Long one of Latin America’s most conservative countries, Colombia is undergoing a sea change. The second general strike in as many years evolved rapidly into a nationwide urban insurrection. ‘La Resistencia’ has endured for a month in the teeth of ferocious repression (remember that Lenin celebrated the Bolshevik Revolution once it had outlasted the Paris Commune). Soon after the protests started on 28 April, the proposed tax reform package that had triggered the strike was withdrawn, proposed healthcare reforms died in committee, and the finance minister and the foreign minister were forced to step down. There were (toothless) calls for dialogue and de-escalation from the international community. Yet the overwhelmingly non-violent protests have continued, as has the government’s response using deadly force.
For Victor Peña, a cacique of the Zenú people, Colombia’s second most numerous indigenous group, 2021 is shaping up to be a continuation of 2020, which is to say dreadful beyond measure. The year started with Victor running out of gas for cooking rice and eggs in his kitchen: the only staples he can afford to eat since the pandemic hit, and all his sources of income dried up (he used to sell the hand-woven hats for which the Zenú are internationally known, along with beaded jewellery). Then he had to borrow money for the other kind of gas so he could ride his motorcycle from Medellín to his hometown of Tuchín, Córdoba, for his cousin’s funeral. They had grown up together as brothers. Victor’s cousin was murdered by local paramilitaries, possibly because they mistook him for someone else – perhaps Victor himself, as the resemblance is striking – or for some other reason that will remain a mystery, since no one will investigate the killing.
On 1 October, one of Medellín’s leading radical public intellectuals, historians and humanists, Campo Elías Galindo, was tortured and murdered in his apartment. There was blood everywhere. The neo-fascists who killed him burned a book on his chest to make their point. During a meeting in the Parque del Periodista on 8 October, organised by the Unión Patriotica to honour his legacy, there was an explosion nearby. The police ruled it an accident: no bomb was involved, they said, just a gas leak.
When Mateo Martínez Ruíz disappeared on 7 July in Bello, a deindustrialised suburb just north of Medellín, I assumed his body would never be found. But on 8 August, Mateo’s badly tortured corpse was discovered in Potrerito, a rural area of Bello. According to a trusted local source, Mateo was murdered by Los Chatas, an organised crime faction, because of his political activism.
In March, I described the way threats against my neighbour, Sara Fernández, a distinguished scholar of gender and sexuality at the Universidad de Antioquia, quickly escalated into an attempt to murder her because of her trade union leadership. I have not seen her since, and can only reach her via third parties. With luck, she will be heading into exile; she asked for official protection but was not given it. Mateo Martínez Ruíz has not been seen or heard from since 7 July. We have no evidence of his disappearance, and no witnesses, and that’s never a good sign. I know Mateo: he’s the brother of one student, and the cousin of another, at the Universidad Nacional in Medellín, where I work. We have had heated political debates of the sort that are needed in Colombia now more than ever, but have become too dangerous to sustain publicly – and would be even if the coronavirus disappeared tomorrow.
Medellín is a crucible of narco-paramilitarism and state-sponsored terror, and the time between death threats and violent attacks is often brief, especially for such preferred targets as trade unionists. At the beginning of March, on the day that President Duque was in Washington addressing AIPAC about the dangers of Hizbullah in Venezuela, a pamphlet claiming to be from the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – better known as the Clan del Golfo, the country’s leading narco-paramilitary organisation, with a presence in 22 of Colombia’s 32 departments – circulated at the University of Antioquia. The AGC immediately issued a denial.
One of my students, Alejandro Palacio Restrepo, is a Green Party activist and a leading spokesperson of Colombia’s student movement. Their strike in the second half of 2018 won $1.4 billion in additional government funding for public higher education. Alejo received threats from masked demonstrators in November 2018, from the head of the cattle ranchers’ association in October 2019, and is now getting them from far right paramilitaries: ‘There’s nothing in our organisational design which prevents us from taking you out. Snitch-ass sons of bitches, you call yourselves student leaders you sons of bitches … We’ll be looking for you.’
On 9 April 1948, the Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán stepped out of his office with a group of friends to walk to Bogotá’s Hotel Continental for lunch. An assassin confronted him in the street and shot him three times in the face and chest. He died shortly afterwards. His supporters caught the 20-year-old culprit, Juan Roa Sierra, and beat him to death. His body, naked except for a blue and red striped tie, was dumped in front of the Presidential Palace. It remained there for two days. ‘El Bogotazo’, the night of violence sparked by Gaitán’s assassination, left more than 3000 people dead and Bogotá half in ruins.
On 15 August, the last of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s munitions and weapons were removed by a UN mission from 26 temporary demobilisation camps, where 7000 guerrilleros have been living for seven months. This ends the first phase of the implementation of the Havana Accords, signed on 24 November 2016. The next stage is the reintegration of the Farc’s members into the social, economic and political life of the country. On 1 September the organisation will launch a new political party. Other medium and long-term measures include land reform, mine clearance and the replacement of coca with legal crops.
Six months after a peace accord was signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, coca production in the country is said to be at its highest level in two decades. Rafael Alcadipani, a public safety researcher at FGV university in Rio de Janeiro, says that the Colombian peace process could make Latin America less stable. ‘It has a definite impact in making the connection between Colombian and Brazilian gangs stronger and the illegal drug trade stronger,’ he told me. ‘We’re getting information from intelligence services that the Farc and the PCC’ – the Primeiro Capital Command, a São Paulo gang – ‘have been in touch. There are some particular drug routes in the Amazon where the two groups meet and negotiate. My understanding is that the war is ending in Colombia and a war is starting between drug gangs in Brazil, so retired guerillas could be hired.’
The new peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was signed in Bogotá’s Colón Theatre on 24 November. It was a more sober ceremony than the extravagant signing of the first agreement in Cartagena on 26 September, a week before Colombians narrowly voted against it in a referendum. The second signing was a closed event, and only President Juan Manuel Santos and the Farc commander, Timochenko, gave speeches. A subdued group of Colombians in the main plaza in Bogotá watched it on a big screen. The right-wing TV channel RCN, meanwhile, held a panel featuring only figures opposed to the deal, for ‘balance’.
On 28 May, six men with guns arrived at a collective farm in northern Colombia, asking for Julia Torres, one of the community’s leaders. Her husband, Rogelio Martínez, was murdered on the farm three years ago. After he was killed, the army took up patrolling the boundary of the 553-hectare farm, but the patrols stopped without warning on 23 May. Torres now fears for her life. A campaign has been launched to write to President Juan Manuel Santos, asking that he ensure her protection.