I often get asked security questions from foreigners planning on visiting Colombia. Most of the questions have to do with moving from one city to the next, such as “Is it safe to drive from Cartagena to Santa Marta?” or “How concerned should I be about getting kidnapped on the road from Bogotá to Medellín?”
As with most questions, I tend to give obvious recommendations, from avoiding overland travel at night, calling ahead to make sure reservations are guaranteed, and staying-clear of “off-the-beaten path” excursions.
Last week, however, I received an email from a reader in the U.S who posed this question to me: “Is there a guerrilla threat in Bogotá?” Even though I wanted to respond quickly, I hesitated and delayed a response. “Yes,” was the answer.
Working in Bogotá’s financial district, near Carrera 7 and Calle 72, at least once a month violent protests take place at the national teaching university La Pedagógica, with anti-riot police called to the scene, and in the aftermath of a confrontation that often lasts several hours, there is excessive vandalism to nearby stores, damage to sidewalks from bricks used to attack the police, and damaged transportation infrastructure.
As quickly as bus stops are repaired and debris cleared, on another anniversary of some slain “comrade” or founding of an insurgency group, the students are at it again: hurling potato-bombs, setting Molotov cocktails alight, and destroying anything that comes across their path.
For the majority of those who work and live near Avenida Chile, the protests have become routine, including the eye and throat irritation caused by waves of tear gas. Usually, by the time the evening commute begins, human rights activists and employees from the Mayoralty manage to de-escalate the situation.
The roiling protests at La Pedagógica, La Nacional, and Distrital (to mention three public education institutions) are infiltrated by urban militia cells of various illegal armed groups, including FARC dissidents and the National Liberation Army (ELN). These groups are the ideologues of the so-called Primera Linea, or First Line.
The First Line is a shadow organization behind the systematic attacks against the National Police during the summer of 2021, and the front line of the National Strike Committee’s main objective to generate a “social explosion” of a magnitude not seen in this country in recent history. Supporting the mass protests of Paro Nacional were ex-Senators Gustavo Petro and Gustavo Bolívar. The former was elected Colombia’s first leftist President, and the latter, a candidate running for Mayor of Bogotá.
With a tirade of social media posts on Twitter during Paro Nacional in 2021 Bolívar champions the “youngsters” who destroyed the capital’s public transportation infrastructure, torched police command posts – CAIs – and caused extensive vandalism to a city he now wants to govern. On Saturday, the First Line turned a civic protest into a night of destruction.
The candle-light vigil to mark the death on September 9, 2020, of Javier Ordoñez, a lawyer who was detained by the police and repeatedly beaten inside the CAI of La Gaitana until he died from his wounds, confirms that the First Line continues to infiltrate peaceful protest. During the ceremony, members of the Primera Linea attacked the CAI and attempted to set it on fire with 11 members of the National Police inside. The police managed to escape with the support of the anti-riot squadron ESMAD, yet the images recall the worst episodes of violence of the Paro Nacional.
Condemnation of Saturday’s violence in the Colombian capital has been swift, with opposition leaders warning that the First Line remains an urban terrorist organization. “What happened at the CAI La Gaitana is totally reprehensible. A day of peaceful protest turned into an act of vandalism. President Petro, are these types of criminals the ones you want to subsidize?” questioned Senator David Luna.
President Petro, however, has been eerily absent from the social media feed.
“A country and a city without authority as a result of a narrative of hate and division that stems from the President and Mayor. What suffering,” wrote columnist María Andrea Nieto. City Councillor Papo Amin went as far as to state: “This is what we can expect if (Gustavo) Bolívar is elected mayor. We have memory! We have been warned!” he said.
The attempted torching of the CAI La Gaitana could have resulted in a major tragedy for Bogotá, just months before residents head to the polls to elect a new mayor.
Gustavo Bolívar has not referenced an attack in which almost a dozen service men and women could have been burned alive, instead, he was peddling on “X” his first billboard with the slogan (in English): “I will educate your children”. Bolívar insists that a bilingual education reduces criminality amongst youngsters.
But Senator Bolívar was also the protagonist of a crowdfunding campaign during Paro Nacional to raise money for the First Line’s defenses. The vandals were donated construction hats, ski goggles and other protective gear to “resist” the water canons and tear gas of ESMAD. Foreigners also have joined the ranks of the Primera Linea, including a radicalized German student, Rebecca Sprösser, who was deported from Colombia in 2021 for engaging in violent anti-government protests.
Just hours before Saturday’s solemn vigil, right-wing city councillor Iván Díaz was assaulted at the entrance of La Pedagógica University. Díaz was handing out campaign fliers in Bogotá’s financial district when “violent leftists,” as he put it, attacked him, resulting in a bloodied face, t-shirt, and election posters. “I am here to defend my ideas, and for which I am prepared to die,” he said in a public message.
The rash of politically targeted violence against right-wing candidates and the most recent fire-bombing of a community police post gave current mayoral candidate Diego Molano an opportunity to express his views on the security situation in the capital. “Less than two months before the elections, the left has activated the violent arm of the First Line to generate chaos.”
President Iván Duque’s former Minister of Defense highlighted that “Bogotá is under threat.” And centrist independent candidate Rodrigo Lara warned what many Bogotanos fear about this campaign season. “FARC dissidents and the ELN’s urban militia are arriving in the city.”