Urban protests in Colombia: What are they about, and how have cities been affected by the violence?

Date: 29 June 2021

Authors: Carlos Tobar Tovar (Universidad Javeriana Cali), Stephany Vargas Rojas (Universidad Javeriana Cali), and Melanie Lombard (The University of Sheffield)

Columbian protests infographic

The violence that erupted from Colombia’s ongoing national strike took many by surprise. The protests, which started on 28 April in response to proposed tax reforms, have resulted in weeks of social unrest.

Despite the hasty withdrawal of the reforms by President Duque, the nationwide protests have become a much broader expression of discontent. Inequality, unemployment, police brutality and violence have all been articulated as causes for the thousands who have taken to the streets over the last seven weeks.

In contrast to Colombia’s 2019 strike, which caused widespread disruption but was largely peaceful, this time clashes between protestors and security forces have been widespread. Observers have estimated that 68 deaths have occurred in the contexts of the protests, with over 1,100 protestors and bystanders injured.

Widespread police brutality against young and marginalised protestors has led to international condemnation. The government has spent recent weeks engaged in talks with protest leaders, putting forward suggestions for police reform among other proposals, but these have been criticised for not going far enough.

In Cali, the city at the epicentre of the protests, daily life has been severely disrupted for weeks. Colombia’s third city, with a large Afro-Colombian population and high levels of poverty and violence, has witnessed widespread street blockades alongside demonstrations and clashes. Many areas of the city have been effectively paralysed, with businesses closed, food shortages and scarce availability of petrol.

As life in these areas slowly returns to normal, we explore the reasons behind the unrest, and its effects on urban neighbourhoods in Cali. We draw on audio communications recorded between 4 - 8 May with community leaders and youth representatives from Aguablanca District, as part of ongoing research with these groups on the construction of peace.

One of Cali’s most marginalised areas and a focal point for the protests, Aguablanca is a densely-populated district with many Afro-Colombian communities, estimated to house one third of the city’s population of around 2.2 million.

What are the protests about?

Lack of employment and educational opportunities among young people was expressed as a key cause in the protest. Despite its adoption as a Sustainable Development Goal (8.6), globally one in five young people between 15 and 24 years of age is not in employment, education or training (NEET), a situation exacerbated by the pandemic which interrupted the education of more than 1.6 billion young people in 2020.

In Colombia, the situation is particularly acute: in 2020, 3,623,905 young people between 14 and 26 years old were neither studying nor working, almost 33% of the country’s youth population.

With the pandemic, unemployment among people aged 14 to 28 reached an alarming 23.5%, amid deepening job insecurity for 7.12 million lower-income young people in cities. Colombia faces enormous challenges in implementing social public policies to address the NEET issue.

These issues were highlighted by young people from the AFRODES Youth Workshop of Aguablanca District in Cali, discussing their expectations of the protests from the front line. Members of the group, made up of young victims of the armed conflict displaced from the Colombian Pacific and resettled via government programmes to Cali, highlighted education as a key demand, linked to employment and wider social development opportunities:

‘What we want to emphasise is our desire for an education, as a fundamental right’.

‘This [will] open opportunities for us, to live with dignity, for a better future, so that our childhood, and our youth, is no longer lost to drugs, vandalism, and prostitution’.

In Colombia, young Afro-Colombians suffer the highest levels of deprivation across several multidimensional poverty indicators, compared to the national average, including low educational attainment, schooling delays, informal work, and illiteracy (in rural areas). As of 2018, only 14% of Colombia’s Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquera population reported having some level of training in higher education.

Demands for better access to basic, middle and higher education are articulated as claims for increased wellbeing, and guaranteed civil and political rights. As one young member of AFRODES put it:

‘My dream today is to have a fairer country, with more opportunities for our generation, and future ones’.

Alongside calls for social justice and the right to a future, demands for a more peaceful and secure society have been central among protestors. Recent research has shown increasingly widespread disillusionment about peace implementation under Duque’s government.

Cali is a key destination for the displaced and demobilised, due to its proximity to southwestern conflict zones. It is also one of Colombia’s most violent cities, with a homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 in 2017, against the national average of 24.

AFRODES’ members highlighted their desire to live in peace, even while they were met with brutality:

‘We reject and condemn the killings, aggressions, stigmatisation and human rights violations, by state security forces against demonstrators in the national strike 2021’.

‘We invite the national government to listen to the Colombian people, who are in the streets demanding a space for dialogue be opened, to allow us to come to the necessary agreements, so that there is real change that offers better social development’.

What have the effects been on marginalised neighbourhoods?

While protestors have been striking to express demands for social justice, it is marginalised neighbourhoods that have been most directly affected by the protests.

In their audio communications, social leaders from four community-based organisations in different neighbourhoods of Aguablanca expressed their perceptions of the violence, food shortages and other implications that the national strike has had for their communities.

The neighbourhoods (barrios) in which these organisations are based often have informal origins, and in some cases still suffer from inadequate service provision, insecure tenure and poor living conditions, although others are relatively consolidated.

Community leaders there gave a vivid picture of the localised violence engendered by the strike:

‘Last night was a very very complex night, it turned out to be a very violent night, [with] shooting, military presence, police’.

‘There are places where everything is calm, but then suddenly people run and hide as something happens’.

The tense situation was exacerbated by the erection of illegal blockades throughout the city, particularly in the marginalised neighbourhoods of Aguablanca District, where police presence has been diminished throughout the protests. Such blockades were apparently erected by groups of protestors, although it is unclear whether external groups are also involved.

For Aguablanca’s residents, this meant being forced to pay to leave or enter their neighbourhoods, as the community leaders reported:

‘What is happening now in the barrios is that there are [illegal] checkpoints, they are charging people, they are robbing them and the police are absent’.

‘Some people can move about and are able to go to work, if they’ve got a bike or a motorbike, on some occasions they have had to pay a ‘toll’ to be allowed to leave and enter, because you know that some people are day labourers, and if they don’t go out and work, there’s nothing to eat at home, which forces them to go out and put themselves at risk.’

This situation of reduced mobility, along with other disruptions including outages to internet service, has resulting in shortages of basic goods and other resources:

‘People with jobs have not received their monthly salary, there is no cash, you understand? Without cash machines, without being able to get around’.

‘It’s complicated, there are shortages everywhere’.

‘Shops are hardly open because really, they don’t have anything’.

‘Shopkeepers have raised the prices of what supplies they do have left’.

‘You can get only get a few things, and what you can get is really really expensive’.

Speaking from Aguablanca District in Cali, these young Afro-Colombian conflict victims and social leaders reveal the difficulties that marginalised populations confront daily, but also their demands to live with dignity, and for meaningful public policies relating to education, employment and peace.

Many of the young protestors in Cali come from these barrios, and their demands are proportional to the historic state neglect to which communities have been subjected.

Meanwhile, recent analysis has suggested that while police brutality is a legacy of the country’s civil conflict, the protests are part of a post-conflict context in which civil mobilisation is newly permitted.

Despite the national strike committee’s decision yesterday to suspend the ongoing weekly protests, particularly in the light of a recent rise in Covid cases, the energy behind them has not dissipated, nor is it likely to while demands for structural change remain unmet.