A convoy of brightly painted buses descended from Colombia’s westernmost mountain range, heading for the city of Cali, where tens of thousands had taken to the streets demanding a shake-up of the country’s deeply unequal status quo.
Along the way, well-wishers cheered on the caravan and drivers honked in approval. But as the procession approached Cali’s prosperous southern reaches, it reached a roadblock set up by men in civilian clothing, believed to be from wealthy neighbourhoods nearby. Then the shooting started.
“Men in white shirts were firing on us and the shots kept coming,” said Robert Molina, a leader from the indigenous Nasa community, who was in the convoy. “They were firing from armoured 4×4 trucks, straight out of the windows.”
Footage of the incident – recorded and shared by victims, bystanders and perpetrators – is chilling. In one clip, a man in shorts and a white T-shirt fires a pistol at a band of indigenous protesters. In another, a group of men in polo shirts brandish automatic weapons. At least 10 people were injured in the attack, and similar incidents were reported across the city.
“We’re seen as enemies by the establishment in Colombia and that’s nothing new,” said Aida Quilcue, an indigenous leader. “Because we represent the poor and ignored in this country.”
A 2016 peace agreeement with the Marxist insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) formally ended five decades of bitter conflict – often fought along class lines – that left 260,000 dead and 7 million displaced.
With its provisions for land reform and rural development, the deal was supposed to turn Colombia’s class war cold, and many of the nation’s poor saw it as a chance for social justice. But such hopes went unrealized and, with no sign of an end to the current unrest, some worry that Colombia’s social classes are as bitterly divided as they ever were.
At least 51 people have been killed, 43 at the hands of police and at least one shot dead by a group of men in civilian clothes. Dozens of disciplinary investigations have been launched, and three officers have been charged with murder.
On Monday night, as explosions and smoke filled the streets of Yumbo, a satellite town outside Cali, fresh reports abounded of civilians arming themselves to break the protesters’ barricades. Meanwhile, a doctor in the city was dismissed from her job after she called on self-defense groups to “kill some thousand Indians”.
“Colombia tried to peacefully resolve class conflict with the peace process, which sought to tackle the root causes of conflict” said Katherine Aguirre, a security expert at the Igarape Institute in Cali. “But as we are seeing right now, we haven’t managed that.”
The current protests began on 28 April over an unpopular and since-axed plan for tax reform, and grew into a howl of outrage over police violence and structural inequality.
But Colombia’s political class has attempted to cast largely peaceful protesters as beholden to leftist insurgent groups, including dissident factions of the Farc that never honored the 2016 peace accord.
In Cali, where bus stations and police kiosks have been vandalized, fuel shortages have been widespread, and entire neighbourhoods have been blockaded by demonstrators, perceptions of protesters and the police often fall along class lines.
One afternoon last week, residents of the wealthy neighbourhood of El Peñón, filled the pavements of a tree-lined avenue that flanks the city’s river. In the shadows of the vast condominium complexes replete with pools, gyms and 24-hour private security, crowds cheered a procession of officers from the police’s anti-riot unit, known by its Spanish acronym Esmad, which has been blamed for much of the bloodshed.
“It’s not fair that after everything they’ve done for us, people still don’t believe in the police – but we do,” said Isabel García, who lives in the neighbourhood and owns a stationery shop. Like other attendees, she was dressed in white. “If people want to march in peace, we don’t have a problem with that, but we don’t want any aggression from them.”
Antonio González, another business owner, adjusted his Cartier spectacles and said: “The police and the army are protecting us from protesters and indigenous people that have come to vandalize our property and threaten our community.”
If it appears like the two ends of Colombia’s political spectrum sing from different hymn sheets, it is because they do, said Carlos González, a professor of sociology at the Universidad del Valle in Cali.
“A large part of the Colombian establishment doesn’t understand that these calls for change are coming from the people in the streets of cities, and not from an armed guerrilla group in the countryside,” said González.
“The political class – along with certain sectors of the bourgeoisie and the military leadership – doesn’t get really that, which is why civilians are taking up weapons against civilians,” he said. “We’ve gone from the army collaborating with civilian paramilitaries during the war to citizens now becoming para-police in the cities.”
Colombia, with its vast and entrenched inequality, has long been defined by class boundaries. Cities are divided into strata, or estratos, with the intention that utility bills and other services can be adjusted accordingly. But in reality, the estratos usually serve as castes that make social climbing impossible, with indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities most often trapped.
The pandemic has only exacerbated inequality. Amid one of the longest lockdowns in the world, the number of Colombians living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million people last year. Red rags were hung outside homes, in a desperate signal that those inside were hungry. And as people got poorer, they also got sicker, with those from the poorest estrato 10 times more likely to be hospitalized or die from Covid-19 than those from the wealthiest.
“If you’re from estrato 1, the only thing you can dream of is getting out,” said Yuliana Ospina, an out-of-work manicurist in Siloé, a downtrodden neighbourhood that straddles the city’s western hills. “It would be so beautiful to dream of something else.”
[Ticker] US to lift Covid travel-ban on EU tourists
Fully vaccinated travellers from the EU and the UK will be let back into the US from “early November” onward, the White House said on Monday, ending an 18-month ban and prompting airline firms’ shares to climb. “This new international travel system follows the science to keep Americans … safe,” a US spokesman said. The EU recently recommended increased restrictions on US visitors, amid anger at lack of US reciprocity.
Ten women and girls killed every day in Mexico, Amnesty report says | Global development
At least 10 women and girls are murdered every day in Mexico, according to a new report that says victims’ families are often left to carry out their own homicide investigations.
The scathing report, released on Monday by Amnesty International, documents both the scale of the violence and the disturbing lack of interest on the part of Mexican authorities to prevent or solve the murders.
“Mexico is continuing to fail to fulfil its duty to investigate and, therefore, its duty to guarantee the rights to life and personal integrity of the victims as well as to prevent violence against women,” says the report, Justice on Trial.
“Feminicidal violence and the failings in investigation and prevention in northern Mexico are not anecdotal, but rather form part of a broader reality in the country,” the report adds.
Femicide has been rife in Mexico for decades – most notoriously in an epidemic of murders which claimed the life of some 400 women in the border city Ciudad Juárez during the 1990s. In recent years, a growing feminist movement has held massive street protests against the violence, but authorities have proved unwilling to take action to stop the killing.
“It’s always a question of political will,” said Maricruz Ocampo, a women’s activist in the state of Querétaro.
Ocampo has been part of teams lobbying state governors to issue an alert when femicides reach scandalously high levels – a move to raise awareness and mobilise resources. But officials often resist such moves, she said, as governors worry about their states’ images and investment.
“They refuse to recognise there is a problem,” she said.
The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also downplayed the problem. He branded the women protesting on 8 March, International Women’s Day, as “conservatives” and alleged a dark hand manipulating the demonstrations.
When asked last year about rising violence against women, he responded, “Tell all the women of Mexico that they are protected and represented, that we’re doing everything possible to guarantee peace and quiet and that I understand that our adversaries are looking for ways to confront us.”
Mexico recorded the murders of 3,723 women in 2020. Some 940 of those murders were investigated as femicides.
The Amnesty report focused on Mexico state, a vast collection of gritty suburbs surrounding Mexico City on three sides. It has become notorious for femicides over the past decade – and for the way the former president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a former Mexico state governor, ignored the problem.
The report found cases of families carrying out their own detective work, which were ignored by investigators. In many cases, authorities contaminated crime scenes or mishandled evidence. They often did not even pursue leads such as geolocation information from victims’ mobile phones.
In the case of Julia Sosa, whose children believe she was killed by her partner, two daughters found her body buried on the suspect’s property – but had to wait hours for police to arrive and process the crime scene. One of her daughters recalled the subsequent interview process, in which “the police officer was falling asleep”.
Sosa’s partner hanged himself, prompting police to close the case, even though family members said there were more leads to pursue.
In states rife with drug cartel violence, activists say cases of femicides go uninvestigated as impunity is commonplace.
“The authorities say it’s organised crime and that’s it,” said Yolotzin Jaimes, a women’s rights campaigner in the southern state of Guerrero. “Many of these aggressors find protection under the excuse of organised crime.”
The persistence of femicides is a stark contrast to recent gains by the women’s movement in Mexico. The country’s supreme court decriminalised abortion earlier this month. A new congress recently sworn in has gender parity and seven female governors will be installed by the end of year – up from just two before last June’s election’s
The decriminalisation of abortion “let off some steam” from the pressure driving the protests “because part of the demands was over the right to choose,” Ocampo said. “But when it comes to violence, we still see it everywhere.”
US official urges EU to speed up enlargement
Gabriel Escobar, the US’ newly-appointed acting deputy secretary of state for South Central Europe, has urged Europe to speed up Western Balkans enlargement. “To return 20 years later and see that there hasn’t been much progress on that front was a little disappointing,” he told the RFE/RL news agency Friday, referring to his last post in Europe in 2001. “We would like to see a more rapid integration,” he said.
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