Social Protest in the Southwestern Colombian City Pasto


The article describes and discusses social protest in the southwestern Colombian city Pasto within the framework of the so-called "National Strike". The situation was characterized by an unprecedented social mobilization and an alarming escalation in the use of repressive violence by the state.

Young person with yellow helmet and motorcycle goggles

As of April 2021, and as a continuation of the mobilization processes that occurred in 2019, skilfully put on pause - by the State - during the health emergency due to COVID-19, within the framework of the right to protest, various demonstrations developed in the different cities of Colombia as a result of the great social discontent experienced by the majority of Colombians due to the growing inequality in terms of access to rights evidenced during the pandemic and the isolation measures imposed by the national government. As a result, the country experienced an unprecedented level of repression, which little by little ended up increasing all kinds of violence, mainly in the country's cities.

Police in a street after violent demonstration

In this context, within a relatively short time, the different groups, collectivities and/or organizations participating in the actions that resulted in the social protest ended up becoming "enemies" involved in direct confrontation, prisoners of relationships in which violence against the "other" found justification in the idea of "defense" - in the case of the mechanisms deployed by state and para-state groups, and of "resistance" - in the case of groups and/or collectivities of the civilian population.

Against the background of this complexity, the widespread mobilizations and demonstrations, always - or almost always - accompanied by various artistic and cultural events, morphed into events marred by extreme violence, charged with painful scenes of loss, in which emotions such as rage, sadness and fear were the common denominator. 

In a country like Colombia, where violence can almost be regarded as a symbol of identity under which an attempt has been made to construct the discourse of the nation, although the events of 2021 could be regarded as typical or even of little interest - being below the collective threshold of pain, taking into account the situations that have marked the history of violence and armed conflict; the intensity of the events, as well as the urban scenarios in which they took place, added to the skillful communicative accompaniment of the events - thanks to the so-called alternative media and social networks, made possible by the fact that young people represent one of the most active segments of the population at the time; The facts became important events in the collective memory: common benchmarks with the capacity of transforming some "shared societal beliefs" (Bar-Tal, D. & Halperon, E., 2014, p.16).

Del dolor al cuidado: Madres Primera Línea.

Todas las que tengan hijos/vengan a ayudar a cantar

que es un hijo de mis entrañas

que lo llevan a enterrar

que es un niño de mis entrañas

que lo llevan a enterrar

 (Traditional song of the black communities of Sur del Cauca)

Era mi único hijo, mátenme a mí también/Estxs, nuestrxs únicxs hijxs.

In the early morning of 2 May 2021, hundreds of people following the development of violent days of police repression in several Colombian cities via a variety of communication platforms, which, as usual, lasted for several hours, heard - live and direct - the heartbreaking cry of a mother from the city of Ibagué, who, in the context of the protests in the city, lost her only son, murdered at the hands of the Anti-Riot Squad/ESMAD of the National Police.

Demonstration of young people

“He was my only son, kill me too," cried the desperate mother in the middle of the night, in front of thousands of people from all corners of Colombia who were aggrieved at the scene.

The event quickly generated social outrage. Through networks, among the different groups forming the mobilization, Santiago Murillo, the young man murdered in Ibagué and whom his mother has been mourning since the early morning of 2 May until today, was evoked in different messages bearing his name through banners, murals, rags, songs and shields: “Santiago did not die, Santiago was killed”. “Justice for Santiago”. “I will die, but I will come back and be MILLIONS. Santiago Murillo”.

In the city of Pasto, just two weeks after this heartbreaking event, on Wednesday 19 May to be precise, a group of women called "Madres Primera Línea" (Women of the Front Line) joined the mass mobilization that was taking place in the city.

There were many reasons for the mobilization of these women, all mothers: These women, "accompanying the boys", effectively participated in the mobilizations taking place in the city, and others joined the young men and women who faced down the horror of state repression en masse by mobilizing every Wednesday.

Among the multiple messages agreed upon by the women was a piece of red paper inscribed with black letters, which seemed to shout: “These, our only children”.

Hooded man with banner "Resistencia" in the colors of the Colombian flag

What has transgressed: we have been driven apart from one another.

In Colombian history, the concept of the figure of the "enemy", of the "other", and of diversity as a threat, is nothing new; However, the recent cause of the violence that we are currently facing can be traced to the events of 1948.

From this early stage, the construction of the image of the "enemy" played a fundamental role:

(…) the Colombian State, wishing to delegitimize the presence and organization of the peasant rebels, attributed to them the bandits’ name, in an effort, on the one hand, to attribute their actions to common criminals, and at the same time, (...) to ignore their organization, their political foundations, their representativeness in the social bases, their scope of real and legislative legitimacy in some areas of the country (Ortiz, I. in Estrada, J. (comp.), 2003, p. 738).

Young man with banner in front of Police

From this point onwards, and up to the present day, despite the fact that during some moments in history, the political character of the various rebel actors has been recognized, the groups in opposition to the hegemonic discourse have been repeated recipients of different names that seek to deny the political character of their actions and that try to match them with socially sanctionable actions and interests. Thus, they have been classified under categories such as "bandits", "terrorists" and "narco-terrorists" (Ortiz, I., 2003 in Estrada, J. (comp.) & Moncayo, V. (Pról)), and more recently, under categories such as "castrochavistas", "narcocastrochavistas", and so on.

Although this derogatory use of language is usually referred to by the unsuspecting recipient as an isolated curiosity, it is important to keep in mind that language is never isolated from power. Consequently, such discursive expressions, rather than being neutral and sporadic, signify meaning, and, while seeking the nomination of subjects, they seek to express, teach and legitimize ways of thinking and acting. Taken together, they allow the assignment of specific, static and simplified traits, roles and actions, on the basis of which a certain type of relationship and mechanism of response is justified.

As a result of this long tradition of subject division, Colombia and several Latin American countries have witnessed the construction of the broad concept of the enemy, to whom, using as a frame of reference both "general world views" and the "societal beliefs" that sustain our national narratives, we attribute features of perversity, which justify violent reaction against certain subjects and collectivities.

This enemy, as demonstrated by the Colombian case, rather than being static, is recurrently updated in its nomination, paired with certain traits, behaviors and relational forms, and simultaneously deemed subversive.

Demonstration with flags of Colombia

In 2021, behind the backdrop of violence and confrontation in which the State and its repressive forces were protagonists, the figure of the enemy, refreshed and updated thanks to its representation as "vandals", "terrorists" and "infiltrators related to dissident or guerrilla groups", allowed the pairing of certain segments of the population - the participating youth - with traits and behaviors that, from the perspective of the authorities, constituted threats to society.

In this sense, actions typical of social mobilization such as demonstrations, and occupation of public spaces and actions typical of an atypical mobilization scenario such as those that took place during the social protest, were not only classified as crimes, but, above all, as dangerous actions that attempted to undermine the fundamental principles of society. In short, they were regarded as terrorist actions, which not only justified the profiling, individualization, investigation, capture and prosecution of the participants - even without the existence of evidentiary material and without respect for due process - but also the persecution, torture and murder of hundreds of young people, including Santiago Murillo.

Although it could be believed that this semantic shift is a discursive political act that only involves, at least in its prescriptive dimension, those who are part of the security structures of the State (Armed Forces and National Police), the truth is that it has managed to permeate all layers of society, generating a categorical affiliation with the capacity to instigate actions not only of those who are part of the aforementioned structures but also of some fragments of civil society.

Obvious examples of this include those groups of civilians who shot at demonstrators during the national strike of 2021, but also the formation of paramilitary groups throughout national history. Likewise, those who donated to the community kitchens bottled gasoline in soda containers, expired food or meat-containing ground glass, with the intention of poisoning and injuring participants and supporters of the strike.

From mothers' cries to the encounter with the "other”.

Glissant, E. (1992) writes in his poetry:

Do you disunite from this suddenly assaulted woman the earth beneath her that jolts? Do you distinguish their milk from the milk of the earth, without ever being espoused? I turn this land into the face of every woman raped in her tender milk; I turn this woman into the image of every convulsed land so that the cry of her milk may flow, just as from a plum tree (p. 33).

Although, as Colombian history shows, the long trajectory and updating of the enemy's discourses have generated an important and deep introjection of the same, what has happened during the recent social transformation in Colombia has reminded us that the imagined realities that circulate in society are always constructs or consensualities that remain sensitive to transformation and reconfiguration.

How to transform these imagined realities? Can a mother's heart-rending cry provide an "instigating stimulus" with the capacity to cope with estrangement from the other, exalted in the context of complex contexts of socio-political violence?

As mentioned above, exposure to different situations and expressions of violence is a common experience in countries such as Colombia. The purpose of such exposure, instead of being accidental, is the use of terror in its repressive dimension, that is, in its potential to inhibit certain behaviors with the intention of sustaining a given social order and of decimating or eliminating any dissidence with respect to it. 

The socio-psychological effects of this long exposure to and experience of violence were not slow to follow. Thus, the social and subjective forms that are configured in the country have emerged as a sort of reversal of the specific circumstances that shape violence. Although some of these results have been rationalized, i.e. they are objectives pursued by repressive violence in Colombia, many are undesired responses, a product of the political irrationality and ethical unacceptability that always result from their use (Baro, I., 1975)

Consequently, violence has led to a kind of psychological discomfort, as a result of the incoherence or inconsistency that violence implies and that always ends up generating cognitive dissonance between violent action and premises such as respect for life.

In order to deal with this incongruence, those who force or pursue violent action, construct and disseminate ideas that aim, among others, to reduce the tension derived from incompatibility and, in this sense, to minimize the "moral guilt" that usually derives from the execution of behaviours that go against the so-called socially introjected moral levees. These auxiliary ideas have the function of matching the subject with a group or category to which certain traits and behaviors are attributed. Concretely, to categories that allow the understanding of the subject as an executor of senseless actions, executors of atrocious acts, who can only be distant from the condition of humanity and with whom, under this logic, there is no obligation of ethical relationship and in dignity, that is to say, with whom the non-application of the fundamental premises of respect for life, dignity and freedom is justified. 

Although these auxiliary ideas dealing with cognitive dissonance are skilfully manipulated by the State, being the product of an "alteration of the logic" proposed by the fundamental premises socially accepted and introjected early on in the subjects, they possess within themselves a seed of transformation that strives both to change the principles and also the behavior characterized by contradiction.

It is possible to think that the desperate cry of a mother mourning a son who has just been murdered, although it makes use of language in its most formal and structured dimension, plays - perhaps predominantly - with those elements that, as they are significantly emotionally charged, construct immediate and organic forms of expressive and operational interaction; that is to say, not consciously instrumentalized.

The mother who mourns her child, a mother without a child, as Ecuadorian writer Daniela Alcívar seems to say in her book Siberia - communicates with us through an emotional repertoire of sadness, fear and rage. Also, from the universal experience, now broken, of mothering and being mothered (Maturana, H., 1993).

That scene, the loneliness it expresses, castrates us from the ancestral experience of care as a primordial relationship. Thus, it may well become an instigating stimulus that puts in check the collective beliefs and imagined realities in which violence is sustained and that have been skillfully installed in people's subjective consciousnesses.

The mother's cry for the son, the "enemy" that returns to us as a son, re-humanizes the other, transforms the devaluing process that allows the distancing between one subject and another, through a regressive process that recognizes the subject within the group once valued as distant, to later understand him/her in his/her primordial human existence.

“The cry unites us. That cry unites us", says writer Rivera Garza in her novel "El invencible Verano de Liliana", when she talks about her mother's response to the news of her sister's femicide. The cry of Santiago Murillo's mother unites us, as do other cries occurring simultaneously, as a result of the growing inequality in which we live as a country, of the accumulated horror at the hands of the Colombian State.

From pain to care: community kitchens.

As a result of the accelerated increase in violence during the social protest experienced in several of the country's cities, and as a form of resistance to the repressive practices of the state and its auxiliary discourses, various forms of mobilization, support and participation in the so-called "National Strike" took place in different parts of Colombia, including the city of Pasto, in the south of the country.

In this context, the community kitchens, although they made their appearance early in the mobilization, were gradually consolidated until they were transformed, to say the least, together with entities such as the Human Rights Verification Commissions and First Aid, into emblematic efforts, evidence of the high social acceptance that the mobilization campaigns enjoyed among the disorganized civilian population and social and human rights organizations in the country.

In this sense, although at first, the community kitchens appear in the timeline of the social protest, accompanying through food the various gatherings convened by the youth, they gradually become an organic and decisive manifestation in the exercise of the right to social protest. This is done by proposing, among other things, actions aimed at guaranteeing the permanence in conditions of the dignity of the participants in the mobilization, or, in the words of some of the women who took part in this collective effort, the conditions that allow for the "reproduction of resistance”. That is, through the action of "feeding the people who stayed in the crowd until nightfall, who participated in the assemblies and artistic and cultural spaces, and those who advocated for human rights and lent medical assistance", to ensure the moral and concrete support of several of the mobilization efforts that shaped the different scenarios configured during the social protest.

Now, although several of these efforts became a reference point for the protest, the truth is that their origin, at least in this case, precedes the national strike and is related to the social, economic and political crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this sense, it originates at the height of the lockdown decreed by the national government in Colombia:

“When we started we decided, for a meeting of commune 10, to set up our first community kitchen as Olla Popular en Resistencia. To achieve this, we got together with ladies of the community dining room of Villa Nueva II and we set up our first community kitchen (...) we connected with that process that was taking place in commune 10 and it also allowed us to see that their activites were a direct result of the pandemic. (…) they told us that the kitchen came into being because the state was not fulfilling its functions: people were starving, and the children and the elderly in the community had no way of feeding themselves. One action that they contributed for their community and a form of resistance was to set up the community kitchen in the 'Villa Nueva II' sector.”

In keeping with this origin, the first events involving the community kitchens, and specifically the experience that is recounted here, were developed in the neighborhoods, anchored to the assemblies convened by the youth and feminist organizations during the protests.

In the two moments of configuration, in its origin and in its development within the framework of the national strike, as well as what happened in movements such as those of the "Madres Primera Línea" in the city, the encounter with the visceral existence of the other became the stimulus that causes its beginning and its sustainability.

Of special interest was what happened in the framework of the "Olla Popular en Resistencia", a movable kitchen in which "barristas, teachers, organizations and women who recognize themselves as feminists" came together, under the manifest and concrete idea of providing care, as mechanisms of action on an equal footing with the "troop" and the "mobilization”.

In the heat of the movable kitchens located at the different venues of the mobilization, especially in those where the actions of confrontation between demonstrators and the National Police were taking place, the community kitchens gradually became a meeting point for discussions regarding care as a fundamental tool in the current situation. This was not only through concrete participation during the protests but also through processes of appropriation and transformation of premises widely disseminated during the situation, through which they sought to exalt the importance of the so-called national strike.

Thus, during the "Stop the kitchen" campaign, the symbolic harangue "stop to advance, long live the national strike" was progressively replaced by the affirmation "take care to advance, long live the national strike”. This premise continued to accompany not only the community kitchens but also several feminist spaces that after the end of the mobilization sought the survival of this exercise through the dream of building community kitchens, through the permanence of the kitchens in the streets, through the participation in and accompaniment of events demanding justice for the crimes of the State perpetrated during the social protests and the defense of persons deprived of liberty on the occasion of the same.

The statement "Care to move forward, long live the national strike", at first communicated forcefully together with the symbolic "Stop to move forward, long live the national strike!", to later become the sole and central premise on which the kitchen was founded, expressed, among other things, the desire for refuge in the face of the severe repression generated by the State. In this sense, the effort to add a human dimension in the face of all the state violence deployed in the streets against - as is tradition in Colombia - impoverished men and women, standard bearers of the intention to change everything.

As in the case of the "Madres Primera Línea", the turning point that generated the deployment of all the community kitchens in the streets during the social mobilization was the cry of the other man or other woman, their pain and their hunger:

“(…) there was a specific situation that made us say 'we have to go out and do things that have a greater impact and that make a greater contribution because we really felt that our actions were not achieving what we wanted to achieve': (…) we were in the district of the carnival square and we met an elderly person, around 70 years old, of low income, who was coming from a hospital because he had undergone dialysis. He was walking and had to pass through the whole crowd to get home and there was no one to accompany him.

It seemed serious, so we and a colleague decided to accompany him to a point where there were some human rights representatives who could accompany him. Clearly, the gentleman had to make his way through the whole crowd and withstand all the fumes. It was a very violent situation.

That same day, we also came across two boys around 12 or 13 years old on a bicycle in the middle of the crowd. It was a very serious situation because we had real questions about the fact that kids around 13 years old were there in the crowd: They were very young children who should have been at home with their families and not in such a dangerous environment.

When we asked them 'What are you doing here?', one of the kids answered that his life was worthless. In response to this very desperate answer, my partner said 'your life is very valuable, you don't have to be here, you have to look after yourself'. This made us question the value of life in Colombia, the value of the life of a 12-year-old child and the perception that a child has of life. For him to say his life is worthless is a very hard thing to hear and I think that moved us a lot.

When we started telling the kid that his life was worth it, he took his bike and left. It was very hard for us to see that we could do nothing more and that perhaps, to a certain extent, what was happening was a consequence of the negligence of the state and the indifference of many of us.

The upshot of all this was that we said 'Let's do something, the people are hungry, they have been protesting for a long time,' and with some companions, we decided to organize ourselves and begin to generate this community kitchen.

(…) Later, when the pot was being set up during the mobilization, there was a large crowd and it was already dark. The two of us were at the coalface in terms of the confrontation. My partner was helping with the milk and I was nearby, but I was getting very sick from the gas and since I had had some fainting spells that looked like convulsions a while before the whole thing started, I preferred to stay off to the side. As I waited for my companion who was moving around in the crowd, I watched as boys were pulled out, out of breath, passed out, and bundled into some taxis.  As the water cannon was deployed and launched its water, people became soaking wet in the cold of the night, shivering. Everything was closed in and it was very cold, and people were tired and unbalanced. Amidst this disorder, I could not communicate with my companion. I felt desperate because there was a lot of gas and I did not feel that I could enter the crowd to look for her and help because she had gone into the crowd carrying two or three milks used to clean the eyes and face and relieve the itchiness of the gas.

In desperation mode, I went out to one of the corners and found myself among other kids who were emerging from the crowd. There was a bakery open, so they went out to buy bread and to tell other companions who were already at home to make coffee. From that day on, the kitchen was not only set up for lunch but also for the night, to feed every last boy or girl left on the streets.”

In this regard, one of the members of the community kitchens set up within the framework of the national strike mentions: “(…) I believe that none of us women want our sons, daughters, children to have to go through a situation of violence, of precariousness, to have to experience the hostility of a negligent state”.

There is in this exercise, in fairness to what has been mentioned, a concern for the upbringing of the new generations that are not new only in the sense of being sons and daughters, but rather, as new meanings of what it is to exist, but, above all, a concern for the confrontational experience of a sort of crisis of care, of a lack of guarantees that are recognized as inherent and threatening.

In the face of this crisis in which tenderness is being snatched away from us, the response of the community kitchens, as well as those of the "Madres Primera Línea", is powerful: concern and care for those that are being torn apart. This is through direct action on behalf of life, the most direct - perhaps - of all actions, the preparation of the food that allows the body to survive.  In this sense, as biologist Humberto Maturana would say, the "sensual aesthetics of daily tasks as sacred activities" (1993, p. 40) allow, according to the author, the coexistence of the one with a legitimate other.

The kitchens and the Madres Primera Línea represent a commitment to the recovery of the tenderness taken away by the State and the State’s skillful personification of the protestors as enemies, bandits, terrorists, and vandals. A concern that has arisen from the concrete experience of the crisis of care. A movement that is nourished by all those roads traveled by women for whom the struggle has always been for life, and for whom, as Maturana (1993) says, the commitment to coexistence passes through the understanding of a world that is always under our care and responsibility.

“We are making history!" someone says, "We are doing our duty to life! Armed with those tasks that historically have been considered minor but which are the ones that facilitate existence, resistance, and re-existence! Yes! We are the fuel for the fire! Revolutionary fuel... and our revolution is all about care”.

 The writer Rivera Garza (2021) also says:

 "A foot on a footprint. Many footprints. More feet. We are now confused. Feet that fit the invisible silhouettes of other steps. Silhouettes that open up to accommodate our feet. We are them in the past, and we are them in the future, and we are others at the same time. We are others and we are the same as always. Women in search of justice. Exhausted women, and together. Fed up already, but with the patience that only centuries can bring. Already forever enraged." (p.17)


Alcívar, D. (2018). Siberia. Campaña Nacional Eugenio Espejo por el Libro y la Lectura.

Bar-Tal, D. & Halperin, E. (2014). Sociopsychological Barriers for peace making and ideas to overcome them. Revista de Psicología Social, 29(1), 1 – 30.

Estrada, J (comp). 2003. Dominación, Crisis y Resistencias en el Nuevo Orden Capitalista. Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá-Colombia.

Glissant, E. 1997. Sol de la Conciencia. El Cobre, Spain.

Maturana, H. (1993) Amor y juego: Fundamentos Olvidados de lo Humano. Chapter 1: Conversaciones matrízticas y patriarcales PP. 27 - 108. Ed Instituto de Terapia Cognitiva, Santiago de Chile.

Molano, A. 2016. A lomo de mula. Viajes al corazón de las Farc. El Espectador, Colombia.

Rivera, C. (2021). El invencible verano de Liliana. Bogotá:  Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, S.A.S.

In general terms, the events of 1948 revolve around the violence perpetrated by the Chulavita police (a conservative-leaning para-state group), and the events that ended up giving rise to defense and organization practices in the form of "outposts" that would later give rise to the constitution of the first guerrilla groups (Molano, A., 2016).

The outposts, according to the author, were a surveillance mechanism by means of which the arrival of chulavitas was announced in the different villages.

Constructed as such from complex discursive processes.

Instigating stimuli are understood as events with the capacity to generate potentially disruptive representations of pre-established ideas. Thus, with the capacity to generate a cognitive dissonance capable of "motivating the members of society who assume it to evaluate the established beliefs of the culture of conflict" (Baro, I., 1975, p.22).  These stimuli, we believe, as well as the instigating ideas, being inconsistent with "established beliefs and attitudes", provoke "tension, dilemmas or even intrapersonal conflict", thereby stimulating people to "abandon their starting position and seek an alternative" (Bar-Tal, D. & Halperon, E., 2014, p.22).


Photos by Karold Santacruz

This article was produced with the support of the Global Support for Democracy Unit of the  Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union. It is part of the dossier "Youth & democracy in Latin America. Young voices on the rise".