Bogota, Colombia – The “madres” arrive before evening falls.
Wearing construction helmets and bandanas over their faces, and clutching makeshift plywood shields, they join a boisterous crowd of protesters at Portal de Las Americas, a bus station in southwest Bogota and one of the epicentres of Colombia’s ongoing national strike.
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The women, who have dubbed themselves Madres de Primera Linea (Mothers on the Front Line), are here to put their own bodies between police and protesters – and prevent escalations of violence.
“We came together as neighbours and friends because we saw how hard they (anti-riot police) were fighting against our young people, including underage kids,” Alias La Flaca, a 23-year-old mother of two and member of the group who did not want her real name used for fear of retribution, told Al Jazeera.
“We are all single mothers, heads of our households: If we don’t stand up for them, who is going to do it?”
While the tax plan was later withdrawn by the government, protesters are now demanding health, educational, and police reforms. The protests have shown no sign of stopping, and police and armed forces continue to respond with lethal violence.
The group of 10 mothers, friends from a nearby neighbourhood in south Bogota, stepped forward in mid-May to protect protesters expressing their discontent in the face of the ESMAD, Colombia’s anti-riot police.
The women are not biologically related to the young people on the front line. Rather, they see themselves in a symbolic role: “We all feel like we are family,” said La Flaca, who recently lost her job due to layoffs in the context of the national strike.
Every day, the mothers go to Portal de Las Americas, which protesters have renamed Portal de la Resistencia (“Resistance Portal”) and where they have established what they call a humanitarian zone.
In the early afternoon, the space has a festive feeling; protesters set up games and activities for children, engage in performances, and cook huge pots of soup.
“We are part of the first line of defence,” said La Flaca, her face covered with a white bandana and dark glasses to protect her identity. “We never attack; we wait until they attack us. We stand with the protesters to make sure that nothing happens to them, that they don’t take them away and disappear them.”
Rights groups and the United Nations have raised concerns about the use of force to quell the continuing protests across Colombia.
Many have already been killed in the unrest. Human rights organisation Temblores said at least 43 people have been killed to date, and it has registered 2,905 total cases of police violence.
In an interview with The New York Times, Colombian President Ivan Duque said he did not consider police violence to be a “systemic” issue, although he did admit abuses of force by some officers. Duque also said he did not see the need for “significant” police reforms in Colombia.
Johana, a 36-year-old member of the Madres de Primera Linea who gave only her first name, said she has been tear-gassed during the protests. “The burning sensation of gas in your eyes, it’s unbearable,” she said. “The gas makes you feel like you’re drowning.”
The mothers have very few resources and rely on donations to keep themselves safe. Their shields, helmets and goggles were donated by a feminist human rights group and they have also received water, vinegar, and bicarbonate to offset the impact of the tear gas.
Young protesters like Alias El Pantera said that they appreciate the presence of the mothers during confrontations with the police. “Every night at around 8pm, they attack us, and the mamitas are always with us,” said the 17-year-old, who told Al Jazeera that he dropped out of school because the fees were too high.
He has been at the forefront of the protests every day since they began, alongside other protesters and the mothers. “We protect the mothers and they protect us. We are all united here,” El Pantera said.
By putting themselves at the forefront of the strikes, the Madres de Primera Linea have joined a tradition of Latin American women in social movements challenging the image of the passive mother.
The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, for instance, is another group of mothers that stood up to state repression.
Leaders of the Argentine military government, which was in power from 1976 to 1983, associated motherhood with political passivity and as a result, the women were able to successfully protest for information about their disappeared children for many weeks before the state cracked down on them. Decades later, the mothers are still marching for the return of their children.
Back in Bogota, Natalia Torres, a 26-year-old human rights activist stationed in Portal de las Americas who has observed the mothers at the protests, said their activism is part of a bigger “dispute about what it means to be a mother [in Colombia]”.
“In addition to giving birth and sustaining life from the kitchen and through love and affection”, Torres said the women protect life by actively standing on the front line with young protesters – their symbolic children.
Johana agreed. “We come out in defence of life,” she said. “We have always said that even if there is a policeman who is defenceless, we will put up our shields to protect him.”
‘We know the risks’
In addition to the physical violence the mothers face on the front lines, they are running into additional security concerns at home.
La Flaca was concerned about keeping her identity anonymous when speaking to Al Jazeera, saying she had received a threatening phone call around 3am the night before.
“They said they knew where I lived, they knew my name, they knew that I had two children. They said that if at any point they saw me here in the Portal, there would be consequences. We registered the number, but we don’t know who it belongs to,” she said.
Despite these risks, neither La Flaca nor Johana said they planned to stop supporting the protests any time soon.
“We know the risks we face,” Johana said. “When we hug our children, we don’t know if it’s the last hug we’re going to give them. But if changing this country is going to cost me my life, I will happily give it up for them.”