May 2022 saw the election of Colombia’s first progressive left government in two centuries, under President Gustavo Petro and Vice-President Francia Márquez. This electoral victory for the Historic Pact of socialist, communist and democratic forces was a major milestone in Colombia’s ongoing social and political conflict. It followed the Social Explosion (Estallido Social), a major civic rebellion which successfully paralysed the national economy and brought down Iván Duque’s right-wing government, beginning on 28 April 2021 when trade unions called a general strike.
This important step forward has come at a heavy cost to Colombia’s progressive forces – while further exposing the violence of the police state. From 28 April to 23 July 2021 at least 80 protestors were killed, according to a report published by the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ) think tank – however, INDEPAZ later recorded a total of 171 murders of social leaders in 2021, with 48 signatories of the 2016 peace agreement among the victims. An unknown number of people were arbitrarily arrested during the Social Explosion, with 1,264 arrests reported as of 23 May 2021. INDEPAZ released a list of 346 persons reported as having disappeared during the first month of protests, in contrast with an official figure of 129 missing persons at the time. NGOs reported at least 103 protestors suffering wounds to their eyes. Police violence against women participating in the protests was particularly barbaric, including an unknown number of physical and sexual assaults.
Although the wave of unrest continued until July 2022, total figures for arrests and disappearances after May-June 2021 are hard to trace, and it’s unclear how many were ultimately charged. However, at least several hundred participants in the Social Explosion were detained and convicted – often on terrorism charges – and 305 remain incarcerated, according to a spokesperson from the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network (REDDHFIC). President Petro has asked for judicial reviews of over 100 prisoners’ cases, but far-right attorney general Francisco Barbosa, appointed by former president Duque, has continued to refuse these requests.
In 2022, levels of right-wing political violence rose, with 216 murders of social leaders recorded, and in the period January-June 2023 we have already seen at least 73 such murders. Most of these political murders are carried out by military personnel in the interests of big landlords and monopoly capitalists. Those targeted include trade unionists, indigenous and peasant community spokespeople, and members of communist or socialist political groupings – often teenagers and young adults. Along with refusing judicial reviews in the cases of left-wing political prisoners, Attorney General Barbosa is accused of helping to cover up right-wing crimes on a sweeping scale.
Political prisoners incarcerated in Palmira, in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca Valley, have organised themselves as a campaign group called the Jhonatan Sabogal Collective Process – a tribute to their comrade Jhonatan Sabogal, an incarcerated member of community self-defence group La Primera Línea, who died under suspicious circumstances during a fire at Tuluá prison in June 2022.
The Jhonatan Sabogal Collective Process works with family members and allies (including REDDHFIC human rights defenders) outside prison to agitate for justice, and seeks collective bargaining with authorities at all levels on the basis of being a political power in their own right. During two years of imprisonment the group has held two hunger strikes, achieving official concessions each time, but too often these promises – chiefly of protection for prisoners’ families and of safer and more humane conditions in prison – have not been honoured. One of the 73 recorded victims of political murder since January 2023 was a member of the Collective Process, who had been released from prison late last year but was shot dead at his home this March. No-one has yet been charged in connection with his murder.
In a recent communiqué titled “Hunger for justice and liberty, we strike again” (22 June 2023, English translation), the Jhonatan Sabogal Collective Process announced a new hunger strike to begin on Saturday 1 July, with the key demand now being the establishment of a table for direct dialogue between the national government and the political prisoners. The communiqué outlines four reasons for this third hunger strike: 1) attorney general Barbosa’s continued lawfare campaign which includes use of false testimonies and unreasonable extension and complication of judicial processes; 2) the effects of members’ incarceration on the “peace, health, life” and economic circumstances of their families; 3) the reactionary right’s “re-victimisation” including harassment and murder of social leaders, which obstructs progress towards the Historic Pact’s objective of total peace; and 4) the failure of the Petro government so far to act on political prisoners’ repeated requests for political recognition and establishment of direct dialogue.
It is clear that, while Petro and his government represent a progressive political project, as politicians in power they have done too little to guarantee the safety of prisoners and their families and to advance their struggle for freedom which is part of the wider social and political conflict. In this context, international solidarity is particularly vital as progressive forces worldwide can help to amplify the voices of the political prisoners within Colombia and add weight to their demands.
I implore readers to send messages of solidarity on behalf of their trade union, Young Communist League and Communist Party branches to the Jhonatan Sabogal Collective Process, or to issue statements in support of their struggle. You can reach them via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Messages in Spanish are preferred but not essential. The key is political recognition, which is the basis for achieving further concessions. The 305 political prisoners of the Social Explosion have essential roles to play in Colombia’s progress towards total peace and social justice. Petro must properly recognise this, and recognise political prisoners as political partners, if his progressive project is to succeed.
Ruben Brett is the Chair of Unison South East Young Members