1 Introduction

In April and May 2021, the Colombian city of Cali and the regional transport network surrounding it became the epicentre of a heated, violent conflict that transformed and far transcended common understandings of “urban” conflict, pitting protesting students, workers, and indigenous grassroots initiatives against transnational corporations, their subsidiaries, and state entities such as local administrations, riot police, and the military. Journalist Gerald Bermúdez’ diary illustrates how roadblocks, part of extended urban protests, disrupted the global supply chains which cross Cali, a node in Colombia’s logistics grid.

“Wednesday, May 5, 2021 (12 midday–7 pm). Drive from Pereira to Cali, on the Panamericana.

It was a hot day. The Alfonso Bonilla Aragón airport—through which you can reach Cali—was closed by decision of the authorities. The Panamerican Highway leading to the Valle del Cauca capital, in turn, was blocked at nine points between Pereira and Cali. … To cover what was happening, we were on the road to the capital of Valle del Cauca in a rented car, with two bulletproof vests, a helmet, cameras and gas masks. After six hours on the road and negotiations at every roadblock, we finally arrived in the city at dusk” (Bermúdez 2021).

This contribution offers an explorative reading of the 2021 protests in Colombia (‘paro urbano’) as manifestation of a conflict in supply chain urbanism, a concept that foregrounds the conflictive effects of logistics when the idea of smooth trade shapes cities to the detriment of mediating asymmetric social relations. Protests were embedded in and intimately linked to the strategic role the city of Cali and the Valle del Cauca region play for Colombia as a logistics platform towards Asia and the US west coast, both for Colombia-based TNCs and for export-oriented Colombian corporations.

I interpret the 2021 protests as embedded in the conflictive effects of states prioritizing TNCs’ logistics over all other ideas of urbanization. The issue is that TNCs, as essential conflict actors, are often not recognized as such in conflict analyses of the strike. TNCs were not actually aggressors, but explicitly asked the government to employ force to end the mobilizations. During the 2021 mobilizations, transnational logistics firms, their Colombian subsidiaries and transnationally operating transport firms based in Colombia played an essential, if overlooked role as catalysts of the conflict. The uprising’s fundamental spark in April 2021 was the rapidly growing protest against the government’s proposal for a tax reform that would have benefitted TNCs to the detriment of the lower middle-class and the informal sector, already impoverished by the Covid-19 pandemic (DANE 2020). The effects were mixed. Mobilizations pressured the national government to react and withdraw its tax reform proposal. The finance minister resigned. However, the government’s response, particularly in Cali, was repressive, exacerbating the conflict and turning it much more violent.

The conflict was clearly urban, but tied in TNCs as conflict actors for three reasons: First, protesters frequently blocked roads and access for businesses, particularly in the city of Cali, so that the blockades can be mapped around the city’s own industrial and logistics landscape. Second, in Cali, the city’s extreme inequalities and spatial disparities were reasons why the protests lasted for more than two months. Third, the protesters not only contested the national government and highlighted the extreme social inequality exacerbated by policies that primarily catered to TNCs and direct investments, but employed the city as a logistics node as leverage in the conflict. Fourth, Cali’s civic strike is not limited to the imagined bounded entity of a city, but transformed Colombia’s trade relations and commodity flows, which in turn shaped state responses to the protest. As scholars of urban conflict, this requires us to ask about actors that are not in place and put them in the picture. TNCs, seeking smooth flows and preferential treatment, are such actors that embody global economic relations.

Connecting logistics and conflict studies literatures is particularly fruitful for understanding such conflicts. First, by linking logistics and (urban) conflict literatures, I offer a relational view of conflict—beyond relationships between individuals. I include TNCs in the analysis of urban conflicts, conventionally understood as civic conflicts between states and dissatisfied populations (Goodfellow et al. 2013). This foregrounds corporate-community relations as a field of conflict and thus the role of TNCs for eroding democratic practices. With “supply-chain urbanism” (Danyluk 2021), I focus on the relational character of situated urban conflict, its connections with far-away places and commodity flows. Second, logistics studies foreground the conflictive impacts of goods movement on urban communities where efficient supply chains are the ultimate priority (Chua et al. 2018; Danyluk 2023; Arboleda 2015). Supply chain urbanism (Danyluk 2021) highlights the increasing role of the so-called logistics city (Cowen 2014), of building cities according to their ‘place’ in global production and, particularly, distribution systems. This link to broader questions of the circulation dimension of global economy encompasses cities’ roles in global food distribution networks (Arboleda 2020), the ways that some places become perceived as accelerators or choke points of circulation (Carse et al. 2020; Jenss 2021), and how people are bypassed or involved in logistical relations between places, administrations and corporations (O’Shea et al. 2015; Ziadah 2019; Plonski 2022). Others have analysed the infrastructure scramble supposed to guarantee value chain integration as underpinned by techno-entrepreneurial power in planning and neglect of local needs (Kanai and Schindler 2018), which shows the conflict dimension of supply chains. There is literature on controversies in logistics and security (Hönke and Cuesta-Fernandez 2018), the connected logistics and military logics (Chua 2018; Ziadah 2019), and the conflictive, even violent nature of logistics (Cowen 2014; Schouten et al. 2019). Global Production Networks (GPN) have also focused on how industrial production influences urban spaces (Hagemann and Beyer 2020), but less on the specific role of TNCs in the conflictive processes of transforming cities and towns into export processing zones, global sweatshop regions, or logistics terminals.

Peace and Conflict studies, particularly urban conflict literature, benefit from these debates, which broaden the understanding of the conflictive everyday lives of many people, of modes of and motives for urban conflict. There is as yet little engagement with the role of circulation and logistics in urban conflict. Much of the conflict studies on cities has focused on post-war urban reconstruction and geopolitics, but increasing attention is also paid to spatial relations (Elfversson et al. 2023; Elfversson et al. 2019; Büscher 2018; Hills 2009).

A third reason for integrating the two literatures are contributions on conflicts in urban contexts. Studies on the spaces, bodies and materialities of conflict in cities (Fregonese 2019), the production of urban space through violence (Colombijn 2018), the spatial differentiation of repression in cities (Christensen 2018), and conflicts in urban planning (Davis 2014; Heindl 2020) have put urban violence and conflict on the agenda of urban studies (see Albrecht and Jenss 2023). Specific contradictions come to the fore in cities. Postcolonial conflict studies have shown how blurred any clear distinction between armed conflict and peace is for the majority of the world’s population (Barkawi 2016; Coronil and Skurski 2006). From conflicts over the right to the city (Lefebvre 2010; Blokland et al. 2015) to the wider geographies of violence (Springer and Le Billon 2016) and the role of translocal networks in urban violence (Fuccaro 2016), scholars have recognized cities as ‘places’ of great dynamics and tensions.

However, fourth, while violence and conflict are very much present in urban studies, we see less “urban” in conflict studies and relational approaches to peace and conflict, despite the ‘local’ turn in peacebuilding (see Söderström et al. 2021; Ljungkvist and Jarstad 2020; Mac Ginty 2014) and above-mentioned discussions of whether conflicts are becoming more urban (Elfversson and Höglund 2021; Kaldor and Sassen 2020). A search of conflict studies journals such as the Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, the Journal of Peace Research, the International Journal of Conflict and Violence, the Zeitschrift für Konfliktforschung and the Journal of Conflict Resolution yields fewer than five results over a five-year period between 2015 and 2020 with different variants of the search term “conflict in cities”. The case is similar for the topic of logistics in peace and conflict studies and for TNCs, which are usually studied as parties to conflicts over land appropriation.

This contribution to conflict studies debates is a document-based conflict analysis with an interpretive approach. It is based on an exploratory discourse analysis of official press releases by various actors that appeared on a daily basis during the protests, media interviews with company representatives, statements by politicians and statements by civil society initiatives. The author collected these during and after the months of mobilization in 2021 on Twitter, the pages of the newspaper El Espectador and through press reviews. Press releases, newspaper interviews and direct quotes of actors such as company representatives in news reports were understood as different actor positions in a situated conflict embedded in larger contradictory social relations. These positions were contrasted with each other and with the existing numbers on disappeared and killed protesters. The study is exploratory and provides a theoretically informed perspective on a specific case of urban conflict in supply-chain urbanism.

2 Theoretical contribution: situating conflicts in supply chain urbanism

This contribution offers an analysis of the civic strike in Colombia in 2021, particularly in Cali, that understands urban conflict and “urban space in the name of smooth, efficient circulation” (Danyluk 2021). Danyluk (2021) calls this “supply-chain urbanism”. What does this literature offer conceptually to urban conflict analysis?

Based on Tsing’s (2009) term “supply-chain capitalism”, Danyluk understands the emerging scalar and spatial relations between distant places and humans as part of a logistical drive that reshapes cities as elements of the supply chain of large TNCs, as nodes of logistics. Focusing on supply-chains does not imply homogeneity and brushing off the differences of localities. On the contrary, when Tsing (2009, p. 148) argues that “commodity-chains (are) based on subcontracting, outsourcing, and allied arrangements in which the autonomy of the component enterprises is legally established even as the enterprises are disciplined within the chain as a whole”, it is the diversity and contingency of articulations between different parts of the chain that need to be understood.

By shifting the conventional gaze of conflict analysis away from locality alone, supply-chain urbanism “calls attention to the broader constellations of racialized and class dispossession and exploitation that underpin the accumulation of capital across the circulatory system” (Danyluk 2021, p. 2), similar to debates on intersectional conflicts in global value chains (Cowen 2014). Conflicts can then be understood both as a response to “local” issues and as an effect of highly unequal economic expansion deeply embedded in “the geographies of logistical capitalism” (Danyluk 2021). In consequence, the effects of the priority given to logistics are, according to existing studies, highly uneven. They are “life-damaging” (Danyluk 2021), as administrations scramble to attract corporations operating in distribution to their constituencies, often neglecting environmental or health standards, offering tax exemptions and ensuring that there are no obstacles to investment, e.g. by aiding in union-busting, property issues or conflicts.

Research on logistics cities, thought of primarily as sites that facilitate economic flows and play a strategic role for transnationally active corporations, has an imminent conflict dimension. From the Hanseatic League of cities like Hamburg or Lübeck on the North Sea or Marseille and Livorno on the Mediterranean in the 19th century to forms of free trade urbanism in the mid-20th century such as the Colón Free Trade Zone in Panamá, these are “peculiar”, conflict-ridden “forms of urbanity” (Easterling 2014, p. 31). It was transnationally active corporations (if not the TNCs of today) that at least co-constituted, but also drove this particular urbanism. Writing on the transformation of former detention centres into logistics hubs in the Middle East, Cowen (2014, p. 163) also highlights the intimate relationship between logistics and military action against civilians. Contemporary logistics have a military origin. Containers were first widely used by US troops in the Vietnam War (Chua 2018), and the original aim of logistics was to supply troops with resources in complex and even hostile territory. The calculations of risks in logistics is closely linked to the control of labor and anticipation of other ‘threats’.

In line with the military, conflictive dimension of logistics, the urban is increasingly designed and governed in the service of efficient economic exchange. It is only logical then that urban contestation reveals the logistics system’s vulnerability. Logistics are premised on speed, just-in-time production, and quick recalculation of flows according to new information. After “the globalization of logistics … redistributed component parts of the supply chain across the globe”, the World Bank even developed a competitiveness index “based entirely on the speed and reliability of logistics systems” (Cowen 2014, p. 56). This may partly explain the Colombian government’s keenness in 2021 to remove roadblocks in one of its most strategic logistics landscapes as quickly as possible. When one logistics hub is disrupted, this may ripple through the system, impacting far-away sites and actors (Cowen 2014). Oil tankers stranded off major ports on US coasts during the first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic were a stark illustration of that principle—when demand collapsed, there was no more room for this liquid cargo; suppliers paid millions of dollars for storage (NPR 2020). The system and its major global players were entirely unprepared for a crisis of connections.

If logistics is about disciplining the different parts of the supply chain to ensure smooth flows, then conflict scholars informed by logistics and infrastructure studies need to analyze how places perceived as troublesome are embedded in these chains and change them. The logistics literature brings a relational component to conflict studies by linking situated processes (i.e. the conflictive urban mobilizations in the Colombian city of Cali) with the seemingly abstract, global economic relations. The logistics turn deepened the logic of export-led “development” models (see Cowen 2014, p. 60), as it linked the idea of success in global competition to the very particular questions of how a business can be set up in a country or how sophisticated its port facilities, intermodal terminals, or road networks are. In this respect, a focus on logistics and TNCs in urban conflict can reveal motivations for violent conflict, in this case, state repression, that are usually largely overlooked. The need for fast and smooth trade flows, as capacities for warehousing and producing parts close-by have been actively dismantled, becomes a motivation for repression.

This article focuses on one of the “distinctive forms of political resistance” (Danyluk 2021) that challenge logistics urbanization. Recent urban conflict studies (Fregonese 2019; Fuccaro 2016; Elfversson et al. 2019), then, bring to logistics the more micro-dynamic, situated dimensions of studying relevant conflict actors, and relate the repertoires of resistance in these dynamics to the broader relations of logistics. Urban conflict studies can relate (transnational) logistics actors with Tsing’s (2009, p. 157) question about what to control, and what not to control. She cites the standardization of contracts, labelling practices, and audits. Logistics is “in effect” about “the socio-spatial ordering of difference and unevenness at a global scale” (Cowen 2014). This means that enabling global logistics can play a fundamental role for state security practices (which thus become entrenched in global economic relations rather than national territory).

In summary, tying critical logistics literature to urban conflict studies lets me focus on three conceptual elements of the 2021 Colombian strike; namely, the relationality between sites of conflict and between these sites and other economic hubs, the importance of actors that are not-in-place, such as TNC representatives, and the economic conflict motives of these actors, who pushed for a resolution that would be beneficial to them but in fact deepened the intensity of violence in the conflict. After contextualizing the strike in the following section, I interweave these three dimensions in the main sections of the article.

3 Contextualizing the 2021 civic strike

The helicopter flies low. It is May 13, 2021, in the town of Buga in Valle del Cauca in western Colombia. Gunshots can be heard. In the video someone shouts, “this is like a war zone here! Help!” Police allegedly fire shots at demonstrators from a helicopter (El Espectador 2021d). The town’s mayor had called on the anti-riot police units of ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios) to withdraw from the residential areas of Buga. Numerous videos show police and military shooting at demonstrators.

Since April 28, 2021, numerous organisations had jointly called for protest, triggered by a tax reform that would have burdened low-income people in particular—planned and announced in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, in which many people were already struggling for daily survival. Income poverty in towns rose from 32.3 per cent in 2019 to 42.4 per cent in 2020, and the number of people living in extreme poverty grew 280 per cent in the span of just one year (DANE 2021). The pandemic not only brought public life to a standstill when Colombia had one of the toughest lockdowns with severe curfews in 2020. It pushed official unemployment statistics even higher, to 15.3 per cent in 2021 (DANE 2022). Informal workers with little or no ability to build up reserves were driven into severe hardship. In 2020, red flags could often be seen on houses to indicate that the residents were suffering from hunger. The emergency aid payments by the government amount to the equivalent of 35 euros per month, but were frequently insufficient to provide for families.

On April 15, 2021, Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla presented a tax reform—the so-called “Solidarity and Sustainability Act”, with the aim of raising 23 trillion pesos between 2022 and 2023. This was the second fiscal reform after the 2018 “Financing Law”, which the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional in October 2019 (Bojórquez Luque et al. 2022, p. 11). The reform would have extended value-added tax (VAT) to more goods and services, taxed the basic family basket including coffee and chocolate, and aimed to broaden the tax base once again to lower incomes by lowering their tax allowances. The so-called ‘middle classes’, whose incomes are frequently very low, would have had to bear much of the burden. Middle and lower class youth formed the social base of the mobilizations. Some economic sectors saw themselves disadvantaged. By contrast, the financial, mining and oil sectors, Colombia’s extractive powerhouses, hardly contributed to tax revenues. In 2019, Carrasquilla had promoted similar plans by saying “I want to be clear, with this law we are not giving gifts to the richest. This reduction in taxes on profits is for all entrepreneurs, small, medium and large,” (El Nuevo Siglo 2019) but this mainly resulted in lower tax revenues in absolute terms. The pandemic did the rest: for example, government revenues from VAT plummeted as people consumed much less. The current reform would have only partially compensated for these losses, while leaving the big companies untouched. Moreover, it would have changed little in the distribution of state funds. Colombia’s defence and security budget is still one of the largest in Latin America, even though in 2020 part of it went towards fighting the pandemic.

The tax reform was withdrawn due to widespread protests. Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla resigned on May 3; the government withdrew the reform from the plenary debate. However, this did not defuse the actual and underlying conflict. Over the past 20 years, Colombia has almost continuously relied on incentives for direct investment and has repeatedly created new tax exemptions for companies. Although Colombia was considered a model student of the macroeconomic stability doctrine with a constitutionally anchored debt brake, it lost its position on the international capital markets due to the pandemic. Fitch, Standard & Poors and other rating agencies downgraded Colombian government bonds to the BBB-category with poor outlooks, just above junk status; the peso was strongly devalued against the US dollar, and for the first time in years, the country’s solvency and debt issuance were in question. This situation even led to conflicts within the government itself.

The 2021 protest was broader than previous mobilizations, and did not only take place in big cities like Bogotá or Medellín. The strike reached smaller towns in which political activities critical of the government had previously hardly been publicly visible. Those participating seemed to come from disparate social groups that had previously found it difficult to coordinate with each other and represented very different lifeworlds—unemployed urban population, young people with little economic perspective, older people affected by the pandemic, indigenous organisations, some who saw themselves as part of the middle classes. At the same time, the expansion and atomization of the protests fomented the formation of a National Strike Committee, which made decisions that in some cases only partially represented the mobilized, and were perceived as ambiguous.

The protests of 2021 had a distinctly urban character—their protagonists differed from Colombia’s peasants and plantation workers who were known for organizing roadblocks as political interventions, e.g. in 2013. The places of mobilization were cities and towns, primarily of central and western Colombia. The city of Cali became the unexpected epicenter of the protests. Most analyses of the protests as state-society conflict do not provide an explicit explanation of why Cali became such an important site of mobilization and state coercion against it. Cali was not one of the cities where unemployment and extreme poverty grew the most during the pandemic; impoverishment alone does not explain the demonstrations (DANE 2021, p. 76).

A focus on logistics relationships provides a clearer picture why Cali became so central. Colombia’s western department of Cauca is of geostrategic importance, and the National Planning Department (DNP 2014, p. 64, 71) clearly positions Cali as an essential node within its core western, Pacific-oriented logistics corridor. It channels the connections between the Amazon and the Pacific. The Pacific Alliance, a trade-oriented alliance of Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Colombia, describes the region as highly strategic. The city of Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest Pacific port, is its declared capital, and the transport corridor from the port leads directly to Cali and surrounding small towns like Buga. Cali, the Valle del Cauca region’s capital and Colombia’s third largest city, must be understood as an “extended city-region” (Rodríguez Caporalli 2020), with complex socio-territorial dynamics articulated in the logistics axis between Cali and Buenaventura (GISDE 2021). DNP planning documents clearly state that competitiveness and connectivity (2014, p. 64, 71) are central guiding objectives for Colombian urban planning, and major growth in trade capacity along the Cali-Buenaventura corridor is forecast for 2035.

Logistics shaped some of the racial disparities in Colombia, pitting Buenaventura, with container terminals, depleted mangrove forests, and high rates of violence, against Cali, which was increasingly presented as a modern business hub with tourist value. At the same time, the two cities are closely connected as important transportation hubs. This logistics region is home to prosperous urban and economically and politically dominant sectors organized around the business of circulation, particularly Colombia’s international trade with the US west coast and Asia, as well as to diverse, but often lower-class Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities who experience violence on a daily basis. In fact, that it is documented that the young Afro-Colombian population of Cali “live(s) under constant harassment from the police, who attack, pester, chase, abuse, and kill them.” (Lozano 2022, p. 426). Additionally, 58 indigenous activists, journalists, and political activists were assassinated in the Valle del Cauca and Cauca regions in 2021 alone (INDEPAZ Monitor 2021). Cali’s geoeconomic position and the role it plays in logistics to and from the Pacific have in turn made it attractive for investment. A Marriott hotel was built in 2013, the Indian motorcycle company Hero opened a factory near Cali in 2015, Britain-based Unilever opened detergent and soap factories in 2014 and 2021, and Japanese company Furukawa inaugurated its communications technologies plant on Cali’s outskirts in 2014.

2021 is not the first time logistics has proven to be a key component in urban conflict in Colombia. In fact, the ‘Civic Strike’ in Buenaventura of May 2017 must be understood as a precursor to the 2021 national strike and a prior example of conflict in supply-chain urbanism. High levels of investments in infrastructure contrasted with extreme state neglect of the most basic social needs, such as a public hospital or water supply. During the strike, the port city’s population, led by 89 grassroots organisations, blocked access to the port and protested against neglect for 22 days. In 2017, protesters in Buenaventura called on the government to find solutions to the lack of water, health services and employment (Jaramillo et al. 2022). Finally, they negotiated a (social) infrastructure plan with the government (Alcaldía Buenaventura & Comité Paro Cívico 2017). As in 2021, roadblocks were a central element of the protest. Barricades obstructed traffic to and from the port. Truck after truck was stuck on the outskirts of Buenaventura for weeks, the drivers immobilized for fear of losing their vehicles. The protest’s force, halting logistical flows, gave activists a platform to claim that expropriation of land near the port terminals was systematic (Jenss 2021) and protesters addressed transnational logistics firms as powerful conflict actors.

4 Supply chain urbanism and protest in Cali and elsewhere

Cali became an epicenter of the conflict, but always in relation to its outsides. Just one day after grassroots organizations, unions and civil society initiatives called for a general civic strike against the government’s tax reform on April 28, Cali’s international airport located in Palmira suffered severe delays. Protesters had blocked roads in the Valle del Cauca region and authorities had temporarily suspended the public transport terminal in Cali. The Colombian health ministry suspended the distribution of vaccines against Covid-19 to Cali (INDEPAZ 2021). Roadblocks became permanent installations at 26 points, while others were temporary and interrupted traffic suddenly, changing on a daily basis (ICG 2021) (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

By way of example: roadblocks within Cali, Secretaría de Movilidad, Cali, April 28, 2021

The protests themselves had logistical aspects. Storing and preparing food for large groups of people in community kitchens became a fundamental task. As a consequence of the roadblocks, supermarkets rapidly ran out of supplies, and/or raised their prices, which became unaffordable for many low-income households. Eggs, for example, an important source of protein for poorer households, quickly quadrupled in price or became short in supply—as did petrol. To address these problems of supplies, “the mayor’s office managed to set up humanitarian corridors that began operating on May 3.” (La Silla Vacía 2021b).

The local protest drew global economic relations into the conflict, and anger at TNCs was part of the deliberate political set-up of the protests against large-scale beneficiaries of the planned tax reform. Using the power of disruption, protesters differentiated between local businesses and the wider geographies of logistics capital. In “late May, local small businesses in Siloé and Puerto Resistencia had not been vandalised or looted, whereas larger commercial outlets in the same areas were burned and ransacked. Businesses considered not to be local also suffered more extensive looting (…) As of 25 May, the defense ministry reported that 90 gas stations—which in Colombia belong mostly to big oil companies including multinationals—had been vandalized nationwide, of which the largest number were in Cali” (ICG 2021).

However, the roadblocks did not only function as a means of pressure against the government or as a deliberate pressure against TNCs in particular. The barricades were no longer just transit points and were called “points of resistance”, places of assembly that manifested the protest in space (La Silla Vacía 2021b). At the same time, protesters assured that they “will continue to negotiate humanitarian corridors (through roadblocks), which allow medical missions, medication, and essential foodstuffs to pass” (Comité Nacional del Paro 2021b, 2021).

The state response to the protests was brutally repressive. The government’s explicit aim was to militarize the cities in order to put down the protests using the legal concept of “defense support for civil authorities”. Since the beginning of the strike, the Colombian government mobilized army troops (under the legally controversial ‘military assistance’ to local administrations), helicopters and planes that normally fight the “war on drugs” to reinforce security in Cali. On May 3, the government ordered the military to take over central command in Cali, in the person of army commander General Zapateiro. Zapateiro declared that he would “reconquest and stabilize the city of Cali” (cited in Infobae 2021c). On the same day, five people were reported dead and 33 injured in the low-income neighborhoods of Siloé and La Luna in Cali, most of them presumably from police bullets. UN officials were sent to La Luna to open escape routes for the wounded (INDEPAZ 2021). By May 21, NGOs had documented 108 disappeared in Cali alone (INDEPAZ 2021). The ESMAD police repeatedly tried to violently dismantle protesters’ roadblocks, for example on the road between Cali and Jamundi on May 26 (Indepaz 2021).

Human rights organizations have since been able to document that “a tactical policy of disregarding protest as a right” was “evident” (Temblores et al., 2021; Comité Nacional del Paro 2021a). The Strike Committee, a network that publicly addressed the government and performed some of the functions of spokespersons for the mobilizations (acknowledging that these went far beyond an organized effort), repeatedly called on the government to “completely withdraw the army and (riot police) ESMAD from controlling the protests and order the police to refrain from using firearms” and abstain from “hate speech” and stigmatizing statements (Comité Nacional del Paro 2021b:2). When President Duque met with military representatives in Cali on May 10, the Strike Committee (Comité Nacional del Paro 2021a) claimed that “any negotiations required to end violence against people expressing their discontent” and that the city of Cali in particular needed measures of demilitarization and not an increased military presence. In contrast, ex-President Uribe Vélez praised the “effective and transparent military action in Cali in overcoming the inferiority of our police and ESMAD, hoping that in the next few hours the hordes of bandits that have invaded the city will be captured.” (Uribe Vélez 2021). In a similar vein, Army Commander General Zapateiro accused those blocking roads of only “seek(ing) to provoke his men and in this way be the trigger” for escalation (cited in Infobae 2021c) and the Ministry of Defense (2021) spoke of 727 police properties (police stations, cars, etc.) damaged by protesters.

The repressive effects of the logic following the goal of achieving smooth trade again overlapped with explicitly racist violence against indigenous protesters (Rosero 2021). On May 9, the affluent neighborhood of Ciudad Jardín (Garden City) and the 22nd district in which it is located “made national and international media coverage after some inhabitants of this sector, dressed in white shirts, openly shot activists who were part of an indigenous ‘minga’ (mobilization), apparently to prevent them from entering Cali. The civilians wounded 12 of the activists” (Colombia Check 2021; La Silla Vacía 2021b). Daniela Soto, a young indigenous activist, survived severe bullet wounds She later insisted on the wider economic relationships they were protesting against. Cali Police (part of the National Police which is centralized in Colombia), in turn, said that “the indigenous were dispersing through residential areas, generating firearm shots and inciting terrorism” (Policía Nacional Secretaría Metropolitana Santiago de Cali 2021). In a forensic analysis, Fact Check Colombia established that this statement was untrue. It quoted a representative of the Cauca Indigenous Authority CRIC about the threats he received.

“They told me: ‘Get down, indio, you won’t get out of here alive. We’re going to chop you up,’ one of the citizens in white T‑shirts told me.”; later, he described the attack: “the rifle fire came from where the police were, (…) you could see the barricade that the police had set up, and that’s where the shots came from. (…) the men in white T‑shirts in pick-up trucks, once they had fired the shots there, they went to where the police were and some of them got in there” (Colombia Check 2021).

That same day, May 9, then President Duque called on protesters to lift the roadblocks. “we must also be clear in our appeal: all Colombians have freedom of movement in our territory, but the moment that the country and particularly the city of Cali is going through also requires prudence on the part of certain groups” (Presidencia de la República 2021). “No more provocations, nor more roadblocks!” (Duque May 9). Protesters, NGOs, and human rights observers, however, read this as a twisted message attributing the “provocations” exclusively to the protesters, while the riot police ontinued to arbitrarily arrest people, and, according to civil organizations’ documentation, to make people disappear. Duque also squarely attributed the roadblocks to indigenous groups and said that “given … the dissatisfaction due to the roadblocks and liberties being affected, it is necessary they return to their reserves” (Duque cited in La Silla Vacía 2021a). In contrast, the Association of the Cauca region’s indigenous councils qualified the shootings as an intentional massacre, incited, among others, by former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who had “not stopped inviting the elites to use arms against the people” (ACIN 2021, p. 1). In another attack in the Cauca region on June 4, Beatriz Cano, an indigenous radio journalist, was killed and others were wounded. Cano died on June 7 of gunshot wounds; her daughter was severely wounded (El Tiempo 2021).

Public and private coercion and violence intertwined to repress the protests, while armed actors directed private violence against those who were known to hinder Colombia’s role of becoming a logistics platform: urban youth and indigenous grassroots people who have long been campaigning against corporations. Several (post-)paramilitary groups seem to have become active again in the name of saving the Colombian economy. A twitter account named “Anti-Communist Brigade” posted a call to “reservists”, offering “good pay” and later recommending “streets free of people … we could mistake you for vandals” (screenshot in LaFM 2021). The same account published a press release a few days later with ridiculous claims about indigenous protesters, exports, and illegal economy:

“The reason why this handful is greatly strengthened in Cali is that there is a number of Indios which Petro brought to Cali from Cauca to cause an embarrassment (…) bandits who did not study and the teachers that are mad at democracy (…). The crux of the matter is that the indigenous people of Cauca want to take over Cauca so that they can’t be touched because with an independent republic they want to export thousands of tons of drugs” (cited in LaFM 2021).

Despite such violence and allegations, it was only on June 26 that protesters left the roadblocks in the neighborhood of Puerto Rellena in southeastern Cali, which they renamed Port of Resistance and which had acquired a highly symbolic role as a central meeting point. In hindsight, despite understandable skepticism about the power of disruption, the protesters took advantage of precisely what the economic actors perceived as a looming threat. They disrupted the supply chain, triggering potential ‘cascades’ to distant locations and impacting far-away places (and prices).

5 Bringing TNCs into civic urban conflict

TNCs, often Colombia-based, so-called tras-latinas, or logistics TNCs in conjunction with their Colombian subsidiaries, have played an often underestimated role in exacerbating police response to the mobilizations. Many of these firms export foodstuffs, assembly parts, or bulk cargo like grains, and are closely linked to global circulation. The following section explains how they have aggravated the political response.

Grassroots organizations and unorganized, spontaneous mobilizations made the disruption of smooth trade their primary means of political articulation, turning these connections into an essential element of urban mobilization. In May, after three weeks of protests, the large shipping companies announced they would no longer stop and unload at Buenaventura. Maersk, C.H. Robinson, and the Colombian company Transborder suspended activities in Buenaventura indefinitely, stating “the shipping lines MSC, CMA, EMC, COSCO, among others, will not receive any more cargo bound for Buenaventura, this service will be temporarily suspended due to the National Strike and public order reasons.” (Infobae 2021a). Some companies cited security reasons, but the main argument seems to have been that the warehouses and terminals were simply filling up as the roadblocks inhibited goods transport to Cali and beyond. It was particularly the traffic hub at the Buga junction between Cali and Colombia’s coffee producing region, and roadblocks around Cali, which paralyzed truckers on the outskirts of Buenaventura (Castrillón Palacio 2021). Logistics players consider the port of Buenaventura important not only because of its relative proximity to the Panama Canal, but also because of its role as a transhipment hub for different cargo types, i.e. solid and liquid bulk, bulk cargo and containers.

Cali’s business people, national, and transnational logistics companies unanimously condemned the strike’s impact on the movement of goods. The External Trade Association (Asociación de Comercio Exterior ANALDEX 2021) reported that almost 63% of foreign trade and logistics companies had suspended their operations during the strike. According to the Minstry of Trade (El País 2021), the backlog of goods in the ports would last two months; in order to reach normal levels of cargo and containers in the port of Buenaventura, 600,000 tons of all types of cargo, including perishable goods, would have to be cleared from warehouses and yards. The Monthly Economic Activity Indicator IMAE (2021, p. 2) counted in September 2021 that the mobilization’s roadblocks had a greater impact on the regional economy than the strict lockdown in April 2020; the contraction was “3.5 times greater for Valle and Cauca and 3.8 times greater for Cali”, while other regions recorded significant economic growth.

The Colombian transnational logistics firm Roldán Logística (and its subsidiary International Freight Solutions) published a report stating that exports in Colombia had recovered much slower than those of its Latin American competitors due to the mobilizations (Roldán Logistics 2021). In fact, 48% of Cali’s companies laid off employees during the strike, and the trade association FENALCO estimates that 25,000 jobs were lost as a direct result of the protests because demand fell (96%), mobility for customers and staff was made more difficult (72%) or because companies suspended activities altogether (84%) (FENALCO 2021). Jesús Bejarano, manager of the translatina heavy loads solutions company Mamut (coal and oil transports), said that his “truckers (are) on the road, in standstill. I have the company at a 90% standstill, the drivers in distress” (Audios in El Espectador 2021c). The National Coffee Association (CdC) claimed that it had received just 22% of the more than 3000 tons of fertilizers it had expected for the end of year coffee harvest, and only 400,000 of the 1.1 million sacks of coffee that usually leave the country per month had actually been exported (Roldán Logistics 2021)—and not through its usual port on the Pacific (Buenaventura), which remained largely blocked, but through Caribbean ports.

As conflict actors, corporations participated in shaping the response to the conflict. Many of them are part of Colombia’s gremios, associations with a direct channel to the government that host many subsidiaries of transnational corporations. On May 5, President Duque met with politicians and business representatives to discuss the reactions to the mobilizations. The Industrial Association ANDI’s president Bruce MacMaster (his real name), the Foreign Trade Association ANALDEX’s president Javier Díaz and the Mining Association’s president Juan Camilo Nariño were present (El Comercio 2021). Representatives of the protesters were not invited to discuss with the President at that point. Logistics players such as the transport association COLFECAR, asked the government for emergency measures “to restore security and the movement of cargo vehicles” in the western departments most affected by road closures. COLFECAR’s president Nidia Hernández Jiménez commented: “We are distressed to see that (…) the demonstrators persist in the protests and blockades of national roads” (El Espectador 2021a).

In fact, Colombia-based transnational logistics players and Colombian subisidiaries of TNCs played anything but a marginal role in the conflict. These corporations strongly lobbied for “extraordinary security plans” (Semana 2021) knowing very well what a coercive response meant—namely, the systematic violation of human rights, killings, arbitrary detentions, and forced disappearances, as human rights organizations documented (Temblores et al. 2021). They had to know, first, because of the long record of killings by the Colombian police. Recent violent acts included the killing of 45 year old lawyer Javier Ordóñez on September 8, 2020, by rapid action forces stationed in so-called Centros de Atención Inmediata (CAI) and the subsequent killings of at least 14 protesters in the following days (BBC 2020). Furthermore, on September 22, 2020 the Supreme Court had ordered the state to “restructure the regulations for the use of force” by riot police after “systematic, violent, arbitrary and disproportionate use of force by security forces in citizen manifestations”, documented for instance in mobilizations in November 2019 (Corte Suprema 2020). Second, the numerous reports of police violence and abuse published in the first days of the 2021 mobilizations (see summary by Temblores et al. 2021) make it common knowledge that extraordinary measures meant intensified police violence. Third, corporate representatives never publicly condemned police violence.

In fact, corporations directly requested the army be sent to lift roadblocks, thus exposing the brutalizing effects of logistics. Wilder Quintero, manager of the Bogotá—Buenaventura logistics corridor, assured that there was “no safe stretch that allows the caravans to proceed”, “which is why the actions of the Ministry of Defense and the army are fundamental” (cited in El Espectador 2021a). The former president of the Valle del Cauca region’s Industrial Association, now a right-wing senator, Gabriel Velasco, called for the “total militarization” of the city (Diario Occidente 2021). The Colombian Petroleum Association (ACP) and Mining Associations (ACM) similarly called for dialogue and the “restoration of public order” (El Espectador 61,62,a, b).

Corporate representatives also made it clear in private conversations that they were ready to ‘whatever it takes’. Some audio recordings of these conversations between businesspeople and politicians have been leaked. On May 9, transport manager Bejarano warned in a confidential meeting that “this can’t reach the point where we have to take up arms to defend ourselves” (Audio in El Espectador 2021c). Óscar Lancheros from the coffee region’s Supermarkets Association said “… I find this terrible, that we as citizens … would have to stand in for the police and army which we have tried to strengthen through our taxes so they would defend us” (Audio in El Espectador 2021c).

TNC representatives ascribed the aggression exclusively to the protesters, ignoring the figures collected by national and international organizations on detentions, killings, and disappearances. The protesting youth were allegedly “armed to their teeth” and “do not even pay tax” (businessmen quoted in El Espectador 2021c). Similar to the media’s frequent framing of protesters as infiltrated by insurgents, corporations insisted on the protesters’ “violence and organized vandalism” (El Espectador 61,62,a, b). Gabriel Vallejo, a representative from the right-wing (ruling) party Centro Democrático, who is close to Colombia’s business sector and known to express libertarian anti-state sentiments, argued that the protests were “a systematic attack on the productive sector, in an absurd class hatred,” while “business has been stigmatized for a long time” (audio in El Espectador 2021c). Conservative councillor Fernando Tamayo said that the intelligence of the police had failed and they had not grasped the criminal energy in the protests, which had led to “vandalism” and robberies towards Cali’s businesses (Diario Occidente 2021). Rice producers in turn expressed their “enormous concern about the violent acts that have dominated several cities”. They argued that roadblocks were effectively harming rice harvests, one of the fundamental foodstuffs in the family basket, as they prevented fertilizers and pesticides to pass (Banco de la República 2021) and blamed the protesters alone for the shortages.

The corporations were able to change policies to their favor, even when the strike put them under severe pressure. For example, the Valle del Cauca businessmen’s association proposed simply not to pay the year’s property tax “to put pressure on the government” (El Espectador 2021c). The Colombian Customs Authority (DIAN) suspended the period of maximum five days logistics firms were allowed to deliver goods from ship to warehouse or free trade zone, relieving some of the intense time pressure on trade flows (Deloitte 2021). Logistics players continuously stressed how the mobilizations had affected them much more than the pandemic, pointing out how much the Colombian state was indebted to them. Industry Association ANDI’s president stressed the fact that companies stayed in the country “even in the worst moments of insecurity” (ANDI 2021). The Cattle Ranchers’ Association’s president José Félix Lafaurie, known for particularly problematic statement against protesters, argued: “now that we are experiencing a worse pandemic—road blockades and vandalism—we are not going to stop” (Infobae 2021b).

It was clear that traslatina corporations, the Colombian subisidiaries of other TNCs and large corporations had this influence on coercive politics, much more than small companies, or labour, although public corporate statements constantly invoked the dependence of workers on trade flows. The protests had to stop, so the argument went, otherwise they would cause a massive wave of unemployment. However, for example, the ambiguous role played in the strike by Colombian truckers, illustrates hierarchies of class and race that shape logistics (Danyluk 2021, 11), rather than a clear anti-protest sentiment by labour sectors. Logistics taps into the imaginaries of entrepreneurship that have been dominant in Colombia, as the truckers can still claim some kind of “freedom”. However, they are frequently subject to poor working conditions as subcontractors of transport firms, having to pay for their own social security and travel expenses and being subject to Colombia’s extensive labour flexibility legislation. Despite and because of these factors, many truckers supported the strikes, some even participating in roadblocks. Simultaneously, however, they are driven by the structural pressures handed down to them by logistics TNCs. In Colombia, as elsewhere, “shippers … are subsidized by cheap trucking … made possible by underpaid drivers” (Danyluk 2021, p. 11). Truckers stuck for weeks on the road from Buenaventura port to Cali slept in their vehicles, for fear it might be burnt or stolen (Castrillón Palacio 2021).

Colombian and international businesspeople agreed that the strikes, beyond their urban epicentres, deeply affected their global economic relations. After four weeks of continuous protest, Miguel Angel Espinosa of the Colombian Federation of Logistics Agents in International Trade (Fitac) assured that continued roadblocks “would mean tens of billions in losses in merchandise, investment and direct and indirect jobs” (Panorama Logístico 2021). Months later, ANDI (2021) representative MacMaster insisted how “the illegal blockades (…) caused great damage.” The Cauca subsidiary of one of the world’s largest paper producers, Smurfit Kappa, represented by its CEO Álvaro José Henao, said how depending on unreliable services, “for someone from outside, this is crazy, surrealist” (Portafolio 2021a). In a sponsored article in the business newspaper Portafolio, Broom Group, a large logistics service provider for the logistic handling of both refrigerated and dry cargo (from fruits like avocado and gooseberries to raw materials and electronic items), said that

“of course we were affected by the pandemic, but we were even more affected by the national strike with more than 40 days of blockades, notwithstanding the above, we sustained our people, we did not suspend any work contracts and we maintained our policy of zero layoffs” (Portafolio 2021b).

However, Broom Group CEO Luis Hernando Corzo admitted transnational logistics’ pressures, saying in the run-up to presidential elections that, “our partners in Holland and Chile wanted to leave the country because of the national strike (…)” (cited in El Conuco 2022). The corporation was reportedly seeking to take the lead in inland services and control the flow of goods in Colombia and in relation with leading shipping lines (Portafolio 2021b).

At the same time, indigenous communities around the Kappa plant criticized not only the ecological degradation the paper plant caused, the expansion of paper-producing monocultures of pines and eucalyptus to the detriment of indigenous territory, and the damaging intervention in local ecosystems, but also the firm’s involvement in criminalizing activists (González and Ramiro 2022). Particularly, the indigenous Misak community in the area accused the corporation of being involved in violence in the context of the paro. For instance, they made Kappa partly responsible for the killing of activist Huber Samir Camayo Fajardo on August 2, presumably by police bullets (CRIC 2021).

The only concession the corporations made to the protests was a new tax reform proposal, which still regularly dominates public policy. The Industrial Association ANDI (2021) “advocated for” yet another proposal published in July 2021, which reacted to the protests by shifting funds from the local to the national government: It reduced the property tax paid to municipalities, and augmented the corporations’ income tax paid to the national budget, something which led the business representatives speak of the “principle of solidarity” that was now “called for”. In addition, this reform did not extend the value added tax for any products, putting no extra burden on individual consumption. Its extension had sparked the protest in April.

In sum, a conceptual view based on supply-chain urbanism shows how TNCs did not only become conflict actors by employing their powerful access to the state, but escalated the conflict, explicitly lobbying for repressive answers to protest with the aim of returning to the accelerated trade flows of the status quo ante, driven by the pressures of global just-in-time production. Notwithstanding these pressures, corporations influenced other conflict actors (i.e. the government) in direct and indirect ways, clearly influencing the conflict dynamic.

6 Conclusion

This article interpreted the Colombian ‘national strike’ of 2021, with the city of Cali at its center, as the manifestation of a conflict in supply chain urbanism. Linking logistics literature and (urban) conflict studies broadens the understanding of the conflictive everyday lifes of many people, of modes of and motives for urban conflict. Three conceptual takeaways informed the empirical analysis. The notion of relationality focused on logistics flows and the global economic connections as essential for the primarily urban mobilizations of 2021. Local protest and conflict, as well as an exceptionally repressive state response, were intimately linked to transnational logistics and supply chains organized around just-in-time assembly and fast economic flows. The concept of supply chain urbanism emphasizes the importance of actors that are not-in-place. In this case, corporate representatives, particularly those of so-called traslatina companies (Latin American TNCs) and Colombia-based corporations with activities linking them into transnational trade, played a central role in the conflict. Finally, the economic conflict motives of these actors, who pushed for a resolution that would be beneficial to them but which in fact deepened the intensity of violence in the conflict, inform our conflict analysis.

Restoring these flows became a motive for repression. Mobilizations of this kind, whether organized by the workers or the wider public, generate short-term costs for the logistics sector. Corporations have compared these costs to the effects of terror attacks (Cowen 2014). However, supply chain urbanism focuses precisely on the relationship between specific places and the spaces of logistics. In consequence, it is not just the direct involvement of TNCs asking the government for specific policies that makes these TNCs conflict actors in these larger-than-local contradictions, but the structural constraints global economic relations put on these places. The pressure of just-in-time production and fast shipping made roadblocks on western Colombian roads a major problem for transnationally active businesses, because these roads constitute bottleneck for some of its most significant trade volumes even during periods of calm. Logistics in fact became a major driver for repressive answers to mobilizations when they became longer-term and manifested in roadblocks and roadside camps, because of the sheer pressure put on key actors within Colombian social relations. TNCs and traslatinas logistics players participated in the delegitimization of protests by routinely making stigmatizing remarks about protesters in the context of well-documented and severe police violence.

Conceptually, the article shows how fruitful it is to link conflict studies literature on urban tensions with logistics literature, as the former offers finegrained conflict analysis and has begun to integrate knowledge on the fluidity between open conflict and everday experiences of violence and harsh inequalities, and the latter introduces a focus on the logics of circulation, which include the disciplining of mobilizations in the interest of smooth flows of goods, and a focus on actors that are not-in-place, for instance TNCs, as conflict parties that are sometimes overlooked. The implications of these insights for conflict resolution are quite obvious: Actors such as TNCs need to be recognized as conflict parties even in urban conflicts where their role is less evident at first sight. And as logistics informs conflict dynamics, the relations with the global have to play a role in conflict mediation and institutional measures taken, before opting for repression. “Peace” would then entail social benefits derived from logistics profits, both for labor and urban populations (see Jaramillo et al. 2022), and cities would be more than logistics platforms; they would become livable places.