Bogota- Anderson Arboleda, a 24 year old black man in the state of Cauca, was killed by police on May 19th for being out during COVID curfew. He was beaten viciously with clubs and died three days later from resulting head trauma after being transported to a hospital in the city of Cali.
Afro-Colombian communities in Colombia have long accused the National government of racism and systemic neglect. The Peace Accord of 2016 was supposed to change that. As part of the plan to improve life in conflict zones, the government promised to build infrastructure and create economic opportunities in regions that have been ignored for decades and across administrations. But in impoverished Black communities along the entire Pacific coast, many say the war never ended.
Buenaventura, a predominantly black population port city in the northwest of the country, hasn’t had a high school built in 44 years, suffers from an extreme lack of healthcare, and four in five of the mostly Afro-Colombian residents have no regular access to potable water — all despite the fact that 60 percent of Colombia’s international trade flows through the Pacific coast port city.
“People in Colombia like to say there is no racism here,” said Darwin Molina, who helps locals from poor neighborhoods run for office in the “Forgotten City” as he calls it, “but I look around and I see a federal government that doesn’t care about our citizens, and it just so happens that is more common among Black and Indigenous communities across the entire country.”
“The government isn’t living up to its promises,” said Father Jon Reina, one of the leaders of strikes that shut down the city in 2017 over frustration with a lack of infrastructure and investment. “Systemic neglect by the State has crippled our community. Our problems are threefold: corruption; the drug trade; and an utter lack of economic opportunity for those who live here. This creates a cycle of violence that can only be addressed at the federal level.”
Black Lives Matter
Inspired in part by Black Lives Matter protests currently sweeping the globe, some youth activists and Afro-Colombian advocacy groups organized a march in the capital of Bogota on June15th. It was a small protest, perhaps at its height numbering 1000 people.
Protesters spoke of the death of Arboleda as well as police violence that killed a young protester named Dilan Cruz, during a national strike here in November. Many activists spoke of the widespread and systemic neglect of the Pacific, a neglect they say is intentional and based in a structural racism, as the nation invests in infrastructure for its major cities, which drive the Colombian economy and whose residents tend to be much lighter skinned.
“We have nothing. And then they blame us for living in conflict zones, but we didn’t start the civil war,” said Molina, referring to the 50 year conflict that had its roots in inequality and “campesino” revolts against wealthy landowners, before devolving into a complex guerrilla conflict.
“When a youth with no education, no job prospects and no future is given the opportunity to work for the narcos, they will.” said Molina. “The solution to this problem isn’t to send the military to kill us. It is to build a functional economy and education system.”
After a few hours of staring down police, who at times outnumbered protesters, the march headed south, flanked by riot officers on all sides. It was a typical Colombian protest: colorful, with dancing, drums, chants against the government and colorful signs. I’ve seen hundreds of demonstrations like this. There were mocking chants towards police as their numbers grew, but that is normal as well.
It was unclear why Bogota, whose newly elected mayor promised not to deploy ESMAD during her campaign unless it was an absolute emergency, had decided to send hundreds of police officers in riot gear to confront a completely peaceful protest.
There were reports of vandalism earlier in the day at another related protest; I was not present. I can neither confirm nor deny those reports. I can however state with clarity that the protest I attended was peaceful and completely free of vandalism. The Colombian government always says protests are violent, whether they truly are or not. A few spray-painted tags placed by student groups are often used to rationalize cracking the heads of everyone in the street. It is a long-standing pattern of behavior on the part of ESMAD, riot police that have become controversial due to their aggressive tactics. Police Brutality during a national strike November here led to accusations of human rights violations against the government from both U.N and human rights organizations.
A Violent Police Riot
As the march approached an overpass near the center of the city, police formed shield walls on both sides of the protest, halting its progress. Police threatened to use force if protesters didn’t disperse. Some in the crowd fled the scene down side ramps to escape the coral, but ESMAD and municipal police were quick to block those exits as well, and the shield wall began closing in. Human Rights observers and city officials pleaded with the police to stop, repeatedly asserting that “These are peaceful protests! We have a right to be here!”
Police however were undeterred. Minutes after this conversation, police began to violently attack peaceful protesters with riot clubs, shields and flashbang grenades.
The protesters retreated, and were subjected to repeated police charges. I saw at least two people injured in the melee who were being attended to by field medics as more squadrons of ESMAD blocked avenues of retreat.
As flash-bangs, pepper spray, clubs and even furniture flew through the air, surrounded protesters were beaten and arrested. Just moments before, the crowd had been peacefully chanting “No justice, No Peace!”
They received neither.
Black activists who had shown up to decry injustice, police brutality and systemic racism were subjected to every aspect of what they had come to condemn. President Ivan Duque and the mayor of Bogota have both since denounced the protests as “violent” and “organized by political extremists”.
They were neither. They were however typical Bogota protests: peaceful demonstrations with dancing and singing, crushed violently by police.
One day, Colombian officials must learn that protests are a right in a Democracy. Until then, they only serve to illustrate the protesters grievances: that perhaps to the Colombian State, Black loves don’t matter as much as some others.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter based in Bogota Colombia. For more stories you can follow him on twitter