A 2016 peace agreeement with the Marxist insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) with its provisions for land reform and rural development, many of the nation’s poor saw it as a chance for social justice. But such hopes went unrealized and, with the current unrest entering its fourth week, some worry that Colombia’s social classes are as bitterly divided as they ever were.
At least 51 people have been killed, 43 at the hands of police and at least one shot dead by a group of men in civilian clothes. Dozens of disciplinary investigations have been launched, and three officers have been charged with murder. Residents of the wealthy neighbourhood of El Peñón, filled the pavements of a tree-lined avenue that flanks the city’s river. In the shadows of the vast condominium complexes replete with pools, gyms and 24-hour private security, crowds cheered a procession of officers from the police’s anti-riot unit, known by its Spanish acronym Esmad, which has been blamed for much of the bloodshed.
Antonio González, a business owner, said: “The police and the army are protecting us from protesters and indigenous people that have come to vandalize our property and threaten our community.”
“We’re seen as enemies by the establishment in Colombia and that’s nothing new,” said Aida Quilcue, an indigenous leader. “Because we represent the poor and ignored in this country.”
Colombia, with its vast and entrenched inequality, has long been defined by class boundaries. Cities are divided into strata, or estratos, with the intention that utility bills and other services can be adjusted accordingly. But in reality, the estratos usually serve as castes that make social climbing impossible, with indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities most often trapped.
“A large part of the Colombian establishment doesn’t understand that these calls for change are coming from the people in the streets of cities, and not from an armed guerrilla group in the countryside,” said Carlos González, a professor of sociology at the Universidad del Valle in Cali.
Amid one of the longest lockdowns in the world, the number of Colombians living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million people last year. Red rags were hung outside homes, in a desperate signal that those inside were hungry. And as people got poorer, they also got sicker, with those from the poorest estrato 10 times more likely to be hospitalized or die from Covid-19 than those from the wealthiest.
“If you’re from estrato 1, the only thing you can dream of is getting out,” said Yuliana Ospina, an out-of-work manicurist in Siloé, a downtrodden neighbourhood that straddles the city’s western hills.