When I arrived in Cali, people here sold me on the idea that the city was violent. When I asked how to get somewhere, people’s directions included where not to go. I was told that avenues were safe, but side streets should be avoided. Whole areas of the city, especially those around crack houses, were a no-man’s land. Everyone here had a story to tell of someone who was killed on one particular street or of a bomb that exploded next to a building around the corner.
The fact that I got mugged twice in my first six months in Cali, after having never been mugged anywhere in my life, seemed to prove their point. I told myself that it was my fault the first time, having gone into a neighborhood where I shouldn’t have gone, on a side street that was particularly shady, engaging in a conversation with a guy wearing a wife-beater and covered with Mara Salvatrucha tattoos. At first, we chatted pleasantly about where he had been in the US and what prisons he had been in and out of. After sharing a joint with him, he showed me the homemade gun he had tucked in his belt. It took me a few seconds to understand what he was saying to me, that is, until a big guy came up from behind me, reached into my pocket and pulled out the little money I had. They went their way and I went mine, all very quick and painless.
The second time I got mugged was at noon on a very busy intersection on La Quinta, the main avenue in the city, after having just withdrawn a considerable sum of money from an ATM. Two guys drinking cans of beer walked up to me and started talking to me as if we were friends. I stood there smiling, not really understanding what they were saying, until one of them showed me the homemade gun he was carrying in his waistband and asked me to give him my cellphone. I gave him the cheap phone I had bought in Mexico and when he asked for money I surreptitiously peeled off one of the bills from the wad I had in my pocket and handed it to him. The two men nonchalantly walked away, quick and painless once again.
My experiences are relatively common in Cali. Every day, the city’s newspapers and social media publish images and videos of criminals mugging citizens, stealing motorcycles, and robbing stores, and often people wind up stretched out on the sidewalk with a bullet in their bellies.
Muggers in Cali, however, are the least of the city’s problems. Beyond random street violence, there is a complex network of organizations in Cali that use violence to further their interests. I got to see first hand how this organized violence works when a national strike began in 2019, one that would set the stage for the protests in Colombia in recent weeks.
STRIKES TO THE RHYTHM OF SALSA
On November 21, 2019, I sat on the steps of Cali’s main library and watched as a multitude of young people marched up La Quinta chanting and waving Colombian flags, images of Che, and hand-painted protest signs. A national strike had been called for the first time in 50 years by labor unions, civil organizations, indigenous groups, and students to protest the austerity measures being promoted by President Ivan Duque Marquez, and to demand a halt to the assassination of social leaders and an implementation of the long-fought Colombian peace process, among other grievances.
Cali is known as the world’s Salsa capital and, unsurprisingly, the march swayed to the beat of cowbells and percussion, with people chanting and dancing, displaying the smiling faces and tropical spirit characteristic of the city.
In the afternoon, however, the city’s other character emerged.
The protests, which had been non-violent and pro-peace, themselves became victims of Cali’s violence. Reports of looting and vandalism emerged during the day and the mayor declared a curfew to begin at 7 p.m. This was the first time in decades that such a drastic measure had been taken in the city and its imposition was in itself a frightening act.
As the sun was setting over the foothills of the Andes mountains an hour before curfew, I walked to the center of the city. Just a few blocks from the government offices where the march had ended up and protests had been held, dozens of “encapuchados” (young men with their faces covered) came running down the avenue towards me. Police had just tear-gassed the crowd on El Bulevard, the city’s main pedestrian stroll, and patrol cars, police vans and motorcycle cops were in hot pursuit of the encapuchados. Not liking the idea of getting trapped between angry young men and the riot police attacking them, I snapped a photo and hurried home.
When the curfew finally went into effect, the streets of the city emptied. Soon, though, people began banging on pots and pans from their homes, an act of rebellion copied from recent protests in Chile. With the sound of metal-on-metal beats coming from all around, the city seemed connected, hopeful, even happy on this politically dark day. After about twenty minutes, however, the beats faded. The only sound I could hear was a Black Hawk helicopter and an army surveillance airplane flying back and forth overhead. I closed the window and went online to see what was going on in the city.
Social media buzzed. Several videos began circulating, showing widespread looting and vandalism in Cali. In the videos, people — mostly Afro-Colombians — were seen dragging televisions, clothes or anything they could carry out of stores with smashed doors and windows. Videos of gangs swarming through wealthy condominiums also began to circulate. As happens on social media in times of trouble, the videos went viral and, judging from the comments, panic spread throughout Cali. The blurred videos brought up the city’s worst nightmare, that is, masses of angry kids from the poorest parts of the city swarming through up-scale neighborhoods.
President Duque had predicted this exact form of violence in the days leading to the strike. Many in the president’s party and his supporters blamed the looting on Venezuelans in Colombia. Since the US economic embargo and Nicolas Maduro’s rule decimated Venezuela’s economy, millions of Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia, a quarter of a million coming to Cali. Hundreds of Venezuelans could be seen living in grassy areas around the bus terminal, selling candy or asking for money on the streets of the city.
Videos documenting Venezuelans committing crimes in Cali had been circulating on social media for months, increasing in frequency and in tone. To underscore the threat that these immigrants represented, President Duque ordered the border between Colombia and Venezuela border to be closed on the first day of the strike to avoid an infiltration of “foreign agents and agitators” into the protests.
Whether the looting and violence was the work of Venezuelans, students, anarchists or the poor, as different social media reported, the situation seemed to be deteriorating. As I fell asleep that night, I dreamt of a city in flames.
THE TERROR OF VIGILANTE RULE
The morning after curfew, when the image of rabble-rousing masses gripped a large part of the city’s population, the “decent” people of the city reacted. People began reposting close-ups of the looters, asking for help to identify them so they could be punished. In reaction to the blurred videos supposedly showing gangs breaking and entering into homes, video selfies circulated of residents in upper-class housing projects armed with rifles, guns, swords, knives, and bats daring the vandals to enter their fortified compounds.
A few months ago, when a thief was arrested on my street trying to break into a house, many of my smiling, upstanding neighbors poured out of their homes and beat the man with broom handles, belts, and canes as he was being held by the cops. It was the closest I’ve ever come to seeing a real-life lynching. So it wasn’t hard to imagine similar scenes repeated all over the city after the curfew, fueled by the fear propagated in the media.
But vigilante neighbors were far from the only cause for concern.
In Cali, petty crime and vandalism is often countered by extreme, well-organized violence.
In Cali, petty crime and vandalism is often countered by extreme, well-organized violence. At the same time as the threatening images of the weapons in the hands of the upper-class condo dwellers awaiting an invasion by the lower classes were posted on social media, a leaflet with the logo of the “Aquilas Negras” (Black Eagles) began circulating. The leaflet announced that the vandals who had destroyed public and private property in Cali the day before had already been identified and would be “exterminated.”
At the end of the twentieth century, the Aquilas Negras, an organization of ex-paramilitaries, conducted a widespread operation of social cleansing. Over the course of a decade or so, this vigilante group, along with several others, exterminated social undesirables, known locally as “desechables” (expendables or garbage), including independent drug dealers, criminals, and sex workers, as well as homeless people, gay people, Communists, and social and student leaders — all groups marginalized and demonized by the official press and right-wing religious groups. The victims’ bodies were thrown into the city’s rivers with signs hanging from their necks that read “Cali Bonita, Cali Limpia” (“A beautiful Cali is a clean Cali”).
Within Colombia, Cali has always registered the highest number of murders in the category of “social cleansing,” and vigilante groups such as the “Aguilas Negras” have enjoyed the support, both morally and financially, of many wealthy residents. Besides protecting private property, these “social cleansing” operations were designed to spread terror throughout the city, allowing criminal organizations, such as the Aguilas Negras themselves, to operate without interference.
In addition to angry citizens and vigilantes, ex-president and current senator Alvaro Uribe, the political power behind President Duque, added to the terror sweeping throughout Cali by posting on his Twitter account an image of the locations of the protests and the names of the organizers of the national strike in Cali. Coming from Senator Uribe, who has been associated with paramilitary groups and is responsible for much of the violence that has shaken Colombia for the past several decades, publishing the names of the protest organizers was basically signing their death sentence. Hundreds of social activists and community leaders have been assassinated over the past decades in Colombia with impunity — one of the major complaints of the protests to begin with — and Uribe’s tweet was a direct threat to the strike leaders in Cali.
Within a couple of hours, Twitter was alerted to the tweet and Senator Uribe was asked to remove the image or have his account suspended. The image was removed but the information was already out there. The fear of reprisals had already been set in motion.
Within this climate of terror and fear-mongering, a protest was organized the day after, a sunny autumn day, in the center of the city. University students, artists, and socially-minded citizens beat out their demands on pots and pans and chanted protests, and a spirit of community and hope reigned.
But, as so often happens in Colombia, peace was met with violence.
Kurt Hollander is a writer and fine art and documentary photographer. Originally from downtown NYC, he has been living in Cali, Colombia since 2013.
All embedded photos in this piece were captured by Kurt Hollander in November 2019.