in solidarity with those who have lost their jobs, who cannot be here because they are looking for work.
Jimmy Avila, 49, rancher
“I am here to be part of the solution. I want reconciliation in Colombia. I am from the countryside, I have lived between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, like so many others. I lost both of my parents in the war. They have stolen cattle from me, they have forced me to flee. I have been blackmailed. The war has left victims across the country. We want Colombia to be a better country, we want something more for our children, that one day they will thank us. But those in power in this country are getting things wrong a lot. They are repressing us, when this country needs reforms to be a more just place. This strike will continue until that happens. “
Karen Martínez, 17 and Isabela Morales, 21, students
“We want to study and we want it to be affordable. There is always money for guns and bombs, but not for education. That money has just been stolen and the government has the gall to call us vandals. We are studying for our future, but what is that future? There are no real prospects in Colombia, but why should we be forced to move abroad to find work? Everything is backwards here. The only dream a young man can have in Colombia is to get out ”.
Alejandra Martínez, 30, businesswoman
“I am here in defense of my four-year-old son. If you want to protest in 10 years, I don’t want the police to kill you. If the police want us to leave, they are going to have to kill us all. We leave in peace and what is the answer? The police or their allies shoot us. The Colombian state is a bigger killer than the coronavirus ”.
Jefferson, 25, medical student
“I have seen the violence first hand. I have treated people who have been shot in the eye, who suffocate with tear gas. And all of this makes people angrier, rather than fearful. Staying at home is not an option, because there we will starve. The minimum wage, which is all that everyone hopes to earn here, does not meet our needs. We are not afraid of anything now. “
Carlos Andrés Espitia, 23, frontline protester
“Corrupt politicians want to keep us poor so they can remain rich. They want us to go home, but after a month we are still here. Older generations never made Colombia a better place, but young people have the balls to change this country. The government complains about the barricades we have put up, but they rob people every day. We are showing you how that feels. Maybe when they stop we can talk about how our obstacles are hurting their pockets. This is a revolution and we will not leave until Duque is gone. “
Elizabeth Alfonso, 51, runs a soup kitchen at a protest site
“We cannot solve the problems of the youth of this country ourselves, but we can support them in their own fight for better opportunities. People have donated food, which we are cooking for our children on the front line, and the police shoot them every night. Two of my children are there, and every night I don’t know if they will come home alive. All they are doing is fighting to raise Colombia from the dead. To make it the beautiful country that it can be. Instead, we live under helicopters and our children are forcibly disappeared. We need a new constitution that guarantees fair wages, free education and a future for young people ”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism