The assassination of Jorge Ordoñez: police brutality and repression in Colombia

In the early hours of 9 September, the lawyer and taxi driver Jorge Humberto Ordoñez, father of two, was murdered by two National Police agents after 16 taser discharges and a beatdown, as he begged for his life. This crime, which was recorded by witnesses, was the straw that broke the camel’s back and pushed the masses into the streets against police brutality and in demand of effective action against massacres, unemployment and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response, the Colombian government has implemented the most crude repression. Shooting unarmed protestors, executing civilians, illegal arrests, torture and sexual violence were among the tactics used. The implementation of terror as a tool of fending off the masses and controlling them is a trademark of our ruling class, which is being applied mercilessly.

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The insurrection

These protests are born from the popular anger and exhaustion caused by the hubristic ineptitude of a government that has brought the oppressed classes to the brink. Due to this, the same day that the footage of the murder was uploaded to social media, there was a call to protest peacefully in front of the nearest CAI (Centre of Immediate Attention, which are small neighbourhood-based police stations) or police station. The call was made by neighborhood organisations and communal assemblies, created during the 21 November national strike. Thus quickly went viral, especially on Twitter.

The biggest turnout was at the CAI in the neighborhood of Villa Luz, where Jorge Ordoñez was tortured and executed by patrolmen Harby Damián Rodríguez Díaz and Juan Camilo Lloreda Cubillos, who were not satisfied with arresting him and taking him down but also beat him up until he died from nine skull fractures and multiple internal injuries. It became evident soon that the masses were not going to remain still and the government, in a clumsy manoeuvre to calm the mood, sent a forensic vehicle with the intention of beginning an investigation into the incident.

The response to this bit of theatre was immediate. Police installations and investigation vehicles were burned until they were reduced to ashes. In an action reminiscent to the Bogotazo (the 10-hour insurrection following the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan that destroyed much of Bogota’s downtown in 1948), the masses decided to target the architectural symbols of power and control in the city as a repudiation of the police force. The battle moved into the more working-class neighborhoods. Police brutality incidents were recorded and stray bullets were heard as the state forces tried to impose themselves with all the ferocity they could muster.

The casualty count by the end of the night was at least 12 dead and 80 injured by firearm discharges. None of them were police. The majority of the victims were not actively participating in the protests. Particularly horrifying is the death of Christian Hernandez Yara, a 27-year-old father of two girls, who worked as a delivery man. He was detained arbitrarily, brought down to his knees and shot in the head. He was left abandoned in the streets without medical attention as the police didn’t allow an ambulance to come in.

In terms of property damage, more than 40 Centres of Immediate Attention (CAI) were burned down, as well as dozens of buses. This was the pretext used by this criminal institution to begin their campaign of terror, focused especially in the country’s capital. All sorts of heinous acts have been carried out by police forces, such as stoning and shooting houses, illegal raids on households where protestors were provided shelter, low flying helicopters during late hours, drive-by shootings, random detentions and beatdowns as well as the mobilisation of civil and paramilitary elements against the protestors and so on.

These tactics were applied the same way during days two and three of the protests. At the time of writing, there have been 13 deaths, 403 injured, three women were sexually assaulted (and several harassed) at one of the CAI, and an indeterminate number of individuals have been tortured and disappeared. Most of these incidents have been concentrated in Bogota, where the protests have displayed the highest numbers.

The movement

It is undeniable and encouraging that the movement has been partly inspired by the uprisings in the United States after the cases of George Floyd and Jacob Blake. The working class is learning from its most advanced layers in different countries on the continent and has started to gain confidence in its strength. Each one of these heady days has hammered the consciousness of the working class, driving them to take germinal acts of revolution that inspire better methods to struggle against the state. The evolution of the character of the movement in Bogota can be seen in the fact that the masses didn’t just burn down the police stations, they also converted them into neighbourhood libraries and spots where they could share information on the going-ons of the protests.

By the third day of the protests, they took on a national character, as demonstrations erupted in cities and towns all over the country, with more radical demands in each iteration. Cities as far from Bogota as Barranquilla and Neiva saw the masses taking to the streets against the repression of the Colombian state.

This goes beyond the prescriptions of the supposed leaders of the left, whose only answer to the problems of police brutality repression and austerity have been emphasising the need to vote in elections. It’s clear that the Colombian masses understand in an intuitive fashion that the solution is in their strength and that of their massive mobilisation into the streets. Having taken the uprisings in the US, Chile and Puerto Rico as an example, the masses understand instinctively that all of these problems start with the ruling classes.

Due to the great mobilisation, the government has had no other choice but try to spin the story, condemning the patrolmen who murdered Jorge Ordoñez and inadvertently kickstarted these protests. They’ve declared this incident is an anomaly caused by the fact that the patrolmen were not properly trained in the correct use of the taser – a cowardly excuse made to evade the simple fact that the patrolmen acted exactly as they were trained.

And the ‘left’...

Bogotá Mayor Claudia Lopez, who is allegedly a progressive, offers nothing but trust in the same bourgeois institutions that the ruling class use to exercise its tyrannical behaviour. She labels herself as a victim. And while it is apparently true that the police do not respond to her orders, her passivity turns her into an accomplice. The right blames her, arguing the problem is her lack of action and support for the state institutions. This line of attack against her is relatively unpopular today but it might resonate in the more backward layers of society due to her passive attitude.

One would like to say that Claudia Lopez is better than Enrique Peñalosa, her predecessor whom she replaced after a recall due to austerity, but in practice, they’re rather similar. Her symbolic gestures only demonstrate how little room for manoeuvre she has, as well as how her “centrist” position alienates her from the masses. She says that the police are responding to a dark mandate beyond her control but in truth they’re responding to their actual master, the system itself.

Even further, Claudia Lopez argues that the solution is hiring more cops and in scandalous fashion offers 3 million pesos in rewards to capture the “vandals” that “attacked the police and public buildings”. In this way, she places herself on the side of the executioners and against the understandable anger of the victims.

On the other hand, Gustavo Petro, the leader of Colombia Humana, tried to take over the leadership of the protests, summoning massive demonstrations. However, the demands at the protests he organised were lacking in strategy or targets for the movement. In one of them, for instance, he called for support for Mayor Lopez. Yet, to President Duque’s administration, Petro is their main enemy and is used as a scapegoat, blaming him for “excesses” that occurred.

On the other hand, there’s the UP (Patriotic Union), a coalition built partly by the PCC (Colombian Communist Party), which is currently working with Colombia Humana. Their position is to not present themselves as a revolutionary option, but rather to swim with the current, trying to unite behind the solution proposed by the rest of the “left”: a simple structural reform of the police. This does nothing but give weight to the spurious arguments made by the Duque government of how the murder of Jorge Ordoñez is just a case of “rotten” apples. It doesn’t explain the basis for institucional violence, it’s raison d’etre and the root of the problem: capitalism.

The lack of leadership in the movement is obvious and it has turned into a fear of action. It’s been the rank and file that have put forward an intent to change things, since no labour or party leader has been able to either provide momentum or stop what has happened.

The origins of the police

During the majority of the history of humanity, in the period that we call primitive communism, human beings lived in society without the necessity of special repressive forces, prisons or coercive institutions. People produced just enough to survive. Humanity’s dominion over nature, however, augmented the productivity of labour and led to the creation of surplus value, which led to the private accumulation of wealth and resources. This resulted in the division of labour and the genesis of classes: where a minority of exploiters live off the work of an oppressed majority. From there emerged the need to protect the privileges and wealth of the minority through the evolution of the state.

Engels explained that, in essence, the state is armed bodies of men in defence of the interests of private property. Under capitalism, this includes the courts, jails, armies and cops, which are part of a vast bureaucracy that exists to maintain bourgeois law and order. This means that the state exists to defend the class that owns the means of production, the commanding heights of the economy. In the case of Colombia, this is a backward and internationally subjugated economy that finds itself in decay due to the ineptitude of its rulers.

As institutions, the police and the army are instruments of the state that the ruling class uses to mediate the irreconcilable class struggle. Despite the constant talk by our rulers about the need for these institutions to maintain law and order in our country, in truth this isn’t their main goal. As mentioned previously, the spark that lit the fire fuelling the protests was the murder of Jorge Ordoñez. However, this was not the only act of excessive force committed by the agents of this institution, which in its history has committed an infinite number of homicides and assaults against the civilian population, whose last notable victim was the young protestor Dylan Cruz, murdered in the course of last year’s general strike.

The origin of this antagonistic relationship between the National Police and the population of Bogota can be traced to 9 April 1948, when the police at the time joined the side of the protestors during El Bogotazo. This subsequently led to the replacement of the entire police and the recruitment of backward layers of Colombian society to prevent solidarity between workers and police. These cops were brought mainly from the rural areas, ruled by the conservative landlords and trained in the most cruel methods of repression.

Even in times of ‘peace’, even, the police play a critical role in the repression of minorities. Students, farmers and indigenous peoples have been the demographics that have borne the brunt of the repression. 27 percent of victims of police have been indigenous, 27 percent farmers, and another 27 percent students. The fact that the most active movements in Colombia over the last 20 years have been either indigenous, student-led or composed by farmers is not a coincidence.

In the last report from the NGO Temblores (Tremors), named “Official Silence”, we can find the names of the latest victims of police brutality. It’s worth remembering Dylan Cruz, Nicolas Neira, Carlos Giovany Blanco, Edison Franco Jaimes and many other students, farmers, indigenous peoples and workers who have been murdered by this cruel institution. It’s no wonder that the Gallup poll for June 2020 sees the National Police with a disapproval of 57 percent. In the last report of this same organisation, it is recorded that, in 2020, 24 people have been murdered by the National Police, 13 of whom in a period of 24 hours. This already gives this year the highest rate of murders by the National Police.

The state and the supposed leadership of the left have condemned the violence of the protests. But when this data is accounted for, the violence of the masses is more than understandable. However, we must note that, as Marxists, we do not wish for violence. Were it entirely up to us, the ruling classes would retire peacefully and leave the workers in charge of society, since they already run society. But to quote Ted Grant, we know “that no ruling class has ever given up their power and privileges without a fight. Usually a fight with no quarter given”.

Where do we go from here?

Colombia protests 2020 2 Image Emergencia BogotáFor a general strike against the regime! Down with capitalism!

The protests across the country have demonstrated the energy of the masses. Many on the left looked at Colombia as a country where the repression was so brutal that the masses would simply never rise. However, over the last few years, we’ve seen the mobilisation of the working class of Colombia to fight against the injustice of capitalism and its myriad symptoms. It’s clear that the workers, the youth and the peasantry of Colombia want a solution to the problems created by the Duque presidency and its relationship with US imperialism.

The experience of the mass uprisings in countries such as Chile, the United States, Lebanon and Ecuador have demonstrated the necessity of the organisation of the working class into the movement and the application of working class methods of struggle. Under capitalist society, the working class has the power to stop production, posing the question of who runs society. A good example of this was seen in the US, where dockworkers of the 29 ports across the West Coast went on strike on 19 June in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

It is also important to organise committees of self-defence to anticipate the repression of the state and defend the masses. These committees must be democratic and subordinated to the masses. This type of organisation must be coordinated by the unions and workers’ federations across the country, under the CUT (Central Union of Workers). With their great membership numbers and high level of organisation, these bodies could play a key role in the mobilisation of defence of the masses, as well as the coordination of strikes in solidarity with the movement. And this would be a significant advance compared to the abstract declarations of solidarity that the leadership of these organisations are currently offering. The resources and numbers exist for all of this. CUT has 500,000 members organised along 700 unions. They plan to march on 21 September against the loan made by the Duque administration to Avianca airline, labour counter-reforms and police brutality. This is a step forward, but the marches and protests must be accompanied with a call for a general strike, which is the only thing that can put the murderous government of Ivan Duque against the ropes.

The masses can come out banging their pots and pans, or even destroying police stations as they have done over the last week. But without a clear programme and an organisation that allows them to coordinate and combine their struggle, their energy will dissipate and the majority of people will return to their homes without creating much change. It is necessary to build an organisation of the working class that can give the struggle in the streets the political character it requires, so that we can finally get up from our knees and face our oppressor. We must link the fight against police brutality with the general struggle against capitalism.

No more slaughtering of the people – enough impunity!

Judgment and punishment to the guilty!

For the organisation of people’s committees in every neighbourhood, school, university and workplace!

For a general strike against the regime!

Down with the repression – down with capitalism!