An international human rights commission has arrived in Colombia to investigate the right-wing government’s brutal crackdown on protesters after a general strike was called in April. More than 80 people have died since the protests began, with many killed by police and paramilitary forces. We go to Bogotá to speak with Mario Murillo, an award-winning journalist and professor who has closely reported on Colombia for decades and says the current round of violence is “a continuation” of a right-wing backlash to the 2016 peace accords between the government and FARC guerrillas, which ended more than 50 years of conflict. Murillo says right-wing forces have worked since the signing of that agreement “to completely derail that peace process” and crush social movements.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
An international human rights commission has arrived in Colombia to investigate the country’s brutal crackdown on protesters following a general strike in April and weeks of massive mobilizations against the right-wing government of President Iván Duque. Since the protests began, over 80 people have died, many at the hands of police and paramilitary forces.
This is Astrid Torres, one of the organizers of the international commission. She’s member of the Corporation for Judicial Freedom based in the city of Medellín.
ASTRID TORRES: [translated] The purpose of the international mission taking place in Colombia right now is to be able to create a call for attention at the international level about the serious situation that the country has been suffering due to the institutional violence that the National Police have unleashed toward protesters in Colombia for more than 64 days now, since the national strike.
AMY GOODMAN: Many of the Colombian protesters in the streets have been young people who’ve lost their jobs or who couldn’t afford to continue their education because their families have been deeply impacted by the economic crisis in Colombia triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is Father Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest and veteran human rights defender in Colombia.
FATHER JAVIER GIRALDO: [translated] This sector of young people who are in the barricades, in the streets, they have been greatly victimized by Colombia’s economic model. This is a sector that recognizes itself as a group that doesn’t have a future. What they constantly denounce is that they don’t have anything else to lose, if they’re killed.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Bogotá, Colombia, where we’re joined by Mario Murillo, an award-winning journalist and professor at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. He’s in Colombia reporting on the international commission. He has closely followed Colombia for decades. His books include Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization.
Mario, thanks so much for joining us. Can you talk about the significance of the April uprising and the deadly crackdown by Iván Duque?
MARIO MURILLO: Well, thank you, Amy, for having us.
I think the significance of the uprising and the crackdown is that it’s a continuation of a process that’s been going on pretty much since 2016, when the peace accords between the FARC guerrillas and the government of Juan Manuel Santos was signed, and the right wing did everything in its power, through its media, through its politics, through its discourse, to completely derail that peace process. And notwithstanding the problems and the many flaws in the accords that were signed, there were some efforts to make some steps forward in terms of political participation, in terms of land reform, in terms of substitution of coca in the countryside for poor peasant farmers — a range of things that, essentially, have been derailed completely by the — first, the right-wing government, before they took power in 2018, and then Iván Duque, the current president.
And so, what we’ve seen since that moment has been a systematic elimination of the popular forces, the popular sectors throughout the country that have been trying to push for some of the measures to be implemented from the peace accord — environmental activists, human rights workers, about participation and political participation, Indigenous movements, Afro-Colombian movements. You had a segment on Berta Cáceres in Honduras just to start the show this morning. We have about 1,100 Berta Cácereses in Colombia since 2016, social movement leaders at the base who have been targeted by a dirty war of elimination, of genocide, we can call it. And in fact, some of the members of the commission — the organizers of the commission are not refraining from using that term.
At the same time, you have — so, you have this elimination, but you also have a situation where the situation economically, socially, has been getting worse ever since 2016, partially because of the economic model, that was never part of the negotiation, partially because of the COVID crisis, which I think was the explosion that led to the final explosion, but that you’ve seen people basically from every different sector of Colombian society — students, women’s groups, LGBTQ movement, Afro-Colombian sector, the Indigenous movement — basically seeing that their place in Colombian society is being more and more marginalized as the rich get richer and they get more targeted.
And there have been protests going on for a long time now, since 2016, different sectors. But what we see now in the uprising that started on April 28th, and that in many ways continues, is a multisector explosion, where the people are saying, “Enough is enough.” And you’re seeing frontline activists, young activists, who are basically saying, ”Nosotros no tenemos futuros,” “We do not have a future. We have nothing to lose, even our lives. We’re willing to sacrifice our lives to put a change to the situation in Colombia.” So, those are the two kind of strains that are happening here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mario, I wanted to ask you, there’s been — a lot of stuff happened last week in Colombia and South America that didn’t get much coverage. The CIA director, William Burns, visited Colombia, as well as President Bolsonaro in Brazil. President Biden had a phone conversation with Iván Duque, and Duque himself supposedly was the target of an assassination attempt, or people firing on his helicopter. Could you talk about the U.S. military role in Colombia, especially given the fact that Colombia has such an extensive border with Venezuela?
MARIO MURILLO: Well, that’s a good point. I mean, first of all, yeah, you’re right. Those events happened, and they kind of didn’t get a blip on the radar screen in terms of U.S. media. And I think it’s important to talk about U.S. policy, because it’s pretty much been consistent for the last 60 years or so, maybe even more, going way back to the 1940s. The destabilization initiatives to target the social movements, the popular movements in Colombia, were driven by and directed by CIA and by U.S. policymakers, State Department and U.S. Embassy here in Colombia. And it hasn’t changed.
So, there was some optimism that because, OK, now we have — suddenly, we have a Democratic administration, that perhaps the human rights initiatives and demands that have been put forward by Colombian human rights leaders and organizers for years will be taken seriously. There is a discourse of human rights protections. And, in fact, Biden, during the height of the protests a couple of months ago, about six weeks ago, actually publicly stated that we have to respect human rights, you have to respect the right for democratic mobilization, etc. But, on the other hand, he’s having these kinds of conversations, full support, full backing of the Colombian security forces in this process.
The good news is — and this is where the pressure from the U.S. community, the U.S. public, has to come in, because there was a measure by the — led by a number of congressmembers, Jim McGovern, who’s always been favorable towards human rights conditions on U.S. military aid, a measure that was passed just recently that pointed to — that reduced 30% — or, basically negated 30% of the military assistance to the National Police, particularly the ESMAD, which is kind of like a SWAT special rapid forces police unit, that essentially is a military unit that’s targeting civilians directly. In fact, the international commission here, that’s here on the ground right now for the next couple of weeks, next week or so, that’s what they’re looking at, is looking at how the ESMAD security forces have been doing what they’re doing with complete impunity — as you pointed out, 80 people killed. If that happened in Iran, if that happened in Venezuela, that would be front-page news every day in the United States. But here it happens, and it’s as if it’s, you know, “OK, that’s just part of the situation in Colombia. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mario, Colombia has also passed a grim milestone of more than 100,000 COVID-19 deaths. South America, as a whole, has become a major epicenter of the pandemic in the world. Could you — how is the government dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
MARIO MURILLO: The COVID-19 pandemic has — a lot of people that we’ve been talking to, and it’s been pointed out — is really what led to the final explosion of social unrest. Again, this wasn’t a spontaneous eruption. The protests that took place and that started on April 28th are part of a process that really started back in November of 2019 and that continued moving forward.
The COVID pandemic, when it first hit in Colombia, obviously there was a major closedown. Everything was locked down. Public transportation was stopped. People essentially kept inside. And as it did in the United States, the primary kind of — the people who suffered the most were people basically from the poor popular sectors in Colombia, right? The wealthy, the gente de bien, as they call them here, they generally got out unscathed, whereas the masses of the people essentially lost everything and continue to lose everything. And I think by the time 2021 came in and people were really tired, this is when the protests came out.
And right now it’s almost — you walk through the streets of Bogotá, it’s just business as usual. I think the government has been reluctant to close down the economy again, even though right now, as we’ve been talking to people here on the ground, it’s a second wave that is consistently staying at that level, 400 to 500 people dying a day, which, if you translate that to the U.S. population, that’s about 3,000 to 4,000 people dying every day in Colombia, as if nothing was happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Mario, I wanted to go back to Father Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit priest and veteran human rights defender.
FATHER JAVIER GIRALDO: [translated] We’ve seen that it is the grassroots leaders who are being assassinated, not union members from higher classes, but, for instance, Indigenous leaders, peasant leaders. The Colombian government is eliminating this kind of grassroots leadership. Most of the thousands of social leaders that have been assassinated since the signing of the peace accords have these characteristics. They are humble people who have a commitment to resistance and denunciation.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in this last minute we have, Mario, can you talk about how long the international commission of verification and investigation will take and where it’s going?
MARIO MURILLO: The international commission, there’s about 40 people from — representing 11 different countries all over Latin America, Europe, Canada, U.S., Mexico. And the plan is to — well, the last few days have been meeting with human rights groups here in Bogotá, meeting with local activists, as well as national-level activists, who are part of the movement, student movements, women movements, the LGBTQ.
And starting today, this afternoon, all the groups are going to be breaking up into different regions, going to 11 different regions throughout the country, where some of the most violent responses to the protests have taken place — in Cali, in Cauca, in Medellín, in the Caribbean coast. And I’m going to be heading to the coffee-growing region, to Pereira, and then later to Quindío, and we’re going to be talking to frontline activists there. And these are the people who are being targeted.
It’s not an accident that they’re being accused of terrorism, of vandalism, of causing violence, because that’s been the discourse of the right for decades here in Colombia. Any political, social opposition against the economic, political model of intransigence, of authoritarianism, of militarism has been silenced in that fashion.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we will continue to talk to you in Colombia, Mario Murillo, award-winning journalist and professor at Hofstra University. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.