Gallego urges de-escalation in deadly Colombia protests

By: - May 8, 2021 8:23 am

Stephanie Guillermina Castro gathered at the Arizona State Capitol on May 5, 2021 to bring visibility to the deadly repression of popular protests that have gripped Colombia since April 28. Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Congressman Ruben Gallego is calling for President Ivan Duque of Colombia to de-escalate his administration’s deadly militarized response to nationwide protests in a country agitated by police violence, corruption, killings of social and environmental leaders and unpopular government reforms. 

In eight days of protests, 37 people have reportedly died. Many of the deaths, which some call murders, have been linked to police

“Violence does not solve this problem. … It’s important that the government takes every step they can to de-escalate the situation,” Gallego, a Democrat from Phoenix, said to the Arizona Mirror on Wednesday over the phone. 

Colombia’s protests broke out April 28 pushed by the Duque administration’s proposed tax hike that would impact middle class families while maintaining tax discounts for major corporations. The proposal included taxes on utilities, basic goods like eggs, and funeral services. 

The tax measure landed on the back of a country of 50 million people desperate to find economic recovery while experiencing a resurgence in violence from failed implementation of a 2016 peace treaty and where more than 400 environmental activists, social leaders in Black and Indigenous communities, and human rights defenders have been killed since 2016. Colombia is also undergoing a third peak in COVID-19 cases. 

“We don’t like seeing police violence,” Gallego said. “Obviously we know that when we look at this in the United States that that type of violence doesn’t actually ever de-escalate, it actually escalates more. That’s why I’ve been advocating for the Colombian government, and all sides, to slow down, stop and talk, and try to work it out instead of playing it out in the streets.”

A sign says, “No to pension reform #SOSColombia,” was placed on the lawn of the Arizona State Capitol on May 5, 2021 to bring visibility to the deadly repression of popular protests that have gripped Colombia since April 28.

Gallego made no public statements in September and in 2019 related to similar massive anti-governments protests in Colombia that were met with excessive and deadly police force. But he did weigh in on similar events in other countries. 

In October, Gallego said in a statement he was “extremely concerned about the violence and protests” in Chile and said the Trump administration had failed to pressure the Chilean government to respond to the situation “appropriately” to preserve a “just and peaceful Chile” and its people’s human and civil rights. 

Gallego, who is the first Colombian American elected to Congress, spoke on the current situation in Colombia after repeated requests from the Mirror. He stopped short of pushing for the US to put pressure on Duque’s government. He said he’s worried about the current instability in Colombia and is “extremely agitated and anxious to see this all stop” but said it’s difficult for “us as outsiders to get involved.” 

“So de-escalation, trying to get to work together and coming to a consensus I think is the best thing that can happen right now,” he said.

On May 1, Duque ordered the militarization of major cities where protests are taking place. The protests continued despite the withdrawal of the tax proposal the following day.

Days later, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights denounced the deadly events in Cali, the country’s third largest city, where the majority of the reported deaths during the protests have been registered.  

“We are deeply alarmed at developments in Cali overnight, where police opened fire on demonstrators, and a number of people were killed & injured,” the group said on Twitter

A Bogota-based human rights group called Indepaz has said that police are reportedly dressing up in plain clothes to attack people while armed. There have been nearly 1,000 cases of arbitrary detentions and 11 victims of sexual violence in the context of the protests, according to independent group Temblores.

Gallego spokeswoman Christina Carr said he meets regularly with Francisco Santos, the Colombian ambassador to the U.S.

“(Gallego) has expressed his concerns where they arise,” Carr said. “Some of that happens privately, and some is publicly documented.”

Last year, Gallego signaled that he has a direct line of communication with Duque, the Colombian president, when the congressman criticized Colombian officials trying to influence the U.S. election. Duque and Gallego met in 2018. 

How the U.S. Congress is responding to Colombia’s turmoil is something Oscar Miranda, a school teacher, is watching.

Miranda, 40, lives in Goodyear and attended a gathering of Colombians and allies at the Arizona Capitol on May 5.

In an interview with the Mirror, Miranda pointed to the statements made Monday and Tuesday by two congressmen, Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Gregory Meeks, D-New York. McGovern said there’s a “disturbing pattern of excessive use of force, killings and human rights violations against protestors.” 

McGovern and Meeks, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, both invoked the Leahy law, which prohibits the U.S. from providing military assistance to foreign security forces that violate human rights. 

The U.S. supports Colombia’s anti-riot unit, known as ESMAD, according to the Washington Office of Latin America, through grants, training and equipment, a human rights advocacy group.   

Miranda said he hopes McGovern and Meeks can leverage the United States’ influence over Colombia. 

“If those two are able to move the whole Congress, that would make a big difference in Colombia,” Miranda said in Spanish.

Oscar Miranda, right, poses for a photo with his family and friend on May, 5 2021 at a gathering in the Arizona State Capitol to bring visibility to the deadly repression of popular protests that have gripped Colombia since April 28. Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Miranda graduated from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, the largest public university in the country. As a university student, Miranda protested and got arrested many times, he said. Now he believes the Colombian government is deliberately attacking and killing protestors.  

“What is happening right now is excessive. Police are killing protestors in broad daylight,” Miranda said.  

Also at the gathering at the state Capitol was Stephanie Guillermina Castro, 30. She had a sign that read, “SOS the Colombian gov is killing its people.”

The Phoenix resident also held a small yellow, blue and red flag upside down. Many on social media have displayed the Colombian flag inverted with the red strip — which represents the blood shed during the country’s independence battles — at the top. Castro said she was moved to gather in Phoenix after seeing videos from Colombia of police shooting people point blank and attacking others near their homes.

“The militarization of police is not unfamiliar in the U.S.,” Castro said. “F*** the police.” 

Two women light candles on May, 5 2021 at a gathering in the Arizona State Capitol to bring visibility to the deadly repression of popular protests that have gripped Colombia since April 28. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

About 4,500 of Arizona’s residents were born in Colombia, according to 2019 Census estimates. About 60 people attended the evening event at the state Capitol. Some spoke about the importance for Colombians of all backgrounds, ages, and politics to unite to speak up against the attack on human and civil rights taking place. 

One speaker was Jaime Enrique Ramirez Corredor, who was forced to leave Colombia in 2014. His business in a rural community of sugar cane growers was targeted by right-wing paramilitaries who threatened to burn down his house. He fled to neighboring Ecuador. Four years ago, Ramirez arrived in Arizona as a refugee. 

“It’s been seven years since I don’t see my family and my kids,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “And it hurts. Colombia hurts.”

His voice cracked with emotion. He spoke louder.

“I don’t cry because I’m a coward. I cry because they are killing my people. It hurts to see young people killed, mothers crying and we can’t be indifferent,” he said. 

Ramirez called for all those gathered to unite and send a message. 

“Today, united, let’s say enough. Let’s tell Arizona and the United States that Colombia is a beautiful country with brave women and men who work hard and with students who go out to the streets,” he said. “We are not vandals, we are tired people, overwhelmed people.”

He ended by asking President Joe Biden to take a stance on the situation in Colombia. 

Biden said this year that Colombia “is near and dear” to his heart, but he hasn’t publicly spoken on the current situation since protests broke out last week. 

Another gathering of Arizona residents to raise awareness about the repression and violence against demonstrators in Colombia is scheduled for Sunday at 11 a.m. in Interlingua, a Colombian-owned business in central Phoenix. 

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.