Human rights defenders try to dialogue with ESMAD police (mobile anti-riot squad), Medellín, Colombia, April 28, 2021. Image credit: Humano Salvaje/Wikimedia Commons

Mr. President: we read your call for “the gentlemen of the CRIC” — the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca — to leave their march and “return to their reservations.” You are wrong. That is not the solution to Colombia’s anti-government protests.

You are wrong because asking them to return to their reserves endangers their lives. For years, armed groups have attacked Indigenous people where they live and work.

Sandra Liliana Peña Chocué, Indigenous governor of the Laguna-Siberia reservation, was killed while she carried out her duties in Laguna-Siberia on April 20, 2021.

Cristina Bautista, leader of a Neehwe’sx Nasa community, and Indigenous guards José Gerardo Soto, Asdrúbal Cayapu, Kiwe Thegna, Eliodoro Finscue, and James Wilfredo Soto were assassinated in La Luz on the Tacueyó reservation on October 29, 2019. Six others were injured.

Forty-one Awá Unipa Indigenous people were murdered this year. Among them were María Ofelia García Guerrero and her husband, member of the Awá of Ulbí Alto Nunalbí, shot in Tumaco. Four children were left behind, without their parents.

Rodrigo Salazar Quiñonez, alternate governor of the Piguambí Palangala reservation, was killed on July 9, 2020 in Llorente de San Juan de Tumaco, Nariño as he travelled to attend a virtual audience with the attorney general’s office on the Ethnic Chapter of the Colombia peace accord.

Mr. President, during the first two years of your mandate, the numbers are chilling: 573 people were assassinated in the course of their work as human rights defenders and social leaders. Half of the leaders murdered in 2020 in Colombia’s Cauca region were Indigenous; one out of every 10 leaders killed recently was an Indigenous woman. They were murdered, yet the Colombian government does little.

They were assassinated for being Indigenous and for defending their communities, and you tell them to go home. If you want peace, allow them to defend their lives and their communities. Create space for their politics.

Depriving people of a space for politics — of opportunities for conversation, dissent and protest — sows silence and deprives citizens of their rights. It is in this silence that paramilitaries, drug traffickers, cattle ranchers, gold miners and agro-industrialists knocked on their doors. They took their lives and stole their land and killed and raped because Indigenous people in Colombia have been deprived of a right to politics that allows for them to live in security and peace.

For more than 500 years Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been restricted in their ability to defend their life projects and protect their worlds. Indigenous people in Colombia are deprived of their ability to protest because they are killed when they protest. The police and soldiers kill protesters — yet it is the state that must support the right to protest.

Indigenous people and others are killed by the denial of politics, which is nothing other than simply the right to defend their very existence. If you deprive people of politics, then you deprive them of the most basic practice of citizenship. Without politics there is only power.

Condemn the murders and injuries and disappearances that have rocked Colombia for weeks, Mr. President, and for several years. Don’t send police to crack down on communities. Condemn the killing not only of Indigenous people but against Black communities. 

On the pages of newspapers are the faces of young men and women, many Black, whose lives did not matter to the police and soldiers who killed them. Mr. President, it is not just protesters who destroy property in their desperation, but also agents provocateurs: men from the security forces who wear civilian clothes, destroy property and murder young Black men.

These young men and women have been crushed by the pandemic, unemployment, and bad policies — and by the murder of their own leaders in numbers so high that year after year the bell that tolls for the Black human rights defenders, land defenders, and environmental defenders is as chilling as the one that sounds for dead Indigenous leaders.

These young men and women, those killed during the protests, were denied a space for politics and protest in a country where life has gotten so much worse during the pandemic. These deaths are the consequence of a politics where protest is only for “gente de bien” — good people — a politics that is only for citizens. Protesters become expendable in the twisted racism which the government perpetuates, in which protesters are not citizens.

That death comes at the hands of gente de bien is the paradox that is Colombia.

In the neighbourhood of Cañas Gordas de Jamundi, in that southern region of sugar cane plantations where white upper-crust families still run things, eight were wounded by bullets shot by men who were let in by the army, police and the dreaded ESMAD, those robo-cop riot police.

Indigenous people and the citizens of Cali are dying. Of the eight Indigenous people wounded in an armed attack, one of them was Daniela Soto, a young Indigenous leader who was a spokesperson at the UN Generation Equality Forum held in Mexico only a month ago.

Just last week, there have been at least 37 homicides attributed to police in the protests. Mr. President, if you want peace, don’t ask people to turn away: give them back the right to continue defending the lives of their communities, the right to dissent and defend their territories, and their worlds. Mr. President, don’t forget the Ethnic Chapter in the Colombia Peace Agreement, and the way it speaks to the crisis in Black and Indigenous communities. Implement the Chapter and safeguard the well-being and political and territorial rights of communities under threat of displacement.

The world is watching and learning what Indigenous and Afro-Colombians have never been allowed to forget: death can come at any time at the hands of the paramilitary, police, or army. The terror is state terror.

The news reports in Colombia tell it straight, for once: “Citizens against Indigenous people.” As if Indigenous people were not citizens — in a country with a history of racism so ingrained and so deep that a television newscaster cannot even hear the evil in their words.

Citizens live in nice neighbourhoods — they get to vote, they get police protection, and they get politics. Everyone else? They are not citizens. Their politics do not matter, their calls for self-governance are crushed, their claims for sovereignty are ignored, and their voices are silenced. Colombia is a white supremacist country where racialized violence is institutionalized in geography, politics and the use of force.

It is gente de bien, good people, citizens, who drive those white SUVs with tinted windows, who shoot Indigenous leaders while yelling racist remarks. This is terror. In Colombia, it is the old terror in which paramilitaries work hand in hand with the state.

Remember Gabriel García Márquez, who in his famous book wrote about bodies piled high in box cars and dumped into the sea, never to be spoken of again? Has nothing changed since 1928 when the Colombian military opened fire on striking United Fruit Company plantation workers?

Mr. President, we are equally concerned about the silence of the Canadian government about the situation in Colombia. In a statement to the government of Colombia, Marc Garneau, our minister of foreign affairs, offered no words about the Black and Indigenous leaders who have been killed in great numbers for so long. Canada has no words for this terror, Mr. President. Minister Garneau made false equivalences couched in the careful language of diplomacy that hides the terror being perpetrated:

“We are also concerned with the acts of vandalism and attacks directed against public officials responsible for the protection of all Colombian citizens. Canada calls upon those responsible for road blockades to allow the free passage of goods and services essential to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In Colombia, Black and Indigenous people cannot practice their right to peaceful assembly or association. When they try, they are killed — and Canadians are concerned about officials protecting all Colombian citizens.

When the Canadian government calls for those responsible for road blockades to allow free passage of goods and services, does it want the protesters to go home too? Does Canada also want the gentlemen of the CRIC to return to their reservations?

Daniel Tubb is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada. He is the author of Shifting Livelihoods: Gold Mining and Subsistence in the Chocó, Colombia (University of Washington Press, 2020).

Cristina Rojas is a professor in the Department of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Image credit: Humano Salvaje/Wikimedia Commons