Twenty-thousand strong marched in protest in Bogotá in 2011 at the Colombian government’s plans to cut university spending. The protestors retained a student-led atmosphere of goodwill and the only simmering of potential aggression was due to the presence of the Colombian Police’s Riot Control Unit (ESMAD) parked on strategic side streets.
I was in downtown Bogotá on the second floor café above the throngs with a tourist from Seattle, watching students from all over Colombia protesting the bill pushed through by President Juan Manuel Santos’ government to reform higher education by introducing a profit motive.
“I wish my daughter could be here to witness this,” the Seattle visitor told me. “It’s a healthy display of the young airing their grievances with a government decision. We don’t see this anymore in the United States.”
Protest participants were handing out carnations to members of the ESMAD, placards were held aloft announcing the arrival of different student bodies. With several years of experience as a foreign correspondent in Colombia, I knew better than to drop my guard despite the festive mood as if these students had somehow lost their way in route to a humanities class.
And my instincts were right, as the carnival atmosphere was threatened by an undercurrent of disobedience as masked agitators—armed with spray paint canisters—left shop windows and walls emblazoned with slogans: “Pensar diferente no es un crimen.” Translation: “Thinking differently isn’t a crime.”
From our present vantage point we were safe, unless the protest turned violent, as it has been proven time and again that an emotionally charged crowd of people can be swayed from grief or merriment to sadistic dementia in a second.
After all, if the ESMAD fired off tear gas, where would we go? The only exit from the café would be down a narrow flight of stairs and out onto the Carrerra Septima, the principal thoroughfare for all demonstrations in Bogota as it leads directly to the Plaza de Bolivar and the Palicio Narino seat of power—hardly an ideal route.
Strikes, marches, and demonstrations are a routine occurrence in Colombia, set against the backdrop of the Colombian armed conflict—currently the longest-running in the hemisphere. And in 2016, in the lead up to and after the signing of a final peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC rebels), these may increase as disgruntled sectors of the country’s society feel their needs and complaints are not being heard.
If President Santos makes good on his promise to bring the final accords to a referendum, so people can vote in favor or against it, there will be many opportunities for people to make their cases heard by pounding the streets.
As a Bogotá-based journalist, the possibility of being caught up in some kind of social unrest during the course of my work in 2016 is high. To help plan for the worst, I picked the brain of a trusted security expert—Ben Hockman, senior consultant at Control Risks, a global risk management consultancy specializing in assisting clients operate in complex and hostile environments.
Even with experience witnessing challenging demonstrations across South America from Bolivian miners threatening to hang themselves by the neck from a bridge to facing off with police and throwing sticks of dynamite along each avenue leading up to La Paz’s Plaza Murillo to politically charged May Day lawlessness, I know better than to stay too close to the action.
This experience with the issues of violence and potential lawlessness in demonstrations in Latin America has helped me in the past. But before hitting the streets, Hockman suggests I take the following into account when I’m planning to cover an event.
- Gather intelligence. Know the immediate area, the wider area, and all evacuation options. Determine what the political and economic situations are.
- Study the basics of the local political and economic situation. A well prepared traveler to Venezuela might avoid wearing red t-shirts in and around Caracas, for instance, in the current climate of social unrest.
- Have a Go Bag. Collect identification documents, copies, snacks, cash for emergencies, water, basic first aid kit, and put them into a bag to take with you.
- Print physical copies of maps from apps. Don’t rely on applications, such as Waze, Google Street View, as Internet access may go down in the midst of unrest.
- Know in advance where help points are located and how to get to them.
- Have a back-up communication plan and prepare for network infrastructure failure. Have a replacement cell phone, a radio, or a walk-talkie.
- Be conscious of your wardrobe. Are you able to change your look quickly? What happens if you are in olive drab and resemble the military?
As Hockman advises, before even approaching a demonstration, I should know the lay of the land—or at least have in my possession a map of the area where I will be engaging with the event.
I also need to keep myself abreast of the type of demonstration that is taking place: is it political, is violence likely? I should check for security forces and know the general current of feeling in the city and country at that precise moment, in addition to having investigated the outcomes and reactions to past demonstrations.
Additionally, as a 6-foot-tall Caucasian male, I know I’m going to stand out in a melee of rioting Bolivian miners. The question is if that makes me more—or less—of a target.
And in extreme situations where a demonstration may lead to military deployment and a challenge of the political regime, it’s crucial to have my passport and tickets out of the country on hand.
As the tourist from Seattle and I watched the main cadre of students pass by during their protest, I was right to be concerned. Things were heating up, and paint bombs were being hurled at government buildings.
Our exit option was limited and there would be precious little space for movement on the street because of the numerous protestors. To get out of the café, the tourist and I would need to keep close, head to the edges of the protest, and move with the crowd as if negotiating a strong ocean current, before slipping away down a side street.
The aim would be to get out, avoid a possibly trigger-happy police front line spraying pepper spray or tear gas, and escape injury in the process.
To help think through our escape plan—if it became necessary—I ran through Hockman’s checklist on what to do if caught in the midst of a violent protest.
- Remember your principal objective is to put as much distance as possible between you and the unrest. If you fail, plan b will be to seek appropriate cover—alleyways, buildings, or vehicles.
- Control your emotions. Try to remain as calm as possible.
- Keep anyone in your party close—maintain a distance within reach or physical contact, and agree on safe meting points ahead of time in the event that you are separated.
- Keep moving, but don’t run.
- Move with the crowd and don’t draw attention to yourself. Look for exit options to side streets and your help points—alleys, safe zones, or alternative cover.
- Make yourself compact while moving. Protect your head, neck, face, and vital organs. Do not get pushed against or blocked by solid objects.
- Watch your footing and obstacles on the ground.
- Move between “waves of crowd movements.”
- Avoid major roads and sites.
- If gas or pepper spray is released, cover your airways with clothing but try to keep your hands free.
- Do not approach the front line of police.
- Avoid interaction with demonstrators or security forces.
- Avoid confrontation with any party.
- If you find yourself on the ground, try to stand as quickly as possible. If you can’t stand up, curl yourself into a ball to protect vital organs and try to regain your footing as soon as possible.
- If you’re in a vehicle, stay in the vehicle. If gun shots sound, determine their origin and the target before driving away or running away. Sudden movements can draw attention from both protestors and the security forces, particularly during exchanges of fire, so have a plan before you move.
Luckily, the worst of the violence was defacement of property and a couple of skirmishes during the student protest in 2011, and we were able to safely leave the café.
Fast forward four years, however, and I was again in the midst of some social unrest in the form of the Colombian Farmers’ Protests of 2015. Thousands of farmers were protesting to demand that the government comply with reforms it agreed to in 2014, accusing it of failing to implement measures to reduce debt and control the price of fertilizer. It was clear that the Colombian people were largely in favor of the protests, and on key dates 45,000 people had taken to the streets to demonstrate.
This time the feeling was different and the carnival atmosphere of the student-led demonstration was replaced with a more sinister and aggressive sentiment. And, as was to be expected, pandemonium ensued.
At the height of the turmoil, there was a period of four hours when police used tear gas on rioters throwing petardos (flash-bombs) that injured the police and the public. None of the injuries appeared serious, however, in what was Bogota’s worst street violence since protesters in March 2012 against the city’s municipal bus system were attacked by young vandals.
This was clearly a demonstration to avoid, and Hockman gave me the following tips to manage the immediate aftermath of violent social unrest.
- Avoid public transportation.
- Check for injuries and, if necessary, seek medical help. The immediate adrenaline rush experienced during violent unrest might mask injuries.
- Report in to your office or family as frequently as you can.
- Consider the possibility of mild-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and seek medical attention where necessary.
Colombia will face a new wave of emotionally and politically fueled demonstrations in 2106 and beyond as the government seeks to sign off on a peace accord with the FARC and entice the country’s second guerrilla group—the National Liberation Army—to the negotiating table, demonstrations will be the norm.
It pays to be prepared, and to fully consider the advice provided by experts in the field.
Richard McColl is a foreign correspondent and conflict resolution specialist based in Colombia. Ben Hockman contributed to this article and is a senior consultant at Control Risks based in Colombia and a member of ASIS International.