When the history of this global moment is written, there will need to be an entire chapter on police forces’ spectacular own goals as force for change.
Around the world, the police have cracked down violently on protests — only to discover that their attacks, captured on camera and shared across social and conventional media, have been the catalyst that helped turn issue-based campaigns into mass movements.
Movements like Black Lives Matter in the United States, the 2019 uprising in Chile that led to a new constitution, and, now, Colombia’s protests grew out of political wounds unique to each society. But each was transformed into a broad, potentially generation-defining cause once protesters were confronted with police violence.
shaped the culture and training of Colombian police, who amid the protests have often appeared to draw little distinction between peaceful protesters who object to the government’s policies and violent guerrillas who wanted to overthrow the state.
In Chile in 2019, protests initially began as opposition to an increase in transit fares. It was the government’s fateful decision to restore order by calling out the army — for the first time since Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship ended in 1990 — that transformed the protests into a national movement with widespread political support.
Army tanks rolling through the streets sent a message that the country’s transition to democracy was incomplete, and at risk of collapse. Protesters carried placards printed with the face of Victor Jara, a folk singer murdered in the early days of the Pinochet regime, drawing a direct connection between the modern protests and the tanks that brought General Pinochet to power.
Just a year after the protests exploded, Chileans voted to scrap the constitution drafted during the Pinochet years and replace it with a new one.
‘This is not the country we want’
In Colombia, the violence against protesters, and the heavy militarization of the streets in cities like Bogotá, has likewise sent a message that the country’s democratic project is not just unfinished, but is perhaps in jeopardy.
The 2016 peace agreement was supposed to end the armed conflict between the government and the FARC. But the actions of the state security forces over the past two weeks have many questioning whether peacetime democracy ever began at all.
“I think that the story of this country is about the armed conflict,” said Erika Rodríguez Gómez, 30, a lawyer and feminist activist from Bogotá. “We signed a peace agreement in 2016. And maybe at that moment we felt like, OK, we are going to move on.”
“But actually we have all of the military forces on the streets. And we have these attacks against us, the civil society,” she said. “So we think now that actually, they were never gone.”
It is too soon to say whether the protests will lead to lasting change. The attacks on protesters have made state violence visible to more people, said Dr. González, the Harvard researcher, but she believes that they are still considering it through the lens of “their usual scripts about understanding society, and understanding the police, and understanding everything. So it hasn’t quite come to the point of people converging.”
But Leydy Diossa-Jimenez, a Colombian researcher and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that she sees this moment as a turning point for change across generations. “Gen Z, they are now rethinking their country, and thinking about what has been left by prior generations,” she said in an interview. “They are saying ‘No, this is not what we want.’ ”
“And I think for the first time now, the older generations in Colombia are allying with that idea, that this is not the country we want,” she said.
“I don’t know if the politicians are up to the challenge, and up to the historical moment,” she added. “I just hope they are.”
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Protests have rocked Colombia for three weeks, with thousands of people pouring into the streets of its major cities — and facing a crackdown by government security forces. More than 40 people, many of them protesters, are dead.
On Monday, Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, ordered the “maximum deployment” of the country’s military and police forces to clear roads blocked by protesters, a move he said would “allow all Colombians to regain mobility,” but that some feared would lead to more violence.
The fuse for the protests was a tax overhaul proposed by Mr. Duque, which many Colombians felt would have made getting by in an economy squeezed by the pandemic even harder.
But the outpouring quickly morphed into a widespread expression of anger over poverty and inequality — which have risen as the virus has spread — and over the violence with which the police have confronted the movement.
calls for the government to guarantee a minimum income, to prevent police violence and to withdraw a health reform plan that critics say does not do enough to fix systemic problems.
Mr. Duque’s popularity had dropped before the pandemic, and is now near its lowest point since his election in 2018, according to the polling firm Invamer.
ravaged populations and economies in the region.
many Colombians viewed the plan as an attack on their already difficult existences.
Even before the pandemic, many Colombians with full-time jobs struggled to make even the minimum wage of about $275 a month.
Helena Osorio, 24, for example, is a nurse who works nights and earns $13 per shift caring for Covid patients, barely enough for her and her younger brother to survive. This pushed her to attend recent protests.
The president’s tax proposal also came as coronavirus cases and deaths were rising in the country, leaving hundreds of desperate Colombians to wait for a bed at overloaded hospitals even as the vaccination campaign rollout has been slow.
longstanding frustrations to a boil.
Colombia is among the most unequal countries in the world. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2018 said that it would take 11 generations for a poor Colombian to approach the mean income in his or her society — the highest number of 30 countries examined.
Despite reductions in poverty in the decades before the pandemic, many Colombians, particularly the young, feel the engines of upward mobility are beyond their reach.
violence continues in many rural areas, fueling frustration.
As the protests have escalated, resulting in clashes between demonstrators and police, Mr. Duque’s government has frequently blamed the violence on armed groups it says have infiltrated the protests.
responded with force, sometimes firing bullets at peaceful protesters, according to New York Times interviews with witnesses. This has exacerbated anger.
At least 42 people are dead, according to Colombia’s Defensoría del Pueblo, a government agency that tracks alleged human rights violations. But Human Rights Watch and other organizations say that the death toll is likely higher.
The Defensoría says that it has received 168 reports of people who have disappeared amid the protests, and only some of them have been found.
In an interview, Mr. Duque recognized that some officers had been violent, but attributed the violence to a few bad actors, saying major change in the police force was not needed.
“There have been acts of abuse of force,” he said. But “just saying that there could be any possibility that the Colombian police will be seen as a systematic abuser of human rights — well, that will be not only unfair, unjust, but without any base, any ground.”
What about the protesters, have they engaged in violence as well?
Protesters have also blocked major roads, preventing food and other essential goods from getting through. Officials say this has hampered efforts to fight the coronavirus at a time when new cases and virus deaths are at near record highs.
The defense department says that hundreds of officers have been hurt, and one has been killed, while people associated with the protests have vandalized police stations and buses.
While tens of thousands have marched in the streets, not everyone supports the protests.
Jhon Henry Morales, 51, a taxi driver in Cali, said his city had been nearly paralyzed in recent days, with some protesters blocking the roads with tires.
He had not been able to work, he said, putting him behind on his bills. “Protest is legal,” he said. But, he said, “I also have rights as a Colombian citizen.”
Reporting was contributed by Sofía Villamil and Steven Grattan in Bogotá.
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A teenager shot to death after kicking a police officer. A young man bleeding out on the street as protesters shout for help. Police firing on unarmed demonstrators. Helicopters swarming overhead, tanks rolling through neighborhoods, explosions echoing in the streets. A mother crying for her son.
“We are destroyed,” said Milena Meneses, 39, whose only son Santiago, 19, was killed in a protest over the weekend.
Colombians demonstrating over the past week against the poverty and inequality that have worsened the lives of millions since the Covid-19 pandemic began have been met with a powerful crackdown by their government, which has responded to the protests with the same militarized police force it often uses against rebel fighters and organized crime.
This explosion of frustration in Colombia, experts say, could presage unrest across Latin America, where several countries face the same combustible mix of an unrelenting pandemic, growing hardship and plummeting government revenue.
Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and elsewhere.
Each country’s protest was different. But in all of them, people voiced their grievances over limited opportunity, widespread corruption and officials who appeared to be working against them.
Then came the pandemic. Latin America was one of the regions hardest hit by the virus in 2020, with cemeteries filling past capacity, the sick dying while waiting for care in hospital hallways, and family members spending the night in lines to buy medical oxygen in an attempt to keep loved ones alive.
The region’s economies shrank by an average of 7 percent. In many places, unemployment, particularly among the young, spiked.
significant popularity since the beginning of the pandemic, according to polling from the firm Invamer. And analysts say he is at his weakest point since he came to office in 2018.
The police and military response has made a national conversation built around compromise extremely difficult, said Sandra Borda, a political analyst and columnist for the newspaper El Tiempo.
a video, a witness can be heard shouting.
“Is he OK?” the witness says. “Can he breathe? Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!”
A passing deliveryman loaded Mr. Murillo onto his motorbike and rushed him to a clinic. There, his mother’s anguished cries were captured on tape. “Son, take me with you! Son, I want to be with you!”
Doctors could not revive him, and residents of Ibagué held a protest vigil in his name the next day.
“I asked them to protest civilly,” said his mother, “in peace.”