It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials start pushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.
A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begged them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.
These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.
Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police were ignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.
You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).
Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.
With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.
As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.
They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.
There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.
Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”
These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.
Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.
In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.
When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.
Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”
Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.
This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.
Think about that. Already, many Colombian analysts are sounding alarms about mounting authoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.
A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.
New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.