Colombian protesters as young as 13 years old are being killed in the streets as they fight for a better future. The rest of the world should have their backs.

Protesters stand in the street holding signs with balloons behind them.
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

  • In the last week, protests in Colombia have been met with widespread police brutality and repression.
  • Many of the protestors who have been killed and injured are young people speaking out for a more just and peaceful Colombia.
  • The global community should condemn the violence and pressure Colombia’s government to better protect human rights.
  • Jordan Salama is a writer, journalist, and author of the upcoming book Every Day the River Changes.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As their country tries to move towards peace, Colombia’s young people are doing everything they can to meet the moment.

It’s something that I noticed the very first time I reported from the country back in 2016, and found a nation that didn’t at all fit the stereotypical reputation that many foreigners have come to accept: a much-maligned country filled with narco-traffickers and guerrilla soldiers.

On that first trip I instead met a young man who was transforming his rural hometown into a regional center for ecological conservation. When I returned two years later for an ongoing project meant in part to explore how the people of Colombia’s heartland are recovering from more than half a century of conflict, I met dozens of other young leaders working tirelessly to pull their communities out of violence and towards a more stable and resilient peace.

Police have killed dozens of young protesters

Today, in the midst of a still-raging pandemic, brave young Colombians are being killed and assaulted in the streets at an unimaginable scale. Protests over a proposed bill to raise taxes – which was quickly revoked – have now shifted towards more general outrage over rising pandemic-induced poverty, hunger, and joblessness among the lower and middle classes of Colombia, and longstanding frustration with the current government over the implementation of the 2016 peace deal that officially ended more than half a century of armed conflict in the country. Protesters have been met with state repression and police brutality and dozens have been killed by government forces. Hundreds more have been injured, and riot control officers are facing multiple allegations of sexual abuse.

A line of police officers in riot gear block the street
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

“People are not taking to the streets in the middle of a pandemic because they want to,” said Francia Márquez Mina, 39, one of Colombia’s most prominent human-rights defenders and a current presidential candidate, told me by phone from the city of Cali, where she’s been marching alongside protestors. “There is no other way out.”

It’s a rapidly unfolding human rights crisis. Videos of the killings, some even broadcast live on social media, show instances of police (or ESMAD – the national anti-riot force) officers shooting into crowds. People in their teens and 20s have made up a huge portion of the demonstrators, and according to INDEPAZ, a national Colombian peacebuilding organization, the majority of injuries and deaths.

Marcelo Agredo, a high schooler, was killed by police in Cali after kicking a police officer. Santiago Murillo, 19, was killed while heading home from a protest in the city of Ibagué. Nicolás Guerrero of Cali, an artist and activist in his early 20s, was shot in the face by police in the midst of a peaceful protest being streamed live on Instagram. The youngest person known to have been killed was just 13 years old.

“As an activist, as a student, as a citizen, I’ve risked my life by taking to the streets and fighting for our rights,” said one 18-year-old woman from Cali, who asked that her name not be revealed because she has received death threats for speaking out. “It’s unimaginable that in the middle of peaceful, artistic, and cultural protests, the [riot police] officers would arrive every day to spray tear gas, confront the protestors, and violate our human rights. In Cali they are killing people simply for protesting against a corrupt government, a government that doesn’t think about the needs – food, jobs – of the people of Cali and the people of Colombia.”

A woman and man dressed in black and red playing drums in a street protest.
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

“Today people are rising up, and more than anyone else it’s young people,” added Márquez. “I think about all these young people who are in the streets and I think about my own children. And I think about all the mothers, these women who are losing their children every day, who are getting the news that their children have been hurt, assassinated, jailed by the state…it’s sad, but we know we have to forge on, to keep resisting, to keep fighting.”

Response to government failures

Colombia’s former president, the far-right politician Álvaro Uribe, took to Twitter over the weekend to defend “the right of soldiers and police officers to use their weapons to defend themselves” against what he called “terrorism.” The tweet was soon removed, and Twitter cited “glorification of violence,” but many also saw the tweet as a green light for Uribe’s mentee, the current President Iván Duque, to escalate the state’s repressive response.

It’s an apex point of violence against a generation that has already faced multiple threats in the years since the 2016 peace agreement. The conservative Duque administration has been resoundingly and rightly criticized for being slow to implement the accords, especially in rural areas. Colombia is now one of the most treacherous countries in the world for social leaders and activists, whose community initiatives often run counter to the interests of armed groups fighting for control of the resource-rich countryside – not long ago a 10-year-old received death threats for his environmental and educational activism. And in the past year especially, repeated massacres and shootings have led to youth deaths across the country. The Duque government has been accused of not doing enough to solve or stop these crimes.

“We young people are the ones sticking our necks out for our country, in every sense, and we’re just met with constant repression,” Sofía, a 17-year-old activist in Bogotá, told me. “To be a young person in Colombia is not only an act of survival, but an act of rebellion. We want to put an end to the systematic violence that has been upheld by so many.”

Protesters raise their hands with fists. Someone is holding a Colombian flag.
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

Hope for a better future

Young people I speak with all over Latin America have echoed Sofía’s sentiment: That in a digital, globalized world, grassroots activism is a tool that feels more appealing and more powerful than ever before. I’ve written this past year about how the pandemic has galvanized our generation of young-adult Americans to fight harder for positive social change. But in few places has it felt as urgent as in Colombia, where for many communities nearly every significant step forward has been met with a relapse into violence. The pandemic has, of course, made everything worse, with nearly 43% of the country’s population now in poverty.

And yet there is so much that Colombians love about their own country and want to see prosper – including its hugely diverse communities, rich history, and vast natural beauty. At the very least, this new generation should have a safe and fair way to speak its mind about the country and world they want to live in. That’s why, at yet another important inflection point for democracy in the Americas, the international community must not only condemn the current violence against protestors, but continue to pressure the Colombian government in the long term to protect defenders of human rights and the environment across the country.

A shirtless man with red fabric draped around him dances in the street with a crowd of people watching
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

For young people, change can’t come soon enough. “Our generation is not going to be silenced by fear,” said Sofía. “We are going to push until things change for the better.” To do our part from afar, we must stand with the pueblo of Colombia and ensure that our own leaders do the same.

Jordan Salama is a writer whose essays and stories appear often in National Geographic, The New York Times, and other outlets. His first book, Every Day the River Changes, a journey down Colombia’s Río Magdalena, will be published by Catapult in November 2021.

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After ‘glorifying violence’ on Twitter, former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe to speak at NYU event

GettyImages 1007871036
Former Colombian president (2002-2010) and senator Alvaro Uribe Velez (C), listens while his attorney Jaime Granados (R) answers questions during a press conference at his residence in Rionegro, Antioquia department, Colombia on July 30, 2018, after he resigned from the Senate and was formally placed under investigation by the Colombian Supreme Court for alleged bribery and fraud.

  • Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe has been invited to speak at a New York University event.
  • Uribe has been linked to right-wing paramilitary groups and accused of inciting violence against protesters.
  • “Why give this man another platform?” one student critic asked.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In power, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe was accused of collaborating with death squads that slaughtered peasant farmers and union organizers. More recently, online, he was found to be “glorifying violence” against protesters during a week of unrest that saw more than a dozen people killed.

Now, this week, he will be sharing “his journey and insights in pursuit of citizen and environmental security” at a virtual event hosted by The John Brademas Center at New York University’s campus in Washington, DC.

It’s a curious choice, Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Insider. Uribe is currently under investigation for bribing right-wing paramilitary groups to lie about one of his leftist political rivals; he was under house arrest last year. And his years as head of state, from 2002 to 2010, saw a major expansion of environmentally destructive mining operations, as well as attacks on those defending the land.

“Maybe they should have a whole series of ‘human rights violators discuss things they never really worked on,'” Isacson said.

NYU insists the May 5 event is not an endorsement. James Devitt, a spokesperson for the university, said in a statement to Insider that “we anticipate a robust exchange on President Uribe’s tenure and the larger issue of sustainability, both among the panelists and during our question-and-answer session.” He also said the school “expects the protests in Colombia – and the former president’s views on them – to be a topic.”

But critics say the center’s panel, with no participants from the South American nation, is ill-equipped for a nuanced, and necessarily confrontational, discussion of a Colombian president’s record in power. And many Colombians do not want a dialogue with their former head of state; they say they would prefer a criminal indictment.

In a letter to the Brademas Center, the group Madres Falsos Positivos de Colombia – mothers whose unarmed children were among the thousands killed by security forces during Uribe’s reign and falsely labeled guerilla fighters – were indignant.

“We do not understand how it is possible that academic centers of such renown have such a level of ignorance of the nefarious social, environmental, economic, cultural and political consequences left by the government of Álvaro Uribe in our country and in the region,” they wrote.

Nor is his contribution to state violence all behind him. In recent days, Colombia has been rocked by street protests over the policies of President Iván Duque Márquez, a member of the same conservative party, Democratic Center, founded by Uribe. Sparked by a proposed tax hike, the protests have morphed into a broader indictment of poverty and an inadequate social safety net.

Uribe, on social media, has inflamed the situation. “Let’s support the right of soldiers and police to use their firearms to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from criminal acts of terrorist vandalism,” he wrote in a post that Twitter later removed for “glorifying violence.”

Isacson said what Uribe posts online has an impact in the real world.

“Like a lot of right-wing figures around the world, he has a lot of admirers in his country’s security forces – far more than President Duque would have. So what Uribe says certainly reverberates throughout the officer corps in both the military and police,” Isacson said.

At least 18 people have been reported killed and dozens more have gone missing during the unrest, which has seen security forces repeatedly open fire on unarmed protesters, eliciting condemnations from the United Nations and US lawmakers.

Melody Feo Sverko, a graduate student at NYU from Bogotá, likens Uribe’s speaking engagement to “having Donald Trump show up to talk about how great your immigration policy is,” and treated as an elder statesman – after he incited a riot at the US Capitol. She is a part of a group of Colombians, academics, and allies who have been urging NYU to rethink the event.

A petition sent to the school, now with more than 5,500 signatures, argues against the idea that having a former president talk is part of a university’s commitment to hosting free and open dialogue, often with controversial speakers. This, signatories maintain, is not a civil debate but the use of a university forum “to echo a single perspective.”

“With concern, we note the absence of other voices,” the letter states.

Feo Sverko hopes NYU reconsiders.

“It’s tone deaf, it’s insensitive – it makes no sense,” she told Insider. “Uribe had his post taken down on Twitter for inciting violence against civilian protesters. Why give this man another platform?”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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