Juan Camilo Suárez was standing on a street in the Colombian city of Cali on a recent evening, lighting candles in homage to those killed in the nation’s recent unrest, when he suddenly found himself in the midst of violence.
Riot police descended on the scene, he recalled, firing what he believes were rubber bullets. One struck him in the face, near an eye, leaving him partially blind. He is now awaiting surgery in hopes of regaining some of his vision.
“All I thought was, ‘You have to run. You have to run for your life,’ ” he said.
As Colombians fill the streets, Cali has emerged as the epicenter of the nation’s recent bloodshed. Long simmering social tensions, persistent violence from illegal armed groups and excessive use of force by authorities have fueled citizen angst. Most of the at least 42 people killed in two weeks of protest lost their lives in the city, according to accounts from human rights organizations.
President Iván Duque’s government has initiated talks with protest organizers, but analysts say he faces an uphill battle in trying to stabilize the nation. Negotiations aimed at quelling a previous wave of protests in 2019 ended before reaching a resolution, and skepticism among a frustrated public remains high. Some fear that the situation in Cali could foretell what other Latin American cities might experience in the months ahead.
“I see all of this as very difficult,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “Among protesters, the trust in institutions is broken.”
Thousands of Colombians took to the streets again Wednesday in several cities protesting against the government and police brutality. Despite evidence of human rights violations, Duque claims officers have largely acted in accordance with the law, with the exceptions already addressed by the authorities.
Officials have taken disciplinary action against 65 officers, including eight under investigation for homicide.
Cali’s violent legacy
Colombia’s protests began April 28 over a proposed tax increase but quickly morphed into a larger airing of grievances as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s gross domestic product plunged 6.8% last year and millions joined the ranks of the poor. In recent weeks, ICU occupancy rates have soared as Colombia embarks on a slow and delayed vaccination campaign.
Many are upset not just at the government’s handling of the public health crisis, but also Duque’s piecemeal implementation of the historic 2016 peace accord with the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In southwestern Colombia, the conflict has largely persisted, as dissident factions battle with other illegal armed groups over lucrative drug territory within hours of the city.
Protesters have also been clamoring for a better social safety net to protect those who live in poverty in one of Latin America’s most unequal countries.
“You have an unequal city in Cali with great social problems, with great public safety problems,” said Juan Carlos Garzón, a drug policy expert at Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation. “All these aspects come together at a critical moment where there is no response from politics or security agents.”
The heavy-handed response by authorities has sparked international alarm, with the United Nations human rights office pointing to the deteriorating situation in Cali, where it said police had “opened fire on demonstrators” on May 3. Local authorities said at least five people were killed during the confrontation.
“The police abuses have been brutal,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “I believe that, in reality, we don’t have a record in Colombia of such generalized and brutal police abuse like we’ve seen during these protests.”
Human Rights Watch has confirmed 40 deaths and another 400 injuries in the demonstrations. Investigators have also documented the presence of armed civilians at the gatherings. Recently, armed civilians confronted a group of indigenous people in Cali in a clash that left at least eight injured, according to the ombudsman’s office.
“Vehicles arrive, without plates, they get down and fire,” Vivanco said. “We don’t know if these civilians are police dressed as civilians or bands of criminals.”
‘It got out of control’
Cali has a celebrated cultural history, and in recent years, has tried to emerge from its violent past, luring foreigners as a destination for salsa dancing and street art.
But ongoing violence in neighboring towns and departments has overshadowed those attempts, as forced displacements, murders of social leaders, massacres, illegal mining and drug trafficking make the southwest region one of Colombia’s most dangerous.
Human rights leaders say police are accustomed to using excessive force and that officers lack proper training on crowd control. Videos shared on social media and confirmed by rights groups have documented the heavy-handed response. One shows an officer firing at a protester who kicked his motorcycle.
“They did not know how to put order in the city,” Garzón said. “It got out of control.”
Cristhian Perea, a community leader in a poor Cali neighborhood, said protesters armed with sticks and stones have been tasked with containing the police. The mostly young demonstrators are also organizing popular assemblies, inviting the population to present proposals to share with local, state and national authorities.
But he said authorities have shown little willingness to take them seriously, pointing to Duque’s quick visit to the city earlier in the week.
“The president of the republic came after there was pressure,” he said, adding that on the visit officials “only talked to each other.”
Meanwhile, demonstrations and road closures are causing a logistical headache. Authorities said they were forced to use a helicopter to transport COVID-19 vaccines. Grocery stores have reported food shortages and prices have risen by 50% or more, aggravating the city’s already ample inequality.
“It is a completely segregated city,” said Alejandro Lanz Sánchez, co-director of Temblores, a nonprofit that monitors abuses by the police. He said those who live on the peripheries have been “attacked with a lot of repression in recent years.”
Suárez, the 22-year-old student protester, said he currently can’t see out of one eye, which is swollen and full of blood.
Still, his doctor said he was lucky.
“The doctor told me that if the projectile hit me a centimeter lower, it would have blown my eye away,” he said. “It was a night where many were wounded.”