In large white letters, the names of anti-government protesters killed in recent weeks are written on a main street in the Colombian city of Cali: Nicolás G, Marcelo A, Jovita O, Yeisson A, Cristian M, Daniel A, Jeisson G.
Most were under 25 years old. The youngest, Jeisson García, was 13 years old.
Columbia has experienced a wave of violence in the past month. What started as a protest against tax reform they have evolved into a more radical call for a revision of the country’s economic model. Protesters lashed out at police brutality, inequality, corruption, lack of opportunities and a host of other problems. The hatred for the conservative government of Iván Duque is palpable.
While there have been deaths across the country, it is surprising how much has happened in Cali and the surrounding Valle del Cauca region. Of the 58 people killed across the country, 31 were in Cali and another eight in the region, according to Indepaz, a non-governmental organization.
In contrast, the capital Bogotá recorded three deaths and Colombia’s second city, Medellín, only one.
The government has recognized 17 deaths across the country, about half of them in Cali, a city of 2.3 million people in the southwestern rest of the country.
“Cali has become the epicenter of the uprising,” said Sebastián Lanz of Temblores, an NGO that monitored the violence. “We have seen members of the armed security forces go so far as to attack civilians exercising their legitimate right to demonstrate.”
The reasons for Cali’s emergence as a “capital of resistance” in Colombia are disputed.
Many people accuse them of poverty and inequality. both are sharply increased during the pandemic, but government statistics suggest that these problems are not worse than elsewhere in Colombia.
Another explanation is the drug trade. The Cali cartel of the 90s has been dismantled but the city is still flooded with cocaine and armed and violent criminals – more so than Bogotá or Medellín.
The homicide rate in Cali is 48 per 100,000 inhabitants, much higher than in Bogotá (13) or Medellín (14), which has tarnished its reputation as a murderous capital in Colombia.
There is a lot of confusion about what makes the kill. NGOs say security forces are responsible for the vast majority of deaths. Police say they have never shot at peaceful protesters and that they only shoot guns at criminals, vandals and people who shot them first.
The government blames the “terrorists”, “criminal groups” and left-wing guerrillas. Says elements of the country’s traditional Marxist guerrilla groups – in Farc and the ELN – have infiltrated the protests.
Diego Arias, a former left-wing guerrilla and now an analyst in Cali, says there is perhaps some truth in the claim. That is why the Cali police face such heavy weapons and respond in nature.
“Police in Cali think they are entering a war zone, without controlling a protest,” he said. “And when you’re at war shoot directly at your enemy, not in the air.”
Last week, police officer Juan Sebastián Briñez, 22, was shot dead while he and his colleagues tried to plant people in a supermarket in Cali’s poor Cali neighborhood. “I’ve never seen anything like it or I’ve heard so many shots,” fellow officer Marvin Lisalda said when he was hospitalized from his injuries.
One of the most worrying aspects of the violence is the appearance of armed civilians who have opened fire on protesters. In early May, they attacked a convoy carrying indigenous activists through the city, injuring about 10 people. The identity of the attackers is unclear, but local residents blame the employed bandits who work for drug traffickers.
There are other dimensions, racial and ethnic, in the protests. Cali has one of the largest black populations in Colombia and some protesters say the city’s police force is a racist institution.
The southwest also has a large and vocal indigenous population. On the first day of the protests, indigenous activists in Cali tore down a statue of Sebastían Benalcázar, the Spaniard who led the 16th-century conquest of this part of Colombia.
Social media is flooded with information and misinformation. Frightening videos show bodies being washed in the Cauca River, allegedly people who were abducted during the protests. Protesters say hundreds have “disappeared.”
Despite all this, most of the protests are peaceful. In such a scene last week, thousands gathered in a park that has become a meeting point.
The parents brought children. Protesters waved the Colombian flag. Feminists, indigenous activists, Afro-Colombians, students and traditional leftists gathered under a blazing sun to listen to speeches and music.
The atmosphere was festive. The police were clear, and the protesters walked away quietly at dusk.
“There has been an attempt to stigmatize the protest and portray everyone as vandals, but there are all sorts of people here,” said María Alejandra Lozada, a 26-year-old nurse who divides her time between protests and treatment. Covid patients in a public hospital.
But at night, the shooting and destruction begin. In the slums of Siloam and Calypso on the outskirts of the city, gunfire can be heard many evenings. Tuesday night, arsonists he destroyed the court of justice in the nearby city of Tuluá.
There has been a backlash against violence and vandalism in recent days. On Tuesday, thousands of people dressed in white marched quietly through Cali, demanding reconciliation and the end of bloodshed and blockades.
But there is no sign that the demonstrations will end any time soon.
“We will continue and not lose momentum,” said Mar Sanchez, one of the organizers of the Cali protest. “We also need to work to ensure that this effervescence generated by the protests is reflected in the 2022 election. We cannot hold demonstrations for a month and then, when the elections come, we will vote again for the same old ones.”