May Day protests in Bogotá ended in violence on Wednesday with police firing tear gas, stun grenades and using water cannon tanks to disperse crowds in the Plaza de Bolivar and along Carrera Septima.
According to police, 65 people were arrested and three have been formally charged. The Unified Command Post of the Mayor announced that the march took place without mishap. However, others such as the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, an NGO based in Bogotá, have claimed that there were arbitrary arrests and harassment of peaceful protesters and journalists covering the event. The Ministry of Health has announced that 12 people, three of them policemen, were admitted with minor injuries.
As is usual on International Labor Day, there was a strong turnout from organized labor groups. Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Colombia’s largest labor federation, was present in significant numbers as were unions including Unión Sindical Obrera, which represents mine workers, SINTHOL, which represents hotel and tourism workers, and SINDICUNICOL, which represents university employees.
CUT has claimed that roughly a hundred thousand people turned out to march in Bogotá and around one million people nation-wide.
There was also a contingent from workers at the General Motors plant located in the outskirts of Bogota. The plant has been the target of labor campaigns over the past few years from international advocacy organizations such as Witness for Peace. In May 2011, 68 current and former employees formed ASOTRECOL (the Association of Current and Former Injured Employees of GM Colmotores) in response to labor abuses firings for work related injuries which has been involved in controversial campaigns involving hunger strikes.
Other groups present included those representing students, victims of human rights violations and campaigners against racial prejudice. There were also representatives from the political parties Polo Democrátic Alternativo (PDA), a left-wing electoral alliance and the only large party with representation to oppose the Santos administration, the Movimiento Progresistas, led by mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro and other dissenters as a break-away from the PDA, and the Colombian Communist Party which was recently expelled from the PDA coalition. The obvious tensions between them was visible as they marched and congregated separately. Movimiento Progresistas held posters with the name of its high-profile leader, Mayor Petro, the second most important politician in Colombia after the president.
Former Senator Piedad Cordoba made an appearance and spoke with media and well-wishers. She said, “people are rising up in face of the pressure from the neo-colonialist, imperialist, savage capitalism which is expressed by the neoliberal model.” She compared the political activism taking place in Colombia at the moment to the Occupy movement in the United States, and the Indignants movements in Spain and Greece.
Despite slightly improved safety for trade unions in recent years, Colombia is still the world’s most dangerous country to be a union activist. Around 2,000 unionists have been killed since 1991, many of them committed by paramilitaries such as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. Unionists face other problems such as death threats, arrests, dismissals for organizing and more subtle attacks such as contract labor schemes where they are denied labor rights such as collective bargaining.
Peter Bolton is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá.