A sea of bright yellow from Colombian flags and national soccer team jerseys flooded the parking lot of a south Raleigh strip mall Saturday afternoon as around a hundred Colombian-Americans gathered to support mass anti-government protests that have roiled their home country in the past week.
“We’re here to send a message of support, solidarity and empathy to our country that needs it in this moment,” said Cristian Arboleda Escobar, one of the event’s organizers, in Spanish. “If we unite like family, like compatriots, we can make a strong call to the international community so they can turn their eyes toward Colombia.”
The protest was the second held by the Colombian community this past week in the Villa Latina strip mall on Chapanoke Road. Demonstrators are mourning the victims of the “Paro Nacional” protests — or “national strike” in English — protests due to internationally condemned violence from the country’s security forces.
“I’ve felt impotent, like if I couldn’t do anything about it other than ask God to protect the people,” said Hillary Neuto, 20, who came from Johnston County. “This has affected me psychologically, because this past week I haven’t been able to sleep well ... I’m always worrying about what the people in Colombia need, about what’s happening to them.”
Neuto said her family and friends in her native city of Cali say they’re scared to step outside their homes out of fear of the widespread and arbitrary attacks from security forces against people in the streets.
The Colombian community also demonstrated in Charlotte on Saturday, where around a hundred people gathered marched through uptown, the second protest there this past week as well, public radio station WFAE reported.
Demonstrators in both cities played and danced to traditional cumbia and folkloric music, much like some of the cultural celebrations seen at protests in Colombia.
What’s happening in Colombia?
Colombia has seen protests daily since April 28, spearheaded by youths and university students against tax reforms proposed by the country’s conservative government that would raise taxes on the middle class. The reforms have now been rescinded because of the pushback, but the unrest has grown into larger protests against police brutality, corruption and historic insecurity due to paramilitary and cartel violence, according to news reports.
The protests took a violent turn last week and garnered international attention as videos of police ransacking homes and abducting people, beating peaceful protesters as well as firing live rounds at protesters hit social media. Protesters have also torched police stations and vandalized property.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights confirmed it has received reports of human rights violations by Colombian security forces, a U.N. spokeswoman said in a news release.
Official numbers claim 24 people have died and over 800 have been wounded, though local rights organizations estimate the number of dead surpasses 30, most of them civilians, according to the Miami Herald.
“Thousands of people have come out to exercise their legitimate right to protest in a peaceful manner toward social and economic inequity, poverty, misery and violence,” said Luz Motola in Spanish. She immigrated from Cali and participated in the Raleigh protest. “It’s unacceptable that a democratic state like Colombia is killing its young people and isn’t respecting their fundamental rights,” she said.
Demonstrators held signs that read “Stop killing our people,” “No more deaths,” and “#SOSColombia,” and they sang about national unity in the face of turmoil.
Community members came from around the Triangle, though Carolina Holguín, 30, drove from Moore County to join the protest.
“In Colombia there’s not enough employment, there’s no health care, there’s no pension, nothing,” she said. “There’s not even a right to live, because they’re killing us.
Across Colombia, officers in uniform have been mobilized to maintain order, the Herald reported.
Back in Raleigh, the Colombian community and their supporters voiced their solidarity with protesters in Colombia with a chant: “Colombia, amigo! Raleigh está contigo.”
“Colombia, my friend. Raleigh is with you!”