As citizens hit the streets banging their pots and pans, the Cacerolazo (“pot/pan” style of popular protest) resounded nationwide with the clamor of exasperation. Minimum wage too low, taxes too high and pensions soon to be slashed, the rage that ferments when, as Hannah Arendt says, “conditions can be changed… [but] are not” erupted with the din that naturally follows injustice. The Colombian government’s response was faster than expected. The state’s terror operation began long before Colombia’s Mobile Anti-disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) boots hit the ground en masse to suppress mass demonstrations, before the first collective shots were fired—those canister shots that gave the movement Dilan Cruz, its first martyr. The Casa de Nariño’s expedient response echoed through the digital airwaves alerting the public of its message through WhatsApp and Facebook notifications, revealing not a reaction, but what must have been a contingency plan.
I was home at about 10:15pm on Friday, November 22, 2019, the second day of El Paro Nacional (The National Strike). It was the first night of curfew for Bogotá; Cali had been under curfew the night before. The baby had just fallen asleep and my wife received the first of many notices. The WhatsApp message from her sister read: “Help, I’m scared I don’t know what to do.” The confusing text from the adolescent was quickly followed by a phone call. My wife was alerted that both her parents had run out after her brother who had “left to fight.” The sirens had wailed and put all residents of the gated housing complex on alert, recruiting all able bodies to self-defense. My brother-in-law had stormed out to protect his family, my mother- and father-in-law to protect their son. My in-laws returned and the sirens wailed again, summoning not only bodies but fear. Exhausted, the family bolted the door and kept watch from inside. It was 10:30pm, and this had been going on since sundown (6:15pm). A second call from my sister-in-law related a similar experience: The sirens called, and the people answered. Roving bands of vandals were taking advantage of the national mayhem and the apparent license of night to loot and pilfer. During that call, however, her husband arrived from work and was caught off guard by her angst—he claimed that the streets were clear and there was no danger to be seen. Block after block, shops were closed and citizens were holed up in their homes, he said. There were no barbarians at the gate; anarchy was not loosed upon the world. Rather, the pandemonium was inside.
Organized in early October by labor unions across the country, the National Strike began as a response to proposed labor and pension reforms by Colombian President Ivan Duque’s administration. The reform, colloquially referred to as “El Paquetazo” (the great package/deal) by Duque and his administration, included motions to eliminate public pension funds—essentially privatizing pension; raising the age of retirement; and a 25 percent reduction of minimum wage for workers under 25. Supported by large factions of society including university students, Indigenous groups and Afro-Colombian organizations, the National Strike unfolded as the biggest movement of mass demonstrations the state had seen since 1977. With overwhelming support, Duque’s administration—already with a calamitous disapproval rating—was scared. On the heels of Bolivian and Chilean unrest, the Colombian state anticipated the Cacerolazo would turn violent. However, learning from the events in Chile, it preferred not to provoke a drawn-out confrontation with an exasperated citizenry. To avoid such prolonged dissent, the Colombian state executed a well-orchestrated suppression strategy. Using a disorienting combination of mass media, a comprehensive grasp of its own subsidized housing projects and an array of agitators, the Colombian government succeeded in subduing the National Strike.
The first day of demonstrations evolved as expected: Unrest exhaled with explosive violence and Colombian cities felt its force. The stormtroopers were ready to protect wealthy neighborhoods, sectors of commerce and government buildings. As police marched, poorer sectors felt the brunt of the clash-- glass from broken public transport windows littered the streets and noxious gas filled the air. In Cali, protesters were corralled back to their slums and indoors in compliance with the announced curfew. The use of militarized police on citizens was justified by a trite rationale: The government always supports protest, so long as it is done peacefully. The tired pretext accompanied most of the violent images that populated privately-owned news stations, such as Caracol and RCN. News coverage reinforced the cynical pleas for “peaceful protest” by describing much of the violence as acts of vandalism and looting. Soon the images of “vandals and looters” filled not only the air waves, but began to make the rounds through social media. Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages disseminated the narrative at a much at a higher efficiency than traditional telecommunications did or could, thus facilitating a climate of fear among the populace—particularly those who, because of work or weariness (the vast majority), were not on the ground and did not witness the clashes first-hand.
By the second day, the vandalism narrative expanded. Videos of men and women smashing windows shared on social media platforms confirmed for many the televised news reports. Videos of people climbing fences seemed to confirm one terrifying thing: looters were not content with burglarizing stores, but were also targeting homes, occupied or not. WhatsApp messages implored people not to leave their homes—to be prepared, predicting the raiders would return during the night. Heeding the WhatsApp warnings, people stayed up and prepared for an onslaught of gangs. Many, tired from the pointless night vigil, called in sick to work the next morning. The frantic reactions to unending sirens left the public fatigued.
The logic of this strategy is simple enough. The images and warnings of vandals, or worse, the mythical protestor turned criminal, create a pretense for the state to shut down any and all protests. Relying on the notion that a democratic government allows peaceful protests but cannot tolerate violence, the Colombian state issued curfews—first in Cali, then Bogotá. The curfew in the nation’s capital, in effect, delegitimized protests. Once the clock struck 9:00pm, public presence (along with protest) became illegal and citizens became criminals. As previously described, people were detained in their homes until the next work day.
Even though the unceasing calls-to-action filled people with contempt, they also left many utterly confused: Vandals seemed to always pass over their residential complex; the alarm was for the building across the street; the vandals had scattered before neighborhood watchers reached the entrance… It is no wonder that, on the third day of unrest, I woke up to an incredulous and vociferous WhatsApp message: “Do you think we are stupid?” hollered the lady’s voice on my phone. Her monologue, a message to the government and to compatriots, insisted that the reports on TV and the messages on WhatsApp were fabrications, a ploy to keep the Colombian people locked up. “We are not so naïve to believe that only apartment buildings and residential complexes were targeted by hooligans (rather than stores),” she continued. Indeed, almost no houses in the city of eight million were broken into; almost no stores were looted; there was no increase in cases of battery. Thanks to WhatsApp and other social media, these messages of skepticism were disseminated as quickly as the previous night’s threats. By the afternoon, the previous night’s intimidations were indeed widely believed to have been orchestrated by the state.
Although the state’s farce was promptly sniffed out, the strategy itself was sound and effective. This was in large part due to the state’s grasp of Colombian urban development and a keen appreciation of the advantages it offers for civil compliance. Generally, rumors of disorder and pillaging can quickly be assessed – as easy as peering past the drapes: If mobs are running in the streets, danger is present. However, this is not the case in large swaths of Colombian cities. Though apartment buildings and gated residential communities have been common for the upper-middle class for decades, the past fifteen years or so have seen a boom in these types of developments. Gated complexes are often subsidized and have become the standard for the urban working class. So, for much of the Colombia’s urban denizens, warnings of danger become at once imminent and removed: “The barbarians are not at your door, but they will be.” One cannot see the barbarians, for they are outside the walls. The complexes are commonly designed as rows of houses facing each other, separated by open air corridors mimicking streets (maybe 3 meters wide), with houses sharing lateral and posterior walls. The front view is usually the neighbors’ house’s façade, and there is no rear view, so the gates are not visible, and nor are the perils that are ready to spill over.
The same is true of apartment buildings, especially the affordable residential high-rises that litter the rapidly urbanizing cities of Colombia. The tall buildings create the necessary space between residents and supposedly pending danger for the state’s strategy to succeed (at least for while). From the higher floors, people and action below are difficult to recognize. Most apartments don’t face the front of the building. Fear, however, can spread easily between neighbors.
Of course, neither the rumors of rampant looting nor the counter-rumors accusing the government of fearmongering would be fruitful without evidence. As a matter of fact, many people did report seeing bands of unruly men, but under dubious circumstances. Civilians attested to witnessing these bands up and down Avenida Quito (or, Carrera 30), an arterial avenue in Bogotá lined with high-rise residentials in its more northern neighborhoods. Small, violent groups ran up to apartment buildings and terrorized residents with general commotion: hollering and screaming, throwing objects and agitating building security. At the first sign of resistance, however, the men would scatter. One witness from the San Miguel neighborhood claims that the sound of gunshots, which she is sure came from her neighbors, caused the men at the base of her apartment building to flee – but that some were picked up by police motorcycles and fled the vicinity. Another witness from the same neighborhood claims that they saw those same men arrive – jumping out of the back of a police paddy-wagon that hastily screeched away. Instances of police involvement were announced and denounced across social media platforms. The general hearsay was that the police were integrally involved with the rumored diversion –that they would fabricate false reports; disseminate false information; release and pay people in custody to intimidate the public; and, similar to the “white-shirts” in Hong Kong, disguise themselves as protesters and create mayhem. Their complicity was convincingly exposed with a viral video of riot police abducting a woman in an unmarked car. Thus, it was not merely media manipulation—a barrage of reportage on “bad actors” and “outside agitators” – but a full-scale simulacrum meant to induce fear and immobility—and perhaps, in the long-run, to condition passivity.
Media outlets and their social media appendages complicit in amplifying incidents of violence were equally quick to put a face to the apparent criminality, blaming “ungrateful” Venezuelans for taking advantage of both “Colombian hospitality” and the troubles at hand. A political cartoon circulating on Facebook depicts a Venezuelan as a rat: With a dusty scuffle swirling in the background, the “ratty” Venezuelan cheers on the protests while carrying a bundle full of loot. Venezuelans in Colombia are cast as “leeching immigrants” quick to take advantage, their position as subaltern migrants fleeing famine providing sufficient justification: “Of course they’re sacking stores. It’s what they’re used to in their country, and now they bring their habits here,” I heard one woman explain. Moreover, their status as immigrants allows them to be cast as outsiders indifferent to the long-term welfare of the nation. This is in line with the continuous scapegoating of “the Venezuelan,” particularly with the current state of the economy. “Venezuelan” has become coterminous with the weakness of the Colombian peso, inflation and unemployment.
For those that rejected the “fake news” and recognized the rioters as state-sanctioned agents (rather than protesters or “Venezuelans”), it had still been a long night. Belief in disinformation is almost irrelevant when the environment is markedly changed by its echoes. It was nearly impossible for residents of housing complexes to escape the chaos created by armed neighborhood protectors giving chase to invisible foes. For those that had to go to work the next day—and it was a large portion, as a six day work week is normal in Colombia—the entire ordeal was all the more burdensome.
For those that resumed marching, banging their pans shoulder to shoulder with their fellow paisano, the struggle took a turn. Although the façade of the state’s propaganda campaign had fallen comically fast, the latent effects of such machinations were unhampered. The drivel of “the need for peaceful protest” accompanied and justified the following days of state repression. While the state announced its legitimacy in the form of violence, protestors responded in dialectical fashion. It was obvious to those who participated that the violence was unilateral. The depictions of protestors turned thugs, or protest turned riot, were false and had to be contested. The legitimacy of the protestors was in truth, and the truth was that the Colombian people had, for the most part, been peaceful. Thus, after days of state violence, the aftershock protests took the shape of art: street art, graffiti, folk songs, dancing, etc. The violence suffered in Chile was avoided. So was any change.
This was the success of the Colombian state’s propaganda strategy. The rumors did not need to be credible—merely announced. The inspiration for radical change gave way to the fear spread on WhatsApp videos, Facebook posts and televised news. The lull that this shift provided was met with a proposal from Duque’s administration for a “Great [national] Conversation” to be held serially until March, intended to create a dialogue between the public and their elected officials – hopefully towards just reforms. Meanwhile, on December 20, the Senate approved new economic reforms which promote consumerism, benefit large corporations, and according to former president Cesar Gaviria, “entertains the poorest.”
Colombian protests resumed on January 21, 2020, at a much smaller scale. Clashes between the public and ESMAD were few. There were less injuries and arrests, and the marches in Bogotá culminated in a concert. Claudia Lopez, the mayor of Bogotá, thanked and congratulated the people for their “peaceful protest.” The public, it seems, had been effectively subdued, and it hasn’t ended there:
Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the Colombian people faced some of the strictest stay-at-home orders. With infection rates paling in comparisons to neighbors like Peru and Brazil, Colombia’s March, 2020 stay-at-home orders lasted nearly two-months. Violations were penalized with approximately one Million peso fines, a higher sum than the monthly minimum wage. Unlike other western nations, Colombia has seen little push-back to such measures. There have been no protests since January, 2020.
Steven Herran is a Ph.D. candidate at The City University of New York, where he researches Coloniality, Religion, and Literature. He is from Queens, NY and currently lectures at Lehman College in the Bronx.