The National Strike Committee has announced a return to the streets on Tuesday, January 21, and the first serious challenge to the mayoralty of Claudia López since taking office two weeks ago. After a month-long recess with the Christmas holidays, the start of mass protests in Bogotá could once again disrupt mobility for millions of commuters on TransMilenio and test, not only the patience of those not participating in the Paro Nacional (as are the majority of Bogotanos) but also public safety after Mayor López informed the National Police to only use the Anti-Riot Squad (Esmad) under her direct orders.
With strike organizers calling for the largest mobilization since the Paro Nacional began on November 21 in protest against the government policies of President Iván Duque, the specter that violence could flare up on the streets resulting in wide-spread acts of vandalism to public and private property is all too real given the experience of every past mobilization.
After the violent episodes during the initial days of the Paro Nacional that led former mayor Enrique Peñalosa to enact a city-wide curfew (enforced by the National Police and Army), the images of masked vandals smashing TransMilenio bus stations remain fresh and destruction to infrastructure still visible in this city of nine million inhabitants. The vandalism to government buildings, buses and historic landmarks did not subside in the days following the curfew, and as the Paro Nacional maintained its momentum drawing crowds to public spaces – most in peaceful protest – road blockades exacerbated traffic gridlock in a city already plagued with mobility chaos.
Declaring Bogotá “a city at the epicenter of peace and reconciliation,” during a swearing-in ceremony at the Claustro San Agustín, Mayor López’s most recent declaration echoes her inaugural address on January 1 in which she voiced support for the nation-wide protests stating: “We are part of the citizen majorities that have taken to the streets with demands that are essentially elementary and fully legitimate aspirations.” And in a direct reference to the National Police’s Esmad, López made clear the position of her administration: “We will not allow, in any way, the abuse of power of any authority against the legitimate expression of citizens. Bogotá is a city that welcomes, cares for and empowers anyone who wants to express themselves, who wants to get ahead,” she said. “Our task will be to facilitate this expression and channel those dreams into realities and opportunities.”
While López’s words are aspirational and grounded in a belief that citizen culture and tolerance are the best antidotes to social protests, on Wednesday, during a press conference in the Mayoralty, she reaffirmed her stance on the role of the anti-riot squad as “a shock entity of last resort, not one of first instance.” López also stated that the protocols established under International Humanitarian Law “are not being fulfilled [by Esmad] when shooting at a crowd or marching citizens.”
A situation Tuesday on Avenida Caracas with Calle 43 in which dozens of students forcefully entered a TransMilenio station jumping over ticket wickets to avoid paying the fare was met with no resistance from security personnel. In a video circulating on social media of the colatón, students can also be seen holding open the station’s gates to let in more masked protestors. If the blocking of bus routes with millions affected is the “legitimate expression of citizens,” and recent actions of students mocking the district by chanting “Evade! Not pay! Another way to fight!” a sample of what Bogotanos can expect on Tuesday, Claudia López may have to authorize Esmad, not only to protect key infrastructure but the integrity of the city at-large.
— Horacio Estrada G (@HORACIOESTRADA) January 15, 2020