Since April 28, thousands of Colombians have filled the streets in protest as part of a nationwide strike. A nation that lay dormant rose up to challenge a tax reform and a health reform proposed by President Ivan Duque. Protests in the past have occurred, but the current strike seems to be more cohesive and constant than those before.
Protestors claim that the bills the government wanted to pass disproportionately affected the middle and lower classes while keeping low taxes for the rich. The proposal aimed to impose taxes on basic products in a nation severely impacted by poverty, the pandemic, and a 14.2 percent unemployment rate as of last March.
Students, workers, retirees, youth, children, farmers, afro-Colombians, and Indigenous people joined this clamor in a country where the power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the presidency during COVID-19 management, according to Transparency International. Colombia ranked 92 out of 182 countries in the organization's corruption perception index.
Throughout Colombia, facades of buildings, businesses, institutions have been painted with messages of anger, hope, and sadness while some communities held vigils for those injured, killed, abused, and disappeared in these protests.
On May 3, President Duque withdrew the tax proposal. Yet, the protests continued because the tax and health reforms triggered a wider outcry in a society tired of violence endured during the right-wing presidency of Duque, in power since 2018. Protests increased as reports of
police violence skyrocketed.
The strikers’ demands are clear: no tax and health reform, dismantling the anti-riot police unit “Esmad” and Duque's resignation.
During Duque's mandate, hundreds of social leaders, indigenous leaders, and former guerrilla members have been killed in a context of uncertainty and impunity despite the request for justice and a 2019 call from members of the European Parliament, who are concerned about the violence perpetrated against rights defenders and the difficult implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement between the previous government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as the FARC.
Colombia registered an appalling record of 126 massacres between 2020 and May 3, 2021. Yet, violence in the hands of the state, guerrilla, and paramilitary forces continues in the country and showed a barbaric side during the current strike. The Colombian NGO Indepaz reported 31 people killed, 87 disappeared, 1220 injured, 18 victims of eye injury, and six cases of sexual violence against women.
Mainstream Colombian media stigmatized the protests by overexploiting images of vandalism without showing the multiple, massive, and pacific expressions of the demonstrations which unite youth, adults, children, workers, farmers, afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples on the streets of Colombia. At the time of writing, the strike continues. Most demonstrators want an indefinite strike until their demands are met.
The following photos were taken on May 5 and May 6 in Popayán, capital of the department of Cauca, located in the southwestern part of the country. Cauca is the epicenter of the violence against peasant, afro-Colombian and Indigenous activists and leaders. Also, during the strike, students have been injured by the police in Popayán.
The image below refers to the general perception purported by some local mainstream media and politicians equating strikers with looters:
The drawing on the left speaks to the Colombian people who feel unfairly used by their government. The illustration on the right calls back the viewer to the increasing number of disappeared people in Colombia in the past years and during the strike.
The plastered image below is a dark caricature of the crest of Colombia's army, which originally bears the words “Patria, Honor, Lealtad” (Country, Honor, Loyalty). They have been replaced with the words “Lead, Horror, Betrayal”. According to recent justice investigations, the army extrajudicially killed more than 6,000 civilians between 2002 and 2008, falsely presented as insurgent fighters during Colombia's internal conflict.
The illustration below refers to the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, commonly known by their acronym ESMAD, Colombia's anti-riot police unit. They have been accused of murder and sexual violence.
In another illustration depicting state-sanctioned violence, the artist reviews the question of whether the police works for citizens.