On April 12, 2007, thousands of Colombians gathered in the city of Cali to protest a recent bombing by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Protesters, many wearing white t-shirts, carried banners reading, “I reject terrorism” and “Death to fear.” The gathering displayed a consolidated show of support that culminated in chants of, “Viva,” at the site of the bombing. The march was noteworthy not just for the unprecedented show of public solidarity from Cali’s citizens, but may also suggest a general shift in national sentiment—as well as public policy—towards the decades-old rebel conflict in Colombia.
The bombing in question occurred in the center of Cali on April 9, 2007, (link forthcoming). A 110-pound car bomb ripped through the municipal police headquarters after midnight, killing a taxi driver and wounding 34 individuals. The blast also damaged over 200 shops and rendered 740 families homeless. It is estimated the attack resulted in approximately $9 million in damages. The government was quick to attribute responsibility for the attacks; General Hipolito Herrera, security director for Colombia’s national police forces, stated, “Everything points to the FARC.”
The blast is important, as it marks a departure for the FARC’s operations in southwestern Colombia. While the group has focused primarily on soft rural targets, the Cali bombing suggests the group is still capable—and willing—to carry out high-value attacks in dense urban centers. Moreover, Cali has long been the center of turf wars between the FARC, paramilitaries and rival drug trafficking gangs. Lastly, as Colombia’s third-largest city, Cali is the Colombian military’s launch point for its anti-FARC campaign in the southwest region. All of these factors likely contributed to the FARC’s motivation for carrying out the attack.
Public Awareness, Political Currency
The attacks quickly elicited both civic and political responses. The march occurring days after the bombing is one of the largest in recent Colombian history. The protesters were joined by prominent local figures such as Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Mayor Apolinar Salcedo Caicedo. While reports vary as to the size of the gathering—the count ranges from 150,000 to 300,000 protesters—the crowd was united in its condemnation of the crime wave plaguing Cali and other towns in the department of Valle del Cauca.
The Colombian government responded immediately, offering a cash reward ($464,000) for information leading to the arrest of the bombers and promising more troops and government money. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has also stated he will transplant his office to Cali temporarily in order to oversee security developments. The Cali bombing, and subsequent public outrage, has provided the Colombian government with an unprecedented opportunity for damage control following the recent “para-political” scandal (Previous Report). Not only does the attack provide the government a welcome opportunity to redeem its image and deflect intense scrutiny over alleged ties to Colombia’s rightwing paramilitary groups, it also affords Uribe’s administration an opportunity to demonstrate force in the face of a potentially resurgent FARC in the southwest.
Public faith in the government’s competency is shaky. A 2006 Gallup World poll found that only 32 percent of Colombians are satisfied with efforts to fight crime and corruption. While Uribe was reelected under the banner of his “democratic security” policy, his critics have pointed to the lack of strategy from the administration, which has been responsive rather than proactive in the face of the guerrilla offensive. The ability of the Uribe government to implement important security and social measures following the Cali police building bombing would likely help improve the faith of Colombian citizens in their government.
The march represents more than a unified civic demonstration against the crime wave and rebel threat in southern Colombia. It also signifies the larger battle for Cali, a city—formerly one of Colombia’s most prosperous—besieged by drug violence and terror for many years. The current political climate provides a fertile opportunity for the implementation of political and social programs, which—in the long term—may eventually lead to newer commercial and tourism prospects. The FARC and its affiliated urban militia groups have unwittingly provided Uribe’s administration with a chance to revamp its tarnished political image and finally put a resolute “democratic security” strategy into play. It remains to be seen whether the government will capitalize on this fortuitous opportunity for real change.