Social protest targeted by the Ministry of Defense

El Espectador (Colombia), September 14, 2018

Translated by CSN volunteer Eunice Gibson

Guillermo Botero, head of the Ministry of National Defense, stated that illegal financing is behind the social protest in the country. The opposition believes that this is a rash assertion.

Guillermo Botero Gil had not even been sworn in as Minister of Defense in the government of Iván Duque Márquez when, last July, he targeted social protest. Speaking at the podium of the Concordia Americas Summit, he let fall the first piece of what looks as if it will be one of the principles of his administration: “We respect social protest, but we also believe that it must be an orderly protest that truly represents the interests of all Colombians and not just those of a small group.” He immediately expressed that it would be a great advance if the incoming government would be able to promote a statute to regulate that constitutional right, consecrated in Article 37 of the Constitution.

Of course, what Botero said generated furious reactions from different political camps, above all from the political opposition and from labor and social organizations, which considered it unheard of for someone who would be the Minister of Defense to start out by attacking one of the most natural and legitimate activities of the minority sectors. Nevertheless, when he made his remarks, he also justified them by citing his experience as President of the National Merchant Federation (FENALCO) when, just like his predecessor, Luis Carlos Villegas, he was ready to leave the private sector to take over the reins of the country’s defense.

Now, just one month after his swearing-in, Botero repeated his attack on social protest, this time with a statement that, for many, like for ex-presidential candidate Humberto de la Calle, could be turned into a “death sentence” for a lot of people. “Illegal money corrupts and finances social protest.  Every time that you see them close off the Pan-american Highway, there are always real mafias behind that, international mafias from different countries that launder the money easily and then it comes back to this country in various ways”, said the Minister of Defense in his speech to the congress of CONFECÁMARA [Colombia’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce] in Cartagena.

As might have been expected, there was quite a dust-up. Criticism rained down and the opposition intensified. His words were criticized as “incendiary” by Representative Ángela María Robledo of the Colombia Humana Party. Another member of Congress, María José Pizarro, of the Lista de la Decencia [List of Decency] party, warned that what Botero said, without proof, could result in investigations against him. “The right to protest is a human right and the Minister has the obligation to ensure it, because social protest can be carried out peacefully and with safeguards for the people who are leading social and community movements in the territories in the framework of the Social Rule of Law,” said the representative.

For Pizarro, a statement like the one made by the Minister of Defense legitimizes the threats made against the social leaders and defenders of human rights, who look to public demonstration to demand that the government carry out its promises. This idea was also seconded by Senator Jorge Robledo of the Polo Democrático [Democratic Pole] party, and by the government’s former chief negotiator in the peace talks, Humberto de la Calle, who used his Twitter account to warn, “Be careful with your words. The condemnations from on high can turn to tragedy for those who are lower. Already one Minister has fallen when, contrary to the evidence, he said that the candidate (Bernardo) Jaramillo was an agent of the FARC, and he was murdered,” he wrote.

The criticisms were also heard from the Liberal Party which, although they declared independence from the national government, supported the candidacy of Iván Duque in the second round. “We ask the Minister of Defense for fewer words and more actions. To generalize and say that social protest in Colombia is financed by illegal armed groups is irresponsible. We beg for prudence, results, and concrete actions on organized crime,” said Senator Mauricio Gómez, spokesman for the Liberal Party. For his part, the Public Defender also warned that connecting social protest to the activities of illegal armed groups “is a danger for the protesters and violates the principle of distinction in international humanitarian law.”

Nevertheless, President Iván Duque Márquez defended Botero, pointing out that protest is a right that should be exercised with adherence to the law and in a peaceful manner. Accordingly, explained the chief executive, the national government promotes social dialogue with the communities and with leaders. Its intention is to build confidence and avoid having protest be the first option for obtaining compliance by the government with its promises. “I am very happy when social dialogue is used as a tool in Colombia to find solutions, instead of aggression,” he noted.

The subject will bring argument, especially because the lesson to be learned is that the Minister of Defense is beginning to carve out his own path in order to promote his idea that social protest in the country should be regulated, should have more limitations, and should be carried out in an “orderly” manner. This discussion, furthermore, will be taken to the Congress of the Republic, since Senator Iván Cepeda — who considered these “vague and irresponsible” statements by Botero that will be turned into an incitement to violence, both governmental and non-governmental – announced that, together with Senators Antonio Sanguino and Feliciano Valencia, he will call for a debate about political control of the Ministry of Defense.

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