We go to Colombia for an update on anti-government protests in several cities on the country’s Independence Day, when right-wing President Iván Duque presented a new tax reform bill to Congress. The last tax proposal failed in April after it prompted a general strike and massive demonstrations that focused on deepening economic inequality and human rights abuses. The latest demonstrations came after some of the organizers were arrested and harassed over the weekend and protesters have faced intense crackdowns and brutality from Colombian police forces in recent months. “It was amazing that it took place, notwithstanding the fear tactics that were being used by the government leading up to the July 20th mobilizations,” says award-winning journalist Mario Murillo, in Bogotá. We also speak with Colombian activist María del Rosario Arango Zambrano in Cali, a city with a long history of activism and resistance. “The repression has been especially brutal here, not only by security forces but also by paramilitary groups,” she says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to Colombia, where anti-government protesters filled the streets of a number of cities Tuesday on Colombia’s Independence Day — the same day right-wing President Iván Duque presented a new tax reform bill to Congress. The last tax proposal failed in April after it prompted a general strike and massive demonstrations that also focused on deepening economic disparity and human rights abuses. Tuesday’s demonstrations came even after some of the organizers were arrested and harassed over the weekend. The country’s defense minister had claimed violence was expected at the protests and put Bogotá and 10 of Colombia’s 32 provincial capitals on heightened alert.
The protests were called in part by the Colombia’s National Strike Committee, that includes Indigenous people, students and trade unions. This is Francisco Maltés, president of the Colombian Central Union of Workers, speaking during the Bogotá demonstration.
FRANCISCO MALTÉS TELLO: [translated] Today we presented a 10-point platform that highlights the most urgent needs. The Colombian Congress historically begins its first session every July 20th at 2:00 in the afternoon. Anyone who wants to be present at this session is generally allowed to. Today, when there was a massive social demonstration, the government rushed the start of the session to 8:00 in the morning and denied entry to the press and the others. This reflects the anti-democratic character of President Duque’s government.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Colombia. In Cali, activist María del Rosario Arango is with us. She was at Tuesday’s protests. And in Bogotá, we’re joined by award-winning journalist Mario Murillo, who was at the protests in Bogotá. He has closely followed Colombia for decades. His books include Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mario, let’s begin with you in Bogotá. Talk about the demands of the protests. These have been going on for some 84 days now.
MARIO MURILLO: Thank you, Amy, for having us.
Yeah, the protest yesterday was essentially a continuation of the national strike, which, as you pointed out, began on April 28th. These mobilizations, that were very, very well covered, and you reported on recently also, were continuing, in a different dimension, but yesterday they were resparked, considering that it was, of course, Independence Day here in Colombia. And it took place in various cities. I was here in Bogotá. At least 10,000 people were in the march that started early in the — late morning, early afternoon in downtown Bogotá, and generally peaceful. But there were also protests all around the country — in Barranquilla, in Cali, where María is joining us, as well.
And it was amazing that it took place, notwithstanding the fear tactics that were being used by the government leading up to the July 20th mobilizations, because they were talking about infiltrations of the ELN in some of the cities. They highly militarized all of the country, with 65,000 public security forces, not only police but also armed forces and the ESMAD, the special forces unit that has been criticized viscerally for their violence carried out in the recent mobilizations earlier in the protests. So, it went on. And last night, really in the evening, we started hearing reports all around the country of those confrontations, which I think María could talk more directly to, specifically in Cali, where, for the past three months now, the confrontations have been strongest against civilians in these protests.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, María del Rosario Arango, I wanted to ask you — talk to us about the protests in Cali. And why have the people risen up so strongly now against the president, Iván Duque?
MARÍA DEL ROSARIO ARANGO ZAMBRANO: Thank you. Yes, I’m saying hello from Cali, which is the largest city — the third-largest city in Colombia, the second city of Latin America, with more African-descendent population and with a large history of social movements, like unions, Indigenous peoples, student movements, and now, like, this movement that have been called, like, frontliners, which are jobs that are facing the political — the police abuse. So, this has been like the capital of the resistance, in Cali. It is called now that way. But it also has been like the center of the more abusive repression of the police, but not only the police, like the security forces that have been repressing the protesters here in Colombia. And it has been shown yesterday, too.
AMY GOODMAN: And, María, can you talk more about what’s happening in Cali, why it is such a center of protest? And also talk about the issue of violence against women and the LGBTQ+ community.
MARÍA DEL ROSARIO ARANGO ZAMBRANO: Yes, thank you. So, as I told you, like, Cali has this long history of resistance, that have been shown now, but also the repression has been especially brutal here, not only by security forces but also by paramilitary groups. So, when the strike started on the 28th of April, the resistance have been strong here, and the repression, too.
And this has been like several patterns of violence against protesters, against demonstrators, which has been like — police have been using fired gas against protesters. Like, if you go to protest, you are risking to die. They have also used other strategies to repress, like spreading terror, and this includes, like, sexual assaults. For example, before yesterday, during the protests in April, May and June, we have been recording 28 cases of sexual assault by the police. So, this is not only like this political repression, just killing people, but also gathering and targeting women, LGBT population, but also, like, profiling, threatening and persecuting all the people that are leading the protests, but also all those who are bringing, like — showing solidarity with the protesters. I mean, in this month in Cali, we have seen how police have attacked with fired guns and firearms, for example, the medical assistants who are being — like, giving this healthcare to the protesters, the people of the community that are doing, like, this act of solidarity to feed the protesters. In one word, we can say that solidarity is being criminalized.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mario, I wanted to ask you — on Monday, President Duque announced reforms to the policing in the country. Do you think this is going to — what were those reforms? And do you think this is going to have any impact on the resistance and the strike movement?
MARIO MURILLO: I think the basis of the reforms are very superficial. One of the points is changing their uniform, because there’s been a lot of criticism, and one of the demands has been to take the police, the National Police, out of the and away from the Defense Ministry and put it into the Interior Ministry, make it more civilian-oriented. The police have been trained to treat civilians as, essentially, internal enemies. This is the mindset of, you know, years of internal war and conflict with the guerrilla groups. So there’s this mentality that has always plagued the National Police to confront any kind of civilian opposition or mobilization, or even street, you know, kids, young folks living in the streets, and very marginalized communities, as enemies, as garbage. And in many ways, the response to the police abuse of the last few months is that rage that’s inside especially young people, who are sick and tired of being treated as animals, as nonhuman, as enemies internally. So, the idea of changing the uniform to blue and making them look really nice, as to show that they’re no longer part of the military, doesn’t take them out of the Defense Ministry — it’s still within that frame. In fact, yesterday, the press conferences in the evening, you had the defense minister speaking about the protests that were getting supposedly violent last night in different parts of the country. So, that’s one thing.
The other thing is putting bodycams — all right? — that kind of, again, superficial approach to police violence and security. The bottom line is that the years of internal war has created this mindset within the public security forces — and it goes from the National Army, the armed forces, all the way down to your local CAI, which is like the local police patrolling local neighborhoods — see the civilian population as enemies. And in many ways, it is destructive. And this is what the — among the many points of the protests that have been going on over the last several months.
And it’s not only about police reform. It’s also about economic reform and recognizing the needs of many of these same young people who are out in the streets, who have no job opportunities, given the current economic climate, who have no opportunities for education. So, the 10-point political program that’s being put forward by the National Strike Committee, and that’s essentially bringing the protests from the streets to a political level, is issues around living wages for working people, about a state-sponsored healthcare system, which has been clearly shown to be inadequate, given the levels of COVID that we’ve seen, the hospital — the public hospital system completely broken. You know, yesterday, I think the report was, 380 people died of COVID yesterday. In other words, every day here in Colombia for the last several months, we’ve been seeing up to between 300 and 500 people dying of COVID, no healthcare system. They’re talking about a free education system for young folks who have no opportunities to go to school. And, of course, the dismantling of the ESMAD, the national — this rapid deployment police force that was the creation of Plan Colombia back in 1999, essentially to combat drug traffickers, are now being used, and have been used for the last 15 years, against civilians protesting against the government. So, there’s a lot of reforms being pushed forward. And unfortunately, the Colombian government continues to give it lip service and, as they did yesterday, talking about police reform, a new tax reform law, which essentially is kind of putting a band-aid on, you know, a severed hand, if you will.
AMY GOODMAN: Mario, before I ask you about the Colombian mercenaries that were involved with the assassination of the Haitian president, very quickly — you’re in Colombia following the Colombian Human Rights Commission — can you talk about the latest results they have found in Colombia?
MARIO MURILLO: Right. The International Commission of Verification was invited here by a coalition of Colombian human rights groups, a range of groups that have been very concerned about the last few months of protests and how impunity, which is a consistent pattern here in Colombia, was basically getting into effect, given the dozens of complaints, the hundreds of complaints and denunciations of human rights violations that were taking place during the first stages of the protests. So the commission came here to Bogotá, 43 members of the commission from around the world, from Europe, from Latin America, from Canada, from the United States, from other parts of the world, to essentially visit different areas of the country. So, you know, for example, I went to the coffee-growing region. María was in Cali and interviewed up to — collectively, we interviewed about 180 different victims, who had unbelievable testimonies about how they were dealt with during the course of the protests starting on April 28th. And we saw, as was talked about before, these victims of sexual violence who talked to us about the abuse that they received, the hundreds of people who were wounded, and many who were detained without any explanation and disappeared for days on end. The reports are anywhere between 75 to 80 people killed, including 44 specifically attributed to the national security forces.
And so, we were documenting that to draw attention to this problem, which continues to get handled in the Colombian media and by the Colombian government in a very kind of doublespeak way. It’s like as if they’re living in a different world. We met even with public officials. We met with police. We met with governors and local human rights — government human rights workers, who were supposedly there to defend the people. And their answer is always the same thing — “Do you know how many police were wounded? Do you know how much public property was damaged?” — essentially, ignoring the demands and, in many cases, saying, “Well, we’re not hearing denunciations. We’re not getting public denunciations from these so-called victims.” And the argument is, is that, once again, they’re forgetting and they’re denying the many, many years of repression against anybody who speaks out against people who — you know, ,against the state, against the government. And that’s what has been going on, and that’s some of things that we found in the commission.