“I know you’re fighting a just cause…We go all round the country and we see people fighting just causes all the time…But this is our job…our role here is to attack, so that’s what we do.”
These were the words my friend was told when he engaged in conversation the other night with an agent of the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron) on the streets of Buenaventura, Colombia, in the context of the ongoing civic strike.
The mainly Afro-descendant and indigenous community of Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast of Colombia has been on a civic strike now for 16 days. 16 days in which business, banks, shops and schools have been closed down and taxis and buses have stopped working to demand that the national government fulfils is basic human rights obligations to its citizens.
The demands of the strike are clear. Due to the desperate human rights situation which the community faces in Buenaventura, the Strike Committee called for the National Government to adopt a State of Social, Economic and Ecological Emergency in accordance with article 215 of the 1991 Colombian Constitution. This declaration would commit the government to providing within 30 days (90 days with extension) sufficient funds to address urgent issues in the city; basic and fundamental human rights which are seriously lacking, such as clean drinking water, a hospital with tertiary level health care, adequate sewage systems, quality and culturally relevant education institutions, and reparations for victims of violence, conflict and injustice. The Civic Strike Committee has been in and out of talks with the government for two weeks and the government has so far refused to meet the demands of the strikers.
Meanwhile day after day up to 200,000 strikers have taken to the streets marching or congregating in collective meeting points along the main Avenida 6o (6th Avenue) and the Via Alterna Interna (ring road) which both lead from the outskirts of Buenaventura to the city centre, and Colombia’s most important international port. The strikers protest at the injustice of neoliberal economic policies which leave a city of over 500,000 people without basic public services, infrastructure and human rights, while the profits from tens of billions of dollars of imports and exports each year line the pockets of private owners.
The meeting points, consisting of open-air tents and sound systems, in which strikers peacefully resist this economic model, though cultural traditions of music, singing, dancing, storytelling, banging pots and pans and chanting for basic human rights, have a another function; preventing the cargo trucks, from entering and leaving the city. This is a historical and monumental form of resistance, not only to Colombia’s economic model, but to the wider global economic system, as a small group of determined protestors block one of the most strategic international ports for trade between Latin America and Asia. The response from the state has been has been violent, brutal and repressive.
Since the 19th March the ESDMAD have been present in the city, and backed up by the police, military and undercover police operations, has rained down on strikers firing not only tear gas but on several occasions fire arms. Tear gas has repeatedly been fired at residential areas and in particular into the most vulnerable communities where it easily enters into Buenaventura’s traditional casas de palafitos (wooden houses on stilts) causing asphyxiation for babies and young children, many of whom have been rushed to the clinic on the backs of motorbikes in the early house of the mornings. Night after night the ESMAD has torn down meeting points to make way for the cargo trucks that enter and leave the city just before dawn.
Last night was a particularly bad night. We arrived at the Sabrosuras meeting point in El Dorado barrio shortly before midnight after reports of earlier attacks by the ESMAD. As we arrived we were greeted by at least 150 strikers, men, women, and children, chatting, drinking coffee, singing along to music. All was quiet for a couple of hours, but then at around 2am we got news from a meeting point further along the road that the ESMAD were on their way back.
Groups of young strikers prepared to defend themselves and the meeting point, committed to preventing the trucks from passing. They strengthen the makeshift road blocks of tree branches, tires and planks of wood, and set up shields made from billboards several hundred metres from the official meeting point were people of all ages were still gathered. From our vantage point we could see the public security forces slowly advancing, first a battering tank to take out the road blocks, then an ESMAD tank followed by ESMAD agents on foot, and behind them several policemen on motorbikes and more tanks, trucks and cars. It felt like an army had been sent to overpower a couple of hundred unarmed protestors, with nothing but stones for self-defence.
The first encounter was brief, the battering tank took out the road blocks in a matter of seconds and the ESMAD began firing tear gas scattering the protestors into the nearby streets. The convoy thundered on, creaking and moaning under the weight of so metal armour, easily reaching and passing the tents of the meeting point. For a short time after they passed and continued down the road there was relative silence as protestors wearily made their way back to the main road. Then more ESMAD trucks and agents arrived and a two-hour confrontation ensued between ESMAD and a hundred or so mainly young people.
When the attack finally calmed down, the dust settled and most of the protestors had been scattered the cavalry arrived. The raison d'être for all this violence. First an ESMAD tank, then police cars, then a line of 20 or so police on bikes ceremoniously ushered a procession of no less than 50 cargo trucks into the city. One after one the trucks thundered by as outraged bystanders shouted angrily at the drivers and ESMAD agents point blank shot tear gas at anyone who looked like they might try to stop the neoliberal caravan of profit as it made its way to the port.
The ESMAD hung around well after the trucks had passed through, still shooting the odd tear gas canister, revealing their immaturity as they hid behind walls, clearly enjoying playing at war while the city’s residents walked the streets attempting to go about their morning activities in peace. Except it wasn’t a game and the scene really resembled one of occupation and war. When the ESMAD finally moved out strikers and bystanders gathered on the sidewalks to mockingly cheer and clap the national heroes. The agents responded with equal scorn, taunting the crowds, laughing and putting their thumbs in the air.
The confrontations at El Dorado and Independencia barrios didn’t end there, they continued well into the morning, even as the Civic Strike Committee organised and planned for the day’s cultural activity, a march from El Dorado and other meeting towards the Isla de la Paz barrio located near the Via Alterna Interna.
Yes. Last night was a particularly bad night. There were numerous injuries from tear gas and a further six fire arms injuries confirmed so far. Evidence was gathered and shared by strikers of empty tear gas canisters, bullets from army rifles, photos of armed, plain clothed officers in the crowds and videos of the ESMAD advancing and firing tear gas at the unarmed strikers and at the houses in the nearby streets. The voice of one young woman carried across the wind as she called from a balcony in a building engulfed with tear gas a few streets away, repeating over and over “murderers, murderers, you are killing us, murderers.”
As the strikes entered their 16th day in Buenaventura, and the Committee prepared for the arrival of government ministers this morning to present their reformed demands, the call they have been making for weeks for the government to remove the ESMAD forces and end the violence on the streets and in the communities of Buenaventura resonated more strongly than ever. For how can we negotiate agreements in the middle of a war? The continued presence of the ESMAD, who in their own words, are here to “attack,” has made it impossible to negotiate a truly peaceful end to the strike, and demonstrates that the government has little intention of respecting the demands and rights of the community and is farm more concerned about protecting the private interests of the port. Nevertheless, in the face of an indifferent government the people of Buenaventura have stayed strong and committed to this people-centred human rights and political process. As the dialogues commenced in the afternoon of the 16th day, the community of Buenaventura continued to assert their right to march, strike and protest in the streets, to demand their fundamental human rights and to chant day after day and night after night that “el pueblo no se rinde carajo!” the people won’t give up!