In large white letters, the names of anti-government protesters killed in recent weeks are written 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 the age of 25. The youngest, Jeisson García, was 13.
Colombia has experienced a wave of violence in the past month. What started as protests against tax reform have evolved into a more radical call for an overhaul of the country’s economic model. Protesters are seething over police brutality, inequality, corruption, lack of opportunities and a host of other issues. The hatred for Iván Duque’s conservative government is palpable.
While there have been deaths across the country, it is striking how many have occurred in Cali, a city of 2.3m people in the restive south-west of the country, and the surrounding region of Valle del Cauca.
Of the 66 people killed nationwide, 38 were in Cali and a further 11 in the region, according to Indepaz, a non-government organisation. By contrast, the capital Bogotá has registered three deaths and Colombia’s second city, Medellín, just one. Colombia’s government has recognised a smaller number of deaths.
“Cali has become the epicentre of the discontent,” said Sebastián Lanz of Temblores, an NGO which has been monitoring the violence. “We’ve seen members of the security forces armed to the teeth attacking civilians who are exercising their legitimate right to demonstrate.”
Duque visited Cali on Friday and announced a military deployment to break protesters’ blockades and to try to restore calm.
The reasons for Cali’s emergence as Colombia’s “capital of the resistance” are disputed.
Many residents blame poverty and inequality, both of which have risen sharply during the pandemic, but government statistics suggest those issues are no worse than elsewhere in Colombia.
Another explanation is the drugs trade. The Cali cartel of the 1990s has been dismantled but the city is still awash with cocaine and well-armed, violent criminals — more so than Bogotá or Medellín.
The murder rate in Cali is 48 per 100,000 inhabitants, far higher than in Bogotá (13) or Medellín (14), which has shed its reputation as Colombia’s murder capital.
There is much confusion over who is doing the killing. NGOs say security forces are responsible for the vast majority of deaths. The police say they never fire on peaceful protesters and only turn their weapons on criminals, vandals and people who fire at them first.
The government blames “terrorists”, “criminal groups” and leftwing 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 leftwing guerrilla and now an analyst in Cali, says there is probably some truth to the claim. That is why the police in Cali face such heavy weaponry and respond in kind.
“The police in Cali feel they’re entering a war zone, not policing a protest,” he said. “And when you’re at war you fire directly at your enemy, not into the air.”
A 22-year-old police officer Juan Sebastián Briñez was shot dead recently as he and his colleagues tried to stop people looting at a supermarket in the poor Cali neighbourhood of Calipso. “I’ve never seen anything like it or heard so much shooting,” fellow officer Marvin Lisalda said as he recovered in hospital from his wounds.
One of the more worrying aspects of the violence is the appearance of armed civilians who have opened fire on protesters. In early May, they attacked a convoy carrying indigenous activists through the city, injuring about 10 people. The identity of the attackers remains unclear, but local residents blame hired thugs working for drug traffickers.
There are other, racial and ethnic, dimensions to the protests. Cali has one of the largest black populations in Colombia and some protesters say the city’s police force is a racist institution.
The south-west also has a big and vocal indigenous population. On the first day of the protests, indigenous activists in Cali ripped down a statue of Sebastían Benalcázar, the Spaniard who led the 16th century conquest of this part of Colombia.
Social media is awash with information and misinformation. Gruesome videos show bodies that have allegedly washed up in the River Cauca, supposedly people who have been abducted during the protests. Demonstrators say hundreds have “disappeared”.
Despite all this, most protests are peaceful. In one such scene last week, thousands gathered at a park that has become a rallying point.
Parents brought young children. Protesters waved the Colombian flag. Feminists, indigenous activists, Afro-Colombians, students and traditional leftists came together under a searing sun to listen to speeches and music.
The atmosphere was festive. The police stayed clear, and protesters drifted away peacefully at dusk.
“There’s been an attempt to stigmatise the protest and depict us all as vandals but there are all sorts of people here,” said María Alejandra Lozada, a 26-year-old nurse who divides her time between the protests and treating Covid-19 patients in a public hospital.
But at night, the shooting and destruction starts. In the poor neighbourhoods of Siloé and Calipso on the city’s fringes, gunshots can be heard many evenings. On Tuesday night, arsonists destroyed the court of justice in the nearby city of Tuluá.
There has been a backlash against the violence and vandalism in recent days. On Tuesday, thousands of people dressed in white marched peacefully in silence through Cali, calling for reconciliation and an end to the bloodshed and blockades.
But there is no sign that the demonstrations will end soon.
“We have to keep going and not lose momentum,” said Mar Sánchez, one of Cali’s protest organisers. “We also have to work to ensure that this effervescence generated by the protests is reflected in the elections in 2022. We can’t stage demonstrations for a month and then, when the elections come around, vote for the same old people again.”