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Colombia Diary: Under Heavy Manners

Photograph Source: Rubashkyn – CC BY-SA 3.0

In Colombia as elsewhere, the commodification of higher education has led to widespread systemic corruption, and on September 23, students from the Universidad Distrital in Bogotá took to the streets to protest an egregious case of embezzlement, in which, according to the Attorney General’s Office, a professor used the university’s Institute for Outreach to enrich himself. The professor has since turned state’s evidence in exchange for a lighter sentence, implicating top university officials, civil servants, and local authorities.

On September 24, in addition to mass peaceful protest, a small group of masked protestors wielding a drill tried to take over the Rector’s Office. The protests were met with disproportionate force from the ESMAD (militarized anti-riot police squads), who entered the campus, thereby violating university autonomy, firing rubber bullets, pepper spray, and using water cannons, and then also attacked students from the nearby private, Jesuit-run university, la Pontificia Javeriana, when they protested in solidarity. ESMAD entered the University’s San Ignacio Hospital, even as tear gas filtered in, endangering patients.

On September 25, students from the Javeriana called for a protest against ESMAD, and the Distrital followed, only to be met with force again. In effect, ESMAD forced students to retreat into campus, the better to trap them and flood them with tear gas.

On September 26, students from 10 public and private universities mobilized in Bogotá, demanding respect for university autonomy, an end to corruption, and respect for the right to protest, which led to further clashes with ESMAD. At noon on September 27, an estimated 5,000 students from 12 universities congregated near the Javeriana, which the rector closed until September 30, to march on the Plaza Bolívar in the city center. The march proceeded down the Carrera Séptima without event for several hours, until a small group of masked protestors attacked the first floor of Icetex, the government entity responsible for student loans and credits, throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails, and attempting to torch the building.

In Medellín, meanwhile, on September 27 students from the Universidad Nacional and the Universidad de Antioquia attempted to march in solidarity, but by early afternoon, ESMAD was waiting with tanks along the Autopista Regional and the Avenida Barranquilla, so that instead of a mass march, the afternoon witnessed the closure of both universities and hours of clashes between ESMAD, which filled both campuses with tear gas, and small groups of masked protestors.

That same day, on September 27, the Minister of the Interior declared she is preparing a bill to limit the right to protest. Although conclusive evidence is lacking, given documented cases of police infiltration of peaceful student protests in 2018, it is plausible, even likely, that infiltrators participated in and/or precipitated the attack on Icetex. Oddly, it took ESMAD over two hours to respond, whereas violent response to peaceful protest was immediate. Of 35 people arrested on September 27, 32 were released, not including one of the organizers of the peaceful protests. No one knows who the masked protestors are. From Washington, President Duque declared, “our government guarantees the right to peaceful protest, but will not tolerate vandalism or violence,” a statement flatly contradicted by evidence that the violence is coming from the ESMAD, which does not allow peaceful demonstrations. It remains to be seen how much of the vandalism has been orchestrated or perpetrated by police infiltrators.

***

As if scripted, in late August, a key faction of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) leadership led by Iván Márquez declared the peace process a failure and returned to armed struggle, pledging to cement an alliance with the ELN (National Liberation Army). Both insurgencies operate extensively in Venezuelan territory, and on September 11, the US, Colombia, Brazil, and nine other US allies revived the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, or Rio Treaty, signed in 1947, arguing that Venezuela has become a threat to regional peace and stability. On September 26, the world was treated to the grim spectacle of Colombian President Iván Duque presenting bogus photographic evidence to the UN General Assembly of the ELN in Venezuela—in fact, all of the photos presented were taken in Colombia. Although President Duque said the photos were merely intended to provide context, his Minister of Defense—who, in 2018, accused student demonstrations of being sponsored by terrorists—was forced to apologize for the oversight. Evidence recently surfaced that on February 23, President Duque met with would-be Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó after the latter had been ferried by Colombian narco-paramilitaries known as the Rastrojos through the Venezuelan state of Táchira to the Colombian border in Northern Santander, where Guaidó was turned over to Duque’s bodyguards. On September 27 at the UN, Venezuelan Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez alleged that in the frontier border town of Maicao, in the Colombian department of the Guajira, Colombian paramilitaries are training Venezuelan mercenaries.

***

Domestically, the panorama is complicated by the upcoming regional and local elections, and the trial of former president Álvaro Uribe; the two are analytically inseparable because Uribe runs Duque’s party, the Centro Democrático (CD). Throughout his presidency from 2002-2010, Uribe was electorally tied to criminal rightwing parties whose politicians ended up in jail because of proven links to paramilitaries, but as yet the CD has few criminals in its ranks. Yet the stain of corruption sticks to Uribe, with the Alianza Verde (Green Alliance) campaigning vigorously on an anti-corruption platform. The CD’s poll numbers, much like Duque’s, have been underwhelming.

So far, seven electoral candidates—three for mayor, four for city council—have been murdered, making for a total of thirteen electorally-related homicides, according to the Defensoría del Pueblo (Ombudsmen’s Office), which has also registered 192 threats against movements or candidates. One in three municipalities is at risk of electoral violence. In Antioquia, of which Medellín is the capital, there are seventeen municipalities in which some type of election-related violence has already taken place. Three journalists have been murdered this year, and nine more were threatened in a pamphlet issued by the paramilitary group Aguilas Negras on September 26. The Colombian government denies the existence of said group, which may or may not have ties to the Colombian military.

***

Uribe’s trial of the century began on September 3, and has thus far featured a parade of witnesses consisting of politicians, ex-paramilitaries, and Uribe’s lawyers. Uribe is on trial for trying to manipulate witnesses to testify against Senator Ivan Cepeda, having initially accused Cepeda of doing the same to him in order to link him and his brother, Santiago, to a paramilitary group known as the 12 Apostles (Los doce apóstoles). Two key ex-paramilitary witnesses who supported Uribe no longer do so—one now claims Uribe’s lawyer and fixer, Diego Cadena, paid him and other ex-paramilitaries to offer bogus testimony against Cepeda—while witnesses against Uribe are sticking to their stories regardless of the consequences, i.e. death threats and the exile of family members.

Diego Cadena was filmed trying to bribe the key surviving witness against Uribe, Juan Guillermo Monsalve, who is the son of the foreman (mayordomo) of Uribe’s ranch, Guacharacas, and claims that Uribe and his brother helped found Bloque Metro, an important paramilitary group that operated in and around Medellín beginning in the late 1990s. Cadena was also recorded talking to Uribe about trying to coerce witnesses. On September 30, journalist Daniel Coronell published audios of phone conversations between Cadena and his brother Álvaro, alias “Miami,” discussing the proper timing of threats against Coronell for reporting on Uribe. Although many Colombians believe Uribe is quasi-omnipotent, it is difficult to see how he will escape justice this time, and everyone is waiting to hear his testimony on October 8. He could be headed to jail as early as October 9.

Speaking at Florida International University on September 28, when asked about Uribe’s trial and its potential consequences, Duque defended Uribe as a “great human being” and dedicated public servant, for which Uribe thanked him, via Twitter, with “infinite gratitude.”

***

More student protests are scheduled beginning on October 10, and if the recent past is any guide, ESMAD repression is likely to encourage rather than discourage further mobilization in the coming weeks. At stake in the evolution and repression of student protests, of course, is the form and content of democracy in a semi-authoritarian parliamentary republic that does the diplomatic bidding of the US. The Colombian student movement is one of the brighter lights in an otherwise dim firmament, and deserves support and protection from all who wish to avoid war in South America.

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Forrest Hylton teaches history and politics at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso 2006), which has won him many friends and influenced even more people. He is a member of the Asociación Sindical de Profesores Universitarios (ASPU) de Colombia.

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