As Bogotá braces itself for another round of protests on Monday, November 25, government opposition politicians, among them Gustavo Petro, are rallying supporters to maintain a movement that began with the one-day nationwide strike on Thursday called Paro Nacional. Meanwhile, in a Bogotá hospital, the life of 18-year old student Dilan Cruz hangs in balance after sustaining trauma to his head during the confrontation between protesters and members of the city’s anti-riot police (Esmad). Cruz has become a symbol in the civil protests of the heavy-handed tactics used by Bogotá Police when confronting crowds.
According to the latest figures released by the district’s Personería – Ombudsman – 120 civilians have been attended to in medical facilities of the Colombian capital for injuries sustained during the last four days. Colombia’s National Police has also suffered high numbers of injuries with 182 members attacked in the line of duty since Thursday’s “day of peaceful protest” turned violent.
By the evening of Friday, November 22, the government of President Iván Duque authorized Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa to enact a curfew to empty the streets of the Colombian capital engulfed in civil unrest. As Esmad battled masked vandals and hordes of looters in several localities of Bogotá, widespread destruction to transportation infrastructure brought mobility to a halt. By the time the curfew went into effect at 9:00 pm, the security situation appeared to be under control with 4,000 members of the Colombian Army joining the National Police in restoring order with a decree not used in the capital since 1977.
But support for the Paro Nacional continued on for many in a city of nine million under curfew, with the banging pots and pans – cacerolazo – one of Latin America’s oldest and most popular forms of protest. Then residents faced an invisible threat when fake news began disseminating messages that vandals were defying the curfew to steal and loot. Apartment owners formed human barricades inside their residential complexes, armed with sticks and machetes. Relying on social media and television to stay informed of the security situation – and not allowed out on the street under penalty of law – videos showing hordes of criminals climbing over fences and breaking into apartments spread across online platforms like wildfire. Panic ensued in many barrios and the district’s 123 Emergency line was swamped with more than 600 calls for help.
With curfew lifted on Saturday morning, Bogotanos stepped out into their streets to assess extensive damage to the TransMilenio bus system, many volunteering to sweep up broken glass, paint walls covered in graffiti and return some level of civility to their barrios.
In the aftermath of the panic, Mayor Peñalosa took to the microphones to calm the nerves of inhabitants, stating that the fake news campaign was “an orchestrated plot by a high-level organization,” to destabilize the city. Peñalosa informed Bogotanos that each call received claiming looters were planning to enter residential compounds was geo-referenced by authorities, but to ensure public safety, police conducted hundreds of house calls. “Not one incident was true,” said Peñalosa and that a priority is to “identify those politicians” behind a targeted “terror campaign.”
As toxic as the teargas detonating on Bogotá’s streets, Colombians took to Twitter on Saturday to vent their anger over police brutality, the incendiary discourse of former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, social causes of the protest and motives for extending the Paro Nacional. As support for cacerolazos were drummed-up for several parts of Bogotá Saturday – including one in Plaza de Bolívar and Parque Nacional – an exchange between demonstrators and Esmad in the city’s center resulted in the shooting of Dilan Cruz. Three members of the district’s Security and Coexistence Secretariat came to Cruz’s assistance before the victim was transferred to San Ignacio Hospital where he remains in intensive care.
The tragic incident involving Dilan sparked peaceful vigils across Bogotá Saturday and Sunday, drawing large crowds including one cacerolazo outside President Iván Duque’s private residence in Usaquén, where protestors hurled insults at the 43-year old democratically elected President.
With solidarity expressed for the recovery of Dilan from across political divides, including the Mayoralty and National Police, on Sunday morning Peñalosa hosted a media briefing to update Bogotanos on the security situation of the capital, which has resulted, according the Health Secretariat, in 135 civilians injured, among them 10 minors, and 182 police officers. Accompanied by General Hoover Penilla, Security Secretariat Jairo García, and Brigadier General Luis Mauricio Ospina, commander of VI Division of the Army, Peñalosa extended sympathies to the victim enrolled in one of the district’s school. “I am deeply affected by Dilan’s injury and I have given instructions to our health and education authorities to provide all the necessary support to his family.”
Reaffirming the district’s position on the right peaceful protest in the city, Peñalosa remarked that the large majority of Saturday’s 13 protests were carried out peacefully, one in particular along the Avenida Las Americas, respecting the articulated bus lanes. “On Sunday morning, Bogotá is operating well with one million Bogotános enjoying the Ciclovía,” said Peñalosa, before inviting citizens to start the working week by being productive.
Recognizing that Bogotá’s police force has been overstretched during four days of protests, General Penilla emphasized that the role of officers is to protect the integrity of others, and that Dilan’s case “will be clarified in its entirety” with an internal disciplinary case opened against the Esmad officer, and state investigation involving the offices of the Attorney General (Fiscalía) and Controller General (Procuraduría). “We will keep protecting those who protest peacefully, but we also have a vast population who are not marching and demand protection,” said the senior law enforcement official.
Stressing that Esmad officers are not equipped with standard-issue firearms, and have faced a barrage of verbal and physical abuse, General Penilla said he was open “to taking Esmad off the streets” if the Bogotá public had full guarantees that the protests would not generate vandalism to private and public property.
Mayor Peñalosa added that besides the US$14 million price tag to taxpayers in repairs to vandalized buses, ambulances and landmarks that could have been used for education, health and recreation, the “invisible costs” of the protest will be quantified in lost revenue for the city with canceled sporting and cultural events and tourists heading elsewhere.
In a city shaken to its core by protests, and two more marches announced for this week, the key objectives of the Paro Nacional to address key issues from education and pension reform, to pay inequality and slow implementation of the peace accords, has opened up deep wounds of social mistrust and political hatreds.
Facing large mobilizations just 15 months into his presidency, Iván Duque has called on civic movements, trade unionists, student groups and opposition parties to start a National Dialogue on Monday to end a Paro, that has unless violence subsides, could claim many more victims.