Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, 47, is the Andes Director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). She is an expert on human rights issues in Colombia, tracking issues related to internally displaced persons, illegal armed groups, indigenous groups, minority rights, and the on-going peace process. She generally visits the country five to ten times a year to compile reports from conflict zones and invite delegations to meet US and UN policy makers. She is originally from Buenos Aires and currently lives in Washington, D.C..
What are the most protested issues in Colombia right now?
Oof. So, in terms of the national protests that have been taking place, at the end of last year there were a series of protests all over Latin America. The Colombia part was a mix of trade unionists, students, Afro-Colombians, Indigenous, poor people, victims, all protesting different things. They finally organised into something called The Committee where they had points that they all, sort of, agreed. First was rejecting a lot of the legislation and programmes that President Iván Duque had put in place that favoured special interests – that included labour reforms that were detrimental to labour rights, and the fact he has created major obstacles for implementing the 2016 peace accord.
That was how it started until the police killed Dilan Cruz. He was a protester and the Esmad – the anti-riot police, that has a horrible human rights record – killed him. Then the protests were not only about the issues but the government’s repression of those issues and police brutality. Now, what made it special was that prior protests took place in rural areas and during the conflict with the FARC, so the government could say ‘Oh, they are FARC protesters’. Now there are no guerillas, in terms of the main group, so that narrative about whether those were legitimate protesters wasn’t there. Also, a lot of these protests were in urban areas, in Bogotá and so on. All of a sudden it was like ‘Oh, the state is actually repressing people’.
Finally, Covid happened. Colombia put in very strong restrictions in terms of freedom of movement, which was good. But the government decided to push through a lot of legislative efforts without the usual transparency and oversight – even the Covid funds were done without any transparency. As a result there are more than 1000 investigations from independent agencies into corruption, and misuse and misappropriation of Covid funds. So that, although it is a pandemic, made everybody start protesting all over again.
It is obviously very difficult to gauge, but what percentage of the country is supporting the protests?
Colombia is a very divided country, but not population wise: it is divided by a ruling class. The reason you had conflict in Colombia all these years is because you never had a real multi-party system – there are two parties that just sort of switch sides. The rest of the country was never really involved in any way that was useful. That was why you had like 12 different guerilla movements over the years trying to overthrow the government.
Now, for context, there were five attempts at a peace agreement with the FARC. They all crashed and burned, and each time the sides were further apart because of the backlash of the agreement not moving forward. For example, in the 1980s FARC demobilised and formed a political party, and then 3000 members of that political party were assassinated for political reasons. There was then a backlash to the demobilisation. So the fact that you were able to get a peace negotiation at all in the last round was nothing short of a miracle, and part of the reason it was possible was outside mediation – basically Norway and Cuba.
The ruling classes were never in agreement of this. When the outgoing president, who signed the peace deal, left office, his replacement would be somebody who was very much anti-peace, which is what you have now. There was a plebiscite – with a lot of manipulation – so they can say there is no legitimacy in the peace accord, but I would say maybe 20%, if I had to estimate, of Colombian society is opposed to the peace. 80% – especially everybody in any area in which you have active conflict – is in favour, and it’s that 80% of Colombia that is part of the protests.
What other forms of protest and activism are going on in Colombia at the moment?
The traditional form of protest is mostly led by the trade unions and students, and there are specific issue protests to do with education, labour, that kind of thing. Then you have the indigenous protests, known as mingas, that were for many years led by the Nasa people in Cauca in south-western Colombia. They have been protesting land rights and the mistreatment of indigenous people. However, since they were seen as the most successful protest – they basically shut down the Pan-American highway – a lot of people who weren’t indigenous starting joining. So what you saw in the past couple of months has been Indigenous, Afro, and rural farmers. It has been like ‘minga plus’.
Realistically, does protesting in Colombia get anything changed?
Well, the indigenous claim that everything they have gotten they have gotten through protest, and I would say that is true. In the case of the other protests: not under Duque. Prior governments were forced to negotiate: for example, two years ago protests in the Pacific region led to two huge strikes and closing down the most important port in Colombia, Buenaventura. The government came up with a fund to address the issues, a whole framework. It’s not perfect, but it got something. But under Duque there has been this attitude that ‘we don’t care’. High level officials have basically stated that the protests are criminals or infiltrated by terrorists. They claimed at one point it was spurred on by outside foreign forces – I think they were referring to Venezuela, but it’s not really clear and it’s not true. At the same time they haven’t negotiated anything with the people protesting. They have refused to meet with the indigenous. There has been this sort of disdain and uber-justification of police brutality. So under Duque, no, I don’t think the protests have advanced any change. They have shown the discontent, but they haven’t been able to push for changes like they have in the past.
How safe is protesting in Colombia?
It has never been safe. Since the signing of the peace accord, in 2016, you have had 1000 social leaders killed. In the past year you have had more than 64 massacres. Because the killings of social leaders went unabated you see groups going beyond killing individuals and back to massacres and terror. In that context, if you are a social leader involved in protests you are more likely to be attacked and killed. For example, Feliciano Valencia, a senator and famous indigenous leader: after the minga left Bogota two weeks ago, he had an assassination attempt where his car was shot at. Then a week later his family had a grenade thrown at their home. For the random people who just join the protests, the biggest threat is the disproportionate use of force by the police. Videos have circulated of the police ransacking people’s homes, attacking people with firearms, borrowing firearms from random people and using them against protesters. But it is less targeted.
Does the state track protesters?
The intelligence part is really screwed up. Early this year it came out in the New York Times – but out of investigative journalism by a Colombian paper – that multiple parts of the intelligence services were involved in illegal surveillance and sabotage of social leaders, political opponents, magistrates, journalists, and NGOs, including Human Rights Watch. That undercurrent of dirty ways is not new. In 2009 there was an intelligence agency that ended up being dismantled because of its intimidation, surveillance, and sabotage, including giving lists of people who were ‘undesirable’ that paramilitary groups would then kill. It was called the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad) Intelligence Scandal, and there are still lawsuits outstanding. But they thought they were getting away with this so much that they documented everything they did. They would send bloody dolls to human rights defenders’ children. They did fake videos of journalists with the FARC. Now we see the same types of activity regurgitated, but in a more fragmented intelligence system. We don’t know the extent of how deep that goes, but it is still there.
What organisations are open to people in Colombia who have issues relating to protesting, activism, or being arrested?
One of the biggest contradictions about Colombia is it has a very legalistic society, where no laws are applied. You have a lot of lawyers, and a lot of human rights lawyers, that have formed networks – one grouping is more than 400 organisations, including regional and national organisations, and they all work on cases like this. A regular person can go to any of them and be represented.
On the institutional side, the Inspector General and the Controller General have mechanisms that people can file with. Then within the government there is something called the National Protection Unit that is supposed to be the agency that helps address these issues. So the system is there – the problem is that the independent agencies and their recommendations are not listened to or answered: you have the most beautiful alerts of somebody who is going to be killed, that go into beautiful detail, and then nothing happens and the person gets killed.
There is also influence by illegal groups through corruption – they say it is through the good way or the bad way. The good way is they offer you money to look the other way. The bad way is they shoot your sister if you don’t listen to them. That also generates a situation of impunity because people along the chain are under threat, from the judge to the person who receives the claim, to the police officer who is supposed to investigate, to the technical unit that is supposed to pick up the DNA.
If I were a person with a grievance, and I was arrested, what would happen to me in the legal process?
If you were well-known enough you would be represented by one of these human rights organisations. They would file your case, but you would probably get no response for a long time. Then they would most likely present your case to the Inter-American System of the Organisation of American States where you might get protective measures; basically giving Colombia a bunch of recommendations. That probably won’t do anything. If it doesn’t do anything for long enough, you might have enough to become an actual court case in front of the Inter-American Court, but that could take 20 years. So what do you really do? You contact people outside of your country who then start contacting ambassadors and state departments. Foreign ministries then harass the Colombian government, and all of a sudden you miraculously get some kind of protection or advancement in that case. Maybe a member of the government invites you to a meeting. That is how it really works.
If I was just a farmer, what would happen?
You would probably not even put in a claim because you know that the people you put the claim to are probably bought off, or in cahoots with the very people you are protesting. It has happened that people put claims in and that afternoon the paramilitary is at their house. It’s also likely you will start having to sleep one place one night, another place another night, not in your neighbourhood but another town. If it gets really critical, like you get shot at, maybe you’ll leave the country. People live with this perpetual insecurity – and if they can’t get you they will start going after your family. It’s a horrible situation to be in, but I know many people who have been in that situation for years. For 10, 15 years.
Is practicing the law safe?
If you are defending the perpetrators, it is perfectly safe. If you are defending these people, no. We work with not just social leaders but also those that are carrying their cases. A lot of them live in armoured cars with bodyguards, going from place to place. I think it is a horrible existence.
What can the country do internally to fix this?
I think the most important thing the country can do would be to implement, within the peace accord, the Commission of Guarantees for the dismantlement of successor paramilitaries – basically the illegal armed groups that aren’t the guerillas. And protection of social leaders. There is actually a whole system set up at the national and regional level to address what is specifically needed, but that is another thing Colombia is notorious for: somebody at a desk designing something and not talking to the person it is supposed to help, and then it having nothing to do with what that person needs. The other thing is that there is no real political will to implement these things. The only way you can do that is through outside voices or coercion. Threaten to cut off aid. That pushes the will.
Is outside influence required?
Colombians don’t really listen to the Europeans. They listen to the US. But the government understands the international system, mechanisms, the limits of diplomacy. They use their sovereignty as an excuse very well. And they are great charmers. They make it appear as if they are doing 100 things. When you actually look at what those 100 things are…For example, the military scandal erupted. A couple of days later, 11 people were fired. None of them had anything to do with that, but it immediately shut up the voices. They make it look like they got a result. And if that doesn’t work they start getting defensive and attack you.
Latin America is grossly under-reported in Europe. Why do you think that is?
There are lots of reasons for this. One is that during the 80s and 90s you had all of these dictatorships and wars in South America. All of those ended, and the only war was Colombia. The world shifted to other stuff. The other thing is violence fatigue, and protracted conflicts like Colombia, which are so complicated, are not the most fun things to work on politically. Then sadly the peace process, which is a very positive thing, got some attention but the thought was ‘oh, they signed it, it’s over.’ Well, no: now there is the implementation. The retreating attention after the signing was actually the worst thing you could do, as you set up an expectation for something that is not happening.
What message do you think people should know about Latin America?
People care mostly about how things affect them. So in all these free trade agreements you should understand that natural resource extraction and expansion of markets are tied to areas where economic activity – not just the illegal economic activity with the narcotics trade and criminal organisations, but also the legal activity – was tied to violence supported by illegal armed groups. There has long been an idea of human rights is one thing and economic development is something else. It’s not. It is all intertwined in Colombia. So my biggest message would be that this needs to be tracked because a) it could come back to bite you and b) it’s solidifying and consolidating massacres. Also, not paying attention to a fragile situation means it will publicly implode soon and become a problem again.