POPAYÁN, Colombia—This nation known as the “Gateway to South America” has become the latest Latin American state to be shaken by widespread, anti-government demonstrations. More than 200,000 marchers turned out across Colombia last Thursday to protest against the administration of the right-wing president, Ivan Duque.
Since then, in major cities throughout this Andean nation, the largely peaceful demonstrators have been met by notoriously brutal riot squads wielding truncheons and firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Troops have occupied the streets in urban areas. Curfews imposed. Borders closed. Foreign “agitators” deported.
After a nonviolent start, by late Thursday night protesters were fighting back with homemade black-powder grenades and Molotov cocktails. A series of clashes over the following days left at least four dead protesters, three dead cops, and hundreds of others wounded and detained.
The marches continued into this week, as leaders from a diverse array of groups—including students, indigenous peoples, union workers, and small farmers—sought to force a dialogue with President Duque.
“These protests showed more than anything that Duque is completely out of touch with the general populace,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in an email to The Daily Beast.
“In many ways, Duque represents the old way of doing things in Colombia where those in power are not accountable to the general populace and politics serves as a way to access economic power and advance your personal … agenda,” Sánchez-Garzoli wrote.
“They must stop killing our people.”
While covering the protests in troubled Cauca state—which remains one of Colombia’s most violent regions and an epicenter for drug-trafficking—I spoke with many demonstrators on a wide variety of issues that concerned them. Some spoke of austerity measures put in place by Duque’s regime, such as rolling back pensions, reducing the minimum wage, and cutting government funds for education and health care.
“We don’t have enough lab equipment to go around,” said biology major Miguel Troyano, 18, a freshman at the state-funded University of Cauca. “And what we do have is in bad shape. We don’t even have enough chairs in the classrooms,” said Troyano, his eyes red from teargas, and his cheeks white with milk, which is thought by many to be a remedy against the choking gas. “Now they want to cut the school’s budget again. These are the kinds of things that have driven us [students] out into the streets.”
An indigenous protester of the Guambiano culture, who gave her name as Busrwaira, age 26, spoke of the ongoing persecution of indigenous people. (More than 700 indigenous and other community leaders have been murdered since the start of 2016.) “They must stop invading our territory, killing our people, and stealing our resources,” Busrwaira said.