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Explained: Why Colombia is witnessing a spate of violence

The protests began last Wednesday against a proposed tax reform. Although the tax plan was shelved, the protests have since morphed into a broader show of opposition against Duque's government, poverty and police violence.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
May 6, 2021 8:45:10 am
President Ivan Duque, amid accusations of police brutality in the ongoing anti-government protests, would ask the Congress to approve better human rights training for police. (AP)

Colombia is witnessing a spate of violence, and days of protests against a now-shelved tax reform proposal have left at least 19 people dead and 846 injured in clashes between the police and demonstrators.

A growing chorus internationally has spoken out against Colombia’s government, including the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, who have criticised its heavy-handed response to the unrest.

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The country’s human rights ombudsman — a state body that is independent from the government — has marked 89 people as having “disappeared”. The government itself, however, has acknowledged the deaths of one civilian and one police officer.

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What is happening in Colombia?

The protests began last Wednesday against a proposed tax reform by the government of conservative President Ivan Duque. The proposal sought to increase taxes of businesses, remove some exemptions enjoyed by individuals and decrease the threshold of salaries that would be taxed.

The measures were meant to remedy that dire situation that Colombia is currently in. The Andean country is facing its worst crisis in 50 years, with the pandemic shrinking its economy by 6.8 per cent last year, and unemployment soaring to 16.8 per cent in March. Around half of the country lives in poverty, as per official figures.

Although the tax plan was shelved and the Finance Minister resigned, the protests have since morphed into a broader show of opposition against Duque’s government, poverty and police violence.

Protesters have since gathered in various parts of the country. On Tuesday, roads were blocked in many cities as fresh disturbance erupted in the capital Bogota. Cali, the country’s third-largest city, has been the worst affected, with the government ordering soldiers to patrol the streets since Friday. Road blockades also led to delaying shipments out of the Pacific Ocean port of Buenaventura, reports said. The South American Football Confederation was also forced to move two Copa Libertadores football games to Paraguay.

According to an AFP report, 47,500 uniformed personnel have been deployed countrywide by the Ministry of Defence. In Cali, 700 soldiers, 500 riot police officers, 1,800 other police and two helicopters have been deployed. At least 11 of the 19 deaths in the country took place in Cali.

Fresh protests and a national strike has been planned on Wednesday, with activists demanding a basic income guarantee, the withdrawal of a government health reform proposal and the dissolution of the riot police, as per Reuters.

How has the International community reacted?

On Tuesday, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed “profound shock” over an incident in Cali, in which it said the police fired at demonstrators.

“What we can say clearly is that we have received reports, and we have witnesses, (of) excessive use of force by security officers, shooting, live ammunition being used, beatings of demonstrators and as well detentions,” said Marta Hurtado, the UN spokesperson.

The EU also condemned the deaths of 19 people — 18 civilians and one police officer, and said it was a priority that security forces desist from the disproportionate use of force. The US has also urged “the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life”.

Amnesty International, too, asked for an “end to repression of protests and the militarization of cities”.

The Duque government, however, has adopted a tough stance against protesters, with Defence Minister Diego Molano calling the violence “systematic, premeditated and financed by criminal organisations”, and has urged public forces to be “ruthless towards those who use vandalism”.

Duque, meanwhile, has asked Colombians to abjure violence and has promised to “create a space to listen to citizens and construct solutions oriented toward those goals, where our most profound patriotism, and not political differences, should intercede” — a call that echoed his government’s commitment in 2019 to create a so-called national dialogue, which civil society groups and unions claim is yet to materialise.

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