By Nelson Bocanegra
BOGOTA (Reuters) – Vanesa protects herself from the hail of tear gas, rocks and fire hose streams that often mark protests in Colombia with just safety glasses, a helmet, a bandanna over her nose and mouth and a flimsy black wooden shield.
The mother-of-three is part of a group of 10 women calling themselves “Front Line Moms” who attend the protests to protect youth from alleged police violence.
The Andean country has seen nearly a month of demonstrations and thousands of road blockades. Though protest leaders reached pre-agreements for talks with the government late on Monday, they have promised marches against inequality and police abuse, among other issues, will continue.
“If our children go to fight, if our children go to march, we mothers will support them and together with them struggle,” the group chanted at a recent protest.
Vanesa, 39, lost her job as a tango dancer because of the coronavirus pandemic and began selling coffee on the street.
“We’re a group of single moms who are now trying to fight for the violated rights of young people,” said Vanesa, who declined to share her surname.
The group has appeared in social media videos, one of which shows a sound grenade thrown by police exploding near them during a demonstration.
Vanesa said the moms were inspired to take action after they attended a protest where the national riot squad tear-gassed a group of protesting mothers and children.
“That was the spark to decide we were going to do something different,” she said.
The government says just 17 deaths are directly connected with marches, while human rights groups claim dozens more. The attorney general’s office says it has found 290 people reported missing and is seeking 129 others.
Entire families have joined marches galvanized by poverty, which shot up to 42.5% last year, and high unemployment which have aggravated already-deep inequalities.
“We’re tired of there not being work, of there not being healthcare, of the violation of our rights even to protest,” Vanesa said, as protesters lined up for a meal in southern Bogota, observed by police.
Other similar mothers’ groups have sprung up in cities, including western Pasto.
Vanesa called on police to respect marchers.
“They have mothers, too.”
(Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Aurora Ellis)