In large white letters are the names of anti-government protesters murdered in recent weeks on a main street in the Colombian city of Cali: Nicolás G, Marcelo A, Jovita O, Yeisson A, Cristian M, Daniel A, Jeisson G.
Most were under 25 years old. The youngest, Jeisson García, was 13.
Colombia has experienced a wave of violence in the past month. What started as protests against tax reform has grown into a more radical call for overhaul of the country’s economic model. Demonstrators rave about police brutality, inequality, corruption, lack of opportunity and a host of other issues. Hatred against Iván Duque’s conservative government is palpable.
While there have been deaths across the country, it is striking how many have occurred in Cali and the surrounding region of Valle del Cauca. Of the 58 people murdered across the country, 31 were in Cali and another eight in the region, according to Indepaz, a non-governmental organization.
By contrast, the capital Bogotá has recorded three deaths and Colombia’s second city, Medellín, only one.
The government has acknowledged 17 deaths across the country, about half of them in Cali, a city of 2.3 million people in the troubled southwest of the country.
“Cali has become the epicenter of discontent,” said Sebastián Lanz of Temblores, an NGO that has been monitoring the violence. “We have seen members of the security forces armed to the teeth attacking civilians exercising their legitimate right to demonstrate.”
The reasons for Cali’s emergence as Colombia’s “capital of the resistance” are disputed.
Many residents blame poverty and inequality, both of which rose sharply during the pandemic, but government statistics suggest these problems are no worse than elsewhere in Colombia.
Another explanation is the drug trade. The Cali cartel of the 1990s has been dismantled, but the city is still overrun with cocaine and well-armed, violent criminals – more so than Bogotá or Medellín.
The murder rate in Cali is 48 per 100,000 residents, much higher than Bogotá (13) or Medellín (14), which has lost its reputation as Colombia’s murder capital.
There is a lot of confusion about who is doing the murder. According to NGOs, security forces are responsible for the vast majority of the deaths. Police say they never shoot at peaceful protesters and only aim their weapons at criminals, vandals and those who shoot them first.
The government blames “terrorists”, “criminal groups” and left-wing guerrillas. It says elements of the country’s traditional Marxist guerrilla groups – the Farc and the ELN – have infiltrated the protests.
Diego Arias, a former left-wing guerrilla and now an analyst in Cali, says the claim likely contains some truth. That is why the police in Cali are confronted with such heavy weapons and react in the same way.
“The police in Cali feel they are entering a war zone and not protesting,” he said. “And when you are at war, you shoot directly at your enemy, not in the air.”
Last week, 22-year-old police officer Juan Sebastián Briñez was shot dead as he and his colleagues tried to stop people from looting in a supermarket in the poor neighborhood of Cali, Calipso. “I’ve never seen or heard anything like it shot so often,” said fellow officer Marvin Lisalda as he recovered from his wounds in hospital.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the violence is the appearance of armed civilians who have opened fire on protesters. In early May, they attacked a convoy of indigenous activists across the city, injuring about 10 people. The identity of the attackers remains unclear, but local residents blame hired criminals who work for drug traffickers.
The protests have different racial and ethnic dimensions. Cali has one of the largest black populations in Colombia and some protesters say the city’s police force is a racist institution.
The Southwest also has a large and boisterous native population. On the first day of the protests, indigenous activists in Cali tore up a statue of Sebastían Benalcázar, the Spaniard who led the 16th-century conquest of this part of Colombia.
Social media is inundated with information and misinformation. Gruesome videos show bodies allegedly washed up in the Cauca River, supposedly people kidnapped during the protests. Protesters say hundreds have “disappeared”.
Despite all this, most of the protests are peaceful. In one of those scenes, thousands gathered last week in a park that has become a gathering point.
Parents brought young children. Protesters waved the Colombian flag. Feminists, indigenous activists, Afro-Colombians, students and traditional leftists gathered under a blazing sun to listen to speeches and music.
The atmosphere was festive. Police stayed away and protesters drifted off peacefully at dusk.
“There has been an attempt to stigmatize the protest and portray us all as vandals, but there are all kinds of people here,” said María Alejandra Lozada, a 26-year-old nurse who divides her time between the protests and the treating Covid patients in a public hospital.
But at night the shooting and destruction starts. Many evenings gunshots can be heard in the poor neighborhoods of Siloé and Calipso on the outskirts of the city. On Tuesday evening, arsonists destroyed the court in the nearby town of Tuluá.
There has been resistance to violence and vandalism in recent days. On Tuesday, thousands of white-clad people marched peacefully through Cali in silence, calling for reconciliation and an end to the bloodshed and blockades.
But there is no sign that the demonstrations will end anytime soon.
“We have to keep going and not lose momentum,” said Mar Sánchez, one of Cali’s protest organizers. “We also need to make sure that the buzz generated by the protests is reflected in the 2022 elections. We can’t hold demonstrations for a month and then, when the elections come, vote for the same old people again.”