The role of so-called “Front Line Defenders” in many social protests that have turned violent in the Colombian capital, continues to fuel debate between district officials and representatives of the country’s security forces. Taking the side that many of these masked youngsters who barrage anti-riot squadrons with pavement bricks and improvised explosives are exercising legitimate defense against police brutality is Mayor Claudia López and her Government Secretariat Luis Ernesto Gómez. On the other side of the narrative are Defense Minister Diego Molano and Metropolitan Police Chief Jorge Eliécer Camacho, claiming that many of the front lines are criminal “gangs” that have infiltrated the national strike movement. Both Molano and Camacho have labeled the hordes of vandals, who have smashed much of Bogotá’s transportation infrastructure, as “terrorists.”
After a weekend in which Bogotá hosted its annual LGBTQ parade, and outpouring of diversity and pride, Mayor López, accompanied by Gómez, met with “front line” members from various localities to hear petitions and grievances. One youth, when Gómez extended his hand to greet him, responded “You repulse me,” showing that these “trust-building” discussions are marred by political distrust, social exclusion and anger. “The youngsters who attended (Saturday) made it clear that they do not represent any particular group, and nor do they have the capacity to make agreements on anything. They simply want us to listen,” stated López on social media, hours after the district’s new Security Secretariat Aníbal Fernández de Soto took the oath of office. Joining Fernández de Soto’s first national security council meeting were Molano, Interior Minister Daniel Palacios, National Police chief Jorge Vargas and Commander of the Armed Forces Gen. Luis Navarro.
López also confirmed that Saturday’s meeting was part of a five-week process that was brokered between the Catholic Church and UN to hear the demands of protestors. Many of the front liners kept their faces covered with masks (not out of harrowing COVID-19 infections), but as to not reveal their identities to authorities.
“We cannot trivialize violence, nor can we fall into the error of saying that a poor young man in Colombia is a criminal, that a poor young man who protests is a terrorist, vandal or thug,” stated Jesuit priest, economist, and president of the Colombian Truth Commission Francisco de Roux.
Fernández de Soto replaced Hugo Acero, who resigned 18 months after appointed López’s first Security Secretariat. Acero’s resignation in mid-June comes as Bogotá faces its worst security situation in decades, with more than 70% of the capital’s nine million residents believing crime is spiralling, from insecurity on streets to homicides. The 42-year-old advisor to Mayor López now has to walk a fine line between appeasing public opinion with López’s pro-protest statements, as well as justifying to the national government of President Iván Duque why militarization of the capital is not an option, despite continued intimidation and threats by vandals that Bogotá faces more destruction.