Protest-torn Colombia in danger of losing Copa America

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Colombia has been thrown into chaos just over a month before the country is set to co-host the Copa America with Argentina.

Protests began at the end of April in response to a proposal from President Ivan Duque to reform tax and healthcare, a plan which opponents contended would increase the burden on a working and middle class already hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Other issues, however, run deeper. Indeed, Duque's subsequent withdrawal of the reform has done nothing to quell the unrest.

“While these specific protests started due to an unpopular tax reform that sought to tax lower and middle income citizens, there is a widespread discontent regarding the presidency of Ivan Duque," Bogota-based photographer and journalist Julian Gutierrez told Goal.

On Wednesday, the self-styled 'national strike' enters its second week, felt across the country but particularly in urban centres such as Cali and capital Bogota. 

Almost 50 people have lost their lives in clashes between protestors and police, according to NGO Temblores. Official government data confirms 27 dead, including one police officer.

On May 5, university student Lucas Villa had a clear message for the cameras covering the latest peaceful protest in the city of Pereira, Colombia.

“They are killing us,” the 37-year-old yelled to onlookers as he marched alongside his colleagues. Moments later, his message would become prescient.

A group of unknown individuals dressed in civilian clothes began to fire on the protest. Lucas was left in critical condition after being hit by eight bullets and, six days later, was pronounced brain-dead by medics at the University Hospital of Pereira.

“Now, in Colombia, the very fact of being young and in the streets is taking your life into your own hands,” Lucas Villa stated shortly before losing his life. “We could all die here, but how can you abandon your people?”

There are further reports of 168 individuals missing with more than 800 wounded. The crackdown has strengthened resolve in a nation that, unlike its neighbours, is not known for a recent tradition of widespread demonstrations.

“These protests have been met by growing popular support from the public opinion, which was unheard of a few years ago,” Gutierrez says.

Like all public events, football has more or less ground to a halt as security authorities cannot guarantee teams' safety for matches.

The top-flight Liga DiMayor has been on hiatus for almost all of May, complicating its Apertura play-off rounds, while teams such as Atletico Nacional, Santa Fe and La Equidad were last week obliged to move their Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana matches to Paraguay due to the ongoing violence.

“We haven't considered finishing the league outside the country,” Liga DiMayor president Fernando Jaramillo told WinSport when consulted about the possibility of moving the play-offs away from Colombia.

“We have to send a message of optimism, but that option has not been considered. In a country like ours, letting football stop is very bad for everyone.”

President Duque has struck a similar pose with regards to the Copa America, whose Group B will be played in Colombia.

“The Copa America is firm, although it will be played without fans, due to the emergency which our countries face,” the head of state affirmed this week.

Colombia Protests

Colombia Protests

The precedent is already set; in 2001, a year when Colombia was ravaged by terrorist attacks perpetrated by the FARC, the competition – ultimately won by the hosts – went ahead nonetheless, although Argentina dropped out due to safety concerns and Brazil sent a weakened side.

Today in Cali, memories of Deportivo Cali's 3-0 defeat to Tolima in the first leg of the play-off quarters already feel like a world away. That clash took place three days before the city exploded in rage at Duque's plans, and it is now shut off from the rest of Colombia, leaving the return match still unplayed.

Protesters have placed barricades at almost all of the major entrances and exits to the city, and fighting there has been the fiercest of anywhere in Colombia, while food, petrol and other necessities have started to run short due to the blockades.

Garbage collections have also stopped, leaving much of Cali suffering under the stench of thousands of tonnes of refuse.

There have been reports of human rights violations from indigenous groups participating in the protests, and armed attacks from vigilante 'self-defence' groups firing on demonstrators.

Colombia Protests

Colombia Protests

“This country is killing itself over a lot of things,” Alfredo Arias, Deportivo Cali's Uruguayan coach, lamented to Embajadores de Gol. “The first feeling is pain, and concern that there will be no end to this.

“Today [Saturday], I gave the day off because my players didn't have fuel for their cars and those who don't have a car can't take the buses. Cali has been one of the most violent cities. Working buses have been set on fire.

“Some days a few players came in, other days they couldn't. They leave home at 4am to get here at 8am, when they normally take 20 minutes. They have to pass roadblocks, checkpoints, because it is all closed down, everything.”

Cali remains one of the planned venues for the Copa America, with three group matches and a quarter-final scheduled at America's Estadio Pascual Guerrero home. Whether the city, and indeed Colombia as a whole, will be in any fit state to hold the tournament next month, though, is very much in doubt.

“This climate is unlikely to cool down by the time Copa America is supposed to start. It had been met with very low support given that it is seen as a vanity project for Duque,” Gutierrez explains.

“Before the protests, the fact that Colombia was entering a third wave of the pandemic made the proposal quite risky and now it's being met with opposition even by footballing personalities.”

CONMEBOL is already reportedly exploring last-minute alternatives such as Paraguay and Chile for Group B. Even inside the nation, opposition to pushing through the Copa is growing.

Colombia Protests

Colombia Protests

“Right now in Colombia, there are bigger issues than a football game,” Atletico Bucaramanga coach Luis Fernando Suarez signalled this week. “If there is one thing that is not a priority and could be sacrificed right now, it is the Copa America.”

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“As a Colombian, I would like to see a Copa America which makes us proud and gives us a vision of what Colombia stands for, but what you find is an enormous level of dissatisfaction in the Colombian people,” Carlos Fernandez Puche, executive director of the Colombian Professional Players' Association, explained.

“Enjoying football is not one of the people's priorities now, rather it is to solve basic problems in health, having a source of income, meeting their needs.

"There is not a favourable atmosphere for holding a party, due to the conditions of the country, which football cannot solve because they are outside of it and cannot be concealed with football.”