As Colombian protests dissipate, activists hit by wave of arrests
Bogota, Colombia – Alejandro Gaitan awoke to the sounds of strange voices and heavy boots outside his home in the Colombian city of Armenia, about 280km (173 miles) west of the capital Bogota. Moments later, five police officers burst through the front door.
After conducting a search, they proceeded to read out a warrant for the arrest of the 22-year-old philosophy student, who was wanted for “terrorism” and attempted homicide, along with six other criminal charges. He faced more than 40 years in prison.
“I have a calm head that has helped me carry out my work as a spokesperson [for the protesters],” Gaitan told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview from his home, weeks after his June 18 arrest. “But when I was in that cell, it took all my strength to try to not feel bad, to not feel trapped, because the situation I faced truly was very bleak.”
The arrest surprised Gaitan, who had led peaceful marches and cultural activities during Colombia’s recent national strike against entrenched inequality. He spent 10 days in jail before a judge ordered his release. The case remains under investigation.
But what caught him most off guard, Gaitan said, were accusations that he belonged to the Primera Linea, a loose protest collective that has come increasingly under attack from President Ivan Duque and his right-wing political party, Democratic Center.
“It seems that the Attorney General’s Office didn’t do a deep investigation,” said Gaitan, who denies all the allegations against him, “but that they captured whoever was most visible during protests like I was.”
The front line
In late April, as mass protests began in Colombia over a since-revoked tax reform, youth from working-class backgrounds armed themselves with stones and improvised shields to protect protesters from police. They became known as the Primera Linea, or the Front Line.
As the protests went on, they took on more prominent roles that divided public opinion, erecting roadblocks, clashing almost nightly with police, and negotiating demands with local officials.
In Cali, the country’s third-largest city, Primera Linea protesters set up blockades and seized control of several blocks that police were prohibited from entering. Art classes, political debates, and democratic assemblies became regular events at these “points of resistance”.
But as the demonstrations now dissipate, a mass crackdown on these demonstrators has followed, with at least 178 apprehended, according to authorities. Many face a variety of criminal charges, including “terrorism”, that could leave them behind bars for decades.
Authorities have attributed much of the vandalism and crime that has taken place during the protests on the Primera Linea, a claim that has been used to justify the wave of arrests.
But critics say investigators are scapegoating the movement in order to weaken its influence. While some believe innocent protesters could be swept up in operations targeting the group, others believe an outright campaign of persecution is under way.
“Our concerns are that youth who are exercising their right to protest are being arrested in large numbers, as part of a policy to criminalise social mobilisations,” said Ruben Acosta, a lawyer with the Primera Linea Juridica, a national network of attorneys representing protesters.
“The government is looking for an enemy that will allow them to act arbitrarily and they’ve found that enemy in the Primera Linea,” Acosta told Al Jazeera.
According to members of the loose collective, the Primera Linea came about in response to police violence. In June, Human Rights Watch said Colombian police committed “egregious” abuses during the largely peaceful demonstrations.
But Defence Minister Diego Molano has accused the Primera Linea of countless acts of violence and vandalism, including the incineration of transit buses and businesses, which he classified as “low-intensity terrorism”. Attorney General Francisco Barbosa, who is leading the investigations against Primera Linea, called them “a group of thugs who want to do harm to the country”.
Authorities have also said repeatedly that Primera Linea groups are financed by left-wing rebels such as the National Liberation Army and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which demobilised under a 2016 peace deal with the government.
Molano has denied the allegations that police are making indiscriminate arrests of Primera Linea protesters. “In the case of the Primera Linea, it’s clear that there are some who protest and that there are others that commit crimes and criminal activities that can be classified as terrorist acts … It’s against them that we have started investigations, litigation, and arrests,” Molano said during an interview with a local radio station last month.
The largest wave of protester arrests occurred in the days after demonstrations were held on July 20, Colombia’s Independence Day, when Primera Linea protesters were slated to gather in Bogota. By July 26, a total of 134 protesters in 18 cities had been arrested, authorities said.
“Delinquents, bandits, not one will remain free,” Molano recently tweeted. “We face the vandalism of the ‘Primera Linea’ with the Constitution in hand and the weight of the law.”
Colombia’s national police declined a request for an interview, instead directing Al Jazeera to an August 5 news conference during which General Luis Vargas, the national police director, told reporters that 10 additional operations took place after July 20.
Those operations resulted in the arrests of 56 Primera Linea members, who were charged with the destruction of public property, torture, terrorism, among other offences, Vargas said.
Effort to ‘silence’
One of the most high-profile arrests involved the detention of five protesters, including the well-known Primera Linea spokesperson Sergio Andres Pastor, known as “19”, in Bogota on July 30.
Authorities accused the protesters of being linked to an alleged kidnapping and assault on two civilians that prosecutors said they had mistakenly identified as police. The charges – conspiracy to commit a crime and torture – were quickly rejected by the defendants, as well as family members and fellow protesters who went to the streets in support of Pastor.
Sebastian Sanabria, an activist and former Primera Linea member in Bogota, said Pastor was an advocate for dialogue and often appeared maskless in meetings with the local government. The arrests, he said, were intended to undermine his leadership.
“Since they are [Primera Linea] spokespeople who are capable of creating change, they’re blaming them for this to silence them,” he said.
Some weeks into the national strike, Primera Linea groups in various Colombian cities entered into negotiations with local officials in an effort to reduce confrontations – even with the disapproval of the president, who told a local radio station that talks with “people who hide their identity” went against the country’s democratic values.
Some of the first demands the protesters sought in these talks were safety guarantees for Primera Linea members, including protection from prosecution and police violence. Before the wave of arrests started, some local officials made pledges to that effect.
But the arrest of Pastor and dozens of other Primera Linea protesters has sowed distrust, even as the government promises to differentiate between the group’s violent and peaceful members.
For Sanabria, the arrests have unravelled months of dialogue and progress. “People are asking themselves, ‘What’s going to happen to us? Will we be persecuted in the same way our friend was?'” he said. “There’s a lot of distrust and discouragement.”