Violent and deadly protests have flared in urban centers across Colombia since April 28, 2021, including Bogotá, the capital, as well as Cali, Medellín, Pereira, Bucaramanga, Ibagué, Zipaquirá, and Buenaventura, according to news reports. Initially sparked by President Iván Duque’s proposed tax reforms–which were later dropped–protests have since morphed into a wider movement against poverty, inequality, and perceived corruption, in turn fueled by anger over police brutality and frustration over officials’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Guardian.
The United Nations has accused the security forces of using excessive force against civilians, resulting in dozens of deaths along with hundreds of injuries and arrests, according to Human Rights Watch. Tensions remain high, particularly in the city of Cali, where Duque has vowed to send more troops after clashes between protesters and armed civilians, as reported by Deutsche Welle.
Between April 28 and May 7, the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) documented at least 115 incidents involving journalists covering the protests, including robberies, harassment, and injuries; nearly half of the violations were allegedly committed by the National Police and its Mobile Anti-Riot Squad, or ESMAD.
Physical safety considerations
Media workers should anticipate and be prepared for significant levels of violence on the ground, which could come from the security forces (such as ESMAD), armed civilian groups/vigilantes, and/or protesters. Dangers may include (but are not limited to) the use of the following:
- Plan all journeys in advance and be prepared to maintain a flexible itinerary. Travel can be affected at short notice due to blockades, as recently witnessed on the main highway between Cali and Buenaventura. Note that airports can be affected, with Alfonso Bonilla Aragón airport in Cali temporarily closed in early May due to the unrest.
- Consider the profile and gender of media workers, noting that Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has recorded multiple examples of sexual assault during arrests.
- If staying at a hotel, select a property a safe distance from potential flashpoints, noting that La Luna hotel in Cali was attacked and set on fire on May 4.
- Be aware of the reported presence of armed civilian groups at certain locations, who are likely to be well-armed and who may wear a particular color, such as white. Where possible always try and identify which vigilante groups, counter-protesters, and security forces may be present at the location (e.g. ESMAD), and research the typical tactics they use on the ground.
- Where violence is anticipated, the use of protective safety goggles/glasses, helmets, and tear gas respirators should be considered. For more information see the CPJ’s personal protective equipment (PPE) guide here.
- If there is a risk of live ammunition being used, Level III A and above body armor should be considered. Note that ballistic-grade body armor is heavy and can reduce mobility and endurance.
- Individuals should not be expected to work alone at protest locations. Try to work with a colleague and set up a regular check-in procedure with your base, family, or friends. Working after dark is riskier and should be avoided if possible. For more information please see CPJ’s advice for journalists reporting alone.
- Plan an advance escape strategy in case circumstances become hostile. Do so by examining maps of the location and identifying all available exit routes. Go through the plan again on arrival, which may need to be modified based on local circumstances (e.g. road blockades).
- Plan an emergency rendezvous point if you are working with others and unable to get to your means of transportation.
- Ensure that you have the correct accreditation or press identification, and have it on display if safe to do so. For freelancers, a letter from the commissioning employer is helpful.
- Identify and record the location of the closest point of medical assistance.
- Have in place emergency protocols in case of injury, arrest, or kidnapping. Identify the best people for your emergency contact to reach out to–for example your fixer, local journalists who may be able to help, and/or your embassy.
- Know your legal rights in the state you are in before reporting on any protest.
- Use CPJ’s risk assessment form (available in multiple languages) to plan your assignment in advance.
Clothing, equipment, & transportation
- Do not rely on public transport. Over 36 TransMilenio stations and 163 buses were recently targeted in Bogotá, while an estimated 60% of the Cali bus network has been destroyed, according to the BBC. Note that transport services could be suspended with little warning.
- Ensure you have sufficient fuel for the journey, noting recent reports of shortages in Cali.
- Take some emergency provisions with you, considering recent reports of food shortages in Cali. Note that supply shortages may increase if roadblocks to major ports and cities continue.
- Ensure your phone is fully charged up before departure, and consider the risk of communication networks being disrupted, as recently reported in Cali.
- It is recommended to avoid wearing lanyards around the neck to prevent strangulation or being pulled over. Consider a velcro pouch on the bicep instead, and wear a PRESS badge if safe to do so.
- Wear clothing that helps you ‘blend in,’ that doesn’t look too ‘tactical’ or ‘military,’ and that allows you to move swiftly. Try and avoid loose clothing, political slogans, media branding, military colors/patterns, any colors associated with groups that might single you out by the police, and flammable materials (e.g. nylon).
- Wear footwear with hard soles, laces, and some kind of ankle support.
- Tie long hair up to prevent individuals from pulling you from behind.
- Always park your vehicle in a secure location and facing the direction of escape, or ensure you have an alternative guaranteed and secure mode of transport.
- Take the minimum amount of equipment necessary with you, and avoid wearing expensive jewelry and/or watches. Do not leave valuable equipment in vehicles, which could be broken into. After dark, the criminal risk increases.
- Take a medical kit with you. Please refer to CPJ’s Personal Gear checklist and also CPJ’s PPE guide for more information.
With the authorities
- Remain vigilant to vehicles approaching you and parked close to you. Be aware that police have reportedly charged crowds with motorcycles, and that protesters have been fired upon from armored vehicles and unidentified vehicles. In addition, there have been reports of police-owned trucks carrying violent agitators around who attack individuals.
- Always use discretion when filming, especially around sensitive state sites, infrastructure, and the security forces.
- Maintain situational awareness at all times, and stay in close proximity to hard shelter such as a building or structure with a roof.
- Extra police may be called in to a location and may not know the geography of the area or be as familiar with local legislation. In the event of unrest, be aware that a lack of communication between different police forces could result in poor command and control.
- Continuously observe and read the mood and demeanor of the authorities in relation to the crowd dynamic. Police can become more aggressive if the crowd is agitated (or vice versa). Visual cues such as the appearance of police dressed in riot gear, shield walls, or throwing of projectiles are potential indicators that aggression can be expected. Pull back to a safe location, or plan a quick extraction when such “red flags” are evident.
With protesters & armed civilian groups
- Be aware that protesters or counter protesters could be armed, with the presence of plain clothed vigilante groups in certain locations. Note reports of protesters being shot…