In Colombia’s mass protests, Indigenous and Black activists find echoes of colonial history

A member of the Indigenous Guard waves the Colombian flag from the “Point of Resistance” in Cali, Colombia, on May 12. Used with permission. (Luis Carlos Ayala.) (Luis Carlos Ayala)
A member of the Indigenous Guard waves the Colombian flag from the “Point of Resistance” in Cali, Colombia, on May 12. Used with permission. (Luis Carlos Ayala.) (Luis Carlos Ayala)

For the past month, Colombia has hosted ongoing national protests. Originally launched to object to tax reform, the protests have become a movement critiquing the country’s structural inequalities. The Colombian government’s violent suppression tactics against Black and Indigenous groups — including Indigenous coalitions known as mingas — have led many activists to link police brutality with the violence of colonial hierarchies.

A significant proportion of protesters in Colombia’s southwest are Indigenous or Black — making the military police’s racial violence against them into a key issue.

As President Iván Duque continues to deploy military police against protesters, we can look to Colombia’s history for and warnings about such tactics.

Colonial politics are the background to Colombia’s current unrest

On April 30, two days after the protests began, a coalition of Indigenous peoples traveled to the southwestern city of Cali to join in. The group self-identified as a “Minga Indígena,” a term adapted from the Quechua word “minka,” which can be translated to mean a gathering of knowledge for the pursuit of a common good. The minga joined other Afro-Colombian and Indigenous groups in Cali to resist what they called Duque’s “death politics”, meaning systemic violence against Colombia’s marginalized communities, especially Black and Indigenous activists.

On May 9, a group of armed civilians attacked the minga, wounding nine and revealing the racial biases of those opposing the protests.

Racialized violence against marginalized groups has a long history in southwestern Colombia. The Cauca region, now the center of the protests, has historically been a site of popular resistance. In the early 19th century, as revolutions raged across the American hemisphere, Indigenous and Black peoples found themselves negotiating against both independence and loyalty to Spain. As historian Marcela Echeverri shows, marginalized groups on the Colombian Pacific coast advocated powerfully for their interests by negotiating between both groups and acquiring guarantees in exchange for their support.

Independence leaders like Simón Bolívar responded to these groups by appealing to national unity. The language of unity called for all groups to join the fight against Spain, and portrayed anti-independence efforts as obstacles to freedom. Because many Black and Indigenous people were royalists, Bolívar’s rhetoric of national unity ended up excluding these groups from significant roles within the independence movement. Even among those who were pro-independence, Bolívar’s efforts to erase racial identities — declaring all races equal and treating discussion of racial inequality as unpatriotic — paradoxically marginalized these communities.

On Dec. 24, 1822, Bolívar’s forces attacked Pasto, a predominantly Indigenous and Black city that was primarily aligned with Spain, murdering nearly 500 people in an event now known as “Black Christmas”. The Pasto campaign ensured Bolivarian control in the region and is portrayed today as a defining success for independence.

Connecting colonial violence and contemporary inequality

These colonial legacies remain alive in southwestern Colombia, a region that historically harbors among the highest levels of violence against Indigenous and Black communities in the country.

Bolívar’s language of national unity has reemerged, used against the protests. This time, people opposing the movement distinguish themselves from protesters by identifying as “Colombianos de bien” (good-willed Colombians).

Much as during the fight for independence, the term “good will” is used to argue that marginalized communities’ actions are undermining national unity. Recently, Cali protesters toppled a statue of a Spanish colonizer, Sebastián de Belalcázar, to object to a conception of national unity that excluded them. In response, Duque released an interview characterizing protesters as violent, irrational and looking to benefit from inciting chaos.

On May 9, after protesters toppled another statue of a Spanish conquistador, someone spray-painted white supremacist messages on the Bogotá headquarters of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, or CRIC).

Much as with debates about Confederate statues in the United States, marginalized groups in Colombia are advocating to have colonial monuments removed, arguing that they glorify violence against Indigenous peoples — while their opponents claim these statues are symbols of national identity. Protesters characterized their movement as a “social and historical vindication” for the injustice inflicted through the “deaths of thousands of their ancestors”.

The Indigenous Minga of the Cauca Region protects protesters from police in the city of Cali, Colombia, on May 12. Used with permission. (Luis Carlos Ayala.) (Luis Carlos Ayala)
The Indigenous Minga of the Cauca Region protects protesters from police in the city of Cali, Colombia, on May 12. Used with permission. (Luis Carlos Ayala.) (Luis Carlos Ayala)

Indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders respond

Black and Indigenous leaders have been arguing that police violence reinforces colonial hierarchies.

Many protesters see such violence as an extension of how the government has treated marginalized groups since its founding. Jhoe Sauca, adviser to the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, told El Espectador that Indigenous communities are critiquing the state for spending “200 years only working for its own benefit”. Similarly, Francia Márquez, a human rights activist leading Afro-Colombian coalitions, called for a stop to the “racist and hateful discourse” that treats Black and Indigenous communities as second-class citizens.

Police brutality has also been connected to the slow fall of former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s power in Colombia. When his military police (Colombia’s Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron) beat, killed, and raped civilians, Uribe turned to Twitter to defend “soldier’s rights to use their weapons” against “terrorism” and “vandals”. The tweet was later removed by Twitter for violating its conduct policy. Protesters consider Uribe’s support of police suppression to be just one example of government officials’ ongoing tacit support for police brutality. More recently, Duque defended the use of military police while simultaneously claiming that most protesters are peaceful — a statement that illustrates tensions within the Colombian government’s response to the movement.

Colombia’s national protests reveal that colonial violence is an ongoing problem, and that marginalized communities’ collective memories continue to inform distrust of the state’s injustices today.

Arturo Chang (@ArturoChangQ) is an assistant professor in political science at the University of Toronto, where he conducts research on revolutions, nation-building, and post-colonial politics. Catalina Rodriguez (@CatalinaRod2) is a PhD candidate in Spanish and Portuguese and a presidential fellow at Northwestern University, where she studies nineteenth-century Latin American cultures and literature.

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