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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Veterans of color say video of police pepper-spraying a Black Army officer shows that not even a military uniform is protection from police violence

A police officer uses a spray agent on Caron Nazario on Dec. 20, 2020, in Windsor, Va.
A police officer uses a spray agent on Caron Nazario on Dec. 20, 2020, in Windsor, Va.

  • Police hold at gunpoint and pepper-spray a uniformed Black Army officer in a shocking video.
  • The soldier was not charged with any crime or ticketed for any violation.
  • Veterans of color said that the video shows that not even a uniform is protection from police violence.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A video of police officers holding a uniformed Black US Army soldier at gunpoint and pepper spraying him during a traffic stop in Windsor, Virginia is a troubling reminder that sometimes not even a military uniform is protection enough for Black Americans against threats of police brutality, veterans of color told Insider.

“Once you put on the uniform, it doesn’t erase the fact that you are a Black person in America,” Richard Brookshire, a former Army medic who co-founded and serves as the executive director of the Black Veterans Project, told Insider.

US Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino health services administration officer with the Virginia Army National Guard, is suing two Virginia police officers, Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, for aggressive actions taken during a traffic stop in December that started over a license plate issue but quickly escalated.

In video footage from the incident released late last week, two police officers can be seen shouting at Nazario with their guns drawn, pepper-spraying him, and physically striking him repeatedly as they force him to the ground.

At one point during the traffic stop, as the police officers yell for him to get out of the car, Nazario told them he was “honestly afraid” to get out, to which one officer responded: “Yeah, you should be.”

Mark Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, said on Twitter that “the video doesn’t show anything to justify how Lt. Nazario was treated,” adding in another tweet that Nazario showed “incredible composure.”

Nazario was not charged with any criminal wrongdoing or traffic violation, his attorney told NBC News. He says that the police violated his clients constitutional rights.

Nazario’s attorney writes in the lawsuit that the video footage is “consistent with a disgusting nationwide trend of law enforcement officers, who, believing they can operate with complete impunity, engage in unprofessional, discourteous, racially biased, dangerous, and sometimes deadly abuses of authority,” adding that Nazario, while in uniform, was a victim of this trend.

The town of Windsor, Virginia characterized the incident as “unfortunate” and announced Sunday that one of the two officers involved has been fired.

‘Deeply troubling’

“One of the things that probably stuck out the most to me was the fear in Lt. Nazario’s face and actions and voice because he’s realizing right from the get-go that even though he’s in uniform and he’s an active-duty service member, he is still at risk of suffering the same fate that many Black people have suffered at the hands of the police,” Jeremy Butler, a Navy veteran and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Insider.

“He might have expected it if he were in civilian clothes, but the fact that’s he’s in uniform and this is the way he’s being treated by the police, it almost does not compute.”

“We have been consistently told this message of how much the country salutes our services and appreciates our sacrifice,” Butler said, but “what you see in this instance is that is not always the case.”

In the video footage of the traffic stop, Nazario can be heard multiple times saying “I’m serving my country and this is how I’m treated” with a tone of what sounds like disbelief.

The Black Veterans Project said on Twitter that such developments, while upsetting, are neither shocking nor surprising given the police violence that many Black service members and veterans have faced throughout US history.

“I thought it was deeply troubling,” Brookshire said of the video. “It reminded me, especially because he got maced and thinking about his eyes, of Isaac Woodard.”

On February 12, 1946, Woodard was pulled off a bus and beaten by police, who blinded him in both eyes, as he was returning home to his wife after the war. Woodard is just one of many Black war veterans who experienced such brutality.

“Wearing the uniform doesn’t protect Black people from racism,” Brookshire said, explaining that “this idea that black folks are somehow cloaked or protected because they are in uniform, because they serve in the military, or that somehow their skin color is not an issue once they join this institution is a farce and a misreading of history.”

Naveed Shah, another veteran of color and a staff member at Common Defense, argued on Twitter that what happened to Nazario is “another example of why we demand that #BlackLivesMatter.”

The country has been forced to look more closely at issues of racial injustice and police brutality since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died last May after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes. His death sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

The murder trial for one of the officers involved is ongoing.

But even as the US takes a closer look at problems that have long affected the country, there continues to be alarming incidents of police violence involving Black Americans.

“Even though I do feel generally overall that we are making progress,” Butler said, “there are still too frequent reminders that we have a very, very long way to go.”

The governor of Virginia called the incident involving Nazario “disturbing,” writing in a statement that “we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable, and people are held accountable.”

Not only are state police investigating the incident at the direction of Gov. Ralph Northam, but the Virginia attorney general announced Monday that he is launching a civil rights investigation into the two police officers involved. He characterized their actions as “dangerous, unnecessary, unacceptable and avoidable.”

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston said Monday that Nazario “represented himself and our Army well,” stating that while he is proud of him, he is concerned by the video of the traffic stop.

The sergeant major offered an assurance that Nazario “is receiving the support from his leadership he needs during this time.” The incident is said to have given the soldier nightmares, The Washington Post reported.

Nazario’s attorney said Saturday that his client is seeking at least $1 million in damages to send a clear message “to officers that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”

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