Colombia’s class war turns hot on the streets of Cali

Poor and indigenous protesters have been met with deadly force by armed civilians and police representing interests of the wealthy

A convoy of brightly painted buses descended from Colombia’s westernmost mountain range, heading for the city of Cali, where tens of thousands had taken to the streets demanding a shake-up of the country’s deeply unequal status quo.

Along the way, well-wishers cheered on the caravan and drivers honked in approval. But as the procession approached Cali’s prosperous southern reaches, it reached a roadblock set up by men in civilian clothing, believed to be from wealthy neighbourhoods nearby. Then the shooting started.

“Men in white shirts were firing on us – and the shots kept coming,” said Robert Molina, a leader from the indigenous Nasa community, who was in the convoy. “They were firing from armoured 4x4 trucks, straight out of the windows.”

Footage of the incident – recorded and shared by victims, bystanders and perpetrators – is chilling. In one clip, a man in shorts and a white T-shirt fires a pistol at a band of indigenous protesters. In another, a group of men in polo shirts brandish automatic weapons. At least 10 people were injured in the attack, and similar incidents were reported across the city.

“We’re seen as enemies by the establishment in Colombia and that’s nothing new,” said Aida Quilcue, an indigenous leader. “Because we represent the poor and ignored in this country.”

A 2016 peace agreeement with the Marxist insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) formally ended five decades of bitter conflict – often fought along class lines – that left 260,000 dead and 7 million displaced.

Anti-government protesters man a roadblock they set up after a night of clashes with the police in Yumbo, near Cali, on Tuesday.
Anti-government protesters man a roadblock they set up after a night of clashes with the police in Yumbo, near Cali, on Tuesday. Photograph: Andres Gonzalez/AP

With its provisions for land reform and rural development, the deal was supposed to turn Colombia’s class war cold, and many of the nation’s poor saw it as a chance for social justice. But such hopes went unrealized and, with the current unrest entering its fourth week, some worry that Colombia’s social classes are as bitterly divided as they ever were.

At least 51 people have been killed, 43 at the hands of police and at least one shot dead by a group of men in civilian clothes. Dozens of disciplinary investigations have been launched, and three officers have been charged with murder.

On Monday night, as explosions and smoke filled the streets of Yumbo, a satellite town outside Cali, fresh reports abounded of civilians arming themselves to break the protesters’ barricades. Meanwhile, a doctor in the city was dismissed from her job after she called on self-defense groups to “kill some thousand Indians”.

“Colombia tried to peacefully resolve class conflict with the peace process, which sought to tackle the root causes of conflict” said Katherine Aguirre, a security expert at the Igarape Institute in Cali. “But as we are seeing right now, we haven’t managed that.”

The current protests began on 28 April over an unpopular and since-axed plan for tax reform, and grew into a howl of outrage over police violence and structural inequality.

But Colombia’s political class has attempted to cast largely peaceful protesters as beholden to leftist insurgent groups, including dissident factions of the Farc that never honored the 2016 peace accord.

Demonstrators show items collected from the ground during the protests that, according to them, were shot by the police in Cali.
Demonstrators show items collected from the ground during the protests that, according to them, were shot by the police in Cali. Photograph: Luisa González/Reuters

In Cali, where bus stations and police kiosks have been vandalized, fuel shortages have been widespread, and entire neighbourhoods have been blockaded by demonstrators, perceptions of protesters and the police often fall along class lines.

One afternoon last week, residents of the wealthy neighbourhood of El Peñón, filled the pavements of a tree-lined avenue that flanks the city’s river. In the shadows of the vast condominium complexes replete with pools, gyms and 24-hour private security, crowds cheered a procession of officers from the police’s anti-riot unit, known by its Spanish acronym Esmad, which has been blamed for much of the bloodshed.

“It’s not fair that after everything they’ve done for us, people still don’t believe in the police – but we do,” said Isabel García, who lives in the neighbourhood and owns a stationery shop. Like other attendees, she was dressed in white. “If people want to march in peace, we don’t have a problem with that, but we don’t want any aggression from them.”

Antonio González, another business owner, adjusted his Cartier spectacles and said: “The police and the army are protecting us from protesters and indigenous people that have come to vandalize our property and threaten our community.”

If it appears like the two ends of Colombia’s political spectrum sing from different hymn sheets, it is because they do, said Carlos González, a professor of sociology at the Universidad del Valle in Cali.

Indigenous guard Abner Bisus, left, 27, takes part in a protest against the government of Colombian President Iván Duque, in Cali, last week.
Indigenous guard Abner Bisus, left, 27, takes part in a protest against the government of Colombian President Iván Duque, in Cali, last week. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

“A large part of the Colombian establishment doesn’t understand that these calls for change are coming from the people in the streets of cities, and not from an armed guerrilla group in the countryside,” said González.

“The political class – along with certain sectors of the bourgeoisie and the military leadership – doesn’t get really that, which is why civilians are taking up weapons against civilians,” he said. “We’ve gone from the army collaborating with civilian paramilitaries during the war to citizens now becoming para-police in the cities.”

Colombia, with its vast and entrenched inequality, has long been defined by class boundaries. Cities are divided into strata, or estratos, with the intention that utility bills and other services can be adjusted accordingly. But in reality, the estratos usually serve as castes that make social climbing impossible, with indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities most often trapped.

The pandemic has only exacerbated inequality. Amid one of the longest lockdowns in the world, the number of Colombians living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million people last year. Red rags were hung outside homes, in a desperate signal that those inside were hungry. And as people got poorer, they also got sicker, with those from the poorest estrato 10 times more likely to be hospitalized or die from Covid-19 than those from the wealthiest.

“If you’re from estrato 1, the only thing you can dream of is getting out,” said Yuliana Ospina, an out-of-work manicurist in Siloé, a downtrodden neighbourhood that straddles the city’s western hills. “It would be so beautiful to dream of something else.”


Joe Parkin Daniels in Cali

The GuardianTramp

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