The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The failure to forge lasting peace made the coronavirus even worse in Colombia

Why protesters have taken to the streets

People push a car featuring the image of late humorist and journalist Jaime Garzón during a protest in Bogota, Colombia, on June 2, demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in the health-care and education systems. (Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)

The use of militarized force against massive protests in Colombia has made international headlines. Despite having endured long lockdowns to combat the spread of the coronavirus, Colombians have risked infection to take to the streets in large numbers because, as countless protest signs and protesters claim, “the government is deadlier than the virus.”

A national strike began April 28, after President Iván Duque proposed a tax change that exposed deep and long-standing economic and social inequalities. The bill planned to expand the tax base through a regressive tax on necessities such as eggs, meat, milk, fish and gasoline as well as utilities like water, gas, electricity and Internet service.

Even as covid-19 and Duque’s policies have exacerbated inequality in Colombia, today’s crisis is more deeply rooted. Colombia has a long history of violence, social inequality and exclusion. Extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, sexual assault and kidnappings were common during a six decade civil war that started in the 1960s. But the situation today has emerged in the aftermath of a peace treaty between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government in 2016. This crisis is a consequence of the economic downturn precipitated by the pandemic, leaders’ lack of political commitment to peace and the legacies of the country’s internal armed conflict and militarized responses to it.

In the mid-20th century, a decade-long partisan conflict — known in Colombia as La Violencia — started after the assassination of liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948. In the aftermath, Colombia’s two main political parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, experimented with cooperation by alternating power every four years between 1958 and 1974.

It was during these years that various guerrilla groups formed, representing interests shut out by the power-sharing arrangement of the two key parties. Among them were the National Liberation Army (ELN), with a rural and urban base, in 1964; FARC, a largely rural Marxist-Leninist group, in 1965; and the M-19 (Movimiento 19 de Abril), a mostly urban group, in 1974. Under both conservative and liberal rule, the political establishment was quick to identify these groups as enemies, along with left-wing ideologues, social leaders and political opponents, and launched a “war against insurgency.”

Between 1980 and the mid-1990s, Colombia’s guerrilla forces expanded, new paramilitary groups formed and drug trafficking operations grew. Violence intensified as the government attempted peace negotiations with rebel groups — which achieved mixed results — and pursued democratizing efforts such as drafting a new constitution. Between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, the violence became more entrenched, leading to the bloodiest, most intense phase of the war. As guerrilla and paramilitary groups expanded, they merged with drug trafficking operations, which in turn helped finance illegal groups, some elites and government officials at the local, regional and national levels.

Several failed attempts at peace left Colombians with little hope of finding a negotiated solution to the conflict. In the context of intensified violence and chaos, Álvaro Uribe won the 2002 presidential election.

Instead of negotiations, Uribe sought a military solution to guerrilla insurgencies, redoubling efforts to deem not just the ELN and the FARC, but also community leaders, activists and political opponents as “internal enemies.” The U.S.-funded Plan Colombia, justified initially by the U.S. war on drugs and later, the war on terrorism, financed the government’s militarized response.

Much of the violence of the armed conflict was inflicted in rural areas, deepening the divide between urban and rural Colombians. Marginalized populations, largely rural — Indigenous groups, Afro-Colombians, labor union leaders, peasants, activists — bore the brunt of the long-simmering war.

Conflict over land became the war’s primary driver and consequence. As guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug trafficking groups, landed elites, mining, multinational corporations and dispossessed peasants fought over land, resources and territory, rural communities were caught in the crossfire between these actors and state forces. As violence intensified and inequality grew in rural areas, displaced Colombians left or were forced to leave their homes, land and possessions. Millions arrived in large cities, filling the ranks of the poor and showing urban dwellers the staggering human cost of the conflict.

Between 1958 and 2012, Colombia’s internal armed conflict killed about 220,000 people and displaced 5.7 million. Eighty percent of the victims were civilians.

Uribe’s efforts violated human rights and exacerbated human suffering, but they also diminished the number of insurgent fighters. This gave a new generation of Colombians hope that the conflict — Latin America’s longest internal armed conflict — could end, and that its causes — social disparities, unequal land distribution, a closed political system, drug trafficking and corruption — could finally be addressed.

In 2016, a peace agreement between Uribe’s successor, President Juan Manuel Santos, and the FARC symbolized the potential for a new era in Colombian politics. In October 2016, young voters and those who lived in the most-affected areas overwhelmingly voted to approve the peace treaty in a plebiscite, though the agreement was not ratified by a narrow margin. Despite the victory of the “No” position, Santos signed the agreement, and Congress ratified it in November.

The peace agreements and their implementation proved deeply divisive, with the two sides egged on by political actors. Detractors of the agreement — among them Uribe’s and Duque’s Democratic Center party — criticized the JEP, the Special Justice Tribunal for Peace, which was created to investigate all war crimes and human rights violations during the decades of civil war. Opponents argued that under the special tribunal, former guerrilla leaders would be tried for their crimes but that the sentences they would be given would be minimal. They also criticized the agreements’ guarantee of political participation to former FARC combatants. During the 2018 presidential election, Uribe supported Duque, who won by a margin of 2 million votes.

In the early months of his administration, Duque set out to sabotage the agreements’ implementation and obstruct the work of the JEP. As the ruling party, the Democratic Center’s clear opposition to implementing and financing the peace accords jeopardized an already fragile peace. Given the government’s lack of political will, and its neglect of some of the treaty’s most important provisions, such as the need for an “integral rural reform,” conflict and violence has continued. Displaced peasants continue to arrive by the thousands in cities, demobilized FARC rebels have again taken up arms, massacres continue, and former FARC combatants and social leaders are assassinated under the consolidation of new organized-crime structures.

Now the pandemic has worsened social and economic conditions as it has in other countries. Colombia’s preexisting inequality acted as a multiplier fueling the coronavirus’s spread and deadliness. According to official statistics, 62 percent of those killed by covid-19 in Colombia are poor. During the pandemic, the number of people living in extreme poverty in the country grew by 2.8 million.

A wide range of protesters began mobilizing, initially in 2019, and again in April 2021 for greater economic and social justice, effective democratic rule, and against corruption. The proposed tax change this spring pushed people over the edge because it made evident the economic and social inequalities faced by the lower and middle classes in Colombia.

Videos, most of them published through social media platforms, show masses of youths and others in the streets calling for governmental accountability and historical redress. During these weeks of unrest, police have responded with excessive and lethal force. Amid state repression and a growing number of victims, Colombia is facing its third wave of coronavirus infections.

Colombia could have responded to covid-19 more effectively, but given the country’s preexisting divides — between rich and poor, rural and urban, across race and ethnicity — and its failure to broker a “lasting and enduring peace” that would end six decades of internal armed conflict, the ongoing crisis is unsurprising, though still heartbreaking.