In massive white letters, the names of anti-government protesters killed in current weeks are written on a foremost road within the Colombian metropolis of Cali: Nicolás G, Marcelo A, Jovita O, Yeisson A, Cristian M, Daniel A, Jeisson G.
Most had been underneath the age of 25. The youngest, Jeisson García, was 13.
Colombia has skilled a wave of violence in the past month. What began as protests in opposition to tax reform have developed right into a extra radical name for an overhaul of the nation’s financial mannequin. Protesters are seething over police brutality, inequality, corruption, lack of alternatives and a bunch of different points. The hatred for Iván Duque’s conservative authorities is palpable.
Whereas there have been deaths throughout the nation, it’s hanging what number of have occurred in Cali and the encircling area of Valle del Cauca. Of the 58 individuals killed nationwide, 31 had been in Cali and an additional eight within the area, according to Indepaz, a non-government organisation.
Against this, the capital Bogotá has registered three deaths and Colombia’s second metropolis, Medellín, only one.
The federal government has recognised 17 deaths nationwide, about half of them in Cali, a metropolis of two.3m individuals within the restive south-west of the nation.
“Cali has change into the epicentre of the discontent,” mentioned Sebastián Lanz of Temblores, an NGO which has been monitoring the violence. “We’ve seen members of the safety forces armed to the tooth attacking civilians who’re exercising their reputable proper to reveal.”
The explanations for Cali’s emergence as Colombia’s “capital of the resistance” are disputed.
Many residents blame poverty and inequality, both of which have risen sharply through the pandemic, however authorities statistics counsel these points aren’t any worse than elsewhere in Colombia.
One other clarification is the drugs trade. The Cali cartel of the Nineteen Nineties has been dismantled however the metropolis remains to be awash with cocaine and well-armed, violent prison — extra so than Bogotá or Medellín.
The homicide price in Cali is 48 per 100,000 inhabitants, far increased than in Bogotá (13) or Medellín (14), which has shed its popularity as Colombia’s homicide capital.
There may be a lot confusion over who’s doing the killing. NGOs say safety forces are answerable for the overwhelming majority of deaths. The police say they by no means fireplace on peaceable protesters and solely flip their weapons on criminals, vandals and individuals who fireplace at them first.
The federal government blames “terrorists”, “prison teams” and leftwing guerrillas. It says parts of the nation’s conventional Marxist guerrilla teams — the Farc and the ELN — have infiltrated the protests.
Diego Arias, a former leftwing guerrilla and now an analyst in Cali, says there may be in all probability some fact to the declare. That’s the reason the police in Cali face such heavy weaponry and reply in variety.
“The police in Cali really feel they’re getting into a battle zone, not policing a protest,” he mentioned. “And whenever you’re at battle you fireplace instantly at your enemy, not into the air.”
Final week, 22-year-old police officer Juan Sebastián Briñez was shot useless as he and his colleagues tried to cease individuals looting at a grocery store within the poor Cali neighbourhood of Calipso. “I’ve by no means seen something prefer it or heard a lot capturing,” fellow officer Marvin Lisalda mentioned as he recovered in hospital from his wounds.
One of many extra worrying features of the violence is the looks of armed civilians who’ve opened fireplace on protesters. In early Might, they attacked a convoy carrying indigenous activists via the town, injuring about 10 individuals. The identification of the attackers stays unclear, however native residents blame employed thugs working for drug traffickers.
There are different, racial and ethnic, dimensions to the protests. Cali has one of many largest black populations in Colombia and a few protesters say the town’s police drive is a racist establishment.
The south-west additionally has an enormous and vocal indigenous inhabitants. On the primary day of the protests, indigenous activists in Cali ripped down a statue of Sebastían Benalcázar, the Spaniard who led the sixteenth century conquest of this a part of Colombia.
Social media is awash with data and misinformation. Grotesque movies present our bodies which have allegedly washed up within the River Cauca, supposedly individuals who have been kidnapped through the protests. Demonstrators say a whole lot have “disappeared”.
Regardless of all this, most protests are peaceable. In a single such scene final week, hundreds gathered at a park that has change into a rallying level.
Dad and mom introduced younger youngsters. Protesters waved the Colombian flag. Feminists, indigenous activists, Afro-Colombians, college students and conventional leftists got here collectively underneath a searing solar to hearken to speeches and music.
The environment was festive. The police stayed clear, and protesters drifted away peacefully at nightfall.
“There’s been an try and stigmatise the protest and depict us all as vandals however there are all types of individuals right here,” mentioned María Alejandra Lozada, a 26-year-old nurse who divides her time between the protests and treating Covid sufferers in a public hospital.
However at evening, the capturing and destruction begins. Within the poor neighbourhoods of Siloé and Calipso on the town’s fringes, gunshots might be heard many evenings. On Tuesday evening, arsonists destroyed the court of justice within the close by metropolis of Tuluá.
There was a backlash in opposition to the violence and vandalism in current days. On Tuesday, hundreds of individuals wearing white marched peacefully in silence via Cali, calling for reconciliation and an finish to the bloodshed and blockades.
However there is no such thing as a signal that the demonstrations will finish quickly.
“We now have to maintain going and never lose momentum,” mentioned Mar Sánchez, one in every of Cali’s protest organisers. “We additionally must work to make sure that this effervescence generated by the protests is mirrored within the elections in 2022. We are able to’t stage demonstrations for a month after which, when the elections come round, vote for a similar outdated individuals once more.”