On the ground: Unrest and activism in the streets of Colombia


Reading about the news in Colombia, a place where I’ve been to tour and collaborate with musicians on many occasions, I felt the urge to use the connections I made there to hear some first hand experiences and observations.

Similarly to the protests in Chile that started in October of 2019, many people from nightlife, underground music scenes and art are deeply involved in the process of social transformation. So to get a better understanding of the current situation there, I jumped on the phone with people from different cities across the country.

In Bogotá I spoke to sociologist, anthropologist, feminist activist, Latitudes and ECO collective member Luisa Uribe; for Medellín I phoned promoter Alejo Cardona, Julieta Rodriguez from the feminist / trans feminist collective “Motivando la Gyal”, and Ahsly Mejía from the crews of “110 momias” and “PROBO”; and in Cali – one of the most prominent epicentres of the uprising – I spoke to media artist Mariángela Aponte Nuñez and to musician Julio Giraldo aka “Teenage Rimbaud”.

I was curious to hear about their different experiences and how each of them had been taking part in the Colombian struggle.

“Paro Nacional”

Luisa Uribe is part of the platform ECO, a platform that tries to consolidate self-managed independent spaces in the country, taking initiatives to solidify horizontal working structures in an electronic music scene that is highly unequal. But in recent weeks ECO has been more concerned with spreading information to counter the narratives of the official news channels, and redirecting their efforts to raise donations for the ‘Primeras lineas’, the people who are at the very front of the Colombian protests, to provide them with transport help, food, first aid kits and other much needed help.

“Since Tuesday, 28th of April, Colombia started the “Paro Nacional”, a national strike initially held against a tax reform presented by the right wing government of Iván Duque. It was called “law of sustainable solidarity” as it supposedly would generate a solidary support for families that lost everything or fell under the poverty line during the pandemic. However this aim would be achieved by implementing a tax to the consumer of 19% for services such as energy, water, gas, and also to prepaid health services.

“These health services are the sole relatively decent that exist in this country as the public health system is not efficient or leaves many things outside. So people who can afford it choose prepaid healthcare, to which they also would have been charged an extra tax. In short the most affected of this reform would be people with average or low income. This provoked the initial protests that began on the 28th of April.”

Medellín-based promoter Alejo Cardona tells me about another detonator of civil unrest, a moment when an interview with the minister of finance was broadcast, in which he is asked about the actual price of a dozen of eggs—a dozen of eggs being part of the “canasta familiar”—basic products that are exempt from VAT.

“A dozen of eggs is like 7000 or 8000 pesos, and this guy answers he’s not sure but that he assumes that it’s about 1800 pesos. This tone-deaf comment became viral within only a few hours, a trending topic etc, people asking themselves if this guy went to the supermarket in 1995 for the last time. So watching the news; the government spending 14 billion dollars on war planes; the tax reform; the dozen eggs for 1800 pesos—all these were things that led to this explosion of discontent, and rightly so.”

But these particular detonators are only the latest expressions of more deeply rooted and historical questions that led to this explosion of civil unrest.

On the 21st November 2019 there was already a “Paro Nacional”, only one month after people in Chile had taken to the streets. Luisa tells me that: “if it weren’t for the pandemic these protests would have continued to grow. This movement is not only related to a tax reform, we are talking about the fact that there’s 21 million people living below the poverty line, there’s a very high unemployment rate, plus the killing of social leaders and human right activists—foremost in the rural sectors—is systematic. 

“Supposedly we signed a peace agreement in 2016, and since this signing there have been over 1,100 people killed, and around 570 people who signed the agreement, people who left the arms and were intending to reinsert themselves into society, have been assassinated. The peace agreement hasn’t been followed up, none of its points. This agreement had points addressing structural problems of the society of the country. The Colombian conflict has lasted for more than 50 years, and has its origin structurally in the unequal distribution of land, where countryside businessmen have property titles and rural communities don’t. Those things that were topics of the negotiations held in La Habana Cuba, that were then signed in Bogotá, were not implemented, at least most of it wasn’t, especially within the times of this government.”

Protests and police violence

Over the focus that the agreement had proposed, which concerned territories and enforcing institutions on a local level, the government has put an agenda of security first, bolstering the armed forces, the army, the police.

On top of this, what we have seen in recent days, is an increase in systematic police violence. The ONG “Temblores” has documented everything, reporting 37 victims dead at the hands of the police until yesterday, and around 1,700 cases of police violence since the 28th. Violence is escalating and most of it is happening at night in Cali, Medellin and the peripheral zones of the cities.

The situation after dusk in view of the increase of police violence is so extreme that human rights organisations are telling protesters to go home before it gets dark as there is no guarantee for their safety. There have been reports of over 379 people missing in one week so this has reached much higher dimensions than just being protests about a tax reform.

The government however has been giving declarations that are out of touch with these realities. “They’ve talked about vandalism, they even tried to forbid the protest a day before they started in court, and there is no connection between what the state is manifesting and what is happening on the streets every day. And everyday each reality goes its own way, on its own.

On the morning of the 28th of April in the city of Cali, musician Julio Giraldo, who operates under the monikers of Teenage Rimbaud and Dadanoys, went to his normal place with his skipping rope to exercise. It was the day where the “Paro Nacional” was announced so it was no surprise to him that after some time he heard the sound of explosions.

“In Cali, festive sounds are the sounds of gunpowder, so are the sounds of war – so for instance when the main football teams America and Cali have a game, the sounds of the “fiesta” are similar to the sounds of confrontation – colourful explosions – so party and confrontation somehow diffuse in Cali. So I didn’t think much when I heard explosions, ah, festive sounds, but no, ESMAD (for mobile anti disturbance squadron, Colombia’s violent riot control unit), police, and I still thought ‘this is normal, this is Cali’. Even when the public transport started burning; I wasn’t alarmed, for me it’s normal to see a bus burning, but then the chaos started, and it was not an organised chaos like in music, it was just plain chaos, desperate chaos, chaos, chaos.”

“Today I am more calm”, Mariángela Aponte Nuñez, a fellow Cali-based artist, tells me. “I had been trying to contain myself, holding back tears. But then, you also need strength to continue. Yesterday I cried a lot, and that helped me to be more calm, but then again, I woke up at 4 in the morning, hearing gunshots and explosions through the window, and I didn’t fall asleep again.”

Mariángela lives in the neighbourhood of San Cayetano, close to one of the central places of protests in the city. Anciently known as “La Loma de la Cruz” (Hillock of the cross), now “Loma de la dignidad” (Hillock of dignity) – it is an artisan’s park and historically a meeting spot for youths.

She says that during the first days of protests, a police post in the park was squatted and transformed into a public library, then, on the 2nd of May, the streets were militarised. “From the moment we began, the whole violent situation in the city started to spread.”

In Medellín similar protests are ongoing, says psychologist and activist Julieta Rodriguez: “The situation in which we find ourselves is extremely worrying but people don’t really have much choice. People don’t want to live in this kind of society anymore. They want to find meaning to their lives in this country, they want to get rid of this governance of death they’re living in. They want to continue to go out on the streets and protest. During the day there are infinite actions throughout the whole city, but at night things become more sombre. During the day people stand firm, but at night the fear kicks in, and we have manifested to the people that everyone should leave the protests from 6pm onwards, as there are no protections.

“However human rights organisations, APH (first aid groups), press, advocacy groups and press stay outside at night, but even they are being attacked. Yesterday for instance, a young journalist who was in a taxi was intercepted by anonymous motorbike drivers trying to force him to erase his photographic material – which he didn’t, as he managed to escape into a supermarket which was still open. The situation is dire considering civil rights. Not only are the protesters being attacked, but also the people or things that somehow protect their constitutional rights. Smaller independent media outlets are being harassed, their equipment confiscated.”

Community projects, outreach and mobilisation

The central focus of Mariángela’s various artistic endeavours is exploring collective practises that are concerned with public space. She tells me about growing up in Cali, how she studied visual arts at the public “Universidad del Valle”, how she went to study abroad in Buenos Aires, and also in Montréal, where she joined the 2012 student tuition protests.

Among many exciting projects she tells me about the work she did in Cuba, back in 2016, inventing a board game alongside the artists Juan Esteban Sandoval and Alejandro Vazquez Salina.

“The aim of the project was to see how public space can be transformed into a space of dialogue and participation. The project was a kind of democratic exercise in a micro society. The players have to agree on values of how they imagine their lives to be in 10 years, and how with those ideas and values they can build a structure that reflects those desires. This generates funny and intense discussions about what is more important – money or food? Family or education? Home or money? Words that we use in everyday life, concepts and motives that are in our everyday life, but that sometimes are difficult to put in a dialogue. Public space has the inherent contradiction that it belongs to everyone and to no one at the same time, Colombia’s high levels of precariousness lead to public space being highly occupied, and – you see – during the pandemic, many people don’t have houses to go when there is curfew, their house is the city.

“I think the occupation of public space during these days of manifestations draws our attention towards communitarian principles. This space is for everyone and belongs to no-one, and there comes control: How much time can you inhabit a public space? Why during “normal life” avenues can be full of people in cars, but today people walking are perceived as violent? In public space, the government has the last word, but how does it pronounce itself? It doesn’t. It perpetuates violent action to disperse the occupation of public space.”

Similarly to Mariángela, Julieta Rodriguez’s work focuses on the public, but more specifically the people who inhabit these spaces. In her work as a psychologist Julieta focuses on community psychology. She is the director of Platohedro’s educational programme—an non-profit organisation for arts, technology, and communication—which offers support to different communities, assessing what psychosocial help they can offer to children, young people and families.

On top of this work, she also makes up part of feminist / trans feminist collective ‘Motivando la Gyal’, who’s aim is to develop reflections about gender deconstruction in the city through different means, but predominantly through music and promoting parties.

Julieta and her team have been supporting communities during the pandemic via regular phone calls. She tells me that what is affecting people the most is not having enough money to solve daily situations, their lives have been precarised to such an extent, that most of what she and her team hear is desperation: ‘we can’t go to work, we can’t give food to our children.’

“We have been giving strategies of self-help at home but it’s not much about psychology at the moment, the problem is having nothing to eat. It is more about collective solidarity at the moment, about how we can provide people with food via crowdfunded donations — we are collectively organising especially for people at high risk.”

During the pandemic domestic abuse and gender violence has increased exponentially: Platohedro has registered more than 200 calls in recent weeks. Julieta continues, “we also try to help people to focus on problems they can actually solve, make them aware that there is a community, that there’s a perspective for change, and that community generates strategies of resistance towards all the situations that we are facing.

As well as providing direct support to the community, Platohedro are also collecting for APH groups and organising collective action events.

“We have collected supplies for the people fighting on the frontline and resources for the APH. Last Saturday we held a “plantón” (a stationary protest) with our organisation to invite the community we work with, which included a radio space, speakers and roundtable discussions, and we discussed things that are happening, audios of mothers, kids from all the country and collecting also voices from the communities, could find a space for expressing their ideas. We made pancartas made by kids where they could write what they thought about the country — that was incredible as they had phrases that were very strong in connection with what is happening.”

“We also did a mural, “The generation of fire”, as we are saying we are the generation of fire; the youths that lead the protests. We did a fundraiser called “community in resistance” where we presented a performance of some trans artists. There was also a hip hop jam, a big vegan sancocho for the community and we projected sentences – there is this group called “la nueva Banda de la terrazza “ which are all over the city and projecting on the walls.

“To a certain extent we have been doing a lot of stuff: walking and walking a lot, for many kilometres through the whole city and its surroundings, so this particular action was more about staying at a place and recovering energy. It was a very beautiful meeting and since this action, similar actions have started being developed throughout the city. There have been concerts involving rappers and the Medellin sinfonia, as well as muralists, serigraphy, circo and a big mobilisation through the barrios.”

“We have been at protests every single day as there are many different collectives organising them. We check out where they are and then we go and support them. We also lend each other things when things are needed, whether it be microphones or pans, so a solidary network has been developed.”

Plague Raves

Alejo Cardona has been an electronic music enthusiast since childhood who, over the course of many years, has become an extremely active promoter in the underground of Medellín.

“I noticed very early that my aim was not to focus on production and DJing but to be more in the background: producing parties, doing logistics, organising, making things happen. That’s how I built my music career in Medellín.” 

I know Alejo is someone who likes to sow seeds, connecting local scenes within the city but also people from abroad. He has been especially devoted to connecting artists and collectives in Latin America. Last time I played in Medellín, it was alongside Tayhana, in 2019, at one of his parties.

I did a lot of parties that year,” he tells me, “all the DJs I invited were Latin American, and you were the only male one. More than just the rave, I’ve always been interested in seeing things happen in the background. Like when we did the “Perro Negro” party in 2011 where you connected with Sano and other people from here and then all these records that came afterwards, etc. I want the party to be more than just the party, and in that sense connecting a local collective like “Motivando la Gyal” with other feminist collectives from Latin America is part of this process.”

Asked about the controversial phenomenon of plague raves, Alejo explains that if these weren’t happening in venues then they would still happen elsewhere. Especially because tourism remains a huge part of some Colombian areas like Cartagena and Medellín.

“It’s as if there was no pandemic, a lot of American and European DJs have been playing here. Even if parties like this are dissolved, they continue at some estate owned by some very rich kids. These parties are mostly in touristic areas like Cartagena, for instance. But also Medellín has become very touristic and gentrified, so there are neighbourhoods that consist almost exclusively of Airbnbs, neighbourhoods taken over by tourists in residential houses that cost 3000 to 7000 US dollar per day. People rent these places out to tourists and fill them with 70 to 80 people, so there are just foreigners around — nobody complains as you just have tourists as neighbours. These people move in very exclusive circles. And in Cartagena, parties never really stopped, like in Tulum in México.”

There’s a similar reaction from Luisa Uribe when I tell her about some of my European DJ friends being offered gigs in Colombia. “There’s something elitist about the electronic music scene in this country, and the pandemic has only enhanced the already existing inequalities in that context. So, yes, there are parties taking place here in Bogotá, at secret locations, with entrance fees of about 40 USD, which not really many people in this country can afford at the moment. And these spaces are spaces where reflections about the social violence that is reflected also in nightlife are not discussed at all. Topics like classism, racism, machismo and harassment that were starting to be discussed even in the more traditional spaces are not topics at these kinds of events. These are people who lack any interest in what is happening in the country right now. I understand they want to go on with their business and party, but it’s really not the place and moment to do so, I think.

“We are going through a devastating third COVID wave, 98% of ICUs in Bogotá are occupied, the vaccination process is going extremely slow. At the same time that videos of European DJs playing plague raves surfaced, particularly some guy called wAFF who DJs in Bogotá, the protests and the police violence happening outside.”

Social media and the media

Spreading information via social media has been important during these times, but it’s also brought with it obstacles. Ahsly, a member of the party collective ‘110 momias’ tells me that, “one morning we woke up and many stories that we shared on Instagram and Facebook had disappeared, or people who would normally have about four to 500 views suddenly only got 20 to 30. We feel that there’s censorship but it’s not really tangible. We’ve noticed however that there are strategies to somehow fool the algorithms. For instance, when you use the filters provided by instagram or include gifs and memes, animals or nudes, the videos or images weren’t taken down.

Luisa finds these things strange and suspicious and tells me that, particularly in the places of the most violent confrontations, failures of internet connections are reported and you can’t see what is happening there at night. “You get this feeling that something’s happening but you don’t know what it is”.

As in many places in Latin America “press freedom” basically means that big corporations have the freedom to own the media and defend the interests of the few. Julio explains more about how it works in the country: “the media in Colombia are private entities, and being private they have owners, very powerful owners. These owners will only show what is suitable to them, the mass media in Colombia are an equivalent to the mainstream media in music, we will only show you what we know is going to sell and what won’t take you out of your comfort zone. There are critical media outlets, but they don’t get to the bigger part of the population. 

“There is a population in rebellion which is marginalised from knowledge, they haven’t bought the stories of the massive systems of information which are the two official channels, RCN and CARACOL. They own a big part of the social mentality of Colombia; the conformism, the lack of curiosity.”

The media often defends or justifies the paramilitary activities of right wing extremists. Julieta says that “there are a lot of groups, outside the law, which operate in the cities. We call them paramilitaries but they also have many other names. They also participate in the violence against the protesters. For instance, at yesterday’s protest just before 10pm, on top of the repression via police and the ESMAD commando units, you could see private cars circulating from which people were shooting at protesters.”

Julio discloses that these people are also called ‘La gente de bien’ — translating as “the good people”— and that their actions are legitimised by the media with their violence being portrayed as self defence. “Basically it is the armed extreme right, that has guarantees from an extreme right government, in a narco state where there are territorial conflicts, which have generated these abysmal inequalities: ‘My estate is bigger as I expelled four former owners, peasants, bye!’ This mentality manifests itself in the cities.”

Fear via media manipulation, as well as racist and classist violence being hailed as “self defense” is what I witnessed when I was in Cali back in November 2019. From the moment the curfew started, it was what Mariángela describes as “a state of panic and alert against an invisible enemy – vandals, as the media put it”.

Via WhatsApp and other social media outlets, information was spread that provoked people in the south of the city to bring out their arms to “protect themselves”. But on the very next day Mariángela says, “it was proven that these so called vandals didn’t exist but that they were kids who were sent to run through the streets to generate fear, a fear that is a racial fear from the upper class.”

Repressive regimes in Latin America could always count on the support of an upper class that is either open towards political violence or directly perpetuates it, and the decades long history of violence in Colombia is no exception. The open violence that’s inflicted by this class has become more evident in this crisis. What people have been living through in the countryside, Ahsly from Pereira tells me, “we are now experiencing in the cities.

The grounds for justifying violence against social leaders, protesters, farmers etc. is often achieved via a swift and subtle stigmatisation of critical thinking per se. Mariángela agrees: “all critical thinking is considered to be Communism, and therefore as the enemy, who we have to persecute. This is being normalised in an often very subtle way. Also in an academic context.”

It is no wonder then that people in the highest ranks of power, like the still highly influential ex-president and right wing extremist Alvaro Uribe Velez for instance, spread talking points from Chilean neonazi Alexis López about a “dissipated molecular revolution” that has to be confronted. The term, originally coined by Felix Guattari, is attributed to the social movements for change, like the ones in Chile or Colombia, movements without leaders, without a clear structure and that pose a threat to the status quo. In Chile the result of these movements can be seen in the widely supported creation of an assembly that will draft a new constitution, and whose composition is reflecting the voters decision for an end to neoliberalism — hopes that the protesters in the streets of Colombia share.

Mariángela hopes that the conflict in Colombia will stop; that there would be a kind of cease fire. “That would be a temporary win for the lives that are in danger. I am afraid of what will happen also considering the amount of weapons they have. I am afraid of this part of the population on the extreme right. I feel like they could take to arms against those who are looking for a world with more opportunities. That even if we achieve a significant change for instance via the next elections, they will already be armed to the teeth. We sleep very little. We rest very little. I am cold though Cali is hot. I sometimes hope that the hand of Diego Armando Maradona would come down from heaven and overturn this moment like in the last minutes of a movie, where the main character is somehow saved by a miracle.

Photo credit: Chelo Camacho.