Until a few weeks ago, they were typical all-terrain women who spent their days solving household chores, wandering between precarious jobs, raising their children alone, juggling to achieve the feat of not going hungry. Anonymous women. Mothers, young, heads of households, poor. Struggling mothers. Of the hundreds like them that live in the popular shantytowns of the southwest of Bogota, of the thousands that inhabit the Colombian territory, of the millions that populate Latin America.
But the social outburst summoned them to the streets and that vast experience in (unpaid) care work was replicated outside and transformed into a collective identity: today they are the “Mamás de la Primera Línea” (Moms of the Front Line).
Johanna is 36 years old, has a 12-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. In a telephone interview she tells us about the group’s origins: “We are ordinary moms, all heads of family, who got to know each other in the mobilizations. As women are very exposed to attacks by the police, to rape, we began to walk in groups, to take care of each other, to look out for each other, and to accompany other young women to their homes. One day I proposed to them to make some cards that say that we are mothers, as something symbolic, and that’s how the idea of forming a group came up. We are caring mothers, sisters, neighbors, we are not hooligans, we are mothers who go out in defense of life and in defense of the young people who are marching peacefully and are there resisting”.
The Portal de Las Americas, in the populous district of Kennedy, is one of the main stations of TransMilenio, Bogotá’s mass transit system. Its huge parking lot became one of the epicenters of the protests that began on April 28, first against the tax reform and then against the entire pro-Uribe regime. And just as in the Chilean revolt the Plaza Baquedano was renamed Plaza de la Dignidad, the posters now reflect the pulse of the effervescence and its new name, Portal de la Resistencia.
That was where they met and decided to put their bodies on the front lines. For that they needed a central element, the shield that helps to withstand the police artillery and give the rest of the demonstrators a chance to retreat. They searched in the garbage containers but did not find much, so with the little money they could collect they made some chipboard shields, painted them black and inscribed “Moms 1 Line”, immortalizing this symbol of protection and identification that went viral on social networks. The look is completed with bandanas covering their faces (for covid, for the gases and above all for safety), a cap-visor and protective goggles given to them by some students.
They are only a dozen of the hundreds of people who go daily to the Portal of the Americas to keep alive the flame of the rebellion, which continues to be lit throughout the country despite the international press’ denial. The daily dynamic is one of peaceful protests and cultural activities, and at night the now classic onslaught of the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (Esmad), which has already left a trail of more than 40 demonstrators killed in less than a month. The “Moms of the Front Line” also suffered repression with gas and stun grenades, justified by the chief of the Bogotá Police, Eliécer Camacho: “Unscrupulous people are using women who possibly have no experience in confrontation, they use elements such as shields to confront our Esmad. It is irresponsible”.
Johanna asks to be addressed as Johanna a secas, she prefers not to give her last name for safety. Some of the mothers are already being threatened, and logically there is fear,” she says, and her voice begins to crack. The biggest fear we have is when we give our children a kiss and a hug every day and know that this could be the last hug. It is very hard, it is the hardest part, harder than standing in front of a tank that throws jets of water and tear gas at you”. It is well known that speaking out in Colombia can be very costly: so far this year alone, 65 social leaders have been murdered. “In our country, anyone who rebels or protests is silenced. So fear is there, but we will continue to resist because the desire to see a different Colombia, a just Colombia, where we have the right to a dignified life, is stronger,” she says.
The government’s underestimation and demonization are complemented by its ample media rearguard. The pro-government magazine Semana went so far as to headline “Mothers of the front line, the new invention of the vandals to defend themselves from the Esmad”. In the article, journalist María Isabel Rueda speaks of the “criminal use of mothers” and compares them to children recruited by armed groups. Johanna clarifies the obvious: “They are not using us as a shield, at no time are they inciting us to do anything, it was purely our initiative”.
Inequality and patriarchal violence
The neoliberalism + pandemic combination is wreaking havoc in Colombia. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), in the last year 3,500,000 people fell into poverty, which rose to 42.5 percent, and unemployment increased five points to 16.8 percent. Official figures show that women are the hardest hit: in the first quarter of 2021, female unemployment reached 20.7 percent, almost 10 points higher than that of men.
“Everything has hit us hard here, the pandemic, the crisis and also the police,” Johanna summarizes this multiple oppression. The Ombudsman’s Office has now received 87 complaints of gender violence during the national strike, including 16 cases of sexual violence. The most shocking was that of a 17-year-old girl in Popayán who committed suicide after being sexually abused by four policemen.
The “Moms of the Front Line” act as a defense and help break down the farce that it is “vandals” who are leading the protests. But they also collaborate in the logistics by bringing water or sandwiches and intercede when a young person wants to go too far; they know that any aggression against the police is used as a justification for more repression.
The reasons to continue in the streets are as many as the rage accumulated in so many years of this neoliberal war. Johanna summarizes those of her battalion: “We joined the protests because we are tired of so much state repression, of our young people being killed. We took to the streets for the right to health, to education, to work. We are getting poorer and poorer and the government is only attacking the people to defend the interests of a few rich individuals. We went out so that all this violence would end, so that our children would one day have a peaceful country. We went out to say ‘no more’. We went out in defense of the right to live”.
Lineage of mothers in struggle
The global history of dictatorships and infamous regimes saw the birth of many examples of organized mothers, guardians of memory and exemplars of universal courage. From the iconic Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina to the Saturday Mothers of Kurdistan to the COMADRES in El Salvador. These are stories of heroines born out of the horror and pain of their disappeared daughters and sons.
In Colombia, state and para-state terrorism occurred (occurs) without the need for a military government. The Attorney General’s Office registered 84,330 adults and 9,964 children disappeared, more than the sum of all the dictatorships of the Southern Cone. That is why the Mothers of Candelaria were formed in 1999. And a few years later the Mothers of Soacha and the Mothers of False Positives, those young people murdered by the Army and presented as guerrillas killed in combat during the government of Alvaro Uribe.
“We take as an example the pain of all the mothers of Colombia and the world who went out to fight because their children were taken from them. And here we say: we did not give birth to children for war. We went out to march because we did not bring sons and daughters into the world for the State to murder them,” explains Johanna, who has inadvertently woven a historic bridge for women who are breaking into the public space to make the world a more humane place.
Translation by Internationalist 360°