Civilians with Machetes Take on Leftist Rioters in Colombia

Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against of FIFA Qatar World Cup 2022
LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images

Locals in Barranquilla, Colombia, responded to leftist riots in their neighborhood by taking the streets with machetes on Tuesday, Colombian media and citizen journalists revealed.

Colombia has experienced nationwide riots since late April, initially organized against a progressive tax proposal by conservative President Iván Duque. Even though Duque walked back the near-universally unpopular proposal days later, Colombian leftist groups organized a “national strike” against him, most prominently featuring the burning down of police stations and historic monuments and building  illegal roadblocks that have resulted in needless deaths.

Duque has responded to the nationwide violence by announcing this week a “transformation” of the nation’s police forces to accommodate the desire of the rioters. The “national strike” organizers had not suggested an end to their violent campaign at press time.

The riots in Barranquilla on Tuesday night were meant to correspond with a soccer game played in that city’s Roberto Meléndez Metropolitan Stadium between the national teams of Colombian and Argentina – a qualifying match for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Under the slogan “no peace, no soccer,” organizers called for participation in a “great concentration of the resistance” around the stadium beginning at 3 p.m. local time on Tuesday. Leftists have targeted soccer events for violence as part of the “national strike” given the sport’s immense popularity in the country; the riots already cost Colombia hosting duties of the 2021 Copa América, postponed a year due to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.

In response to a loud and violent concentration of leftist protesters, locals living in the neighborhood around the stadium organized a response, taking the streets wielding machetes and urging the protesters to leave. Video distributed by Colombian media outlets clearly shows the machetes and appears to show Barranquilla police present. Some leftist organizations claimed the police “protected” the vigilante group, while other reports suggest police arrived on the scene precisely in response to reports of unknown armed individuals confronting protesters.

In the area immediately outside the stadium, police reportedly confronted protesters with tear gas to disperse the crowd after protesters began attempting to hurl rocks at officers. The Colombian newspaper El Tiempo counted the number of protesters in the area to be in the “hundreds.” It claimed dozens of protesters, police officers, and journalists were injured Tuesday night, without offering specifics.

Following an escalation in violence in early May in which “protesters” began using Molotov cocktails to burn police officers alive, journalists documented multiple instances of civilians taking up arms to defend their neighborhoods from the riots. Protesters have claimed that Colombia is experiencing a wave of police brutality despite the growing number of attacks on police on the part of the rioters.

Most of these attacks occurred in the western city of Cali, which also experienced some of the most dramatic leftist violence. Although the Colombian constitution does not protect the right to bear arms, civilians carrying guns appeared on multiple occasions to confront rioters in the city. Some in Cali also used machetes to scare away attackers.

Colombian civilians have organized counter-protests throughout the country urging the leftists to cease the “national strike.” Thousands joined protests in Bogotá, Barranquilla, and other cities in late May, following an initial protest the week before in Cali, opposing the “national strike” and calling for the federal government to support the police.

Despite popular calls for the government to crack down on the rioting and roadblocks, Duque has continued to take the disjointed demands of the “national strike” seriously. Leftist organizers have refused multiple calls for dialogue from Bogotá, to which Duque has replied by organizing an alleged overhaul of Colombia’s police forces. Duque’s Minister of Defense Diego Molano Aponte told the nation’s RCN News this week the president is in close talks with Congress to pass a series of laws that would make police “more responsive to citizens.” Molano added that the reform seeks to raise the standard of training for police officers, to have the national force meet unspecified “international standards,” and to ultimately hire as many as 33,000 new officers.

Duque himself met with representatives from the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights on Tuesday to discuss alleged police brutality and riot-related violence.

Leftist protests are scheduled to continue Wednesday, prompting the nation’s health minister, Fernando Ruiz, to urge organizers to consider the danger of the protests becoming superspreader events for Chinese coronavirus. Colombia is experiencing one of the most severe outbreaks of the disease in the world, documenting 3.6 million cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began and over 92,000 deaths attributed to the disease.

“Before the calls being made to conduct a new protest on Wednesday, June 9, we want to alert and warn Colombians about the evident risk to the head of all the population that these types of activities present,” Ruiz said Tuesday, adding that Colombia is, after over a month of protests, experiencing a “spiral of death and contagion that has affected thousands of Colombians.”

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