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La Primera Linea, Cali, Colombia
Photography Kurt Hollander

La Primera Línea: young protesters rage against Colombia’s brutal politics

A growing organised protest group, armed with weapons and metal shields built from drum barrels, has emerged in the country’s violent protests and police crackdowns to demand change – we go to the frontlines in the city of Cali

In April this year, a national strike was staged by union activists, indigenous groups, and university students in Colombia to protest deeply unpopular government reforms, including revisions to tax and healthcare. These reforms would have placed an added burden on the country’s working and middle classes, already decimated by more than a year of pandemic economic stagnation, a time in which millions more Colombians are being thrust into poverty. Due to a massive outpouring of street protesters throughout the country, President Iván Duque Márquez announced he would not pursue these reforms.

This u-turn, however, did not stem the protests, which grew in frequency and numbers as people made demands for wage increases, healthcare and education access, and the stopping of political corruption. Across six weeks of rebellion, at least 58 people have died – with 45 of them reportedly killed by police – with scores more missing. The continued unrest has been especially prevalant in Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia, and the epicentre of government resistance. 

As part of the strike, major highways all over the country – around 2,000 – were blocked by unionised truckers and indigenous groups, disrupting the food and gasoline supply chains in major cities. Images of streets across the South American country show smoke and debris, and conflict between protesters and police. Within Cali, more than 20 blockades were established within the city, and a resisting militia has emerged with it. Constructed from trees, lampposts, bricks, wires, electric cables, plastic speed bumps, and assorted metal objects, these points of resistance became known as La Primera Línea, the ‘first line of defense’ against the brutal, militarised police crackdown on the peaceful protests.

This spontaneous, popular intervention in the daily lives of Cali’s inhabitants was not part of the official national strike and, although it shares certain demands, La Primera Línea has its own agenda and is comprised of a different sector of the population. Unlike the peaceful protests throughout the city, the barricades are manned by young men and women armed with machetes, bats, hammers, rocks, gas masks, and shields made from cut-outs of metal drum barrels, ready and willing to engage the police. 

Though mainly from the poorest neighborhoods, the young people on the barricades come from different worlds, from members or ex-members of urban guerrillas, soccer fanatics, university students, homeless, the working-class, to anti-fascists. Many of them are the children or grandchildren of the campesinos, indigenous people or Afro-Colombians who, over the past few decades, have been run-off their land by armed groups (paramilitaries) working for the government and who have been forced to migrate to the poorest neighborhoods in Cali, where crime is rampant and social services are non-existent.

After over a year of strict, military-style lockdowns, the extreme social divisions within Cali were a ticking time bomb. Yet much of the vandalism and looting that made headlines in the official media during the first few days were not caused by the peaceful protesters, nor those on La Primera Línea. Police were caught on video unloading gangs of vandals from trucks and letting them loose in different parts of the city, and in other videos police officers can be seen setting fire to a hotel, breaking windows in homes and stores, and destroying motorcycles, all to inflame public opinion against strikers and to serve as pretext for cracking down on protesters, especially those on La Primera Línea.

Although they are portrayed by official media as delinquents and vandals, La Primera Línea has made a point of avoiding looting or any other antisocial behavior, and instead are highly organised units designed to withstand the brutal attacks of riot police. Their operations are divided into four distinct lines: defense, supplies, medical assistance, and communication with other groups as well as with live streams for social media.

Beyond the demands of the national strike committee, La Primera Línea has its own; including the suspension of military assistance in the cities, asking the police to apologise for the deaths they have caused, gaining information about those who have been disappeared, acquiring reparations for the victims of police violence and illegal arrests, implementation of the country’s Peace Process (which was supposed to end more than 50 years of civil war), economic aid for the most needy, free education, and an increase in the availability of Covid vaccines.

Instead of having their demands heard by the authorities, La Primera Línea has been brutally attacked by riot police, and Cali has become a warzone. Police in Colombia are under the authority of the military, part of the government’s anti-terrorism programme, and receive military equipment and training. In the skirmishes against the barricades and those of La Primera Línea, the police have used military force, including surveillance planes, helicopters (one a Black Hawk), tanks, riot police armed with lethal weapons such as rifles, stun grenades, water cannons, tear gas and a new weapon called Venom, which shoots up to nine projectiles filled with gases (which, when past their expiration date, become toxic). 

The police have deliberately shot bean bags and even live ammunition into the faces of peaceful protesters, with several of them losing an eye and many others being killed. The police have also on repeated occasions attacked La Primera Línea, rounded them up and taken them to illegal, improvised clandestine holding cells in factories and even the parking lot of an upscale mall. Anti-police brutality has been a major focus of the protests in Cali, as can be seen in the “ACAB” and other anti-police graffiti that lines the city’s walls, especially the phrase “nos están matando” (they’re killing us). This likely provokes even greater violence from the police, who are usually able to work with greater impunity outside of the lights of media attention.

The barricades of La Primera Línea have also highlighted and accentuated the extreme class divisions within Cali. As videos circulating on social media show, armed members of the upper classes have shot at protesters and have run them over with cars, all with the protection and approval of the police. 

By sowing chaos throughout the city, and by provoking and engaging the police in battles, La Primera Línea has forced the ugliest, most brutal aspects of a near-dictatorship into the light

By disrupting the normal flow of commerce and consumer lifestyle of the wealthier population with their barricades, by blocking cocaine trafficking routes (which provide huge profits for narcos and corrupt government officials), by sowing chaos throughout the city, and by provoking and engaging the police in battles, La Primera Línea has forced the ugliest, most brutal aspects of a near-dictatorship into the light. 

For decades in the Colombian countryside and on the Pacific coast, the government and its paramilitaries have been murdering social and environmental activists, making thousands of innocent people disappear and accusing them of being guerrillas, and has run whole communities off their land to make way for mega projects for global corporations, all without any attention from the international media. Due to the high visibility of police brutality against peaceful protesters and La Primera Línea, however, Colombia’s president has now been accused of serious human rights violations.

The dozens of barricades, which survived for one whole month, were mostly cleared at the beginning of June through an excessive use of force by police and military. The risks that La Primera Línea face now, however, are greater than ever, as the police, with information gathered by infiltrators and police spies, are tracking them to their homes and either making them forcibly disappear or killing them and throwing their bodies into the city rivers. 

Nonetheless, as the barricades were shown to be an effective deterrent to police brutality, as shields and barricades are all made from found or cheap materials and can be produced instantly and everywhere, as there are millions of more poor young people in Cali who have little or no future within the current government’s economic plans, and with police reprisals in full swing, La Primera Línea will surely be back to set up their barricades and once again become part of the urban landscape of Cali. 

Kurt Hollander is a writer and fine art-documentary photographer, originally from New York City and currently based in Cali, Colombia