Colombian students remain defiant despite massive repression against November 8 march

Violence by state forces left dozens injured. Some students remain missing and many were arrested after the protest that demanded that president Duque negotiate with the students

November 13, 2018 by Zoe Alexandra
Tank rolls down street in Popayán where ESMAD heavily repressed the student protest.

On Thursday, November 8, students across Colombia mobilized once again to demand that the government intervene to save public education. Students from 32 public universities in Colombia, who are organized under the banner of the National Union of Students in Higher Education (UNEES), have been on strike for the past several weeks demanding that the government address the demands that were presented to it on September 27. After the representatives of the government showed no political will to address their demands and the negotiations were suspended, the students are now demanding that president Ivan Duque himself sit down to negotiate with them. This was the central demand of the march on November 8.

Despite the overall peaceful nature of the marches conducted by the students and educational workers’ unions, they were met with brutal repression by the Anti-Disturbance Mobile Squadron (ESMAD). Images and videos of ESMAD personnel firing canisters of tear gas, shooting rubber bullets and unconventional weapons at students were circulated widely after Thursday’s marches.

A journalist from the Colombian alternative media outlet, Colombia Informa, was attacked in the southwest city of Popayán by ESMAD personnel while covering the march, despite wearing a press vest and badge.

After a day of tumult and state violence, the minister of defense of Colombia released a statement rejecting “aggressions against public force,,” and said it would seek an “increase of sentences for those who commit it”. The statement condemned the “grave attacks” suffered by members of the public force during the last month of protests – a clear reference to the student strike – and stated that Guillermo Botero, the defence minister, would present a bill to Congress in which the sentence would be increased for the crime of violence against a public servant. When Botero was appointed defense minister by Duque, he had stated that he would propose a law to regulate and control social protests.

Maria Montiel, correspondent of Colombia Informa and member of the People’s Legal Team (Equipo Jurídico Pueblos), described the events at the Industrial University of Santander (UIS) where ESMAD personnel began to attack students and the general population indiscriminately and did not allow them to leave the university.

“Students at UIS decided to organize and march around midday, but some of them were masked and meanwhile, some people decided to start an assembly, where they began debating and discussing the situation faced by the UIS and higher education in general. Then, the police arrived, followed by ESMAD. The ESMAD personnel began to attack the masked students, but also the other students and the people in general. The situation lasted until 6 p.m. Many were injured by tear gas, rubber bullets and the unconventional weapons that ESMAD forces used.”

Montiel, a human rights defender, attempted to intervene: “There were several of us human rights defenders in the university and we tried to initiate dialogue with the metropolitan police of Bucaramanga so that they would allow the students and others who were stuck inside to leave. Several children and older folk were also there. Their response was to end the dialogue, laugh at us and send the ESMAD to attack us with tear gas while we were trying to talk to them. At some point during the afternoon’s events, one person was detained. Even the day after, we still did not know who it was and what happened, if it was during the protest, and what were the reasons that the police detained them.”

Paulina Trujillo is a political science student at the National University of Colombia. She is the spokesperson of the political science and law faculty there and a national spokesperson of the UNEES. She was present at the march in Bogotá on Thursday.

“I participated in the march that left from the National University (UNAL) and everything was going well, I think around 8,000 of us were there. We planned to meet up with the District University students to go together to the 100th Street and the North Highway. We arrived at the meeting point where we had planned a press conference to demand that president Duque sit down to negotiate with us. Everything was very calm and going as planned.

The students saw there were enough people to block both sides of the highway. On one side of the road, a woman in a red car was blocked and she decided, as the videos circulating on social media show, to drive straight into my comrades from the university and run them over,“ Trujillo added.

Trujillo said that some 15 minutes later, the students found that they were surrounded by squadrons of ESMAD. “They started to shoot sound grenades at us and people began running. They soon switched to tear gas and chaos ensued. People were not very prepared for this level of state violence. Thus, many were hit on the head and legs with objects and injured while trying to run to safety,” she recalled.

#ParoNacionalUniversitario || Algunos registros de las agresiones del #ESMAD a estudiantes que se manifestaban pacíficamente. El gobierno no ofrece soluciones pero si envía a a reprimir violentamente a quienes se manifiestan. #DesmonteDelESMAD #ElParoSeMantiene #SOSUniversidadesPúblicas

Gepostet von Aula & Palabra – Prensa Estudiantil am Freitag, 9. November 2018

In addition to this repression, the police also planned an ambush. Trujillo said the fleeing students were met by 20 police personnel on motorcycles who were lying in wait. “It was a terrible ambush. We decided to meet up with our comrades from the District University. When the police saw us heading towards the advancing march, they fired more tear gas and sound grenades, causing more chaos, Trujillo said.

Some of the students went into a supermarket to escape the attacks but were locked in by ESMAD personnel. The security forces also threatened them with prison although there was no grounds for doing so and the students were only trying to escape the violence of ESMAD. The students were only allowed to go after their information was collected and they were again threatened with cases.

#ParoNacionalUniversitario || Policía acorrala y amenaza a estudiantes que se manifestaban pacíficamente en el norte de Bogotá. Es necesario presencia de organizaciones de DDHH. #ElParoSeMantiene #DesmonteDelESMAD #SOSUniversidadesPúblicas

Gepostet von Aula & Palabra – Prensa Estudiantil am Donnerstag, 8. November 2018

Trujillo noted how the authorities later threatened the organizers of the march with prosecution.  “During the march, they arrested several students and as of now, we don’t know the whereabouts of one student who was disappeared from the National University. We do not know where they are. They are not with their family or their friends, and we are still searching. Many students also could not be found for the whole day, and it was a terrible experience.”

As a national spokesperson of UNEES, Paulina Trujillo also spoke about the trend of repression over the past few weeks and its relation to the process of dialogue with the government:

“From the start, the government has been trying to delay the negotiations. In the last session, they gave us a presentation about the national budget even though all the student representatives at the negotiations were familiar with the details. Then, they basically told us that they were not willing to offer any more money than what was agreed upon with the university presidents and that there was nowhere to take money from. We offered several suggestions and studies regarding where the funds could come from but they completely ignored this. They do not want to evaluate these possibilities. Someone pointedly asked the vice-minister of education if there was any political will on their part, and he plainly said no.”

Trujillo said that if there was no political will, the negotiations did not count for anything. “The government has skipped several norms and protocols while initiating the dialogue. For example, there are no signed documents that provide a framework for the negotiations. They skipped the steps that would give these talks a more binding nature. That is why we decided to leave these negotiations and raised the demand for negotiations with Duque, and so far, he has not responded at all,” she added.

The students have decided to forge a unity with other sectors of society. On November 13, the students will participate in a civic round-table with other sectors like the truck drivers, the indigenous communities, peasant communities, the health sector, trade unions and other forces of the educational sector. The idea is to work towards a national civic strike so as to bring together various forces that will compel the government to listen to the demands not only of the students but also of the people of Colombia.

“Maybe, a student strike is not enough for the government to take our demands seriously,” said Trujillo, “but in alliance with other sectors, we know that the economic impact [of our action] will hurt them a little more and they will have to listen to the people.”