Members of the Indigenous Guard march during a national strike in Bogotá, Colombia. Fernando Vergara/AP Photo

Colombian protests culminate in national strike

After three days of protests against the government in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, thousands of Indigenous people, teachers, students and union members participated in a national strike on Oct. 23. 


The strikes and protests were in regards to multiple social issues, including the social and economic policies of Colombian President Iván Duque, police violence and the killings of human rights activists and Indigenous leaders. 


There has been increased evidence of election fraud, corruption and ties to drug traffickers, which has eroded citizens’ belief in the legitimacy of their government. This has contributed to more frequent abuses of power in the government’s attempt to keep authority. 


Government warnings against protests due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the country case count topping one million did not stop people from showing up for the causes.


“We’re asking for no more massacres against our Indigenous leaders,” said Harold Arias, an Indigenous person who attended the Bogotá protest, according to Reuters. “We’re not scared of coronavirus. We’re scared of going back to our territories without getting a dialogue with the president.”


According to the United Nations, increases in violence have led to at least 42 massacres of Indigenous people this year.


If we don’t stand before the world and say, ‘This is happening,’ we will be exterminated,” said Indigenous leader Ermes Pete, according to The New York Times.


Protesters also demanded a guaranteed income for those who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic, increased education and health funding, farmer production and rights for women and vulnerable populations, as well as tangible steps to stop gender-based violence. 


For Colombians, violence against women is nothing new. Since the pandemic, the country has seen a surge in femicides and domestic violence


“It’s a loss of 10 years of work toward gender equality because women are returning to these patriarchal spaces,” said Carolina Mosquera, researcher at the Bogotá-based think-tank, Sisma Mujer, as reported by Al Jazeera.  It brings us back to this old dynamic of the man as the provider and the woman who cares for the home.” 


People hoped as the lockdown became less strict, the rate of gender-based violence would decrease; however, in the month of September, 86 femicides were recorded, the highest monthly number counted since the killings began to be tracked in 2017.


There have been a number of protests focusing specifically on gender-based violence against women, as violence against women in the country has been largely ignored by the government. 


One of the events that sparked protests for women’s rights in June was soldiers admitting to the rape of a 13-year-old Indigenous child. According to The Guardian, some observers said the “horrific episode reveals systemic cruelty within the military.”


“It’s something systematic, and if their security training and doctrine doesn’t change and doesn’t include a serious human rights component, we can expect to see crimes like this becoming normalised,” Mafe Carrascal, a Bogotá-based activist, said. 


Local and national governments have tried to respond to the violence with resources like local and national domestic violence attention lines, but critics say those are not enough to make a significant change, and also point out the lack of effective judicial resources for most women. 


In addition to the physical dangers women face, the economic fall during the pandemic and the lockdown’s disproportionate effect on women puts them at higher risk. Women have reported the reality of being stripped of their “economic autonomy.”  


Recent protests in Columbia are the latest in a series of protests that began late last year. These include September protests against police brutality that led to 13 deaths.


The national protests and strikes largely remained peaceful and Bogotá. Mayor Claudia Lopez attributed that to the presence of Indigenous people by using the term “minga,” which Indigenous groups use to refer to collective action. 


These peaceful protests were the first that police did not try to repress since Duque took control of the increasingly authoritarian government in 2018. The Colombian Supreme Court ordered respect for the right to protest and prevent police brutality, leaving the president no other option.


In place of the police, protests were observed by unarmed Indigenous guards. Government officials attempted to accuse terrorists of infiltrating the Indigenous groups, but this was largely ignored.


“This protest comes at a time of less protests around Latin America. I think Colombia is alone in the room,” said Director of Colombia Risk Analysis Sergio Guzman, according to AP News. “It’s very difficult for President Duque to carve a path forward without further dividing society.”