On Halloween night, masks and costumes filled the streets of Bogotá. But many of the masked figures were not typical trick-o-treaters, instead, they were hundreds of Bogotá university students, participating in another weekly protest demanding justice in education. The “Noche de Máscaras”, or Night of the Masks, named by the student collective the National Union of Students for Higher Education, UNEES, ended with students gathering on Calle 106 on Autopista Norte. As with each earlier march, hooded protesters, known as encapuchados, joined the movement, and violent confrontations with the Riot Mobile Squad (ESMAD) ensued.
A corruption scandal involving a credit card and a Netflix account sparked the recent wave of student protests at Universidad Distrital during the last week of September. Two university officials, Wilman Muñoz, the Director of the Institute of Extension, and Ricardo García, the Rector of the Educational Center, were accused of embezzling more than COP$10,400 million pesos (approx.US$3 million) with a public university credit card account between 2012 and 2019. The extravagant purchases included sports cars, luxury watches, expensive dinners, and a monthly Netflix payment.
The scandal shed light on ongoing corruption at universities, the topic which served as the central grievance for initial university protests at Distrital, and later at Universidad Nacional. In solidarity with the outrage of the students enrolled in the public education system, students from the private system, including Universidad Javeriana joined the marches. Among many demands is that the national government comply with its agreement that guarantees an additional COP$4.5 billion (US$1.3 million), to higher education in the budget.
Alejandra Sánchez, a student representative of Universidad Javeriana, claimed that the National Budget has not allocated amounts stipulated in December 2018 agreements to fund higher education. Students have asked that 20% or COP$300 million pesos of funding go towards public institutions. According to UNEES, the national government has refused to comply with the conditions and has only contributed to part of the agreement.
But as marches have continued over the past several weeks, student protesters have expanded their demands from education reform to police reform, calling out violence in police responses in recent September and October protests.
“If they do not let us dream, we will not let them sleep. The people of Colombia! To the streets!” announced a Twitter message by UNEES on October 29. UNEES and another student collective, the Colombian Association of Student Representatives of Higher Education, ACREES, have organized many of October’s protests, including the largest nationwide on October 10.
That march marked the largest national protest in the past several weeks, gathering participation from public universities in 17 Colombian cities as well as public and private universities in Bogotá. Reflecting the changing demands of the protest, a UNEES Twitter post read, “We flatly reject the violence with which the State responds to social protest. We do not want more people assassinated for defending the peace. We demand the end of neoliberalism and we want more social justice.”
In the capital, video footage from the protest posted on Youtube, Twitter, and other social media sites allegedly showed officers throwing tear gas directly into the large student crowd gathered in front of the Palacio de Justicia. Encapuchados enter the scene, throwing rocks at ESMAD, who are in their protective gear and shields, and launching paint bombs at the yellow stone façade of the building. The riot squad responds by firing gas at the students from corners of Plaza Bolívar – home to Congress, Palacio Liévano (Mayoralty) and the Primatial Cathedral of Bogotá.
The video echoes a pattern in ESMAD response: force rapid dispersal to address violence in protests. During the Oct 10 march in downtown Bogotá, encapuchados firebombed the government’s student credit entity, ICETEX, and on October 29, similarly-dressed demonstrators graffitied the monument to Simón Bolívar’s Independence campaign at Los Héroes.
But many students argue that the police responses are overly aggressive responding to cases of vandalism and violence at the protests. In one late-September video circulated on Twitter and eventually posted in El Espectatdor, ESMAD tanks hose down and release tear gas on La Septima in front of Javeriana’s central campus, in an attempt to force students protesting on the steps of the private university to disperse.
In addition to incidents of vandalism and property damage, Bogotá student protests have halted traffic, Transmilenio, and SITP routes, significantly affecting mobility in different parts of the city. Still, after each Thursday event, the city returns to relative normality, differentiating Bogotá from its counterparts across Latin America.
Grievances surrounding inequality have caused protests to erupt in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Haiti, and Honduras. On October 14, Chile saw its largest protest in history, with 1.2 million Chileans taking to the streets to protest rising inequality in one of the continent’s wealthiest nations. Protests in the Santiago lasted for 12 days, resulted in 19 deaths and thousands of arrests, and led President Sebastian Piñera to propose a wave of reforms to address wealth inequality and rising poverty.
While Bogotá’s recent protests have not reached that level of societal participation, international protests could foreshadow a growing movement with the national strike on November 21, one that potentially expands to address inequality and corruption. Already, Bogotá’s students have begun to focus their demands on the right to protest itself. Critics argue that incidents of violence have merited ESMAD responses, but students dispute, claiming that their rights have been violated through heavy-handed tactics by the state.