Colombia: militarization goes viral
Up to now, Colombia’s response to the pandemic - the Common Enemy - has been one of a familiar nationalist and militarist rhetoric, a staunchly-upheld, militarized response that is unfolding in Colombia’s towns and cities.
We want to begin this report by addressing the serious militarization taking place within the context of the pandemic, and to assert that the fight will not waver, that our resistance will only become stronger. We feel it is necessary to emphasize that our resistance will not be put on hold during confinement, that indigenous people will continue to hold out against extractivist advancements; we will put a stop to legislative actions that favour extractavist aims, which offer no assurance that the respective communities are to be notified beforehand (External agencies in Colombia have a legal obligation to attain prior consent from communities in whose lands they plan to carry out activities). The solidarity of indigenous people has grown in several forms, borne of necessity and creativity: in Bogotá, we have bore witness to the indigenous Emeberá peoples’ methods of creating networks of solidarity, whilst living in uncertain urban environments.
During lockdown, a commemorative Day of Conscientious Objection was organised, and an Antimilitarist Festival was celebrated on May 15th and 16th, with several different national organizations participating. This Festival marked a meaningful union among these organizations, celebrating all resistance movements struggle against militarization, and celebrating life, even as reports of deaths continued to emerge. It was a day for men and women to join together in an affirmation of our efforts to end militarism in Colombia.
Militarization during the pandemic
The State of Exception, which was decreed by the Government of Colombia on the 25th March 2020, has implemented measures mainly seen during States of Emergency. The State of Exception has given Colombia’s armed forces free rein to resolve issues by way of preemptive strike against the Public Enemy: Covid-19, a biological microorganism, invisible but deadly, which, as the weapons division of the Colombian Government would understand it, is to be defeated by force.
In the beginning, relief measures were limited to those of a health and safety curfew, but this quickly evolved into a military curfew. In April, the National Government issued a decree which, in addressing the pandemic, implies that governments and local entities collaborate with the central government and its armed forces. In this same vein, the Ministry of Defense has ordered the first-degree deployment of all its forces. Even those who choose to turn a blind eye to the effects that this epidemic has had on those who are already impacted by inequality will have noticed the red cloths that have sprung up around residents’ homes, a sad shorthand used to signal that its inhabitants are suffering from hunger and lack the basic food to survive.
On May 18th, Colombia’s number of positive cases rose to 16,295, along with 592 deaths, a figure estimated as the start of the high peak of contagion in the country. It is important to clarify that the official figures are considerably smaller than the actual number of cases, given that the rise in positive cases is directly proportional to the number of tests performed, which have been “scarce”: 47,000 is an alarmingly small number of tests for a population of 49 million people. As the number of Covid-19 infections has increased, impoverished communities have faced constant xenophobic attacks as their protests, in which displaced families living in makeshift shelters decry the lack of basic rights and necessities, are put under siege.
Colombia is at a boiling point; at least 19 human rights defenders and social leaders have been assassinated in Colombia as of this year, and there are 34 other deaths currently being investigated due to their possible connection to activist causes. As the violence has gone unchecked during this health crisis, Colombia’s National Liberation Army (a left-wing guerrilla group which didn’t participate in Colombia’s peace negotiations) has declared a unilateral ceasefire and has proposed that the government reengages in talks through the La Habana delegation.
Protest suppression in the cities
Protests demanding peoples’ rights have taken place in several areas throughout the country. Impoverished, working-class communities, donning red cloths, have seen their peaceful protests suppressed - protests that are a necessary call to action for a bare minimum of human rights. In Bogotá some were surprised by the local police’s attempts to raise neighborhood morale via dance classes and positive messages, broadcasted by loudspeakers - under the slogan “We are united as one”. What was not surprising was when, at the same time, the police began to evict residents from the “two-bit” homes where the poorest families reside.
Militarization and closed borders
As part of the quarantine orders, military action has been mandated by several legislators in the main cities. Several departments have made the decision to close the borders and passes that lead into other areas within the countryside, solidifying this position with a military presence. In the administrative district of Boyacá the government was called to militarize their territories and departmental borders. Other neighboring municipalities of Bogotá have followed suit (as well as in several stop-over areas), in a joint agreement to close off and militarize their communities.
In mid-May, the government announced that it would be closing the border between the Amazon and Brazil. The city of Leticia was then occupied by military forces, whose soldiers have received medical attention that health professionals from the main cities’ hospitals still do not have. When they began this operation, the government announced that they “had made the decision to increase military presence at all border points and to exercise such control so as to prevent new cases from entering via the floating population.”
The northern Pacific border in the department of Chocó, which is ancestrally inhabited by indigenous communities who are at risk of extermination due to multidimensional poverty levels and malaria outbreaks that remain present in the area, have been gravely affected during this pandemic. An increase in military presence in their ancestral lands has decreased tourist revenue and affected commercial trade with migrants traveling from Central America and the Caribbean.
Migrants during confinement
Migrants have often been painted as dangerous and frequently face evictions from their places of living due to lack of work. Many of these migrants, “even those without food, babies still in their arms”, according to the DW (Deutsche Welle), have had little choice but to return to Venezuela on foot. Despite the border closures, representatives from the Colombian government have been arranging the departure of migrants via humanitarian corridors, in which soldiers, who guard the countryside along the border, are allowing the reentry of Venezuelans into their country.
Likewise in Bogotá, in the Santa Fe neighborhood which the trans community and a great many Venezuelan migrants call home, the streets have been militarized as a response to its inhabitants’ disobeyance of quarantine doctrines. In the city of Cali the police and the ESMAD (the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron) have mounted a violent attack against a homeless community situated in a working-class neighborhood.
The case been the same in Altos de la Estancia, a settlement of 350 families in a poverty-stricken sector in Bogotá, many of whom are migrants or belong to families displaced by violence, where an ongoing eviction raid has been carried out since mid-May.
Decree for the extension of conscripted service
As a result of the pandemic, this April 13th the government issued its Decree 541 2020, which will extend the duration of military conscription for men who would otherwise have been close to completing their service. No clear connection has been provided between this initiative, which impacts the constitutional rights of 16,241 young men, with the health crisis at hand.