Colombia supports further unrest after a weekend in which largely peaceful nationwide demonstrations were met with a violent police response that left at least 16 protesters and a police officer dead and hundreds injured.
Videos shared on social media over the weekend showed police sometimes shooting at protesters from close range, hitting crowds with motorcycles and bashing protesters with their shields.
Demonstrations began with a general strike last Wednesday over an unpopular tax reform, but escalated rapidly as protesters were met by rebel police armed with tear gas, beanbag chairs and billy clubs.
“They may have weapons, but they can not kill us all,” said Gabriela Gutierrez, one of a group of students who set up a roadblock in central Bogotá on Monday. “Colombia needs change and we will be on the streets until we get it.”
Alongside the unpopular tax proposal, protesters also marched against a deeply polarizing government in defense of threatened human rights leaders to increase the social safety net during the pandemic and for police reform.
Although the vast majority of the demonstrations were peaceful, looting and vandalism were reported in Cali, Bogotá and other cities. The road between Cali and Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port on the Pacific coast, was also blocked by protesters.
Tension was raised on Saturday night when the president, Iván Duque, ordered troops into the streets. But less than 24 hours later, he was forced to scrape the proposed tax reform, which would have raised taxes on individuals and businesses during a coronavirus pandemic that continues to ravage public health and the economy.
“The reform is not a whim, it is a necessity,” Duque said in a televised speech Sunday afternoon, announcing U-turns.
Duque’s concession has not done much to dampen protesters’ anger, with strike leaders saying the demonstrations will continue this week and that another national strike will be held on Wednesday.
“The people of the streets demand much more than the introduction of the reforms,” Francisco Maltés, president of Colombia’s Central Workers’ Union, told a news conference Monday morning, adding that the brutal police response had “limited democratic guarantees for social protest”.
Scenes of police brutality have become wearily known in Colombia. Last September, anti-police demonstrations broke out after lawyer Javier Ordóñez was teased to death by officers. At least 10 people were killed in the ensuing unrest, and dozens of police kiosks were burned.
The confirmed death toll from the current violence is expected to rise over the coming days.
Monday morning after a night on stews – a noisy sight where people knock pots and pans from their windows – truckers blocked roads around the country. As Duque held an emergency meeting with his finance minister in Bogotá, drivers clambered into approval as students slowly waved them through the blockade.
“Every time we protest, the police pull their weapons,” said Alejandro Rodríguez, another student protester in Bogotá. “We are not being driven by their violence.”