This is the third instalment of The Hoser's Movement Series. The series aims to shed light on movements happening around the world, from the perspective of communities living in the Greater Toronto Area. It will amplify the voices of those who are normally left out of the mainstream.
Colombians from the Greater Toronto Area gathered at City Hall on May 4, using our voices to bring awareness to the ongoing protests in Colombia.
But our fight is long and complex, and it is building momentum. From what some call a continuation of the anti-government protests that took place in Colombia in November 2019, others have found new reasons to participate in the rebellion that began in Colombia on April 28 of this year. These parent protests were spurned after a proposed pandemic-related health and tax reform was introduced by Colombia's president, Iváan Duque Márquez. The movement of the people continues to shake the streets today.
Many living in the GTA have witnessed Colombians on social media sharing videos of peaceful protests and sudden pleas for help in major cities over Instagram and Facebook videos. The future of Colombia remains uncertain. Pixels of recorded cries and screenshots of information that already feels outdated. Everyday new death tallies flood our social media feeds and show us imagery that is increasingly graphic.
The person behind the first demonstrations of solidarity at Nathan Phillips Square on May 4 is Maria Fernanda. Fernanda is a recent immigrant to Canada. With increased momentum, hundreds of Colombians came together to show solidarity for the youth-led movement mobilizing for the removal of the heinous tax and health reforms proposed earlier in the year. The demonstration marked 36 days of protesting the escalating number of cases of police violence, who targeted cities where the majority of the population are Black, Indigenous and farmer communities, who are constantly getting caught under fire between the clashes of protestors and Esmad (Mobile Anti Disturbance Squadron). There are more than 1,000 reports of arbitrary detentions, where many claim they were abused and intimidated by the same national police.
While speaking with Maria Fernanda on her reasoning to begin mobilizing here, she said: “I was expecting someone to take the initiative and say, ‘hey, people there, it's in Toronto, let's do something,” said Fernanda.
Demonstrations by the Colombian people are typically peaceful. The history of how these protests in Colombia escalated to a worldwide concern dates back to national strikes that took place on November 21, 2019, where it was estimated that over a million people took their voices to the streets to display their dismay for the mishandling of a peace treaty signed with ex-military group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, as well as inequality, unemployment, corruption, and cuts to education and healthcare, among other reforms proposed by the government under the presidency of Duque. It was a historical event, as it was recorded as one of the largest mass demonstrations Colombia had witnessed in 42 years since its last national strike in 1977.
The second phase of these protests resumed in September, 2020. Dialogues between the Colombian national government and the student and social organizations and workers unions reached no result. In turn, the organizations and unions pushed for a national strike.
Protests grew deadlier as the government called for military involvement. Cases of police brutality cost more innocent lives. We remembered the innocent lives lost at the hands of Colombian police brutality like Dilan Cruz, who died from a traumatic brain injury from a projectile fired by Esmad riot police while he was peacefully protesting in Bogotá in 2019; Cruz died just meters away from where 15 year-old Nicolas Neira was killed by a tear gas canister fired by Esmad in 2005 during a demonstration; and just last month, student activist and protest leader Lucas Villa was shot eight times (and later died from his injuries) by Esmad during a peaceful protest against President Duque’s government. The Esmad police involved in their deaths have not been charged. A recent report states that 34 people have died at the hands of Esmad since it was created in 1999.
The national strike committee recently suspended their intentions of dialogue with President Duque, as the government has shown no interest in meeting with several other key organizations involved in the national strikes, such as the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, and Minga Indígena—a congregation of various Indigenous communities across Colombia.
In May, a “pre-agreement” was met between the national committee and the Colombian government, but the details of which public demands have been met have not been released. This has resulted in more protests throughout the country and a rise in police violence due to government officials deploying “military assistance” to control protests in major cities such as Cali, Buenaventura, and Siloe; in these cities, military forces have been reinforced to block residents from leaving, as well as preventing food and supplies from entering. Additionally, various suspicions of censorship from Colombians abroad have been proven accurate, as residents have noticed being censored from posting or livestreaming disturbances and violent acts as a form of documentation and evidence. The number of news reports from Colombian journalists and human rights correspondents have decreased on the internet, leaving many Colombians guessing the fate of their own family members.
On May 8th, 2021, a vigil was held again at Nathan Phillips Square. Music, performances, and posters saying “they are killing us’’ splattered in red paint and upside down Colombian flags filled the plaza. Candles were placed on posters that listed the reasons for the protest, as well as the thousands of Colombian social leaders killed.
“These protests have been going on for a long time. It’s just now it’s become unbearable to let it pass you, thinking that it is your family, your friends, people you don’t want to see suffer so much from far away,” said Diego Mejia, co-organizer of the vigil, who brought together more than 200 people at Nathan Phillips Square to mourn the recent and ongoing deaths caused by police brutality.
“We’re all protesting for change, because even though we have everything here, we are aware that in [Colombia] it isn't the case. We heard the silent cry of placing red cloths in the windows to symbolize hunger. We also heard of the millions [of pesos] the reform was hoping to get from the Colombian people out of a fiscal hole caused by the same government using vaccine relief to buy the military more toys and weapons of destruction. This is a fight long overdue. And it’s only the beginning.”
Nathalie Cortes is a Colombian born Social Service Work graduate and multidisciplinary artist based out of Toronto, Ontario. Through her different forms of work such as poetry, theatre, visual arts, journalism and photography, Nathalie expresses curiosity for the strength found in human vulnerability and acceptance of oneself.
If you’d like to further educate yourself on mass protests and state violence in Colombia, check out these resources:
- Clashes in Colombia leave indigenous people wounded
- An analysis of video evidence in four cases of protester deaths
- Why Colombia's protests are unlikely to fizzle out
- 3 Facts that made the National Strike on the 21st of November a historic event for Colombia
- Ivan Duque's Military Shopping Spree amid pandemic
- Canadian vehicles sold to the Colombian police
- Colombian Officials Accused of Misusing COVID-19 Funds
- Colombia protesters, government at odds after initial meeting
- Protesters back on the streets of Colombia amid stalled talks
- Censorship in Colombia's national strike #paronacional
- Colombia protest leaders to suspend weekly demonstrations
- The Colombian Government’s War on Protesters