Colombia has been troubled by nationwide anti-government protests for more than two weeks, with the city of Cali emerging as the epicenter.
The protests were initially sparked by anger over the pandemic-related tax reforms, but have since escalated and spread, tapping into a protracted fury over police violence amid growing inequality and disparities .
At least 42 people have died so far, according to the Colombian human rights ombudsperson.
President Iván Duque blamed the “drug trafficking mafias” for the acts of vandalism and offered a reward of up to 10 million Colombian pesos (about $ 2,600) to those who help identify and capture the authors.
Social media has, however, served to document the crackdown on security forces, in particular the Colombian Mobile Riot Squad (ESMAD), which has been singled out for various incidents, such as the death of 18-year-old Dilan. Cruz during a national strike in November 2019, and more recently the death of Nicolás Guerrero, a 21-year-old activist who was shot in the head during protests in Cali.
“There are completely unarmed people on the marches and they are confronted with officers armed to the teeth, practically military, and this has shocked the Colombian community in Florida, and around the world,” said Carlos Naranjo, 37 years old, activist and member of the Colombianos group in Miami, or Colombians in Miami.
How did the protests start?
The National Unemployment Committee, made up of unions and labor organizations, called on April 28 to demonstrate against a tax reform proposed by Duque to address a deficit resulting from the pandemic. The proposal would have increased taxes on household products like milk, eggs and meat as well as gasoline and utilities. Those earning more than 2.4 million Colombian pesos (about $ 624) per month should have declared income taxes from 2022.
The proposal sparked outrage from unions and politicians, who said it would hurt the middle class and the most vulnerable.
The moment that sparked the most controversy was when Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, one of the proponents of the proposal, mistakenly said in an interview that a dozen eggs cost 1,800 Colombian pesos. instead of 4,300. Many saw it as proof of the disconnect between the ruling class and the reality in which the country’s working class lives.
The strike call was successful with huge marches in several towns continuing today. The protests now include demands for the government to address the healthcare crisis, the country’s vaccine scarcity and ever-growing poverty and inequality.
What happened to the tax proposal?
A tax reform was proposed because the government must raise 25 billion pesos (about 6.85 million dollars) to correct its economic imbalance.
Middle and lower class citizens were outraged that they had to contribute to these new state revenues through taxes. The pandemic and the lockdowns have affected people’s incomes. Poverty in 2020 rose to 42.5%, from 36% the previous year. In March, the unemployment rate reached 14%, compared to 12.6% in the same period last year.
Due to pressure from the protests, Duque withdrew the reform on May 2 and said he would seek a new plan by consensus. The next day, the Minister of Finance resigned.
“The situation in Colombia is difficult, like everywhere else, but it can be easily resolved if the government really cares about taxing people with money,” said James A. Robinson, director of the Pearson Institute for the study and resolution of global conflicts at the University of Chicago.
Why are the protests continuing?
Researchers have pointed out that inequality and broken promises on social issues are an explosive mix during times of crisis. Conflict between guerrilla groups and the government has made Colombia the scene of low-intensity warfare for more than half a century.
Tax reform has been the catalyst for social unrest which has been fueled by violence, unemployment, breach of a peace agreement, mismanagement of the pandemic and hunger.
“The causes of the mobilization range from poverty, to the constant assassinations of social leaders and to problems that have not been solved,” said Juan Pablo Madrid-Malo, coordinator of the Foundation for Freedom of the Press in Colombia.
Robinson, of the University of Chicago, says the peace agreement with the revolutionary Marxist armed forces of Colombia has created space for the emergence of a new leftist politics that is more inclusive. “It’s different,” he says.
Duque’s government began negotiations with the committee last week.
Human rights organizations have kept their own tally of the dead and called on the government to end the excessive use of force.
In recent days, several cases of police violence have been captured on video, including that of 17-year-old Marcelo Agredo, who kicked a police officer in Cali and was shot while fleeing. Agredo, a high school student, died shortly after.
Nicolás Guerrero, 27, a graffiti artist known as Flex, was also protesting in Cali when he died on the Puente del Comercio. A live broadcast on social media showed how her body lay on the ground after gunshots were heard. Protesters hold ESMAD responsible for his death.
Santiago Murillo, 19, was on his way home to Ibagué and was shot in the chest and killed as he walked through a protest. He was two blocks from his house and the event was also videotaped.
The United Nations and the European Union have warned against excessive use of force by the police.
Accusations of violence and human rights violations by the country’s security forces are not new. Various organizations have denounced cases such as that of Dilan Cruz, who was shot in the head during a demonstration repressed by members of ESMAD on November 23, 2019; the death of nine young people in a fire in a police station in Soachá on September 4, 2020; and at least 13 homicides allegedly committed by the security forces on September 9 and 10 in Bogotá.
“The protests are taking other directions, not only because of the power of citizen mobilization, but also because of the needs that plague the country. One of them is police violence,” said Sebastián Lanz, co-director of Temblores , an organization that has recorded over 1,200 cases of police violence and over 800 arbitrary arrests during protests.
Lanz says these detentions are irregular and “completely illegal” because people are transferred to centers where there are no prosecutors to check the human rights situation of detainees. He says that’s why “nobody knows what’s going on in there”.
What’s going on in Cali?
The southwestern city of Cali, with 2.2 million inhabitants, has been militarized since the government decree.
Analysts agree that Cali’s geographic location makes it a hotspot for protests due to its proximity to areas affected by conflict between guerrillas, paramilitaries and the military, as well as drug trafficking and displacement of people. .
According to official 2019 data, Cali was the most dangerous city in the country, with 45.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
Alfredo Mondragón, a human rights activist who lives in Cali, says the city has an economic structure that mainly focuses on services with few major industries. Displaced people from marginalized communities have settled in the north and south and have a cultural tradition of indigenous resistance.
“When you add to that the economic problems of the pandemic, a kind of social bomb is generated,” Mondragón said.
Many protesters say they will continue to take to the streets because of their disagreement with government policies.
“In several areas, the police are shooting with firearms and plainclothes police appear in vans shooting,” said Michel Adolfo Torres Carmona, a protester from Cali. “There are a lot of people missing. But we must continue the fight. The world must know what is doing to us.”
A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.
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