Social protest in Colombia: the hope for a dignified life for all

The national strike of 21 November 2019 for many people was a symbol of democracy and the hope of being able to change the status quo in which Colombian society live[1].  For this reason, on November 21, 2019, 253,000 Colombian citizens, according to registered government figures, took to the streets to express their disagreement with the Colombian reality and to demand respect for human rights.

However, that hope was shattered amid riots, abuses and violence experienced by the population on the day itself; the Ministry of Defense reported “122 civilians injured and three dead”[2]. However, these violent events were not just evident that day, but became the norm in the way that the Armed Forces reacted to protestors with violence during the national strike. The Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP), an organization supported by PBI, represents the family of Dilan Cruz[3], a young man shot dead by a police officer on November 23[4]. The case has been sent to the military justice courts,[5] a decision that led Human Rights Watch to recently request that the Colombian Supreme Court take into account that, according to international law, human rights and international standards, Dilan Cruz’s case should be referred to the ordinary justice system[6].

At the start of 2020 the demonstrations were halted due to the COVID 19 pandemic and the subsequent movement restrictions put in place. However, protests reignited on the 9 September in Bogota in response to the death of the law student, Javier Ordoñez[7]. The citizen died after a police control where abuses of force were evident[8].

This violent act, in the context of many weeks of exacerbated violence in the country, provoked a wave of protests in various sectors of Bogota during the nights of the 9, 10, 11 September, which was responded to by the abuse of force by the national police force. These demonstrations reached extremely high levels of violence: images and videos show shocking scenes of police officers beating people in handcuffs with no possibility to protect themselves, uniformed members of the police and others in civilian clothes shooting towards the civilian population with rifles and CAIs (Police Immediate Attention Centers) in flames [9].

In a few days of protests the resulting impact was without precedents: 13 people were killed – at least 8 of them shot with firearms -, 200 civilians were injured[10], and 75 people were arrested for acts associated with the demonstrations[11]. In addition, torture, arbitrary detentions, and sexual abuse[12] by State agents[13], among others, were reported. This indiscriminate use of force and violence occurred without any legal control by civil authorities[14]. Among these incidents were incidents suffered by organizations accompanied by PBI, including: the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (Cajar)[15], the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB)[16] and the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (J&P)[17].

On various occasions, such as on September 10, PBI accompanied the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) in its legitimate work of verifying compliance with human rights by the security forces through the campaign “Defending Freedom, a matter for everyone”[18]. Field volunteers also accompanied the organization DH Colombia on September 13 during a vigil for a young man who was in critical condition after being shot twice[19].

PBI accompanies a vigil with DH Colombia in Bogota

DH Colombia legally assumed several cases of people injured or killed in those protests[20] and in December filed a complaint against the then Minister of Defence, Carlos Holmes (deceased in January 2021), the director of the National Police and other senior police commanders requesting an investigation of the responsibility they may have had, by line of command, in the events of September[21].  As a first step towards justice and truth, at the beginning of 2021, charges were brought against several police officers considered directly responsible for the death of two young men in the Verbenal[22] neighbourhood on September 9 and of a woman killed in the Suba neighborhood[23]. Despite this, DH Colombia denounced the general lack of an adequate judicial response, 6 months after the events[24], in addition to highlighting the deliberate and premeditated intention to conceal the crimes that were committed.

Historical use of excessive force in Colombia

Historically in Colombia, the state’s response to peaceful state protest has been marked with violence. PBI also accompanies DH Colombia in two court cases regarding the case of Nicolás Neira, a young man killed by the ESMAD in 2005[25].  On January 25, 2021, an agent was convicted by the 18th Criminal Court of the Bogotá Circuit for the crime of homicide in the modality of intentional homicide[26] in the first national conviction of a member of the ESMAD for acts resulting from excessive force in social protest. In the second trial, on March 25, 2021, in an equally historic decision, the Commander of the Esmad in 2005, Major Mauricio Infante Pinzón, was convicted for the crime of aiding and abetting the murder of Nicolás, due to the cover-up he attempted to carry out following the murder. Likewise, the responsibility of the chain of command in the events was recognized, as it has rarely been done.  It should be emphasized that these convictions came 15 years after the events[27].

Following the violence seen in late 2019 during the National Strike, several non-governmental organizations, lawyer collectives and student movements felt the need to demand the protection of the right to social protest, freedom of expression and freedom of press, which concluded in a constitutional action through a tutela at the end of last year[28]. Among these authors are DH Colombia, the CSPP and Cajar, lawyers’ organizations accompanied by PBI[29]. In this tutela the different authors were able to demonstrate that “the way the Government and the National Police acted during the protests last November violated the constitutional rights of those who demonstrated”[30]. Nine months later, on September 22, the Supreme Court of Justice issued a landmark ruling on the matter[31], confirming what the organizations already knew: “there was -and may continue to be- a repeated and constant disproportionate aggression by the public forces against those who peacefully demonstrated”[32]. Likewise, the Administrative Court of Cundinamarca ruled in favour of the Tutela[33].

The two courts ordered the state, the armed forces and the district administrations to take various actions to avoid repeating this lack of guarantees for peaceful protests. At the district level, a process in favour of the demonstrations is already beginning, with a dialogue table and the revision of the protest protocol with the participation of the civil society[34].

As for the process at the national level, the progress is not so satisfactory, since there are two respective rulings, which generate confusion. This can be seen, for example, in the rejection by social organizations of the temporary protocol for demonstrations (resolution 1139), issued on October 20, 2020 by the government. As Jomary Ortegón Osorio, president of Cajar, says: “Based on a decision of the Court of Cundinamarca on the rules for protests, the Ministry of the Interior issued a protocol that does not comply with the Supreme Court ruling”[35].

There is still a long road ahead with many obstacles for protesters and those who defend the rights of peaceful protest, but the glimmer of hope has never been completely extinguished. In a CAI in the city of Bogota, the site of the death of citizen Julieth Ramirez which was completely destroyed and burned by protesters, the community built a library two days after the event. And it is not the only site: all over the capital city the population began to transform those sites of fear into cultural and commemorative sites[36].

Peaceful protest as a tool of democracy, to demonstrate discontent and to demand an improvement of policies in favour of society is not only happening in the capital but also in other areas of the country. In October 2020, the indigenous Minga, made up of approximately 9000 people from various regions in the south west of Colombia, began in the capital of Valle del Cauca, Cali, where the participants had the purpose of meeting with the president of the nation, Ivan Duque. Their goal was to work together to find a way to stop the assassinations of social leaders, massacres and to demand the right to life for all Colombian people. Since the president did not respond to this request, the Minga decided to mobilize to Bogotá, with the hope that this time they would be heard[37]. Although the government did not eventually meet with the Minga and despite the stigmatization against the indigenous movement[38], on October 21 the protesters united in a completely peaceful manner[39], hopes were raised and voices intensified, to demand the same thing: a dignified life for all.

More than a year after the protests of November 2019, the need for dialogue between the Government and social organizations remains, in order to guarantee security and the right to take to the streets and demonstrate without fear. The right to social protest in Colombia continues to be a challenge for people who decide to exercise it, due to the strong repression. However, the organizations will continue to fight alongside the families and friends of the victims demanding truth and justice, the streets and their murals will continue to speak and remember the faces of the victims of such brutality and, undoubtedly, citizens will continue to take to the streets, demanding their rights and better living conditions.

Bogotá Field Team

[1] Agencia de Información Laboral – AIL: El Paro Nacional significa esperanza para el país según reciente encuesta, 2 December 2019

[2] Voa Noticias: Colombia: Paro nacional deja 273 heridos y tres muertos, 22 November 2019

[3] W Radio, Velatón por un año de la muerte de Dilan Cruz, 23 November 2020

[4] Colombia Informa, Asesinato de Dilan Cruz: nueve meses de impunidad, 24 August 2020

[5] El Tiempo, ¿Por qué volvieron a enviar caso de Dilan Cruz a la Justicia Militar?, 29 August 2020

[6] Human Rights Watch, Amicus Curie sobre el caso de Dilan Cruz 24 de marzo de 2020

[7] Contagio Radio, El abogado Javier Ordóñez fue asesinado por la Policía afirman sus familiares, 09 de septiembre de 2020

[8] El Tiempo: Javier Ordóñez, el asesinato que sumió a Bogotá en un caos, 12 September 2020

[9] Momento 24: Veeduría denuncia presuntos hechos de “para-policía” en las protestas de Bogotá, 18 September 2020

[10] El Cronista, Movilizaciones, cacerolazos y velatón en todo el país, 15 de septiembre de 2020

[11] Cuestión Pública: Al menos 13 asesinados en medio de abuso policial, 10 September 2020

[12] CIJP: ONG denuncia abuso sexual a 3 mujeres en CAI durante protestas, 12 September 2020

[13] Defender la Libertad: Boletín informativo 1: #9S, 10 September 2020

[14] Cceeu: Ante los graves hechos de violencia policial, urgen reformas estructurales, 16 September 2020

[15] Cajar: Tweet, 10 September 2020

[16] FNEB: Tweet,16 September 2020

[17] CIJP: Agresiones a defensoras de J&P y periodista de Contagio Radio, 10 September 2020

[18] Defender la Libertad: Quienes Somos

[19] DH Colombia: Acción Urgente, 10 September 2020

[20] DH Colombia, Acción Urgente, 09 September 2020

[21] El Espectador, La denuncia que se viene en contra del ministro de Defensa por las protestas del 9S, 11 December de 2020

[22] La Silla Vacía, La Silla reconstruye cómo policías mataron a los tres jóvenes de Verbenal, 28 September 2020

[23] El Espectador, Imputan cargos a policía investigado por homicidio en medio de protestas del 9-S, 19 January 2021

[24] DH Colombia, 152 días de la masacre del 9 de septiembre de 2020. 152 días de impunidad, 9 February 2021

[25] El Espectador, Los obstáculos para que haya justicia en el caso de Nicolás Neira, 15 años después, 1 May 2020

[26] El Tiempo, Condenan a policía del Esmad por homicidio del joven Nicolás Neira, 25 January 2021

[27] Semana, Mayor retirado que encubrió la muerte de Nicolás Neira fue condenado, 26 March 2021

[28] Defender la Libertad, Corte Suprema de Justicia Protege el Derecho a la Protesta frente a la violencia Policial, 23 September 2020

[29] Comisión Colombiana de Juristas: Una acción de tutela para que se proteja el derecho a la protesta social y otros derechos fundamentales, 16 December 2019

[30] Ibid

[31] Dejusticia: Corte Suprema de Justicia protege el derecho a la protesta frente a la violencia policial, 22 September 2020

[32] Ibid

[33] El Tiempo: Este es el protocolo para las manifestaciones y marchas públicas, 20 October 2020

[34] Alcaldía de Bogotá: Distrito hará propuesta del protocolo de protestas con organizaciones sociales, 5 October 2020

[35] El Tiempo: Reparos de tutelantes a cumplimiento de fallo que protege la protesta, 23 October 2020

[36] El Espectador: Organizaciones piden a la Corte Suprema proteger la protesta social, 11 September 2020

[37] Semana: Indígenas anuncian que “si Duque no va a Cali, la Minga irá a Bogotá”, 12 September 2020

[38] El Tiempo: Reparos de tutelantes a cumplimiento de fallo que protege la protesta, 23 September 2020

[39] Publimetro: “No hubo infiltrados del Eln, tampoco de las Farc”: Claudia López entrega balance de marchas, 21 September 2020


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