‘This is a revolution’: the faces of Colombia’s protests

Fifty-eight people have died in six weeks of unrest, but demonstrators say they are more determined than ever to fight for change

Protests in Colombia that began in late April over a proposed tax hike have morphed into a generational outcry over the country’s deep-rooted inequalities.

Fifty-eight people have died in six weeks of unrest – at least 45 of them killed by police – and dozens of people have gone missing. Protesters have set up more than 2,000 roadblocks around the South American country, hitting businesses and the government, as well as slowing down humanitarian access. Police stations and civic buildings have been torched, and the images of smoke-filled streets and skirmishes between frontline protesters and riot police have become a daily reality.

But demonstrators say they are more determined than ever to fight for change.

Some are marching in support of a peace deal with the leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) that was signed in 2016. That accord was supposed to end a civil war that lasted five decades and killed more than 260,000 people, though the government of Iván Duque, who took office as president in 2018, has slow-walked its implementation.

Others are marching for higher wages, an end to corruption, and equal access to healthcare and education.

Tata Pedro Velasco, leader of the indigenous Misak people

Tata Pedro Velasco.
Tata Pedro Velasco. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“The indigenous communities of Colombia are marching in the face of historic problems. Armed conflict continues in our territories while the peace accord with the Farc is not implemented. We want the war in Colombia to end but the government of [President] Iván Duque doesn’t. The government has never helped the countryside or the poor, it just protects its own interests. Indigenous people 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, unemployed

Andrés Oyola.
Andrés Oyola. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“There are so many reasons to march. I’m out in defence of those that have gone missing, in defence of the environmental activists that have been murdered, and against the lack of opportunities that young people have here. I lost my job as an ecologist at the national parks agency because of the pandemic at the start of the year, so I’m marching in solidarity with those who have lost their jobs, that can’t be here themselves because they are looking for work.”

Jimmy Ávila, 49, cattle rancher

Jimmy Ávila in Plaza Bolivar.
Jimmy Ávila in Plaza Bolívar. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“I’m here to be part of the solution. I want reconciliation in Colombia. I’m from the countryside, I’ve lived among the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, like so many others. I lost both my parents to the war. I’ve had livestock stolen, I’ve been forced to run. I’ve been extorted. The war has left victims across the country. We want Colombia to be a better country, we want something else for our children, for them to one day thank us. But those in power in this country are getting things very wrong. They are repressing us, when this country needs reform to be a fairer place. This strike is going to continue until that happens.”

Karen Martínez, 17, and Isabela Morales, 21, students

Isabela Morales and Karen Martínez.
Isabela Morales and Karen Martínez. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“We want to study, and we want it to be affordable. There’s always money for weapons and bombs but not for education. That money just gets stolen, and the government has the nerve to call us the vandals. We’re studying for our future, but what is that future? There are not 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 person can have in Colombia is getting out.”

Alejandra Martínez, 30, businesswoman

Alejandra Martínez.
Alejandra Martínez. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“I’m here in defence of my four-year-old son. If he wants to protest in 10 years, I don’t want him to get killed by the police. If the police want us to go away, they are going to have to kill all of us. We come out peacefully and what’s the response? The police or their allies shoot at us. The Colombian state is a bigger killer than the coronavirus.”

Jefferson, 25, medical student

Jefferson is part of the autonomous health brigades that intervene to treat the wounded after clashes between police and demonstrators.
Jefferson is part of the autonomous health brigades that intervene to treat the wounded after clashes between police and demonstrators. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“I’ve seen the violence first-hand. I’ve treated people who have been shot in the eye, who are choking on teargas. And all this does is make people more angry, rather than afraid. Staying at home isn’t an option, because we’ll die of hunger there. The minimum wage, which is all anyone around here hopes of earning, doesn’t cover our needs. We’re not scared of anything now.”

Carlos Andrés Espitia, 23, frontline protester

Carlos Andrés Espitia at Portal de las Americas, renamed Portal Resistencia.
Carlos Andrés Espitia at Portal de las Americas, renamed Portal Resistencia. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“Corrupt politicians want to keep us poor so they can stay rich. They want us to go home, but after a month we’re 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 roadblocks we’ve set up, but they steal from the people every day. We’re showing them what that feels like. Maybe when they stop we can talk about how our roadblocks are hurting their pockets. This is a revolution, and we won’t go away until Duque is gone.”

Elizabeth Alfonso, 51, runs a soup kitchen at a protest site

Elisabeth Alfonso.
Elizabeth Alfonso. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“We can’t fix the problems of this country’s youth ourselves, but we can support them in their own fight for better opportunities. People have donated food, which we are cooking for our children out in the frontline, being shot at by police every night. Two of my sons are there, and each night I don’t know if they will come home alive. All they are doing is fighting to bring Colombia back from the dead. To make it the beautiful country it can be. Instead we live under helicopters, and our children are forcibly disappeared. We need a new constitution that guarantees fair salaries, free education, and a future for young people.”


Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá. Pictures by Nadège Mazars

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