Edward Samir Murillo and Daniel Andrés Perlaza were murdered simply for being black* in a park in Ciudad Bolivar, a sprawling, marginalized neighborhood in the South of Bogota, the capital of Colombia, where many victims of forced displacement have fled. Both young men were from the Pacific Coast, and had arrived in Ciudad Bolivar fleeing the war. For the families of the victims and Afro-Colombian organizations, there is no doubt about the motivations behind the killings. According to a press release from the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), before dying, one of the men told his families that one of the armed men, while shooting, had said, “Negro, this is for you for being black, and it’s just the beginning; we’re going to bring death to all the blacks here.” Clearly, the victims’ families and hundreds of displaced Afro-Colombians suffer a double victimization: in addition to suffering the pain and misery of being uprooting from their homes they must also face racial violence and discrimination that intensifies in Bogota’s outlying districts.
According to news sources, Edward and Daniel bring the total of young black men murdered in similar circumstances in similar, disadvantaged neighborhoods of Bogota during the first four months of 2015 to fourteen. Although social complexities in these areas influence the levels of violence and social conflict, the pattern of selective killing, added to the tensions between the mestiza (the mixed race, light-skinned population of the country) and Afro-Colombian population for scarce goods such as housing, work, and the difficulties of sharing communal spaces, show that something is brewing in sectors of the city where contingents of black families have arrived in recent years: racial hate and violence.
In Bogota neighborhoods it is now common to see signs that say “we don’t rent to blacks.” It is also worth recalling a nefarious article published recently in the online version of the newspaper El Tiempo, titled, “This is how black Bogota lives,” whose original version contained a vast array of prejudiced and racist comments that reflected ethnic and racial aversion. But now we are faced with death, which defies any attempt at denial. Violence and apathy toward the black population has been a historical constant since colonial times.
In part because the consolidation of the mestizanation has meant that economic interests involve lands and territories of black communities that had found refuge in the country’s isolated areas. And, again, after building a collective community, black communities have been subjected to the loss of their identity and very existence.
The following question is: What do all of these deaths have in common? We would venture to propose that society continues to view black people and communities as a problem. Just as Dubois stated in 1944 in Of the Dawn of Freedom, “How does it feel to be a problem?, they say”
A recent newspaper article described the testimony of María, an Afro-Colombian singer, who was beaten by skinheads in the city center, yelling “black son of a bitch,” while area residents looked on. What is worse is when she arrived at the local police station, where they told her, “you guys are very problematic” Clearly, “you” referred to the black population. A problem for the neighborhood; a problem for the authorities.
This has been a universal constant. From South Africa, where former apartheid has been resurrected as a de facto system of segregation with high levels of violence against the black population; to the United States, with an alarmingly high homicide rate for young blacks; and including Brazil, where the topic of the murder of black youth was recently the subject of a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Colombia, of course, does not escape this pattern. Violence against the black population has been a fact of life since the country was a Spanish colony. In addition to the high levels of internal displacement and murders of the black and indigenous population in the armed conflict and generalized violence, data from a 2013 Dejusticia and RDW study shows that between 2005 and 2013 comunas (poor neighborhoods) with the highest number of homicides had a high concentration of black Colombians.
Nonetheless, in Colombia, the denial of racism is such that relevant quantitative investigations are scarce. At a more institutional level, the government has not yet ratified the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Intolerance, which the OAS General Assembly approved in June, 2013, in part because we are still living the legacy of the myth of racial democracy. In our consciences, phrases such as “we have to deal with these blacks,” “Negro, this is for you for being black, and it’s just the beginning; we’re going to bring death to all the blacks here” keep repeating.
* But as a quick exercise, whose immediate reaction was, “but maybe they were criminals!”
** Ana is a member of Racial Discrimination Watch (RDW), a former researcher at Dejusticia, and currently works at the National Ombudsman of Colombia. Sara is a member of RDW and a researcher at Dejusticia. This blog is based on the Spanish version published on RDW’s blog.
Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud